Category Archives: Literature

Smoking and creativity: a few data points

Bruce Charlton recently posted on a possible link between smoking and creative accomplishment. In the comments, Dennis Mangan said that nicotine seemed especially helpful for writers and even asked, “Has there ever been a great writer who wasn’t a smoker?” Out of curiosity, I decided to check.

I took out Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment, looked at the highest-ranking writers in his roster of significant figures in Western literature — those with a score of at least 25 on a scale from 1 (Joyce Cary, DuBose Heyward, and others of like stature) to 100 (Shakespeare) — and tried to find out who smoked and who didn’t. I had originally planned to check a larger number of writers, but sleuthing out the smoking habits of historical figures quickly becomes tedious. For whatever it’s worth, here’s what I found. If you have additional information about the smoking habits of any of these people, please leave a comment.


  • Molière: “No matter what Aristotle and the Philosophers say, nothing is equal to tobacco; it’s the passion of the well-bred, and he who lives without tobacco lives a life not worth living.”
  • Lord Byron: “Sublime tobacco! which from east to west / Cheers the tar’s labor or the Turkman’s rest. / Divine in hookas, glorious in a pipe / When tipp’d with amber, mellow, rich, and ripe; / Like other charmers, wooing the caress / More dazzlingly when daring in full dress; / Yet thy true lovers more admire by far / Thy naked beauties—give me a cigar!”
  • Dostoevsky: a heavy smoker, rolled his own cigarettes
  • Schiller
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • T. S. Eliot: died of emphysema reportedly brought on by his heavy smoking
  • Milton: smoked a pipe every night before going to bed
  • Baudelaire
  • Pushkin: an occasional social smoker
  • Dickens
  • Keats

Smokers who quit

  • Tolstoy
  • Émile Zola: “Perfection is such a nuisance that I often regret having cured myself of using tobacco.”

Non-smokers by choice

These people lived at a time when tobacco was available but did not use it.

  • Goethe: “Only a few things I find as repugnant as snakes and poison. These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs and garlic and [cross].”
  • Rousseau
  • Voltaire
  • Victor Hugo: hated smoking, refused to allow anyone to smoke around him

Non-smokers of necessity

These people lived and died before tobacco had been introduced into the Old World.

  • Dante
  • Virgil
  • Homer
  • Petrarch
  • Boccaccio
  • Euripides
  • Horace
  • Cicero
  • Ovid
  • Aeschylus
  • Sophocles


I’ve been unable to find any definite information on these people’s smoking habits.

  • Shakespeare: never mentions tobacco in his writing, but that doesn’t prove anything
  • Jean Racine
  • Ibsen
  • Balzac
  • James Joyce
  • Cervantes
  • Gogol
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Rilke: a biography mentions that he at first considered tobacco smoke “vile” but later got used to the smell; implies that he was a non-smoker, though I suppose he may have taken up the habit later
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley


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Dante and the three beasts

In the first canto of the Inferno, Dante, having gone astray in a dark wood, reaches the base of a sunlit hill (later described by Virgil as “the mountain of delight, the origin and cause of every joy”) and begins to climb — only to find the way blocked by three beasts. First, a leopard appears.

And almost where the hillside starts to rise–
look there! — a leopard, very quick and lithe,
a leopard covered with a spotted hide.
He did not disappear from sight, but stayed;
indeed, he so impeded my ascent
that I had often to turn back again.

It is a spring morning, and “the hour and the gentle season” give Dante “good cause for hopefulness” upon seeing the leopard — but then he sees a lion.

but hope was hardly able to prevent
the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.
His head held high and ravenous with hunger —
even the air around him seemed to shudder —
this lion seemed to make his way against me.

When the third beast appears, Dante gives up hope entirely.

And then a she-wolf showed herself; she seemed
to carry every craving in her leanness;
she had already brought despair to many.
The very sight of her so weighted me
with fearfulness that I abandoned hope
of ever climbing up that mountain slope.
. . . I retreated down to lower ground.

Allen Mandelbaum, in his notes to his translation of the Inferno (which is the version I have quoted), writes, “For most early commentators — and, after many alternate proposals, for many moderns — the leopard represents lust; the lion, pride; the she-wolf, avarice or cupidity.” In what appears to be the most popular of the alternate proposals, the three beasts, instead of representing a seemingly arbitrary subset of the seven deadly sins, stand for the three divisions of Dante’s hell: incontinence, violence, and fraud. Everyone who advocates this latter scheme agrees that the lion represents violence, but there is no agreement as to which of the other two beasts maps to which of the remaining categories of sin. (The leopard’s spotted hide could represent camouflage and thus fraud, or it could be “spotted” in the sense of being impure — macolato as the opposite of immaculate — and thus represent the lusts of the flesh.) In any case, regardless of the details, commentators are unanimous in interpreting the three beasts as allegories of sin and in associating at least one of them with lust or incontinence, and it is in this general sense that I wish to discuss them.

There is, on the face of it, something very odd and counterintuitive about portraying lust as an intimidating beast which stands uphill from the pilgrim, blocking his ascent and forcing him to turn back down the mountain. Surely people are lured from the path of virtue — not intimidated — by lust, and a more natural allegory would have depicted lust as an enticing siren located downhill from the pilgrim, drawing him towards her rather than scaring him away. The same is doubly true of pride, if that is indeed what the lion is meant to represent. How can it possibly make sense to say that the pilgrim had been full of hope until his own pride struck terror into his heart? What has trepidation to do with pride? If the beasts are sins, whatever particular sins they may be, one would expect them to be portrayed as tempting Dante rather than frightening him — but when Beatrice tells Virgil of how Dante is “hindered in his path along that lonely hillside,” she says nothing about temptation or going astray; rather, she reports that her friend “has been turned aside by terror.”

So it appears that what bars “the shortest way up the fair mountain” is not sin but fear of sin, not temptation but the avoidance of temptation. When Dante repeatedly turns back and retreats, this does not symbolize sinning or backsliding; rather, he is abandoning his spiritual quest for fear that if he continues he will fall prey to sin. Ascending the mountain — which surely symbolizes spiritual advancement and drawing closer to God — nevertheless exposes Dante to the danger of sin, which no longer menaces him when he retreats to lower ground.

Perhaps this lower ground, where one can be safe from sin and yet unsaved, is the ground taken by those Dante later encounters in Canto III,

the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
. . .
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them —
even the wicked cannot glory in them.
. . .
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.
The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.

To remain in safety at the foot of the mountain is to be one of these “wretched ones, who never were alive.” To attempt the ascent is spiritual suicide, a sure path to damnation — for the she-wolf, Virgil explains, “allows no man to pass along her track, but blocks him even to the point of death.” Dante is quite literally damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, and he escapes his predicament only through divine grace, when the saints in heaven (the Virgin Mary, St. Lucia, and Beatrice) send Virgil to his aid. The remainder of the Comedy — the grand tour of hell, purgatory, and paradise — is nothing but the detour Virgil arranges for Dante because “the shortest way up the fair mountain” is blocked.


Dante’s dilemma brings other heroes to mind — Gilgamesh, for one, who also finds his mountain path blocked by fierce beasts, but who reacts rather differently:

At night when he came to the mountain passes Gilgamesh prayed: ‘In these mountain passes long ago I saw lions, I was afraid and I lifted my eyes to the moon; I prayed and my prayers went up to the gods, so now, O moon god Sin, protect me.’ When he had prayed he lay down to sleep, until he was woken from out of a dream. He saw the lions round him glorying in life; then he took his axe in his hand, he drew his sword from his belt, and he fell upon them like an arrow from the string, and struck and destroyed and scattered them.

What the lions meant to the Mesopotamian poets is unknown, but that they represented “sin” or anything of that nature seems unlikely, so the Dante-like imagery of this episode is probably a coincidence. Nevertheless, the parallels are more than superficial. In broad terms, Gilgamesh faces the same dilemma as Dante — whether to ascend the mountain and dare damnation or to settle for the safety and stagnation of moral circumspection — and he makes the other choice. Gilgamesh is perhaps the earliest prototype of the Faustian man, and it is Faust even more than Gilgamesh who comes to mind as a counterpart to Dante, one who is put in the same predicament and chooses the other path. As Terryl Givens puts it in an insightful essay comparing Faust to Eve,

Dr. Faustus conveys the pathos of what it means to be Eve in a claustrophobic garden: Logic, medicine, law—the entire medieval curriculum he has mastered. His narrow study, like the boundaries of Eden, fits only “a mercenary drudge . . . too servile and illiberal for me.” So finding his only road to self-actualization is the path of sin, he takes it.

Dante also finds that his only road to self-actualization is the path of sin, and he retreats to lower ground. Of course, Dante reaches heaven in the end, while Faustus is damned, all his daring and striving ultimately as futile as Gilgamesh’s. Only in Goethe’s version is Faust saved — and, like Dante, only by grace. “Whoever strives with all his might,” say the angels in the closing scenes of Goethe’s drama, “we are allowed to save.”

Goethe uncannily echoes the Book of Mormon here — “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23) — and Givens in his essay sees Goethe’s conception of Faust as parallel to Joseph Smith’s conception of Eve. Smith taught that the Fall was not an unfortunate catastrophe, but rather a necessary step along the road to salvation; had Adam and Eve not fallen, they would have remained in a state reminiscent of the “sorry souls” encountered by Dante, “having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin” (2 Ne. 2:23). Dante, in contrast, follows the more orthodox understanding that it would have been better if Adam and Eve had not fallen, that had they chosen pusillanimity instead of sin, God could have saved them from that as well.

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Tolstoy on Shakespeare

The following passage is from the concluding section of Tolstoy’s critical essay on Shakespeare, which is worth reading in its entirety. Having gone into considerable detail on why he finds Shakespeare wanting as an artist, Tolstoy discusses the pernicious effects of bardolatry:

If people wrote of Shakespeare that for his time he was a good writer, that he had a fairly good turn for verse, was an intelligent actor and good stage manager—even were this appreciation incorrect and somewhat exaggerated—if only it were moderately true, people of the rising generation might remain free from Shakespeare’s influence. But when every young man entering into life in our time has presented to him, as the model of moral perfection, not the religious and moral teachers of mankind, but first of all Shakespeare, concerning whom it has been decided and is handed down by learned men from generation to generation, as an incontestable truth, that he was the greatest poet, the greatest teacher of life, the young man can not remain free from this pernicious influence. When he is reading or listening to Shakespeare the question for him is no longer whether Shakespeare be good or bad, but only: In what consists that extraordinary beauty, both esthetic and ethical, of which he has been assured by learned men whom he respects, and which he himself neither sees nor feels? And constraining himself, and distorting his esthetic and ethical feeling, he tries to conform to the ruling opinion. He no longer believes in himself, but in what is said by the learned people whom he respects. I have experienced all this. Then reading critical examinations of the dramas and extracts from books with explanatory comments, he begins to imagine that he feels something of the nature of an artistic impression. The longer this continues, the more does his esthetical and ethical feeling become distorted. He ceases to distinguish directly and clearly what is artistic from an artificial imitation of art. But, above all, having assimilated the immoral view of life which penetrates all Shakespeare’s writings, he loses the capacity of distinguishing good from evil. And the error of extolling an insignificant, inartistic writer—not only not moral, but directly immoral—executes its destructive work.

Great art, at least for me, has nearly always been an acquired taste. Only a few of the masters — Sophocles, Euripides, Byron, Milton, Rembrandt — moved me deeply the first time I encountered them. For most of the top-tier names in literature (the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe and, yes, Shakespeare), I was underwhelmed the first time around, coming to appreciate them only after rereading, sometimes several rereadings. And what motivated me to reread books which hadn’t particularly impressed me? It’s just as Tolstoy says: the desire to find “that extraordinary beauty, both esthetic and ethical, of which he has been assured by learned men whom he respects, and which he himself neither sees nor feels.” In that I was successful — the beauty was found, the taste was acquired — but Tolstoy poses the unsettling question of just what mechanisms effected that acquirement. “Distorting his esthetic and ethical feeling, he tries to conform to the ruling opinion.” Is learning to love Dante really something I should feel proud of?

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Walter Kaufmann’s “Epitaph”

Walter Kaufmann ends his book Critique of Religion and Philosophy with an untranslated poem in German, entitled “Epitaph”:

Alles starb in meinem Herzen
was nicht reines Feuer war:
in den Gluten meiner Qualen
bracht ich’s Gott im Himmel dar.

Nur das flammenhafte Sehnen,
das sich grad am Brande nährt,
hat die Gluten überstanden
noch nachdem sie Gott verzehrt.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader of Kaufmann who has virtually no German but would like to know what this poem says. The only translation I’ve been able to find is a tentative first draft (“there’s a lot in this one I’m unsure of, it may change quite radically”) by the blogger Peter Saint-Andre:

All is dead inside my heart
that once was purest fire:
in the heat I offered up
my pain to heaven’s God.

Only the ardent passion
that once nourished the flame
has yet outlived the fire
that God alone devoured.

Something tells me that can’t possibly be right, especially the last line, so here’s my attempt. The reader is strongly warned that I know no German whatsoever and did this translation by looking up every word in a dictionary and skimming parts of a German grammar. Still, since no professional translation seems to exist, I offer this for whatever it’s worth. My hope is that someone who actually knows German will stumble upon this post and set me straight.

All died in my heart
which was not pure fire:
In the heat my pains
I brought to God in heaven.

Only the flame-like longings
Which fed the fire
Have survived the heat
Even after it consumed God.

There’s much here that I’m unsure of, too. The word bracht is confusing, so I read it as brachte or gebracht. I didn’t know what to do with dar or grad, either, so I just omitted them. The dictionary says Sehnen is a noun meaning “sinews,” but that didn’t make much sense in context, so I interpreted it as having something to do with the verb phrase sich sehnen, meaning “to long.”

My version differs from Saint-Andre’s on two crucial points: (1) his says the fire is dead, but mine says everything but the fire is dead; and (2) his says God devoured the fire, but mine says the fire consumed God. Although I don’t know a lick of German, I do know a bit about Walter Kaufmann, and I think my reading is more plausible.


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Mandelbaum’s Dante

I’m reading Dante again, by the way — Allen Mandelbaum’s translation. I was so impressed with his Odyssey that I went from bookstore to bookstore until I had finally tracked down copies of his Aeneid and Commedia. He’s also translated Ovid, Quasimodo, and Ungaretti, and I’ll snatch those up too if I can find them. For someone who is such a virtuoso at translating poetry (and from three different languages!), Mandelbaum surprisingly turns out to be a bit of a klutz when it comes to English prose, at least if his nearly unreadable introduction to the Inferno is any indication. A typical passage:

For Dante is an Aeolus-the-Brusque, a Lord-of-Furibundus-Fuss, the Ur-Imam-of-Impetus. Or, for brutish Scrutinists, who reach for similes among the beasts and not among the gods, he is the lizard that, “when it darts from hedge/ to hedge beneath the dog days’ giant lash,/ seems, if it cross one’s path, a lightning flash” (Inf. XXV, 79-81)

Note how the dead, bloated language suddenly springs to life as soon as he stops speaking for himself and starts translating Dante. Like Plato’s Ion, he has nothing to say except as a reciter of his favorite poets — of which, unlike Ion, he happily has more than one.

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Reading: The Odyssey

I’ve read two translations of Homer’s Odyssey:

  • Robert Fitzgerald (29 Aug 2001)
  • Allen Mandelbaum (19 Sep 2009)

I’ve also perused bits of W. H. D. Rouse’s translation, although I’ve read his Iliad and wasn’t impressed. As I might have expected, he manages to mangle even the most beautiful passages. Compare these lines from Mandelbaum’s Odyssey

Tenacious, shameless, driven to deceive,
even in your own land you cannot leave
behind the tales and traps, the lies you love.

with their counterparts in Rouse’s

Irrepressible! everlasting schemer! indefatigable fabulist! Even in your own country you wouldn’t desist from your tales and your historiological inventions, which you love from the bottom of your heart.

The man simply has a tin ear.

That scene, by the way, from Book XIII has always been for me the heart of the Odyssey; I find his reunion with Athena, who knows and loves him as the inveterate old schemer he is, more moving than his reunion with Penelope, who knows him only as a husband. Yes, Odysseus loves his wife and is as true to her as could reasonably be expected given the circumstances, but man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart. The final reunion is Penelope’s scene, not his; Odysseus is no more himself than when sitting under that olive tree with his old friend Athena, plotting.

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Reading: The Bacchae, by Euripides

I finished reading Paul Roche’s translation of Euripides’s The Bacchae on 25 Aug 2009.

Pentheus attempts to suppress the cult of the new god Dionysus, who wreaks his revenge by causing Pentheus’s mother to tear him apart in a god-possessed frenzy. The moral is one typical of the Greek myths: don’t mess with the gods. Respect them, not because they deserve it, but because they’re bigger than you. Pentheus suspects that Dionysus’s cult is an immoral influence, and Dionysus proceeds to prove him right — but he also proves that might makes right irrelevant, and that a prudent mortal knows his place. Knowing Euripides’s general attitude toward the gods, though, I doubt that the play is really about respecting an actual Dionysus. More likely, Bacchus and the Bacchae stand for intractable aspects of human nature which must be respected whether you like them or not; people can’t all be strait-laced Penthei all the time, and trying to force them to is a recipe for disaster. Or it could be read as focusing on the Dionysus cult as a potent cultural/religious force which it would also be folly to mess with, since suppressing such movements often only makes them stronger and nastier. (Reading The Bacchae today, it’s hard not to think of Islamic extremism.) In any case it seems clear that Euripides is not defending the Bacchus cult itself as a good thing but warning against fanatical opposition to it.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about this play is its lack of a hero. One expects a tragedy to have a hero, albeit a flawed and doomed one, and the absence of anyone sympathetic or noble in The Bacchae makes it deeply unsatisfying. (That’s not necessarily a criticism. Who says the purpose of art is to satisfy?) Pentheus is portrayed as a small-minded prig, Cadmus and Tiresias as self-serving cowards, and Dionysus as a ruthless and self-absorbed maniac. There are no sympathetic characters, and when the audience feels little sympathy for the suffering, tragedy loses its force as tragedy. Somewhat ironically, given its ostensibly pro-Dionysus message, this is a play that makes you think rather than feel.

(A side note: I went to Ohio State University, where post-football game celebrations sometimes devolved into violent alcohol-fueled riots (setting fire to cars, that sort of thing) which were described as bacchanalian. Reading this play, it occurred to me that there might be some comedic potential in a travesty based on a Bacchae/Buckeye pun.)

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