Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Zeno’s Conscience: Smoke

Cover of the second edition of La coscienza di Zeno (1925)
Picture source

I had never heard of Zeno’s Conscience until recently (shows how much I get around) and was happy to see a copy of it at the library. The life of the author, Italo Svevo, proves to be an interesting tale by itself.
All quotes from the book use the translation by William Weaver.

Zeno’s Conscience begins with a preface by Zeno’s analyst saying he regrets suggesting his patient write an autobiography. Even though this idea “achieved results far beyond my hopes”, the doctor publishes these notes as revenge for the unflattering portrayal and since Zeno suspended treatments. He declares what follows are “the many truths and the many lies” of Zeno.

Zeno’s preamble follows and we get a taste for what the rest of the book will be like. For example, he mourns that he cannot warn his sister-in-law’s baby that he needs to memorize his life for his own benefit years later. And “I bought and read a treatise on psychoanalysis, just to make his task easier. It’s not hard to understand, but it’s very boring.” And then we plunge into the mind of Zeno...

Zeno’s insistence that he wants to stop smoking and his many last cigarettes provides the running gag throughout the first chapter “Smoke.” Knowing that a cigarette will be his last causes him to enjoy it all the more, and smoking it at some significant date and time (numerically or anniversary-wise) should insure he upholds his vow. [True story—I had a co-worker that woke up in the middle of the night while having a heart attack. He went into the kitchen, sat at the table and smoked a cigarette before he woke up his wife to take him to the hospital. He said he knew it would be his last cigarette whether he lived or died, and it was hard not to laugh when he said it was the best damn cigarette he ever had.]

“I believe the taste of a cigarette is more intense when it’s your last. The others, too, have a special taste of their own, but less intense. The last one gains flavor from the feeling of victory over oneself and the hope of an imminent future of strength and health. The other have their importance because, in lighting them, you are proclaiming your freedom, while the future of strength and health remains, only moving off a bit.”

The chapter is full of comic contradictions, Zeno providing deep insight into his actions in one breath while displaying his complete lack of understanding in the next. What follows are brief notes on a few of the topics raised—as usual, I’m not reading ahead of what I’m writing so some of these subjects may not be important in the grand scheme of the book.

Life as a disease:

Now that I am here, analyzing myself, I am seized by a suspicion: Did I perhaps love cigarettes so much because they enabled me to blame them for my clumsiness? Who knows? If I had stopped smoking, would I have become the strong, ideal man I expected to be? Perhaps it was this suspicion that bound me to my habit, for it is comfortable to live in the belief that you are great, though your greatness is latent.” … “Like that old doctor described by Goldoni, can I expect to die healthy, having lived with illness all my life?

Life seems to be a burden to Zeno. He reinforces this when he says “Disease is a conviction, and I was born with that conviction.” If life is a disease, what has he done for treatments? And does that correlate with how he has lived his life? At age 20 a doctor treats Zeno for a lack of stomach acid. After prescribing a certain acid, Zeno suffers from excess acidity. If Zeno can believed, that is…and that’s a big if. Even so, he thinks he suffers from a cure that was worse than the disease, which parallels nicely with his statement that death is the “cure” for life. In discussion with the nurse Giovanna, he declares that only the living suffer—the dead understand everything but don’t care.

Self-sabotage and contradictions: Also in the above quote is the idea that Zeno hinders himself, which shows up several times in the chapter. He couldn’t make up his mind between studying chemistry or law “because both these disciplines involve work that begins at a set time, whereas I never know at what hour I may get up.” Family members must see this trait, too, as his assistant had been “imposed on me to keep me from squandering my father’s legacy.” While believing that the assistant Olivi prevents him from doing real work, Zeno panics when Olivi becomes ill and he might have to do the work after all. A friend once commented that he believed Zeno had two personalities—one who commanded and one who was a slave. The slave, however, craved freedom and would flout the master-self whenever he could.

Confessions: Revelation should be expected in an attempted autobiography but this section contains a lot of confessions. Zeno confesses to his doctors about his smoking and his unhappiness about women (he’s unable to possess them all). He confesses to his assistant when he loses their bet on stopping smoking. The nurse Giovanna confesses about the affair she had when her husband was alive. These didn’t strike me as having religious overtones, but then this passage upset that approach:

It’s true, moreover, that having then succeeded with great effort in dispelling all decisiveness from my spirit, I succeeded in not smoking for several hours, but when my mouth was cleansed and I felt an innocent taste such as a newborn infant must know, and a desire for a cigarette came over me, and when I smoked it I felt a remorse for which I renewed the decision I had tried to abolish.

How else to read this than to take into account the religious overtones? Definitely a topic to keep an eye on as I read more.

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