In Smoky Praise of Benoit Blanc, Cigar Aficionado

Benoit Blanc is the opposite; he’s a sophisticated, stylish, southern (and, we now know from the second film, queer) gentleman who leads with his superior intellect. The cigars could be an accessory added by writer/director Rian Johnson  to further signify Blanc’s southerness, otherwise exemplified by his over-the-top and non-specific accent: For a number of reasons (cultural history, slower pace of living, open space, more favorable tobacco taxes), cigar smoking is more prevalent in the south.

But Blanc seems to smoke when he needs to do his most important thinking—when parsing incongruent stories and motives, and contemplating his own professional malaise in Glass Onion. His cigar serves as his ruminative aide. He prefers large sticks (not Cape Fear large, but large) that require extended time to consume. He doesn’t smoke socially, tending to do it alone and, when with others, he never offers one to anyone around him. He is the kind of cigar smoker I find most relatable—the kind that thinks of smoking as part of their intellectual practice. 

It’s about time that cigars became the tool of the deep thinker again. Pipe smoking has the greater reputation as the domain of the intellectual—the image of the tweed-jacket-sporting academic puffing a pipe is a recurring image in culture—but cigars have an intellectual and artistic tradition all their own. Karl Marx smoked through a bunch of cheap cigars while he worked; Mark Twain said, “Eating and sleeping are the only activities that should be allowed to interrupt a man’s enjoyment of his cigar”; Ralph Ellison kept a lit cigar hanging. Legendary filmmakers like Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, and Melvin Van Peebles partook in the habit, as well as German philosopher Herbert Marcuse and father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. Yes, it’s an overwhelmingly male indulgence (even now the number of women cigar smokers in the U.S. is less than one percent of the total female population), but the French novelist George Sand (pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin de Francueil), herself a noted cigar smoker, once said, “The cigar is the perfect complement to an elegant lifestyle.”

The character of Benoit Blanc is not, by any stretch, an intellectual or artist on par with any of these figures, but it gives him a similar mystique as he taps into logic, deductive reasoning, even creativity. He will solve the puzzle, but the contemplation required to do so starts with sparking up a long, thick cigar.

Far be it from me to lend virtue to vice. Cigars may not carry the same risks as cigarettes; you don’t inhale them and they aren’t laden with all the chemicals that go into a cigarette’s reformed tobacco. But they’re not exactly good for you either. The pleasure, for me, is found in the quiet, the calm, the easing of my anxiety, and the ability to focus my thoughts in ways that have benefitted my work.

All I mean to suggest is that cigar smoking is not the strict province of the most rotten among us—the gangsters with no regard for human life, whether in the underworld, media, or government—as the majority of our cultural depictions might lead us to believe. Benoit Blanc offers us a new lens to think through cigar smoking’s appeal, especially for those of us in need of an intellectual justification for continuing our bad habit.

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