Simone Signoret: Smoker

I was struck by a photograph of Simone Signoret by Jane Bown in the Observer this morning. She reminded me of my Auntie Eva at a particular point in her life. Signoret is smoking. She is not smoking in a post-modern way. The cigarette is planted sternly between her lips, firm, part of her face. There is no diffident concern about possible harm. It is as though the cigarette exemplifies an intellectual requirement, a concentrated focus upon the serious matter of being alive.

Since those days in the late sixties smoking styles have become more and more ambiguous, trumpeting the fact that the cigarette is a troubling social act, no longer essential to deep reflection or a flaming spear that helps the smoker burn a passage through the chaotic wilderness of existence. The cigarette has become loosely attached to male lips as though emphasising a disparagement of anything serious, almost a denial that the act is taking place. As Magritte would say, “Ce n’est pas une cigarette!” For women, smoking has begun to revolve around oral moments of entry and re-entry, underlining the pretence that an overt sensual symbolism is fulfilling needs and desires far removed from a crude addiction to nicotine. The cigarette can never be left in the mouth. It embellishes the fingers like another jewel.

Animal research has shown that birds and beasts at times imbibe rotting fruit or hallucinatory plants. It is suggested they do it to clear their brains. A kind of MOT. Video footage shows them begin to feast with a concentration as stern and focused as Simone Signoret.

Some of us smoke to aid the transportations of our art. Some out of a need to quell life’s deep dissatisfactions and failures. The very way we take our drugs by drinking, swallowing, injecting or smoking, publicises in non verbal images, what it means to us to be connected to the world via a chemical… But smoking is a great example.

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