A talk broadcast in BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves, 2 December 2002, fifty years after the London’s Great Smog of 1952.
When the word ‘smog’ was coined in 1905, to designate the astringent, wheezy brew of smoke and fog that seemed to have settled semi-permanently over cities by the end of the nineteenth century, it named the blending of two substances that were themselves already composites: smoke, which suspends soot in air, and fog, which suspends water in air. Smoke and fog belong to a family of indeterminate substances which have paradoxically opposed values in the human imagination. Smoke can be life, spirit, meaning itself; but it is also horror, filth, chaos. The charms of Macbeth‘s witches, as they ‘Hover through the fog and filthy air’ participate in this suspension and inversion of values: ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’.
Smoke has sacred significance in the Old and New Testaments. The rules of sacrifice which are so elaborately given in the books of Leviticus and Exodus (Ex 29. 13-14) require the fat that clings around the kidneys and other organs of the sacrificial animal, a vital suet in which the life of the animal was believed to inhere, to be purified in the higher life of smoke: meanwhile the skin, feet and dung of the animal were to be consumed outside the camp as unclean and unfit for the Lord’s aspiration. Throughout the Old Testament, JHVH is a smoky God. His ineffability and unapproachability are signified in the cloud of smoke in which Mount Sinai is whelmed, as well as in the veil of incense that separated the Holy of Holies in the inner sanctuary of the temple. The New Testament draws on these traditions to suggest its new dispensation. Among the prodigious signs promised at Pentecost are ‘blood and fire, and vapour of smoke’ (Acts). The religious uses of incense recall the practice of sacrifice and the conversion of animal life into sanctified smoke. Whether coiling from the altar or scarfing out from the thurible, there is always a whiff of the holy in smoke. The word perfume, which means ‘through smoke’, indicates that aromatic odours were originally thought of as the products of burning.
Just as perfume has regularly been identified with soul or spirit, so smoke also becomes associated with the sublimation of the material body. In the Song of Solomon, the mystic beloved comes ‘like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of the merchant’. St Paul refers to the Holy Spirit as an osme, an odour. The retouching of spiritualist photographs in the nineteenth century to give the impression of clouds of ectoplasm bubbling from mouths, ears and even navels, draws on the idea of soul as a kind of holy smoke, an infinitely tenuous tissue emanating from the gross material body. The swirling smoke of the stage magician and the ersatz glamour of dry ice depend upon this continuing half-belief in the transfigured condition and the transfiguring powers of smoke.
The spiritual high of smoke is often accompanied by more literal intoxication. Drugs and intoxicating substances have often been taken in by means of smoke. The ecstasies which post-Classical writers imagined accompanied the Pythian oracle at Delphi were attributed by Diodorus Siculus to the effect of a prophetic vapour that gushed from a cleft in the earth. The pythia was placed over the cleft in order to draw in its maddening inspiration, just as one might now sit in the sauna in search of a more sedately altered state. Indeed, mantic powers have sometimes been attributed to steam. American Indians practised a form of vapour bath called the sweat lodge, formed by pouring water over hot stones in a tepee, in order that the wreathing steam could assist the achievement of clairvoyant trance. One of the features that most impressed the first arrivals from Europe in the New World was the ritual importance of smoking in mediating between the human, animal and spirit worlds. Among Dakota Indians, smoke was blown into the nostrils of a buffalo skull to symbolise the continuity of nature between animal and tribe (Walker 1917, 69-70). Frazer records that other tribes would prepare for a bear hunt by blowing smoke from a pipe into the mouth of a bear skull, begging it the while not to be angry at having been killed or jinx their hunt. Imported into Europe, smoke became a secularised access to spirit, and a new version of the ether, that omnipresent, all-connecting substance, that both held things apart and allowed the commerce between them.
Although it shares in the kinetic and ascensive qualities of air, smoke is earthy as well as airborne. It is this which has made smoke the traditional attribute of devils and the denizens of the underworld. Devils were smoky not just because of their fiery occupations and combustible clients, but also because of the belches, the anal exhaust and the sulphurous stench which were the unmistakable signs of their proximity or passage. The fifth angel in the Book of Revelation blows a trumpet to open the shaft of a bottomless pit, from which rises ‘smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft.’ (Rev 9.2) The smoke is a kind of plague of the indefinite, for from it pour locusts with the stings of scorpions – not a bad anticipation of the effects of smog. The horror of the burning of cattle in Britain during the foot and mouth epidemic is anticipated in Isaiah’s vision of the land of Edom laid waste by the anger of the Lord, a land that becomes burning pitch, whose ‘smoke shall go up for ever’, itself recalled in the smoke from the triumphal burning of the Great Harlot in Revelation, which brings forth the cry ‘Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever’ (Rev 19.3).
Smoke is the body of flame. The Bhagavad-Gita declares that ‘As smoke blots the white fire…so is the world of things/ Foiled, soiled, enclosed in this desire of flesh….’ In the tradition of Christian writing, smoke can be that which chokes and retards the aspirant soul: ‘the fire burneth, but the flame ascendeth not without smoke. So also the desires of some men burn towards heavenly things, and yet they are not free from the temptation of carnal affection’ writes Thomas À Kempis in his Imitation of Christ. St. Augustine similarly speaks in his Confessions of a profligate youth in which he could not distinguish ‘the clear brightness of love from the fog of lustfulness’ The angry Ferdinand in John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi says of his sister and her lover ‘I would have their bodies Burnt in a coal-pit with the ventage stopp’d,/That their curs’d smoke might not ascend to heaven’ (II.5). The clinging corporeality of Robert Browning’s Bishop is made quite clear in his contemplation of the centuries ahead in which he will lie in his tomb.
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke! (‘The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s Church’)
London had been identifiable as ‘the smoke’ for centuries. Successive monarchs had tried to ban the burning of low quality ‘sea-coal’ because of the choking smoke it produced. In 1661, John Evelyn wrote his Fumifugium in protest at the
Hellish and dismall Cloud of SEA COAL…which is…so universally mixed with the otherwise wholsome and excellent Aer, that her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour, which renders them obnoxious to a thousand inconveniences, corrupting the Lungs, and disordring the entire habits of their Bodies; so that Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions rage more in this one City than in the whole Earth besides.
Little had changed 60 years later, when Jane Barker wrote that she ‘us’d frequently to walk to take the Air, or rather the Smoke; for Air, abstracted from Smoke, is not to be had within Five Miles of London’ (Barker 1723, 67). William Frend recorded in 1819 that ‘The Smoke of London, first view’d from a distance, affords a sight which strikes a foreigner with astonishment’. Emerson wrote in his English Traits that the way in which London ‘aggregates the distempers of the sky’ justified the popular characterisation of the English climate as ‘in a fine day, looking up a chimney; in a foul day, looking down one’.
The association of smoke with the hearth as well as with hell mouth means that there is a kind of homeliness about fog and smoke. Ulysses longs to see the smoke of Ithaca leap upwards at the beginning of the Odyssey, and English fogs and smogs have also generated some affection. ‘Sweet was the very smoke of England’, wrote John Lyly in his Euphues of 1580. Dickens defended London fog, comparing it favourably to the polluted condition of some American cities. Madame Merle, in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, says that:
in England the pleasures of smell were great … in this inimitable island there was a certain mixture of fog and beer and soot which, however odd it might sound, was the national aroma, and was most agreeable to the nostril; and she used to lift the sleeve of her British overcoat and bury her nose in it, to inhale the clear, fine odour of the wool (Portrait of a Lady, ch. 19)
As industrial smoke was added to domestically-produced smoke, smogs not only got worse, they began to be identified with broader fears, about contagion, for example, or the contagious effects of revolution. Edmund Burke attributed the terrors and excesses of the French Revolution to the disordering effects of a ‘fog and haze of confusion [in which] all is enlarged, and appears without any limit’. Fog and smog become associated not just with filth and corruption, but with disproportion and sensory disorientation. In Old Goriot, Balzac describes ‘one of the dense fogs that throw the most punctual people out in their calculations as to the time; even the most business-like folk fail to keep their appointments in such weather, and ordinary mortals wake up at noon and fancy it is eight o’clock.’
The nineteenth-century anguish about a universe running out of energy and tending towards the condition of entropy seems to be aptly embodied in the many images of the clammy, spreading uniformity of fog. The distinguishing feature of the fog which so memorably opens Dickens’s mid-century novel Bleak House is that it makes everything indistinguishable. It is a universe in which distance and distinction have been churned into confusion, chaos, noise, nausea. A phenomenon of mass, metropolitan existence, smog perhaps signifies the horror of ‘the mass’ itself. Like the mass, fog is a oneness without centre or edge, a uniform multiplicity. Without naming the smog Dickens seems to be concoting it in the fog and filthy air of his novel’s beginning::
Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, indistinguishable in mire…
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green airs and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The fog seeps and creeps through late Victorian and Edwardian writing, becoming as much an epistemological as a meteorological phenomenon. Joseph Conrad’s 1899 story of imperialist regression, Heart of Darkness, begins on the Thames with a vision of sunset as ‘a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds’, but takes its narrator back to the horrific fog that hangs over another river, the Congo:
When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it — all perfectly still — and then the white shutter came down again, smoothly, as if sliding in greased grooves.
In Heart of Darkness, the fog is a clammily tangible enigma, a ‘blind whiteness’ behind which a muffled clamour of screams can be heard, as from the Ripper’s victims in the shrouded East End. It seems to weigh down, though it weighs nothing, a great oppressive weight of lightness and unbeing. How appropriate that, in the same foggy decade, Bram Stoker’s Dracula should transport himself in the form of a mist. Not long after H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man is worrying that the touch of the fog will both expose him to view and reduce him to the condition of a foggy mucous:
the snow had warned me of other dangers. I could not go abroad in snow-it would settle on me and expose me. Rain, too, would make me a watery outline, a glistening surface of a man-a bubble. And fog-I should be like a fainter bubble in a fog, a surface, a greasy glimmer of humanity. Moreover, as I went abroad-in the London air-I gathered dirt about my ankles, floating smuts and dust upon my skin. I did not know how long it would be before I should become visible from that cause also. (Wells, Invisible Man, ch 23)
In a poem about another kind of invisible man, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, T.S. Eliot similarly uses the feline yellow fog to suggest the insidious, entrapped lifeless life of the metropolis:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
These fogs and smogs have propagated into various more contemporary kinds of indeterminate mass terror, for example in the threat of the mushroom cloud, or the poison gas which surfaces at intervals in metropolitan life, or the mysterious ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ which is at the centre of the anxious vortex of paranoia and uncertainty in Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
If it has often been possible to see the soul as a kind of smoke, so smoke can be seen as an etherial body. Smoke is a kind of elastic air, nothingness with a nervous system. Man is the highest of the animals not, as Aristotle thought, because humans have the thinnest skin, and thus the most delicate sense of touch, but because man’s mind is so like his skin: it can touch itself all over. It is this, the fact that the self-inspection of the mind is so like the self-inspection of the body, that has led the philosopher Michel Serres, who work exhibits a fascination with the nebulous, to characterise philosophy a gymnastic exercise. And smoke is like a heightened version of this subtilised, reflexive body, for smoke folds and twists into itself, like a volatile, self-palpating dough. We can venture the following strange rule: any form or substance that exhibits this convolution, this power of touching, reflecting on itself, has started to come to a kind of life. Smog seems by contrast to betoken a kind of inertly embodied nescience: touching everything, merging everything into everything else, it never itself comes into focus, or knits itself into form. Compared to this, the swirling Romantic mists of the Gothic seem comfy and familiar.
‘No smoke without fire’ means, not just ‘no suspicions are without foundation’, but also ‘everything comes from something, everything is a sign of something else, even if it is a screen for it’. Smoke always signals. In many place and times, smoke has been involved in the making out of meaning, in smoke-scrying or divination. Perhaps smoke is symbolic of symbolism itself. Names for different kinds of smoke-scrying reflect the different materials being burned: libanomancy is the reading of incense, capnomancy divination by the smoke of sacrifice. The Tibetan art of reading the colour, volume and drift of smoke is called Dud brDa. Babylonian guides to the reading of smoke survive from around 1500 BC. For Babylonian smoke-readers, smoke that drifted off to the right during the burning of incense signified victory in battle; smoke that rose and then split in two signified the onset of madness. For smoke to rise and disperse is generally held to be auspicious, but hanging smoke has always been thought ominous. In place of the dance of self-transformation, the word and the fact of smog seem to embody pure indifference. Smog is a ghastly parody of the living second skin of the atmosphere. It seems to signify the decomposition of the differences and distinctions that make meaning possible at all. It is the cloud of our unknowing, bitter asphyxia of our self-sameness.
Barker, Jane (1723). A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies; or Love and Virtue Recommended… London: for E. Curll, … And T. Payne.
Evelyn, John (1661). Fumifugium: Or, The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated. London: W. Godbid for Gabriel Bedel and Thomas Collins.
Frend, William (1819). Is it impossible to free the atmosphere of London, in a very considerable degree from the smoke and deleterious vapours with which it is hourly impregnated?
Walker, J.R. (1917) ‘The Sun Dance and Other Ceremonies of the Oglala division of the Teton Dakota.’ Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, 16, 2.