In a spurt of avuncular generosity, I handed the young man a cigar. It was a pretty good smoke, maybe a Romeo y Julieta or a Maria Mancini I had bought for half-price. (I buy all my cigars on sale or do not buy them at all.) The polite young man thanked me, clipped the end with a cigar cutter I dug up somewhere, and, when I held out the match, he began twiddling the cigar around the flame as if he were putting the last golden touches on a marshmallow. About to burn my fingers waiting for the tomfoolery to end, I exclaimed, in the gentle tone I usually reserve for sons and editorial assistants, “What in hell do you think you are doing?”
As a smoker who has sometimes been corralled into the concentration camps known as cigar bars, I had a dim idea of what he was doing, and the young man was kind enough to raise my blood pressure even higher by going into a brief though learned explanation of this toasting ritual. He had smoked perhaps a dozen cigars in his entire life, but he had the technique down pat.
Here, from CigarTrends.com, is a full explanation:
To light your cigar, first strike a match and hold it underneath the foot of the cigar to warm the tobacco. The distance should be great enough that the tip of the flame does not touch the underside of the wrapper. Roll the cigar slowly between your fingers to make sure the entire foot is evenly warmed. This will make the tobacco in the cigar more readily accept a flame.
Once you have warmed the tobacco, put the cigar in your mouth at a 45º angle and use another match to light it. Hold the flame directly in front of the cigar (again, so it is not actually touching the wrapper), and slowly inhale to draw the flame to the foot of the cigar. While lighting your cigar, ensure [sic] that you turn the barrel so that all sides of the foot are equally lit. You may wish to lightly [sic] blow on the foot of the cigar to even things out and make sure your cigar continues to burn evenly.
You may also wish to politely [sic] kick the prissy ass down the stairs. At this point, I think I would switch to cigarettes. Better to face cancer than to warm your cigars.
I used to take some care in cutting and lighting my cigars, but the sight of the aficionados at work, many of whom have less taste in cigars than the careful young man, has driven me to biting the end off and snatching a light from a pack of cheap matches or from the kitchen stove. The performance can excite shock and awe. Once in a cigar bar, I was accosted by an importunate smoker in short sleeves who wanted to know what I was about to smoke. I showed him my Macanudo Churchill, and, as I started to bite into it, he practically leapt over my table to offer his cutter, which I not so politely declined. I already have a religion, and tobacco is not my frankincense.
Without ever subscribing to Cigar Aficionado or listening to Cigar Dave on the radio, I have been enjoying cigars since I first swiped my old man’s cheap Harvesters and smoked them in the woods. I am afraid the average professional cigar smoker I have encountered does not even enjoy smoking, any more than wine snobs, whose greatest pleasure is talking to the wine steward, enjoy drinking wine.
I had a housemate in graduate school who wanted to pass for a cultivated gentleman. He took to reading Alexis Lichine and buying expensive wines. He invited me to dinner, along with a friend who also enjoyed good wine, and asked us to savor one of M. Lichine’s top picks. “I say, gentleman,” said the connoisseur after swirling a teaspoon or so over his soft palate, “that is something special.” When the host left the room, my friend looked at me with a crazed smile. “Corked, isn’t it?” we said almost simultaneously.
It used to be that you could take refuge in drinking whiskey. But now you cannot order a drink without hearing a pedantic discourse on single malts or single barrels. Even rum and tequila, to say nothing of gin or vodka, have put on airs and moved uptown. Yes, I have been enjoying single-malt scotches for 40 years and wrote my dissertation on Aeschylus under a known expert on Scotch, who mixed one sherry glass of scotch with one of cool but not cold water. I like the new expensive bourbons (and occasionally mix a martini with Tanqueray), but do not expect to catch me at a Knob Creek tasting. If the only way to avoid amusing chit-chat about alcohol is to drink Jim Beam, then Jim Beam it is. I would have said Evan Williams, but now that the Wine Spectator (or some other rash of gumboils) has pronounced it the best value in bourbon, the price has gone up, and with it, the cachet.
I have nothing against the little rituals that grow up naturally around eating and drinking or hunting and fishing. I use barbless hooks in catch-and-release zones, even though I know that a trout caught after a good fight in fast water is not likely to revive when put back. It is just one of the things one does. I almost always take my salad after dinner, put the bread on the tablecloth and not on the plate, and I have learned from French and Italian friends how to sample a good wine without contorting my face into the expression of a mime pretending to choke on a golf ball. But one should not have to take a course or study a website in order to partake of a simple pleasure or practice a sport.
As Chesterton sagely observed, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Chesterton was obviously not referring to neurosurgery or theology but to skills (such as writing poetry or playing the piano) that might be perfected by a professional but can give pleasure to an amateur. I would go further, however, and say that there are some things that no sane man will ever wish to do so well that people begin to think of him as the professional fly-tier or the world’s expert on Slovenian Rizlings. (Plutarch took this attitude to the extreme, arguing that we can enjoy art, though no gentleman would wish to be known as an artist.)
Orvis schools and pretentious tackle shops have ruined fly-fishing for me. I used to listen sympathetically to Ron Mance, a guide on the Brule River, when he waxed eloquent on the subject of “dose guys from da Twins wit dere fancy boron rods and expensive vests from Orvis. Cheeze.” They learned in school to cast beautifully and to talk learnedly about reading the stream. Catching fish was something else.
I ran into a classic case when I was fishing the White River in Arkansas. My fishing buddy and I were staying in a nice lodge with excellent food. One night, a rich doctor came in. My friend groaned, having met him years ago in B——. “One of my little brother’s friends,” he said with the contempt one always has for a little brother’s friends. The doctor regaled—not the right word—us with stories of his fishing exploits around the world, most recently in New Zealand. When “Jack,” who was the best guide on the White, took my fishing buddy out on the lawn to improve his casting technique, the doctor had to butt in and give unasked advice, which humiliated my friend, who is an excellent fisherman but not a fly-caster. The uninvited advice seriously annoyed the guide. At the bar in the lodge, Jack, who did not suffer fools at all, much less gladly, had a grim look on his face. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m guiding the son-ofabitch tomorrow.”
The next day about sunset, we were sipping bourbon on the porch when the shaken and demoralized doctor walked in with Jack, who could not wipe the grin off his face. One look said everything. I asked Jack how long it took to administer the much-needed comeuppance. “About the first five minutes on the river.” There is justice in the world after all.
I am not saying I would not, under the right circumstances, attend an Orvis school, and I am certainly not going to claim that I have never bragged about my meager fishing exploits. But the time comes when you leave the lodge, go home, and return to the round of work, family, and petty pleasures that make up ordinary life. There are a few good books on fishing worth taking off the shelf and an occasional novel or set of stories. Bill Mills’ recent book Deep Hunting, Shallow Fishing is, in my view, outstanding and far better than Caroline Gordon’s stories, which are also worth reading. But even a devoted fisherman such as Mills has other interests—in his case, literature and history, philosophy and theology. In any event, he does not have to join a club or take lessons to establish his credentials as a fisherman.
So far as I am concerned, a club is a fat stick you use to hit a ball or beat an enemy’s head in. A distinguished historian of my acquaintance was approached by one of his students who observed that, since they both drove the same make of automobile, they ought to form a club. “Tell me,” said the professor, “do you own a toothbrush?”
“Yes, I do,” replied the unsuspecting student.
“Then why don’t we form the toothbrush club?”
No one today, it seems, can pursue a hobby, escape a vice, or suffer a tragedy without submitting himself to the ministrations of “professional” experts. Talking to friends and relations who have gone through rehab, it sounds as if these institutions are designed for two purposes: to transfer your addiction from alcohol to AA, and to encourage you to make a career out of substance-abuse counseling. There are clubs for mothers who have lost children to drunk drivers, clubs for parents who have lost children to gun violence. I wonder if Iraqis have clubs for relatives of the victims of “collateral damage.” No soccer stadium, unfortunately, could hold the members.
Support groups and hobbyist clubs are only a symptom of a much larger problem. We Americans have become dependent on other people to organize our lives for us. We used to boast of our independence, our rugged individualism. Now we cannot grieve without professional support or drink whiskey without professional instructions, though I was pleased to see that, when the “grievance counselors” (as NPR calls them) descended on a small Texas town that had suffered a mass murder, no one showed up. It makes you wonder how such people ever voted for George W. Bush.
My generation is bad enough, but the next group down, in their 30’s and 40’s, are much more hopelessly dependent, while kids in their teens and early 20’s are distinctive, according to adolescent psychologist Mel Levine, not so much for their addiction to cellphones and computers as for their complete dependency on institutions. Stuck in daycare before they had learned to speak, they have spent their lives in school: elementary, middle, and high school, of course, but also soccer league, music camp, and tennis lessons.
Just today, I learned of a travel agency that constructs psychological profiles of its clients before choosing a compatible vacation destination. This way, you never have to experience anything unexpected or exotic, anything that might expand your range of prejudices.
There is no such thing, any more, as a simple pleasure or a naif experience. Most of what we experience has been programmed, designed, and digested. I recall a passage in one of Jack Kerouac’s later books where he complained that, by the 1960’s, you never saw anyone with his hands in his pockets, walking down the street whistling. Everyone was too self-conscious, too busy being cool. A more profound meditation on self-consciousness was offered by Walker Percy in his essay “The Loss of the Creature.” How, he asked, could a late-modern man view the Grand Canyon without putting on the blinders of everything he had read, seen, and heard about the number-one tourist attraction in America?
When Percy was writing his essay in the mid-70’s, the issue was, as it had been for the existentialists, one of authenticity, a morally and aesthetically sincere approach to life that is spoiled by the expectations imposed not only by experience but by artificial conventions and commercialized conscience. If you read guidebooks and watch a commercial video of Florence, as many people do, before going to see the city, it may be impossible to discern an authentic Florence under all the layers of guidebook clichés and cinematic images complete with soundtrack and (to give you the real flavor of typical Florentine restaurants) scratch-and-sniff patches of burned garlic powder and cheap acidic wine. One may as well send Rick Steves on the honeymoon trip or, better yet, hire him to stand in for the bridegroom.
Connoisseurship, whether in paintings or cigars, is only another expression of this phenomenon, the displacement of the authentic, the sincere, and the naive by the artificial, the hip, and the professional. Perhaps I am the last man in the world to feel this way, but I find most art critics, including Bernard Berenson, a little creepy. In their effusions over beauty, they remind me of the older men who are just a little lavish in their attentions to your teenage daughter. What does Shaw’s Don Juan tell the Devil, after enduring his praise of music and poetry? “You sound like an hysterical woman fawning on a fiddler.” Interpretations of art are even worse than effusions. I do not want someone telling me what to think or how to feel. I hate the miscalled literary critics that want to tell you why and how you should read Pound’s Cantos or Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I do not much care which school of criticism they belong to—New Critical, Projectivist, Neo-formal, Deconstructionist. A murrain on them all.
It is not that art historians and even some literary critics have not made valuable contributions to our understanding, etc., etc., etc. (just fill in whatever obligatory weaseling you like), but wouldn’t it be fun, just once, to go to a new city and get lost in it, without map or guidebook or any burden of expectations? Or walk into a church you have never heard of and admire a painting without being told who painted it? Or pick out a book of poetry from the shelf and read a poem without knowing anything about it? Perhaps this all sounds too Navrozovian.
During World War I, Robert Bridges, the poet laureate, put together an excellent anthology of verse to lift the hearts of the British people. In the first edition of The Spirit of Man, he did not include so much as the authors’ names, though, in later editions, he put them into an appendix (for which I am grateful). Still, it is a wonderful thing to stumble across a poem you like without knowing in advance whether you should like it. Recently, I read a few fine lines only to discover that they were by, ugh, our own version of a poet laureate, Archibald MacLeish, whom I should never have willingly read. Finding a good poem or story by a writer you despise is like watching Paul Wolfowitz perform a selfless good deed. Such experiences remind us of the power of God.
Most people eventually want to know a little something about what they have seen or read, and, if you are like me, you might spend days, weeks, and months studying the history of Rome in the 19th century. But the object of studying history, languages, and literature is not to cobble together a ready-made patter to repeat to yourself before entering the Sistine Chapel or to wow your friends with such gems as “Look at how the eyes follow you across the room,” or “Bernini’s statue is holding up his hands in horror to show his contempt for his rival Borromini” or the beauty of La Gioconda, “wrought out from within upon the flesh—the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.” That final gem is from Walter Pater, the greatest argument for unlettered barbarism produced in the past two centuries.
For the most part, critical jargon, in both art and literature, consists of clichés and labels whose primary purpose is to reduce the work to the level of the critic’s understanding, and, once a painting or poem has been papered over by criticism, we can no longer see it or hear it. Serious study of history or music composition is another matter. In “the immense disorder of truths,” our studies (like our reading and listening to music) are really only a more concentrated form of experience, and the gap between knowledge gained from experience and mere connoisseurship is as broad and as deep as the Grand Canyon.