This weekend I showed my wife a 110-year-old Barling, a pipe in pristine condition, one dressed in a few lovely silver adornments, which is something I like in a pipe right now. The pipe didn't belong to me, and to the best of my appraisal it appeared unsmoked. "If that were mine, I'd smoke the hell out of it!" I shouted at my wife. I didn't mean to shout. I was excited. But she was horrified at the idea of that pipe being smoked. She told me I should, effectively, become part of the stewardship of its virginity for the rest of my life, that I should adopt it, safeguarding it for a future generation beyond my reckoning. Her condemnation was quick to start, delivered swiftly, and ferocious. I'm so proud of her.
In attempts by many pipe smokers to explain our hobby to outsiders, pipes have been compared to art collections, and collecting pipes and treating them with care (ie. handling them correctly) is not unlike acquiring art, because they're created by absolute masters of the craft. I think, however, they're rather unalike. As engaging as it may be, art appreciation is a passive pursuit. Art enjoyment is spectatorship. We look at art, or listen to or watch or read it, and we may be deeply affected by it, but we don't do anything. We have no active part in the performance.
Likewise, I've heard pipes described as utilitarian objects. Which they are. Like toothbrushes, and coffee cups, pipes are functional items that provide a very real, practical use: the business of smoking pipe tobacco. But equally simple objects of utility don't require anything of us; we need no practical or theoretical expertise to use a chair or a spoon in order to make proper use of them. When these objects are intelligently made, we need no training or experience to operate them. The blunt, pragmatic notion that a pipe exists only to burn tobacco, completely overlooks the entire dimension of pipe smoking itself as an artform, or at least the final fundamental and essential element of that art's culmination.
Art enjoyment is spectatorship. We look at art, or listen to or watch or read it, and we may be deeply affected by it, but we don't do anything. We have no active part in the performance.
Because pipe smoking, properly informed by refined technique and applied experience, is and of itself an artform, I tend to think of a pipe as an instrument that makes art, like a musical instrument, and not a "piece" of art (though it certainly can be; just ask Antonio Stradivari or Roman Totenberg), nor is it a functioning item that also happens to be art. Smoking the thing is the art, and the pipe is the instrument of that art making. A pipe can be a useful thing, as a tool, as an instrument, and it can be a work of art produced by a master craftsman, but a pipe is first, and always, an instrument at the crux of the smoking artform.
So, if that were my pipe, yes, I would smoke it like I smoke all my pipes. I fully understand maintaining something beautiful and old. Besides, what if it smoked terribly? What if it lost my interest? But the ultimate satisfaction to be derived from a pipe isn't in its possession; it's in its use.
I explained much of this to my wife. She stood down, reflected. I may have got through to her. On the other hand, she's always wanted an antique Steinway piano, and I fear I have handed her a new argument in favor of the purchase. I can't read her mind, but I can see thoughts darting through her head, and they're Steinway-colored thoughts. If the time comes, I think I may relent and accept her argument. She should never play that piano.