the nervous character: Zeno 4

The popular stories about the introduction of various forms of using tobacco are always about the military. It is said that the habit of cigarette smoking passed from the Spanish soldiers, who had learned it from Brazilians, to the French in the 1830s. However, there is another story that locates the re-invention of cigarettes in the 1850s wars between Russia and Turkey. A Turkish soldier, whose pipe was destroyed by a bullet, put tobacco in the paper from the envelop of a cartouche, and smoked it. [[Ferland, 2007] And still another claims that it was the French soldiers, arriving with paper and tobacco, who diffused the habit in Russia. These different stories could be sorted out by considering that the Brazilians and Spanish may well have used a corn leaf – which is how cigarettes were described as late as 1864 in G.A. Henrieck’s Du Tabac. There we read that cigarettes are rolled in paper “sans colle”. Indeed, this was the technical difficulty with cigarettes as a commodity: its fragility.

The military is mobile, and at the same time idle, which has some effect on the form of drug that is being used. Tolstoy’s letter to his aunt Tatiana Yergoloskaya in 1851-2, when he was garrisoned in the Cacausus, describe the garrison life very well.  Garrisons were foyers for all the products that kill time, from gambling to smoking to, in recent times, heroin and marijuana. Also for politics and literature.

Here’s Tolstoy as he starts to settle in the garrison life:
 "I was at Stariy Yurt. All the officers who were there did nothing but play and at rather high stakes. As it is impossible for us when living in camp not to see each other often, I have very often taken part in card-playing, and, notwithstanding the importunity I was subject to, I had stood firm for a month, but one day for fun I placed a small stake: I lost. I began again: I again lost. I was in bad luck; the passion for play had awakened, and in two days I had lost all the money I had and that which Nikolay had given me (about 250 rubles), and into the bargain 500 rubles for which I gave a promissory note payable in January, '52.”

Tolstoy, of course, was not a typical officer, and killed time by writing “Childhood” and reflecting on the world around him.  Lucien Leuwen, the hero of Stendhal’s novel, shares some traits with Tolstoy – notably, his wealth and connections and interior life. But Stendhal’s hero is engaged not in suppressing the Turkic speaking mountain people on the Russian frontier, but, or so he feared, the French speaking people on the class frontier in Nancy – as Stendhal sets his story just after the French army had suppressed various worker strikes in Metz. Still, the life of idleness represented by Stendhal – and the contrast with the ambitions of the hero – takes on a very similar tone.

If killing time in the garrison corresponded with the use of drugs, it was a different kind of time that corresponds to the popular image of cigarettes by 1900.  In a sense, this is the same problem of weight and mass that is discussed in the preface to “The Telegraph as a means of commerce” (1857) by Karl Gustav Knies, who compares the ‘commodities’ of things, persons, and “information” – Nachricht. Knies was one of the first economists to recognize that telegrams, by introducing a real time speed into the diffusion of information, had, as it were, given a premium to the light and speedy. To come to this conclusion, Knies had to frame for himself a sense of information that, at the time he wrote, was still lacking. Yet he knew that the Nachricht “is obviously one of the objects in which commerce between people is represented.” Information (or “report”), unlike thought, requires distance – and even if one presumes to have information from oneself, one is at least metaphorically putting oneself at a distance from oneself. More normally, though, communication goes from a sender to a distanced receiver. Knies points out that if we have certain information that seems timeless, or at least doesn’t lose value in being transported from the sender to the receiver, much of what we communicate has only a passing value – just as any other commodity has. In other words, there is a shelf-life for reports. At the same time, there is a double time frame, one in which the immediacy of the need to which information corresponds may not be the same for the sender and the receiver. These things are true about letters and oral communications – but with the telegraph, a whole news temporal order, and a whole shift in the social construction of ‘immediacy”, comes about on the mass scale.

In a word, the lightness and quickness of the telegraphic message presages a different tempo in the life of human beings, which calls out for a drug that is both speedy and that suspends speed. That was the cigarette. It needed, however, to be technically changed. The cigarette becomes the object of certain changes, in manufacture and marketing, that make it an exemplary product of the turn to consumer goods in the later nineteenth century. Famously, the development of the tobacco industry in Russia, in which a skilled group of cigarette rollers were trained to produce cigarettes to serve a mass market, jumpstarted the American cigarette industry, which took its real start when James Duke enticed a number of Eastern European Jewish cigarette rollers to move from New York to North Carolina to train a number of Southern factory workers. Duke could not find an entrance to the cigar industry, so he chose to enter the tobacco industry by enlarging the production and market for cigarettes. America was famously addicted to cigars and chewing tobacco for most of the nineteenth century: cigarettes were suspiciously European. Duke introduced mechanisation, a new packaging method (a hard paper box), and advertising. Although he never was able to take over the cigar industry, which was resistant to the kind of speeded up manufacture that suited cigarettes, he did establish a strangle hold on cigarettes by 1912.

These are all developments that made cigarettes a symbolic accessory for the changes in the tempo of life that was being felt by urban populations in the U.S. and Europe by 1900.

The characterological correlate of this tempo was: the neurotic.