by John Goerke
My mother, so it seems, has no one to blame but herself for planting the seeds that have grown into my love for cigars. My youth was not spent in their presence, not did she ever speak to me of their virtues. But she did, on more than one occasion, present to my eyes the monster that is the steam locomotive. Such things are passing away now, and I doubt whether anyone who finds this little essay will know what I am speaking of. But the image of greased steel and smoldering coal is as fresh to my eyes as the digits on my hand. The steam locomotive rolls into view with thunderous authority. The sheer size of them is enough to make the casual observer shudder. Behind the size is a power. Though the wheels turn slowly as the train passes the station, they are not straining. Rather the locomotive is the image par excellence of reserved strength. With every press of the pistons, more power is held than is handed away.
Such self-control is the sure mark of a person, or in this case a monster, absolutely certain of his own authority. You can earn the fear of a man by running towards him with the reckless abandon of the maniac, but you can more certainly earn his respect by approaching slowly. Hail moves with haste, icebergs move with hesitation but only the latter can sink ships. This imaginative feast found in the sight of a passing locomotive was the midwife for my love of the cigar. For this vision of dignity and strength was never present without a cylinder standing perpendicular to the rest of the body: a cylinder from which poured smoke.
Whether or not others share a similar genesis narrative for their own love of the cigar is not my concern here. Chesterton loved the cigar and wrote a whole essay in defense of it. Churchill’s mouth and hands were most frequently occupied with two tasks: the handling of the English language and the handling of the Cuban cigar (though one may add a third occupation in the handling of Scottish spirits). Even John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a man who was at once sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong – was wise enough to appreciate the cigar. That such great men have busied themselves with this rolled wonder can be no accident and it is worth reflecting, if only for a moment, on why this is the case.
A wise professor I recently spoke with seemed to think it is a matter of the cigar’s effects. Tobacco smoke has a way of sharpening the mind, imbibing it with an almost supernatural energy. He used this phenomenon to explain the cigar’s favor among intellectuals and literary types. Reading and smoking do have a natural complementarity. One may burn through a book and exhale smoke “thoughtfully.” But I don’t think this is the whole story. The same sharpening effect can be had with the cigarette – an item whose users seem to be offering a perpetual apology for it. Saying: “I really mean to quit,” seems to be a requisite part of the whole ritual for those few who still light up in public. But the cigar does not suffer from such insipid enthusiasts. The cigarette, which is loved more and more simply for its ability to energize the smoker, can be replaced by the grotesque invention of the electronic cigarette and it ought to give the casual observer pause that while e-cigarettes have soured in popularity, the electronic cigar remains an obscure item, unknown to all but a very unhappy few.
As is my habit, I see this as a spiritual difference. The cigar has far more existential depth than the pale chalk-like sticks currently being institutionally taxed and socially ostracized within an inch of their lives. Contra Freud, a cigar is never just a cigar. This is apparent from the first moments of their existence. In a little shop in Lower Manhattan, I watched with wonder over the shoulders of two men as they turned a pile of cured tobacco leaves into the subjects of this essay. Most conspicuous was their care. Leaves were broken, laid out, pressed like clay, broken again, laid out again and rolled like a fine bread dough. The cylindrical shaft was then wrapped as snugly as a baby in a dark moist wrapper, which became almost like skin for how tightly it bound to the inner tobacco. This wrapper was hand cut and applied with the most delicate movements of the fingers.
It was this finishing touch that called to mind the Christian doctrine of divine creation. For each cigar, like each of us, was “wonderfully made.” The maker formed each with his own hand. When finished, though similar to each other in many respects, each cigar is absolutely unique and we who smoke them can say the same of ourselves. We are similar, a fact which grounds all philosophy, science, art and literature, but all unique in our abilities, interests and situations. Like cigars we may be slimmer or wider, darker or lighter, longer or shorter, but this variety gives flavor to both the world of men and the world of the humidor.
We also, especially those of us who write essays of this sort, have another aspect mirrored in the cigar. Because we are fallen creatures, we will produce far more smoke than heat in this life. Most of our words and most of our actions will have the same fate as a silver curl of smoke. Seeming at first to be dense, solid and substantial; they will dissipate and eventually be lost to the wind. Perhaps they will, in the manner of smoke, bring some momentary happiness to those around us but they may just as easily be a cause of discomfort or even pain. Saying the wrong words to the wrong people is eerily similar to smoking in the wrong company. I ought not tell the clerk in this smoke shop, “I love you.” But I also ought not smoke a stogie in the presence of the woman mentioned at the start.
What is more, we like cigars must eventually turn back to ash. The Christian habit of annually applying ashes to the forehead does much to clear up the thinking that goes on in those particular heads. We may each burn for a little longer or a little shorter, but we will each of use, eventually, burn out. Often, like our cigars, this will happen before our full load of tobacco has been burned, before our full potential has been given away. The best cigars, like the best people, are burned right down to the very last and we call these people saints, for they gave all they could and all they had been given.
But this last thought leads to the most glorious difference between ourselves and our cigars. According to the pagans of yesterday and the pagans of today, our story ends where our cigar’s story ends: in the communal ashtray call the cemetery. We burn for a while and then extinguish forever after. Yet, the pagans were as wrong yesterday as they are today, for we have a certainty that this is not the end. Our maker does not form our core and wrap us in skin to have us simply expire. We are called back from our ashes and our bones are gonna rise again. This means that there will be no cigars in heaven. But this ought not darken the heart. Each extinguished cigar is a reminder that our own fate is not so bleak. We have a chance never given to these pillars of rolled tobacco. We can know and love Him who made us. I submit to you, that the cigar can be an aid to this end. I believe my reflections above sketch how this may be achieved. Let me then conclude with the words written on a placard currently mounted on the wall above my head. We are each of us made and lit and burning. What comes after will not be of this passing nature. But while we are in the world, I submit to you: “It is better to smoke here, than in the hereafter.”
John Goerke is a writer pursuing a Master of Arts in Catholic Studies, and he is a frequent contributor at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He resides in St. Paul, MN.This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at The Catholic Gentleman.