Saturday, October 12, 2019

Kate Chopin and An Egyptian Cigarette

American author Kate Chopin (1850–1904) wrote two published novels and about a hundred short stories in the 1890s. Her stories were well received, and appeared in Vogue and The Atlantic Monthly, among others.

In 1897, Chopin wrote a story titled, "An Egyptian Cigarette," which was first published in Vogue on April 19, 1902.

The story begins:

My friend, the Architect, who is something of a traveller, was showing us various curios which he had gathered during a visit to the Orient. "Here is something for you," he said, picking up a small box and turning it over in his hand. "You are a cigarette-smoker; take this home with you. It was given to me in Cairo by a species of fakir, who fancied I had done him a good turn."...

The box contained six cigarettes, evidently hand-made. The wrappers were of pale-yellow paper, and the tobacco was almost the same colour. It was of finer cut than the Turkish or ordinary Egyptian, and threads of it stuck out at either end."

She asks if she can try one of the cigarettes later in his smoking den, because, "Some of the women here detest the odour of cigarettes." The story continues:

Vogue cover - Nov. 6, 1902
The smoking-room lay at the end of a short, curved passage. Its appointments were exclusively oriental....From the divan upon which I reclined, only the swaying treetops could be seen. The maple leaves glistened in the afternoon sun. Beside the divan was a low stand which contained the complete paraphernalia of a smoker. I was feeling quite comfortable, and congratulated myself upon having escaped for a while the incessant chatter of the women that reached me faintly. 

I took a cigarette and lit it, placing the box upon the stand just as the tiny clock, which was there, chimed in silvery strokes the hour of five. 

I took one long inspiration of the Egyptian cigarette. The grey-green smoke arose in a small puffy column that spread and broadened, that seemed to fill the room. I could see the maple leaves dimly, as if they were veiled in a shimmer of moonlight. A subtle, disturbing current passed through my whole body and went to my head like the fumes of disturbing wine. 

Perhaps she should have stopped there; instead she writes:

I took another deep inhalation of the cigarette. 

"Ah! the sand has blistered my cheek! I have lain here all day with my face in the sand. Tonight, when the everlasting stars are burning, I shall drag myself to the river."

Perhaps feeling abandoned by the architect friend who has left her alone, she fantasizes about a lover who has left her cruelly, telling her, "I am going to the great city where men swarm like bees. I am going beyond, where the monster stones are rising heavenward in a monument for the unborn ages." Left alone, she confronts her death and finds her way to peace:

I laughed at the oracles and scoffed at the stars when they told that after the rapture of life I would open my arms inviting death, and the waters would envelop me.

The Egyptian blue lily
I turned from the gods and said: "There is but one; Bardja is my god." That was when I decked myself with lilies and wove flowers into a garland and held him close in the frail, sweet fetters..... 

Oh! the sweet rapture of rest! There is music in the Temple. And here is fruit to taste. Bardja came with the music -- The moon shines and the breeze is soft -- A garland of flowers -- let us go into the King's garden and look at the blue lily, Bardja. 

The Egyptian blue lily Nymphaea caerulea, known primarily as blue lotus, contains the psychoactive alkaloid aporphine. Bardha are Albanian beings that live underground.

As the narrator comes out of her trip, she writes:

The maple leaves looked as if a silvery shimmer enveloped them. The grey-green smoke no longer filled the room. I could hardly lift the lids of my eyes. The weight of centuries seemed to suffocate my soul that struggled to escape, to free itself and breathe. 

I had tasted the depths of human despair. 

The little clock upon the stand pointed to a quarter past five. The cigarettes still reposed in the yellow box. Only the stub of the one I had smoked remained. I had laid it in the ash tray. 

After her brief (15 minute) experience, she ponders what to do with the remaining cigarettes:

As I looked at the cigarettes in their pale wrappers, I wondered what other visions they might hold for me; what might I not find in their mystic fumes? Perhaps a vision of celestial peace; a dream of hopes fulfilled; a taste of rapture, such as had not entered into my mind to conceive. 

I took the cigarettes and crumpled them between my hands. I walked to the window and spread my palms wide. The light breeze caught up the golden threads and bore them writhing and dancing far out among the maple leaves.

Thus she chooses not to explore any future visions the cigarettes might bring, even those of "celestial peace" and "a taste of rapture, such as had not entered into my mind to conceive."

The story ends with her architect friend returning to offer her a cup of coffee, and asking how she was. "A little worse for the dream," she tells him.

Chopin's 1899 novel, The Awakening, "generated a significant amount of negative press because its characters, especially the women, behaved in ways that conflicted with current standards of acceptable ladylike behavior. People considered offensive Chopin's treatment of female sexuality, her questions about the virtues of motherhood, and showing occasions of marital infidelity." She is now considered by some scholars "to have been a forerunner of American 20th-century feminist authors of Southern or Catholic background, such as Zelda Fitzgerald, and is one of the most frequently read and recognized writers of Louisiana Creole heritage." (Wikipedia)

I rather wonder if Chopin's awakening came with the Egyptian cigarette she smoked.

Retired doctor and conservative commentator Theodore Dalrymple wrote about "An Egyptian Cigarette" in the British Medical Journal in 2008, under the title “Just Saying No,” wherein he applauds her (or her narrator) for doing so (after her first experiment): "In the end, ordinary, unhallucinated reality is rewarding enough for her. If only it were so for the great numbers of people who resort to drugs in the hope of making the world and their lives within it seem tolerable, interesting or exciting.”

Dalrymple also speculates, "It seems that the increase in the tetrahydrocannibol content of cannabis plants is not quite as recent as we might have supposed” due to the intensity of the 15-minute trip the narrator takes in the story.

Hear "An Egyptian Cigarette" as a Morning Short. 

No comments: