Saturday, May 07, 2005

In Praise of Uselessness

I am still digesting yesterday’s news. James and I met to commiserate last night, but mostly we steeped in helpless rage. What is to be done?

When the Quebec Superior court certified two class-action lawsuits against Canada’s tobacco companies in February, Judge Pierre Jasmin pronounced that cigarettes have no "useful purpose,” an assertion that forms the basis of his ruling. From the decision:

“What informed individual, whether they be smokers or non-smokers, could argue that smoking cigarettes has any useful purpose? On the contrary, cigarettes are not only useless but are dangerous and create a health problem and, in many cases, they create problems such as emphysema, cancer and heart diseases."

Being an informed individual, I do not dispute the negative health effects of smoking. I do, however, question the judge’s definition of the term “use”. What, I am compelled to inquire, is useful?

Automobiles, presumably, which kill hundreds of thousands of people every year, which have directly contributed to the destruction of the earth’s ozone layer, and which are fuelled by a commodity that requires the rule of brutal dictatorships and endlessly recurring wars. These negative effects are commonly justified on the basis of automobiles’ usefulness, which is primarily economic and therefore taken to be self-evident.

Is this what Jasmin means by use? If so, what of other uses?

Are the hours of conversation I’ve had while smoking useful?

Are the moments of comfort that cigarettes provide to people who suffer useful?

Are the countless thousands of books that have been written while smoking useful?

Are the cigarettes my father smoked after a twelve-hour factory shift useful?

Are the songs we hear in smoky bars useful?

Is the camaraderie that exists between smokers useful?

Are the cigarettes shared by lovers useful?

Is time that is spent not working useful?

Is a life that is well-lived useful?

Is pleasure useful?

If not, then let us defend uselessness with every ounce of our being, especially here in this city, Montreal, whose very essence is useless. Its bars teem with useless writers, artists, and musicians; its cafés buzz with useless conversations about useless philosophical theories; its streets are filled with useless demonstrations against useful government policies. Its topography is useless, to say nothing of its infrastructure.

We have come here, those of us who are exiles, and we stay, those of us who are not, precisely because Montreal is useless: because it is not Toronto or Vancouver or Los Angeles or New York. We are here to escape the tyranny of use, for a time or forever, and to feel what life is like in its absence.

Ours is truly a distinct society, for reasons that include but are immeasurably more complex than linguistic affiliation. Our history is a history of smoke: of jazz clubs and burlesque houses and political backrooms. It is European, not British; Catholic, not Protestant; radical, not liberal. Montreal is a calculated risk, the fine line between meaning and poverty, connection and conflict. It is, as it is often said, the smoking section of Canada, and that’s why it is different. And so much more fun.

Down the street from my apartment, there are two cafés: The Café, and the other café. The Café permits smoking, and it is therefore where smokers go to be useless. The other café, which is less than a block away, does not permit smoking, so that is where the non-smokers go. Being honest, I’m not entirely sure what transpires there, but I imagine that it is useful. In any case, both groups, the useless and the useful, have a café they can enjoy; neither envies nor encroaches upon the other. We peacefully coexist in the same small neighbourhood, and sometimes we even say hello as we pass each other in the street.

Is there anything wrong with this arrangement? Or must we all be useful by decree?


Nick said...

Great post! I too am thoroughly tired of our elites and our society in general paying attention only to the utilitarian perspective to everything. The concept of intrinsic value has gone out the window in the corporate era. I sympathize with the maligned public smoker though I am not one myself. It is disappointing to see such an uncompromising witch hunt over this stuff. I can't say I like smoke in my eyes and hair when I go out, but there has to be a compromise.

You like Montreal for the same reasons I do. Its steadfast refusal to get with "the times", its unyielding respect of the concept of fun, and its indifference to its own image. Lovely.

Paolo said...

"Are the cigarettes shared by lovers useful?"

I'd say you get an "A" for effort based solely on the creativity of your thought process here. Sadly, I see you reaching far beyond reason to argue this point.

Cars, however controversial, have a clear use. Oil, which has fuelled war as well as heating and vehicles, has a use. Cigarettes also have uses but I think perhaps in this case the point was that they served no real productive purpose and had far more negative aspects for this particular judge to rule in favour of smokers and the tobacco companies that kill them.

I think all this post will manage to do is rile up other smokers to run out into the streets and light one up in protest but it sure as hell isn't going to change the minds of those suffering from tobacco related ailments, anti-smokers and anyone sitting on the fence.

Actually, let me amend that. The above statement is simply my opinion but at least it serves a better use than smoking.

P.S. Amazing that I managed to do something useful without having to light up. I wonder how other people get along.

Vila H. said...

Thanks, Nick. I'll take our Montreal over their Montreal any day.

Vila H. said...

Paulo -- Thank you for your considered response to my post, and for underscoring my argument more forcefully than I ever could.

Mr. Bevis W. said...

Lets say that I didn't have a lighter. A cigarette suddenly becomes much less harmless. I
could break it in half, eat half,
stick the other half in my lip
and suddenly be cured of a bad
case of WORMS. If it was filtered
I could break it in thirds eat a third stick the other third in my lip and if I felt like quitting that I could stick the filter in my lip instead. Maybe the first
inventor of the cigarrete didn't
intend for them to be smoked but
maybe used the paper as a buffer
of taste. Who really knows. With
a lighter or matches I could prolong the warmth and cup one in my hands warming them in extreme cold. Or if someone had heat sensing goggles they might find me
if I had a cigarette. The smell alone might save you in the right
predicament it being lit. For most
it might just be another addiction
that is simply because they fail to see the many versatile uses that a cigarette could possibly have. What would Maguyver do? Ha,Ha

Mr.Bevis W.

Mr. Bevis W. said...


-Mr. Bevis W