Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cigars and Women

I've been challenged by one of our club members to reflect upon the relationship between the natural law and cigar smoking. This was a very difficult undertaking, and it is not something that is answerable through one posting or one essay. It may take a lifetime of reflection (and cigar smoking) to understand the relationship between the natural law and smoking cigars, particularly if we take cigars as a symbol of a "useless" human activity, such as painting, writing poetry, arguing the subtler points of philosophy and theology, and just generally what would be regarded as "play."

Cigar smoking is fundamentally human "play." It has no useful quality, and, at least in excess, it may even be dangerous to one's health. But as play it has great value. It participates in the infinite, for only God plays (and rests). God does not labor, for all laboring is suffering, and God (in his divine nature, before the Incarnation) is impassible: He only plays (and rests). The Lord Jesus, of course, labored and suffered in his human nature hypostatically united to the second Person of the Holy Trinity (as a Catholic, I am not a Docetist!), but that is the exception of the Incarnation. The exception proves the point. But I'm straying.

I thought we might begin the process of the relationship between cigar smoking (symbolic of "play") and the natural law by reflecting on the issue of excess. And to help us in our reflections, I thought we would solicit the help of one of history's greater cigar smokers, the English poet Rudyard Kipling.

Specifically, we must turn to a poem entitled "The Betrothed." On the issue of excess, we might recall Aristotle's fundamental teaching that virtue is something governed by the golden mean, and that there may be excess (vice) by defect and by excess. If cigar smoking (="play") is in the nature of a virtue, then we can smoke too much (and sin by excess), but we can smoke too little (and sin by defect). Kipling's poem, I think, is about sinning against the virtue of cigar smoking by excess. This message is, however, presented to us in the form of a satire, a joke, so it is hidden in the poem. We must take what it says with a grain of salt, or, better yet, through the smoke of a cigar.

I do not claim to be a literary critic, but I would diffidently venture to say that the thrust of this poem is that perhaps, perhaps that cigar smoking is not the end all, not the finis ultimus, of mankind. There are other things, such as love of God and love of neighbor, that have greater purchase, greater claim upon us. But being a form of play, cigar smoking participates in the infinite, and, in a certain way it might excel the passing loves of mankind, those treasures that rust or moths destroy and thieves can steal. But even though it participates in the infinite, it is not the Infinite. It participates in the eternal youthfulness of God. When one smokes a cigar, one enters into the play of God, the Deus qui laetificat iuventutem meam.

Kipling introduces the subject of his poem by a quote ostensibly taken from the proceedings of an old breach of promise of marriage case: "You must choose between me and your cigar." This is, without doubt, the ultimatum of a woman, a jilted woman at that. A man would not be heard to say such a thing. Kipling's quote reminds me of Brad Paisley's song, "I'm Going to Miss Her." One might remember that the woman in that song gave the man an ultimatum between fishing and her, and the man, whether wisely or unwisely the song does not tell, chose fishing:
Well I love her
And I love to fish
I spend all day out on this lake
And hell is all I catch
Today she met me at the door
Said I would have to choose
If I hit that fishin' hole today
Shed be packin' all her things
And shed be gone by noon.

Well . . . I'm gonna miss her
When I get home . . . .

There is, I think, probably a relationship between fishing and smoking: they are both play, particularly, though not exclusively, a masculine kind of play. But the relationship between fishing and smoking cigars is for another day. I do point out that I know a hell of a lot of fishermen who smoke cigars, and a hell of a lot of cigar smokers who fish. There is, I think, an empirical connection.

Rudyard Kipling smoking a cigar

There is also a connection between women's ultimatums and man's decisions. Man does not always make the best decisions when confronted with a feminine ultimatum. A feminine ultimatum unbalances the masculine. He usually responds by defect or by excess. He becomes uxorious or misogynist. In Kipling's poem we have the example of a man responding by excess. Women should learn from this poem never to indulge in ultimatums. They unbalance half the world. Men should learn from this poem to moderate their smoking of cigars.

But let's get back to Kipling's poem. Kipling's poem without any hesitation puts us right into the middle of a simmering if not boiling conflict. Kipling immediate puts us into a situation of great tension: the tension between a good cigar, a Cuba stout, and a prospective wife, a woman called Maggie. The is a problem in the relationship between man and woman, and it threatens the relationship between man and cigar:
Open the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout,
For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out.

We quarreled about Havanas - we fought o'er a good cheroot,
And I knew she is exacting, and she says I am a brute.

Open the old cigar-box - let me consider a space;
In the soft blue veil of the vapour musing on Maggie's face.
So here, I propose, Maggie is a symbol of useful things, demanding things, things that are not play. Maggie is the opposite of useless things like play. Maggie is the enemy of play. Maggie represents those practical goods--power, money, influence, fame, a good wife, etc.--and the "good cheroot" represents play, play perhaps to an excess, play to the level of irresponsibility.

The poem continues:
Maggie is pretty to look at - Maggie's a loving lass,
But the prettiest cheeks must wrinkle, the truest of loves must pass.

There's peace in a Larranaga,[1] there's calm in a Henry Clay[2] ;
But the best cigar in an hour is finished and thrown away -

Thrown away for another as perfect and ripe and brown -
But I could not throw away Maggie for fear o' the talk o' the town!

Ahh. This is the sentiment of a Christian man. He cannot throw away a woman as he does an old cheroot. He is not allowed to trade an older model for a new. He'd be counted a fool if he threw money on the streets. The things of this world--money, fame, and so forth--are not play. But smoking a cigar is play. Things that are not play are subject to law, and things that are play suffer under no impediment of law. The things of this world are subject to the laws of time. Play is not. Play is, in a manner of speaking, eternal. There is a peace in cigar, a peace which passes a lot of wifely understanding.
Maggie, my wife at fifty - grey and dour and old -
With never another Maggie to purchase for love or gold!
Unquestionably, the law of marriage is recognized by the cigar smoker: there is a huge difference between the permanence of the Sacrament of Marriage and the smoking of a cigar. A wife ought not to be exchanged or disposed of like a cigar once-smoked. This is highly unseemly. There is a loss of freedom in a promise that does not exist in play. And in his poem, Kipling is brutally honest about the demands of promise and the satyr-like freedom of play:
And the light of Days that have Been the dark of the Days that Are,
And Love's torch stinking and stale, like the butt of a dead cigar -

The butt of a dead cigar you are bound to keep in your pocket -
With never a new one to light tho' it's charred and black to the socket!

Open the old cigar-box - let me consider a while.
Here is a mild Manila - there is a wifely smile.

Which is the better portion - bondage bought with a ring,
Or a harem of dusky beauties, fifty tied in a string?

Counselors cunning and silent - comforters true and tried,
And never a one of the fifty to sneer at a rival bride?
These are evil thoughts, it seems. Not the thoughts of a Christian, but the thoughts of a Muslim, a Mormon, a polygamist in Africa, or worse, a libertine. But the poet continues to indulge himself in these thoughts:
Thought in the early morning, solace in time of woes,
Peace in the hush of the twilight, balm ere my eyelids close,

This will the fifty give me, asking nought in return,
With only a Suttee's passion[3] - to do their duty and burn.

This will the fifty give me. When they are spent and dead,
Five times other fifties shall be my servants instead.

The furrows of far-off Java, the isles of the Spanish Main,
When they hear my harem is empty will send me my brides again.

I will take no heed to their raiment, nor food for their mouths withal,
So long as the gulls are nesting, so long as the showers fall.

I will scent 'em with best vanilla, with tea will I temper their hides,
And the Moor and the Mormon shall envy who read of the tale of my brides.

Why is our poet so unbalanced? Why is he overemphasizing play, and underemphasizing irresponsibility? It is because a woman has given him an ultimatum:
For Maggie has written a letter to give me my choice between
The wee little whimpering Love and the great god Nick o' Teen.

And I have been servant of Love for barely a twelvemonth clear,
But I have been Priest of Cabanas[4] a matter of seven year;

And the gloom of my bachelor days is flecked with the cheery light
Of stumps that I burned to Friendship and Pleasure and Work and Fight.

And I turn my eyes to the future that Maggie and I must prove,
But the only light on the marshes is the Will-o'-the-Wisp of Love.

Will it see me safe through my journey or leave me bogged in the mire?
Since a puff of tobacco can cloud it, shall I follow the fitful fire?

Open the old cigar-box - let me consider anew -
Old friends, and who is Maggie that I should abandon you?

A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke;
And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.

The man's decision is made: he shall have play, camaraderie, a smoke, over the ultimatum of a woman:
Light me another Cuba - I hold to my first-sworn vows.
If Maggie will have no rival, I'll have no Maggie for Spouse!

So what are we to learn from this? First, women, ought not to give men ultimatums. It unbalances them, and results in exactly the opposite of what the woman seeks. What woman, moreover, would want a man who gave up cigars? Men, however, also have a lesson to learn from Kipling's poem. They ought to remember that for all the good there is in play, we are not God. And while we enjoy play, we are also called to labor by the sweat of our brow, to abide by promises, to treat other humans not as things, like cigars, but like persons. We must never chose play over right, play over love's demands.

To distill the poem into two short rules:

Women: Never prohibit the smoking of cigars.
Men: Smoke cigars, but in moderation.

[1]Larranaga refers to a Cuban cigar, Por Larranaga. It was created in 1834 by an Ignacio Larranaga, and it may be the oldest continuously-produced Havana brand still in existence. Obviously, it was important to Kipling who wrote his poem in 1890.
[2]Henry Clay is a brand of cigars named after early American politician Henry Clay (1777-1852). The cigars are currently manufactured in the Dominican Republic
[3]"Suttee" comes from the Devanagari: सती (
Satī), the feminine of sat "true." It refers to the religious funeral practice among the Hindu where a widow burned herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
[4]Cabanas refers to the Cigar brand name started by the Spaniard Francisco Cabañas who should take the credit of history for having registered in Cuba the Cabañas brand and the Hija de Cabañas y Carbajal y Cía.

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