A group of neuroscientists announced last week that the days of the patch, the gum, hypnotists, and going cold turkey may soon be over—their study, published in Science, found that individuals with damage to a small piece of brain tissue known as the insula were able to give up cigarettes almost instantly and without the requisite hand-wringing. Having struggled with nicotine in one form or another since I was 16, I know that the notion of going into a doctor’s office smelling like smoke and coming out repulsed by the mere thought of lighting up on my drive home is initially an attractive one, the equivalent of hitting the no-more-addiction jackpot.
I know smoking is bad for my health. I feel it when I exercise, I taste it when I wake up in the morning, and in the long run, I recognize that I could wind up with cancer eating me alive. It also makes me feel like a social parasite at times—I walked by a mom with a baby in her stroller the other day and I received the death stare because, Chicago being windy, I failed to divert my cigarette smoke away from the little angel’s virgin lungs. Never mind that one day the baby will probably grow up and take at least a drag of a cigarette or—gasp! cough!—a toke off of a joint.
Yes, I’ve got a bad conscience about my nicotine addiction, to borrow Nietzsche’s expression. In his construction, bad conscience was an affliction of modern man who, having been socially conditioned under the wide shadows of the morality of the church and the social contract of the state, was doomed to an existence of self-loathing and torture, one in which he had an “evil eye” for his natural inclinations. “The will to freedom was thus suppressed, and the will to nothingness reigned.”
At least people could be nihilists and enjoy their cigarettes back then. Nowadays, the anti-smoking movement—and that’s what it is—has taken the scientific proof about nicotine’s deleterious effects and waged a public relations and public policy war, their implicit message being that not smoking = good, smoking = bad, and people who don’t smoke = good, people who do smoke = bad. So not only do I have an evil eye for my moral and social failings, but I also, thanks in large part to these activists and the ads they run saying “these are your lungs on smoke,” hate myself for what I am doing to myself by smoking. It is as though nonsmokers have become the aristocrats of modern Europe, defining what is good by looking in the mirror, and smokers like myself are the lower order who, by virtue of our “lower orderness,” are defined as bad. The origin of the antithesis “good” and “bad,” this is to say, has been reinforced in the postmodern era.
Now this news about the insula. Surely, a ton of money will go into what many believe is a promising technique for solving the riddle of nicotine addiction. But at what cost? The insula has been found to do a number of things. It acts as “the wellspring of social emotions, things like lust and disgust, pride and humiliation, guilt and atonement.” It also functions as “a sort of receiving zone that reads the physiological state of the entire body and then generates subjective feelings that can bring about actions, like eating, that keep the body in a state of internal balance.” It has also been credited with allowing people to respond emotionally to music.
Given this, damaging or even tweaking the insula toward the end of curing cigarette addiction would follow the law, posited by Nietzsche, that “if a temple is to be erected a temple must be destroyed.” Potential side effects of the procedure, this is to say, are apathy about life in general, a significantly decreased sex drive, and a lack of interest in music, among others. I am not an economist, but the cost-benefit ratio here seems entirely out of whack. In order to give up cigarettes this way, I would live a life in which I have no interest, no sex, and no music? Such a thought is stressful enough to make me fortify my cancer temple. At least in here I get to love life, make romance explosion (to borrow from another great philosopher, Borat), rock out to Wilco, and yes, smoke Camel Lights.
Clearly, Nietzsche was dealing with moral problems of far more significance than people attaching a social pariah status to smokers. But his overarching point is nonetheless applicable: Boiled down, it is simply “get off our backs so we can get off our own.” All the talk about health effects, government ordinances banning smoking in public places (Paris, the Bastille of smoking, recently fell), and proposed cures to smoking have, as was the case of modern man reacting to socially constructed ideas of morality, resulted in one of the “most terrible [sicknesses] that has ever raged”: not smoker’s cough, but smoker’s guilt. Oh this insane, pathetic beast—smoker!