In Praise of Uselessness
May 6, 2005 § 6 Comments
I am still digesting yesterday’s news. James and I met to commiserate last night, but mostly we steeped in helpless rage. What is to be done?
When the Quebec Superior court certified two class-action lawsuits against Canada’s tobacco companies in February, Judge Pierre Jasmin pronounced that cigarettes have no “useful purpose,” an assertion that forms the basis of his ruling. From the decision:
“What informed individual, whether they be smokers or non-smokers, could argue that smoking cigarettes has any useful purpose? On the contrary, cigarettes are not only useless but are dangerous and create a health problem and, in many cases, they create problems such as emphysema, cancer and heart diseases.”
Being an informed individual, I do not dispute the negative health effects of smoking. I do, however, question the judge’s definition of the term “use”. What, I am compelled to inquire, is useful?
Automobiles, presumably, which kill hundreds of thousands of people every year, which have directly contributed to the destruction of the earth’s ozone layer, and which are fuelled by a commodity that requires the rule of brutal dictatorships and endlessly recurring wars. These negative effects are commonly justified on the basis of automobiles’ usefulness, which is primarily economic and therefore taken to be self-evident.
Is this what Jasmin means by use? If so, what of other uses?
Are the hours of conversation I’ve had while smoking useful?
Are the moments of comfort that cigarettes provide to people who suffer useful?
Are the countless thousands of books that have been written while smoking useful?
Are the cigarettes my father smoked after a twelve-hour factory shift useful?
Are the songs we hear in smoky bars useful?
Is the camaraderie that exists between smokers useful?
Are the cigarettes shared by lovers useful?
Is time that is spent not working useful?
Is a life that is well-lived useful?
Is pleasure useful?
If not, then let us defend uselessness with every ounce of our being, especially here in this city, Montreal, whose very essence is useless. Its bars teem with useless writers, artists, and musicians; its cafés buzz with useless conversations about useless philosophical theories; its streets are filled with useless demonstrations against useful government policies. Its topography is useless, to say nothing of its infrastructure.
We have come here, those of us who are exiles, and we stay, those of us who are not, precisely because Montreal is useless: because it is not Toronto or Vancouver or Los Angeles or New York. We are here to escape the tyranny of use, for a time or forever, and to feel what life is like in its absence.
Ours is truly a distinct society, for reasons that include but are immeasurably more complex than linguistic affiliation. Our history is a history of smoke: of jazz clubs and burlesque houses and political backrooms. It is European, not British; Catholic, not Protestant; radical, not liberal. Montreal is a calculated risk, the fine line between meaning and poverty, connection and conflict. It is, as it is often said, the smoking section of Canada, and that’s why it is different. And so much more fun.
Down the street from my apartment, there are two cafés: The Café, and the other café. The Café permits smoking, and it is therefore where smokers go to be useless. The other café, which is less than a block away, does not permit smoking, so that is where the non-smokers go. Being honest, I’m not entirely sure what transpires there, but I imagine that it is useful. In any case, both groups, the useless and the useful, have a café they can enjoy; neither envies nor encroaches upon the other. We peacefully coexist in the same small neighbourhood, and sometimes we even say hello as we pass each other in the street.
Is there anything wrong with this arrangement? Or must we all be useful by decree?