Saturday, May 13, 2006

The life-enhancing qualities of self-righteousness

What Ralph Waldo Emerson said about smoking is true.

The believing we do something when we do nothing is the first illusion of tobacco.
However, I would rather reflect on the character from a short story by John Cheever, who replaced his addiction to nicotine with one to self-righteousness.
Previously this man "had never had any occasion to experience self-righteousness"; but now he experienced "an involuntary urge to judge others - a sensation ... so unlike his customary point of view that he thought it exciting. He watched with emphatic disapproval a stranger light a cigarette on a street corner. The stranger plainly had no willpower. He was injuring his health, trimming his lifespan and betraying his dependents, who might suffer hunger and cold as a result of this self-indulgence. Now he walked up Fifth Avenue with his newly possessed virtuousness, looking neither at the sky nor at the pretty women but instead raking the population like a lieutenant of the vice squad employed to seek out malefactors. Oh there were so many!"
People need something to up arms about, something which puts them in the right, and allows them not only to look down on others, but condemn them. The tabloid newspapers are representative of their people in this, as in many other areas. Self-righteousness is intoxicating and addictive if for no other reason than that of the feelings of superiority to others that it induces and maintains. If its life-enhancing qualities could be tested and measured, I'm sure it would score very highly. I doubt it lengthens life, but it certainly seems to add to its enjoyment for so many.

Quotes taken from a review in The Australian of an exhibition devoted to "the visual culture of smoking in (mostly) Australian (mostly) 20th-century art".

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