On Writing, Smoking, and the Habit of Transcendence

Gregor Hens’s Nicotine describes a life spent chasing moments of heightened power.

Kenishirotie / photomelon / Fotolia / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Writers have long found rich fodder for their work in their leisure pursuits. John Updike, writing about golf in The New York Times in 1973, described the pastime as “a non-chemical hallucinogen” that “breaks the human body into components so strangely elongated and so tenuously linked, yet with anxious little bunches of hyper-consciousness and undue effort bulging here and there, along with rotating blind patches and a sort of cartilaginous euphoria.” Sketching out a particularly lucid paragraph about the act of preparing for a stroke, he confessed, “got me so excited I had to rush out into the yard and hit a few shots, even though it was pitch dark, and only the daffodils showed.”

Updike’s experience of transcendence while playing golf—his sense of tapping in to a kind of acute concentration that alters perception—is echoed vividly in the German writer Gregor Hens’s new memoir of sorts, Nicotine. It’s a slight and meandering work that essentially recounts the author’s life in cigarettes, but its most vital passages describe how smoking shifted Hens’s reality, allowing him to access a meditative state in which he felt truly connected with himself and the world. Describing his very first cigarette, Hens writes, “I not only saw images, not only heard single words or sentences, but experienced an inner world ... I was offered an experience that was narratable for the very first time.”

In that sense, Nicotine enters a kind of sub-genre of literary memoirs focused around a single practice or obsession, in which the object or activity enables the writer to achieve sharper focus, heightened consciousness, and creative fire. Like Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and Updike’s writing on golf, it illuminates the writerly quest for the elusive state the Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi named, simply, “flow.” Smoking, Hens seems to believe, transformed him into a writer by expanding his sense of what was real and what was perceivable. It physically and irreparably altered the pathways in his brain. And it punctuated and constructed the order of his professional life. “Even though I’ve not smoked for a long time, I still think and work in a constantly repeated rhythm of about half an hour,” he writes.

But unlike, say, running or golf, or even taking minute doses of LSD to increase focus, smoking is, of course, an extremely toxic habit. While Nicotine is at its most interesting when Hens expounds on his chosen subject as though it’s the magical source of his inspiration, he considers it primarily as a mental act rather than a physical one. The great irony of Nicotine is that Hens no longer smokes. So his meditation on cigarettes and their transcendent power has the feel of an artist chasing something out of reach: half an ode to the pleasures and promise of smoking, half an elegy for the power he’s lost in giving it up.

Addiction memoirs tend to be stories of recovery, of battling demons and emerging stronger on the other side. But nicotine is different, and so is Nicotine. It’s a truth universally repeated that as a drug, nicotine is more addictive than heroin or cocaine, but it’s considerably less mind-altering. The vast majority of smokers are high-functioning addicts, even as they’re killing themselves at vastly higher rates: An estimated 480,000 adults die each year in the U.S. from smoking-related diseases, almost ten times the number who fatally overdosed on drugs in 2015.

Hens is aware of the bargain he’s made on behalf of his health. As a nonsmoker, he writes, he exercises daily and climbs mountains, switching out one compulsive behavior for other, considerably more healthful ones. But even a short passage about how cycling is his strongest physical discipline quickly evolves into a description of a terrifying road accident, in which he hits the side of a delivery van at forty kilometers an hour. After eight days in bed, he painfully makes his way to a bar near his apartment where he smokes his first cigarette in eight years: “I staggered, held on tightly to the rickety balustrade running around the bar and cried with happiness. My legs were shaking. I was back.”

The bargain then, is a a reluctant and fragile one: It’s harder to rhapsodize over the ecstasy of breathing clearly than it is to ponder the promise of the first cigarette in a crisp new pack. Nicotine is laced with moments that capture the truths most ex-smokers would shudder to admit. Seeing a hypnotherapist, Hens confesses, “I sometimes wish that I would have another accident. I wish that something comparably dreadful would throw me off track. Because if something bad, something really awful happened, I could start smoking again.”

It’s hard to assess where addiction ends and obsession begins. Often, Hens seems to be mistaking the euphoric state induced by nicotine intoxication for something more potent, more otherworldly. Certainly, his writing about smoking is focused, clear, and lyrical, while on other subjects he tends to wander about the page. After a period of abstinence, he writes, “When I smoke the first cigarette—and I always smoke it alone—it’s as if I can look inside my own brain, as if I can discover every thought in its formation, every thrill in a neural pathway, every synaptic leap, every seminal feeling developing from my thoughts.” Even thinking about the sensation of smoking offers a glimpse of the same feeling, the elevated pulse, the heightened consciousness.

For smokers, this description might spark the same rapid heartbeat, the same liminal hit. For ex-smokers, Nicotine should probably come with a trigger warning. Hens writes so fondly of cigarettes and their role in his life that it’s almost difficult to understand why he gave up: The reasons, he writes, are so obvious that they don’t need explaining, but their absence is nevertheless notable. Nicotine is an addiction memoir that doesn’t deal in horror stories, but in nostalgic pangs. There are a handful of scenes that shock (Hens had his first cigarette at the age of five, when his mother gave him one to light a firework with and told him to puff on it to keep it lit), but Hens seems to believe that smoking made him the person—the writer—he is now. “I regret nothing,” he writes. “Every cigarette I’ve ever smoked was a good cigarette.”

But perhaps Hens is right: Maybe smoking really is his muse. After all, Nicotine is his first book translated into English, his most high-profile published work. Still, if the process of writing the book seems to have involved a kind of exquisite torture, it also brings him closer to resolution. Toward the end of the book, within the space of eight pages, Nicotine goes from pondering the “giddy clarity” of cigarettes, their “private, tranquil joy,” to an almost hysterical aversion to second-hand fumes. “Smoke,” he writes, “makes it apparent that something permeates us that has just escaped the body, the moist, bacteria-populated bodily orifice of a stranger.” With this, he takes the first step toward the non-smoker’s self-righteous disgust, and, it might seem, toward freedom.