smoke em if you got em: Svevo 3

The closer one comes to a material detail in a text, the more distant appears the division between symbol and fact. Symbol and fact are always found in one another's arms, like lovers, and it is not an easy task to separate one from the other. And the person who does attempt to separate them must put on an anerotic mood, and will always feel a bit like a prude, a busybody or a fool. Besides, just as he pries away the fact, undresses it and preps it for the  table of statistics, let him turn his back for only a moment - and it is irresistable, this turning of your back on the fact - and when he turns back the fact will have simply embraced another symbol, or worse, the same one.

For example, take the historic facts in the case of tobacco...

William Weaver’s translation of Zeno's Conscience begins by looking at Italo Svevo’s name – “(his real name): Ettore Schmitz. The first half is Italian and, significantly, it is the name of a Greek hero, not of a Catholic saint. The surname is German. Then consider the birthplace: Trieste, a city that has had many masters, from ancient Romans to Austrians to Italians. In 1861, when Ettore Schmitz was born there, Trieste was an Austrian city, a vital one, the great empire’s only seaport and a focus of trade between central Europe and the rest of the world.”

The split Weaver points to in Svevo’s very name is, if we look a little at the history of tobacco, echoed in Zeno’s habit.

A few subtending facts, then.

In December, 1847, Italian nationalists in Milan (which, like Venice, Trieste and other parts of Italy, were under Habsburg rule) decided to imitate the American tea party – just as the Americans boycotted tea to protest British rule, they would boycott tobacco to protest Austrian rule. Tobacco was chosen for good reason: the Austrian state exercized a monopoly on the sale of tobacco. Since the habit of smoking tobacco in cigar form had been “brought” into the German sphere by English soldiers during the Napoleonic war (such, at least, was the myth to which German writers on tobacco subscribed), the Austrian state, like the Prussian state, had reacted by regulating its use. But unlike the Prussian state, the Austrian didn’t only ban smoking in public in the capital – they also devised different regulatory regimes for different regions in the Empire. And they promoted the creation of large tobacco estates in Hungary, which became part of one of the largest industries in the Empire, from cultivation to curing to manufacture of snuff, pipe tobacco, and cigars. [See Wickett, Studien ueber das Ă–sterreich Tabakmonopol, 1897]

In Dalmatia, state control of tobacco production was relaxed – in accordance with the liberalization of this area of the Empire that had been inaugurated by Joseph II. Trieste was well known as an entry point for the tobacco smuggling trade. In 1830, when Stendhal was the French consul in Trieste, he had remarked upon the openness of the smuggling trade. The tobacco that came in was, most likely, of Egyptian origin.

In Milan, the Austrian state had no rules about smoking in public. The Milanese liberals, voting to boycott smoking, sparked a nationalist feeling in the populace. On the 2nd and the 3rd, there were disturbances in the street, as cigars were plucked from the mouths of passerbys and thrown into the road.

But who were these smoking passerbys? Here, contemporary accounts differ. According to a French history from 1857, the Austrian government, knowing that the boycott was coming, had distributed 30,000 cigars to the Austrian garrison in the city. Thus, the soldiery was ‘armed’ with smokes, and when the crowds attacked, they took this as a provocation to violence and reacted accordingly. According to a contemporary Italian historian (Giusseppi Ricciardi, 1850), the smoking soldiers were joined by smoking criminals, who had been released from the jails and given cigars by the Austrian authorities to add to the confusion. Like a trick cigar, the situation ludicrously exploded, with rioting that spread to other cities in Italy.

But in Berlin and Austria of that year, the public/private meaning of the cigar was reversed. The laws that were put in place after the Vienna congress had banned cigar smoking in public, and thus made cigar smoking a daring act – or at least an act of symbolic resistance. The progressive smoked cigars – “ a democratic symbol for rabble rousers and agitators’ – while the petit bourgeouis smoked pipes. As the revolution spread, in 1848, from Paris to Berlin and Vienna, one of the demands of the liberals was the freedom to smoke in public – shoulder to shoulder with the freedom of the press.

Against this background, there is not only a split in Schmitz’s pseudonym, Italo Svevo, but even in the meaning of the tobacco addiction that provides the connection in Zeno’s account of his life. Freedom, for the Italian patriots, came via giving up tobacco. Freedom for German patriots meant taking up tobacco. And freedom is at the heart of the habit that Zeno describes, the perpetually renewed freedom of giving up the smoking habit:

"I believe the taste of a cigarette is more intense when it’s your last. The others, too, have a special taste of their own, but less intense. The last one gains flavor from the feeling of victory over oneself and the hope of an imminent future of strength and health. The others have their importance because, in lighting them, you are proclaiming your freedom, while the future of strength and health remains, only moving off a bit."

  In Georges Bataille and Roger Caillois’s program for the College of Sociology, they wrote of ‘establishing points of coincidence between the fundamental obsessional tendencies of individual psychology and the directing structures that preside over social organisations and command revolutions.’ Surely we have landed upon one of those points.

And yet – not quite. For what Zeno smokes as a mature man are cigarettes. His brush with cigars, though, was his first brush with tobacco. His father was a cigar smoker (like, it should be remembered, the founder of the psychoanalysis that provides the framework for the story – Freud). His father had a habit of smoking half a cigar, then leaving the butt for later. Zeno had a habit of stealing and smoking those butts.

“My father left some half-smoked Virginia cigars around the house, perched on table edges and armoires. I believed this was how he threw them away, and I believe our old maidservant, Carina, did then fling them out. I carried them off and smoked them in secret. At the very moment I grabbed them I was overcome by a shudder of revulsion, knowing how sick they would make me. Then I smoked them until my brow was drenched in cold sweat and my stomach was in knots. It cannot be said that in my childhood I lacked energy.”

We have not yet reached the moment of the cigarette. However, it is as though Zeno had to wean himself from cigars in order to reach that moment himself.