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Addicted to Exuberance
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking (2006) is a pitch-black satire about the perversities of tobacco lobbyists, yet there is a moment in the movie that rings all too true for real-life smokers. The protagonist, Nick Naylor, survives an assassination attempt but learns in recovery that, because of the nature of the attack (his torso was plastered with toxic amounts of nicotine patches), he can't ever smoke again. When the doctor tells him he'll die if he smokes another cigarette, a look of utter despair crosses his face. Though he's still alive, the thought of all those long, smoke-less years in front of him fills him with desolation. It's as if he has learned of the death of someone very close to him, someone he hoped would be around for a very long time. You can sense the gravity of this change in the man's life, and it's painful to watch him cope with the loss of his favorite vice.
Non-smokers watching the movie, of course, have absolutely no sympathy for the character's dilemma. Smoking is a vile habit, they say, and he'll be better off without it. As a lifelong nurturer of various vices, though, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the guy. It's no small thing to say goodbye to the pleasure of indulgence, no matter how bad it may be for you. When William F. Buckley died last year, family members agreed that the writer lost much of his zest for life in his later years, mainly due to the death of his wife, but also because his declining health forced him to give up his lifelong passions of smoking and drinking. Buckley, a famously moral Catholic and conservative (and coincidentally, the father of the author of Thank You For Smoking) was never considered a hedonist or libertine in his lifetime, but rather a large man with large appetites. It must have been an indignity for the man in his last years, forced to relinquish the sublime pleasures oF brandy and cigars.
For years now I've been confronted by well-meaning, non-smoking, non-drinking friends who seem hell-bent on reforming me into a healthier lifestyle, and for years now I've been telling the same, well-meaning, non-smoking, non-drinking friends to go screw themselves. It's not that I don't appreciate their concern; it's just that I happen to be very protective of my excesses. They are parts of me that are irreducible, part of my DNA, and I know it would be pure folly for me to pretend otherwise.
And before I get a stack of anonymously-sent "12 Step" pamphlets at my door, I'd like to point out that I think I know the difference between being an exuberant epicure and being a heroin addict. Indeed, I have friends who are reformed alcoholics, and indeed, I have friends who are drinking themselves into an early grave. But that doesn't mean I can't allow myself the pleasure of a double bourbon after dinner or a shared cigarette on the porch with a friend. Obviously there are risks involved — any sentient human born in this world knows that smoking can kill you, that drinking can kill you. But it doesn't have to be that way, and so far I've remained on the right side of the great addiction divide. In the spirit of full disclosure, I can admit to a hard-drinking phase, and also a self-destructive phase, but fortunately those times are gone and I find that I'm free to enjoyed my cherished vices with relish.
A few times in my life I've taken the high road and tried to lead the life of an ascetic — no booze, no tobacco, no caffeine, no salt, no fat — all in the hopes of attaining a higher consciousness or Divinity or actualization or whatever. What I discovered, though, was that after a month of this deprivation I became such a surly bastard that my friends wouldn't have anything to do with me. I've since learned that my journey to spiritual enlightenment won't necessarily be derailed by the occasional martini or double cheeseburger. In fact, I think I could argue that people who celebrate their lives with exuberance and vigor might be closer to true spirituality than the refuseniks who only preach destitution and iron restraint.
All of this might sound like an elaborate rationalization, but I swear it's not. I love pursuing truth and honor and beauty but I also like the tang of a cigarette in my mouth and the ice-cold jolt of a blended Scotch. It's no surprise that Orson Welles is one of my few heroes, a man who once said that a happy man is a man with many appetites. In later years, he became a cartoon, a grotesque, but in his young, New York theatre days he was a life-force, a ferociously interested man committed to living his life out loud. During the run of his famous, all-black production of MacBeth, he would burn the night away in Harlem clubs with cast members, a portly, privileged Midwestern boy unafraid of new experience. He was that rarest of creatures, the charismatic, the person determined to cram as much life as possible into his years on Earth. Everybody has somebody like this in their life, the charismatic, the excited and excitable person who seems to get more out of his days than the average guy. I do, and I bet you do, too, and I bet when you think of him, you're smiling.