Comical Addictions: Schlemiels and Cigarettes in Italo Svevo’s “Confessions of Zeno”

Whether it’s Jean-Genet’s fiction, classic Hollywood cinema, or the Marlboro Man, cigarettes have often been associated with masculinity and autonomy. Smoking was portrayed as making one more handsome, graceful, or rebellious.

But when a schlemiel is smoking a cigarette, that image is turned upside down. The schlemiel doesn’t know how to smoke a cigarette or has a problem with cigarettes.

One of the most interesting and in-depth portrayals of the smoking schlemiel can be found in the first chapter of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno. The book is broken down into six chapters. Each of them deals with another aspect of the schlemiel’s life crisis:

  • The Last Cigarette
  • The Death of My Father
  • The Story of My Marriage
  • Wife and Mistress
  • A Business Partnership
  • Psychoanalysis

In the last blog post, we addressed the clinical situation around which the book is framed, namely the schlemiel’s apparent sickness, which is introduced by his psychoanalyst.

The novelty of this order is that, instead of starting with a primary trauma for the Male subject of psychoanalysis (namely the death of the father), Svevo starts with the schlemiel’s anxiety over cigarettes.

Zeno goes back to his first major experience of guilt and anxiety over cigarettes. He recounts his primal experience with them vis-a-vis a memory of his father and his coat, which, apparently, is the basis for his smoking habit:

Now I remember that my father surprised me one day while I was holding his waistcoat in my hand. With a brazinness which I should never have now and which horrifies me even so long (perhaps this feeling of disgust is going to be very important in my cure), I told him I had suddenly felt a great curiosity to count the buttons. My father laughed at my mathematical or sartoiral bent and never noticed that I had my fingers in his waistcoat pocket. To my credit be it said, his laughing at me like that for being so innocent when I knew I was guilty was quite enough to prevent me ever stealing again. At least, I did steal afterwards, but without realizing it. My father used to leave half-smoked Virginia cigars lying on the edge of a table or a chest of drawers. I though it was his way of getting rid of them and i really believe that our old servant Catina used to throw them away. I began smoking them in secret. The very fact of hiding them sent a kind of shudder through me, for Ik now how sick they would make me. Then I would smoke them till cold drops of perspiration stood on my forehead and I felt horribly bad inside. (30).

It’s interesting because he associates his father’s laughter at him with his duality: appearing innocent while being guilty of hiding his thievery (which he justifies as him picking up something meant for the garbage).

When the father speaks with the mother about missing cigars (as he pretends to be asleep, after stealing a cigar), Zeno recalls a scene where he hears it and says nothing:

My father began contemplating in a low voice:

“I really think I must be going mad. I am almost sure I left half a cigar lying on that chest half an hour ago, and now I can’t find it. I must be ill. I can’t remember anything.”

Only my mother’s fear of waking me prevented me from laughing. She answered in the same low tone of voice:

“But no one has been into this room since luncheon.”

I half opened my eyes and look at my mother. She had settled down again to her work, and she still had a smile on her face. She would surely not have smiled like that at my father’s fears if she believed he was really going mad. Her smile made such a deep impression on me that I immediately recognized it when I saw it one day long afterwards on my wife’s lips.

It’s as if the smile on his mother’s lips marked a secret that involved fooling the father (a Biblical theme, as well, with Rachel and Yitzchak, when Ya’akov poses as his brother). The laugh marks the guilty secret, the smile marks a joyful secret (a shared endeavor of tricking the father figure/authority).

Following this, his guilty pleasure takes on great proportions:

I smoked continually, hidden in all sorts of secret places. I particularly remember one half-hour spent in a dark cellar, because I was terribly unwell afterwards. I was with two other boys…we had a great many cigarettes and we wanted to see who could smoke most in the shortest time. I won….I had to shut my eyes or I should have fainted on the spot. By degrees I recovered and boasted of my victory. (31)

Now that he is in his 50s, he looks back at the many years of compulsive smoking and wonders what this addiction suggests. Maybe his cigarette addiction prompted him to be a schlemiel:

While I sit here analyzing myself a sudden doubt assails me: did I really love cigarettes so much because I was able to throw all the responsibility for my own incompetence on them? Who knows whether, if I had given up smoking, I should really have become the strong perfect man I imagined? Perhaps it was this very doubt that bound me to my vice, because life is much pleasanter if one is able to believe in one’s own latent greatness. I only put forward as a possible explanation of my youthful weakness, but without any great conviction. (33)

He becomes very philosophical about what he calls “the last cigarette”(TLC). But that philosophy, itself, is flawed since it, like Zeno’s paradox, is endlessly repeating. He will always have the opportunity to quit, but he never can. It’s the paradox, if you will, of the schlemiel who will always have an opportunity not to fail but will…fail again:

In order to make it (his idea of the last cigarette) seem less foolish I tried to give a philosophical content to the malady of ‘the last cigarette’. You strike a noble attitude and say: ‘Never again!’ But what becomes of the attitude if you keep the word? You can only preserve it if you keep on renewing your resolution. And then Time, for me, is not that unimaginable thing that never stops. For me, but only for me, it comes up again. (34)

He recalls tricking a doctor about his sickness and points out that he is and has always been obsessed with being sick (34-35). He tricks the doctor by hiding his sickness and, as a result, is treated for the wrong thing (33-34). But then he comes out with his secret to discover that the doctor’s diagnosis isn’t affected by cigarette smoking:

I went to the doctor because I had been told that he cured nervous diseases by electricity. I thought that might derive from electricity the strength to give up smoking…When I saw that he would never discover the nicotine in my blood himself, I though I would help him, and suggested that my ill-health was probably due to that. He shrugged his shoulders wearily:

“Peristaltic action – acid. It has noting to do with nicotine!”

He gave me seventy electric treatments, and I should be having them still if I had not decided I had had enough. I did not hasten to my appointments because I expected miraculous results, as because I hoped to persuade the doctor to order me to give up smoking. (35)

Unlike the autonomous subject, he needs the other to persuade him to stop. He can’t do so on his own. Jean-Paul Sartre would call this bad faith and inauthentic. The burden of knowing he has a bad habit and acting to change his habits is too much. This need-for-the-other to cure him makes his addiction into a key feature of his schlemielkeit.

Years later we see this in a show like Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. To be sure, every schlemiel has a bad habit that he or she can’t kick. Svevo is one of the first modern novelists to articulate this as a key to understanding the schlemiel, a character who touches us all because we also have a hard time kicking habits and play all kinds of games to keep from doing so. Perhaps our weakness for them is our greatest secret?

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