June 17, 2008

The Weight of Smoke

Paul Auster's film Smoke opens with a parable of time, action, and memory: the writer Paul Benjamin enters a Brooklyn tobacco shop and while buying his tins of Schimmelpennicks cuts through the banter of the loitering regulars with the story of Sir Walter Raleigh's introduction of smoking to the court of Queen Elizabeth. He finishes with Raleigh's proof that he could determine the weight of smoke:

You mean, weigh smoke?

Exactly. Weigh smoke.

You can't do that. It's like weighing air.

I admit it's strange. Almost like weighing someone's soul. But Sir Walter was a clever guy. First, he took an unsmoked cigar and put it on a balance and weighed it. Then he lit up and smoked the cigar, carefully tapping the ashes into the balance pan. When he was finished, he put the butt into the pan with the ashes and weighed what was there. Then he subtracted that number from the original weight of the unsmoked cigar. The difference . . . was the weight of the smoke.

Expenditure makes the measure. Apprehension in what is absented. Like weighing someone's soul. The weight is found in the residue of accumulated effect, less the living, disappeared action; the inhale and exhale of time.

This idea of what remains is the spirit of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, a sparse collection of word artifacts that are assembled to take the measure of the cataclysms that came in crematoria and fire bomb.

When Louis Menand tried to review the book he became fixated on the afterword, in which Baker reasons that the best actions of the period, morally, were those of pacifistic resistance. The substance of the book, however, is not in the author's afterword, but in the remnants through which Baker takes the measure of the war. The sparsity of the prose, the fragmented approach, and as Baker himself emphasizes, the strategic use of white space, constitute a crucial rhythm of reading; a re-creation of the tap-tap of the figural cigar as the war was approached, the tap-tap of Churchill's fine dining while people were starved. In other words, to speak historically, which Menand insists upon, safe-guards the righteous thought by positing only the strategies of states against the eventual, grand necessity of allied victory:

These were the imperfect states that history produced to oppose a genocidal, imperialistic totalitarianism. Why did these states resort to violence? Isn’t the obvious answer “Because appeasement had failed”?

Baker, on the other hand, offers the chance to remember that the decisions taken to use starvation as a weapon, and to annihilate civilian populations for purposes in fact detrimental to that "victory," are made in living environments of contested ideologies and the battle of possibilities. To write of "imperfect states that history produced" is to confuse levels of authorship, to deny that so much abundant life and word and attempts to resist power went up in smoke before the historian came to cut apart the cooled corpse.