Thursday, 22 April 2010

Teeth and the Parthenon

About a lifetime ago (say ten years) I was on my way to do a reading - it was at the French House in Soho - and was chewing a piece of gum when suddenly I found a very hard bit in it. On examining it more closely I found it was a tooth, one of my front teeth. As soon as I realised it, the tooth's absence became blazingly evident. I felt for the space with my tongue and there it was. And there was air and a sense of cold. I touched it with my finger. It was a missing piece of plate armour. I was vulnerable. I couldn't say th properly. I couldn't say s. At the reading I immediately made a reference to it because I was so self-conscious. I knew what a gap tooth looked like. It looked aged and ill. I was a male crone.

On the other hand there was something martial about it. It might have been knocked out in a fight or at least an accident. It might have even been glamorous, like something one could cultivate.

Then I remembered the dentists of my childish yesteryear. The terror, the horrible sweet smell of gas. The noise of the drill. The utter helplessness. Vulnerability again.

At the age of fourteen or so I was told by my dentist (mistakenly, as it turned out) that my teeth would have gone by the time I was forty. These were, of course, post-war Budapest teeth. Ill nourishment, pollution, and the poor state of Stalinist dentistry might have been to blame. Not that I have any clear memory of dental care at the time. The dimmer kind of American tends to taunt the British about the state of their teeth. They just don't want a National Health service, of course. I have imagined refuting them. But these are Budapest teeth, I would explain. I came by them honestly. And I would go into a version of the replicant's speech from Blade Runner.

Yesterday at C's mother's I kept looking at her front missing tooth. Again the vulnerability, Nature red in one less tooth. And she was grinding them. She is old, a darling, a good woman, a tough woman. But grinding teeth and one front tooth missing is altogether too much tooth.


There is, as I remember, a scene in Huysman's Á Rebours, where the jewelled-tortoise man, decadent aesthete Des Esseintes, remembers having to go to the dentist in an emergency. Here is the passage:

The dentists he usually consulted were well-to-do practitioners who could not be seen at a moment's notice; a visit must be arranged beforehand, a regular appointment made. "That is out of the question, I cannot wait," he told himself; so he made up his mind to go to the first dentist he could find, to resort to any common, low-class tooth-drawer, one of those fellows with fists of iron, who, ignorant as they may be of the art (a mighty useless art, be it said by the way) of attending to decayed teeth and stopping hollow ones, know how to extirpate with unparalleled rapidity the most obstinate of aching stumps. Places of the sort open at daybreak, and there is no waiting. Seven o'clock struck at last. He dashed out of doors, and remembering a name he knew of such a mechanic calling himself a dentist and living at the corner of a neighbouring street, he hurried thither, biting his handkerchief and keeping back his tears as best he might...

...Confusedly he remembered dropping into an armchair before a window, and stammering out, as he put a finger to his tooth: "It has been stopped already; I am afraid there's nothing can be done."

The man had cut short this explanation peremptorily, inserting an enormous fore-finger into his mouth; then, muttering something from under his lacquered, pointed moustaches, he had picked up an instrument from a table.

Thereupon the drama had begun. Clinging to the arms of the operating chair, Des Esseintes had felt a sensation of cold in his cheek, then his eyes had seen three dozen candles all at once, and so unspeakable were the tortures he was enduring, he had started beating the floor with his feet and bellowing like an animal under the slaughterer's knife.

There was a loud crack, the molar had broken in coming away; he thought they were pulling off his head, smashing in his skull; he lost all control of himself, howled at the top of his voice; fought furiously against the man who now came at him again as if he would plunge his arm to the bottom of his belly; had then suddenly stepped back a pace and lifting the patient bodily by the tooth still sticking in his jaw, had let him fall back again violently in a sitting posture into the chair; next moment he was standing up blocking the window, and puffing and panting as he brandished at the end of his pincers a blue tooth with a red thread hanging from it.

Half fainting, Des Esseintes had spit out a basin full of blood, waved away the old woman who now came in offering him the stump of his tooth, which she was preparing to wrap up in a piece of newspaper, and had fled, after paying two francs, taking his turn to leave his signature in bloody spittle on the steps; then he was once more in the street, a happy man, feeling ten years younger, ready to be interested in the veriest trifles



When we lived in Brockley/Deptford in the early seventies, our dentist's surgery was in a tall neglected white building whose facade was covered in clearly visible spidery cracks. One enormous bad tooth. Part advertisement, part admonition, part pun.

There is a fine poem titled 'In the Lake District' in Joseph Brodsky's magnificent book, A Part of Speech (1980). Here is how it begins:

In those days, in a place where dentists thrive
(their daughters order fancy clothes from London;
their painted forceps hold aloft on signboards
a common and abstracted Wisdom Tooth),
there I - whose mouth held ruins more abject
than any Parthenon - a spy, a spearhead
for some fifth column of a rotting culture...

Translated by George L. Kline

The image of the ruins of the Parthenon gets something dead right about my own tooth -sense. That's why I remember this verse so well. A fifth column and the rotting culture are sort of jokes, but the idea of that perfect colonnade, wrecked, refers to the breaking of something sacred - a defence, a temple, both.

There is, however something about an over-full, over-gleaming set of perfect teeth that sets my own on edge. It's glib, it's pushy, it's somehow fascist.

Dentistry is almost painless now and mostly carried out by beautiful young women from another part of the world. They touch one's teeth with steely proficiency. You might feel a slight discomfort, they say, as they probe. My own teeth are so wasted they are practically nerveless: they hardly notice anything. But of course I make brave, as though there was pain to be overcome; a non-existent pain that I do, almost effortlessly, overcome. I am vulnerable sitting there with my mouth open, unable to speak. I have two missing teeth at the moment, not at the front. They'll probably stay missing. All I have is this hollow pretence of courage.

Now spit out. they say. I do.

1 comment:

Mark Granier said...

I remember Martin Amis's oral ordeal in his 'Experience', one particular operation from which he emerged, 'pale as a Sex Pistol'. Also this free-floating couplet from Milosz:


Extraordinary. A house. Tall. Surrounded by air.
It stands. In the middle of a blue sky.