There's nothing inherently beautiful about being broken
been following — I’ve been following your mind’s instructions
me down to waste
said: “I’ll show you a picture
I’ve been following, following your minds instructions
I am not a Romantic.
I tell you this because it is a fairly new development. It’s been
creeping up on me for a while, but I realized just how unromantic I’ve
become last Sunday night when I was loudly descrying the awfulness of
smoking outside Lydia’s Pub. Usually I find it tiresome when people
talk about the evils of cigarettes, but at the time it seemed necessary.
A good friend of mine (a non-smoker) works with at-risk youth. She commented
that sometimes she thought her relationship with the young men she works
with might be improved if she could go for cigarettes with them.
I can see the
logic. There is a camaraderie among smokers: an instant intimacy found
in alleyways and 10 feet from the doors of pubs and clubs that is predicated
on how no one has a lighter, it’s too cold out, and the price of
cigarettes has gone up again. I’ve never been good at small talk,
but with a cigarette in my hand I can talk to anyone about anything. But
that doesn’t change the reality that smoking is quite awful, and
if there’s anything I hate about myself, it’s the fact that
I haven’t quit yet.
wondering at this point what my Romanticism (or lack thereof) has to do
with my smoking. To understand that, you have to understand a particular
brand of Romanticism of which I was guilty in my younger years. You see,
Romanticism with a capital R has very little to do with romantic love.
It finds its modern meaning in the Romantic movement of the early 19th
century, when a group of poets and artists sought to validate strong emotions
as an authentic source of aesthetic experience.
an emotional and poetic reaction against what was wrong in the culture.
Of course, it
was a short-lived movement because the thing about valuing aesthetics
over reality is that it tends to make you have less than brilliant ideas,
like thinking opium addiction is harmless fun, or that you can single-handedly
liberate Greece. They all died young, except for Wordsworth, who turned
into a crotchety old man.
The hangover of
Romanticism in popular culture among a certain set of people is the belief
that there’s something inherently beautiful in being broken. Now,
this in itself is not a bad thing. One of the most enduring symbols of
our faith is the image of a broken man and a broken God: Christ on the
cross. What makes it beautiful, though, is not that Christ was broken,
but why he allowed that to happen: God so loved the world he gave his
only son. I don’t think there’s been a Good Friday mass in
about 10 years when I haven’t, at some point, broken down sobbing.
Especially when the choir sings When I Behold The Wondrous Cross —
you know, that line, “did e’er such love and sorrow meet /
or thorns compose so rich a crown?” Yeah. Every time.
Among us mere
mortals, however, being broken is not always, or even often, about supreme
acts of self-sacrifice. Instead, it goes back to the less than brilliant
ideas of certain Romantics: breaking yourself because there’s something
inherently lovely about it. English band the Libertines built a whole
persona out of it. Yes, they had ideas about some mythic England called
Albion (I refer you to songs The Good Old Days and Death on the Stairs,
off their first album Up the Bracket), but equally necessary to the band’s
mythos was an obsession with the underbelly that, as a group of middle
class boys, wasn’t by rights theirs. It might have started out quite
lovely, living rough and on drugs, but the reality is written all over
the face of their lead singer, Pete Doherty, who destroyed his health,
his relationships and his career through his very Romantic addictions
to heroin and crack cocaine. It might have been pretty when he wrote Horrorshow
at the age of 20 when he was doe-eyed and soft, but now past 30 and back
in a bedsit in North London (if tabloid accounts are to be believed),
he’s nothing but sad.
And on a less
dire level, I, a former Romantic, can’t help but think that it was
my Romantic tendencies that led me to start smoking. There seemed to be
something beautiful about the casual disregard for my health, something
glamorous and seedy and anti-heroic about nicotine. But it was clearly
crap, and that Sunday night on Broadway found me swapping war stories
(or horror stories) with a former smoker about the absolute lack of dignity
in being an addict: smoking strangers’ cigarette butts at a New
Year’s party, fashioning homemade cigarettes out of newsprint and
the tobacco left at the bottom of the ashtray, going into minor hysterics
because you lost a full pack and you can’t afford another until
payday. My non-smoking friend was nonplussed. She’d never thought
about it that way. And before you get to that point, you don’t.
But it is a horrorshow. Don’t
Ward is a freelance writer and aspiring documentary filmmaker based in Saskatoon. You can find her short bursts of insight and frustration at http://www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings