»  The Straggler, No. 18

April 5, 2004

  Open Wide


My daughter needs braces, I am due for a check-up, and my wife has lost a crown. (Singing Bishop Heber's fine hymn, "Holy, Holy, Holy," I have often reflected on the pleasure dentists must feel at the line, "Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.") With all these dental events coming at me simultaneously, my head is, as it were, full of teeth.

I am happy for my girl, at least. One of the undoubted advances civilization has made these past 30 years has been in the widespread availability of orthodontic treatment. My younger colleagues — even the English ones! — all have splendid dentition. Though glad for them, I am a little envious, as my own teeth are in a sorry state. A child of the postwar provincial English working class, I never even heard of orthodontistry until it was far too late, and was raised with dental role models like the late Queen Mother, who always appeared in newspaper photographs smiling, but really should have known better.

At least I still have my own teeth, or most of them. In my parents' generation it was a common thing to have no teeth at all by age 30. My father had none for as far back as I remember. "Teeth are just a nuisance," I remember adults saying. "You're better off without them." Dentally speaking, history is a catalog of horrors.

There are a few exceptions: Sir Isaac Newton died at age 84 with all his teeth intact. For most of humanity, though, teeth were either rotten or altogether absent. Nor was dental caries any respecter of rank: Elizabeth I had teeth that were decayed down to black stumps by middle age, as a result of her addiction to sweet raisins. Lower down the social scale things were surely worse. Shakespeare gives us a clue: "… The rabblement hooted and clapped their chapped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked Caesar; for he swounded and fell down at it: and for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air" (Julius Caesar, I.ii).

Indeed, once you get into the literary record, it is hard to avoid the impression that the heaviest cross mankind had to bear before the invention of fluoridated toothpaste and dental floss was not so much toothache as halitosis. This long, smelly era of human history continued until at least 1937, when George Orwell's travels among the northern English proletariat drove him to the following exasperated apothegm: "You can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks." (Oddly, though William Ian Miller's book The Anatomy of Disgust gives over a whole chapter to Orwell and his acute sense of smell, this remark is not included. Miller has, in fact, almost nothing to say about halitosis at all, with no index entries between "hair" and "hatred." Perhaps some things are too disgusting even for an anatomist of disgust.)

Dentists themselves make a poor showing in literature. Günter Grass wrote a novel about a man having left-wing political fantasies while under dental anesthesia, but I have not read it. The only literary dentist I can recall is Dr. Ivor Quilty in Lolita:  "a white-smocked, gray-haired man, with a crew cut and the big flat cheeks of a politician." Humbert Humbert goes to him under the pretense of having decided to have his few remaining teeth removed, though his object is in fact to locate Quilty's nephew, whom Humbert plans to murder. Humbert was born in 1910; his visit to Dr. Quilty takes place in 1952, so apparently it was not then remarkable for a person to walk out of an American dentist's office at age 42 sans teeth.

Not long after the time when Humbert Humbert was duping poor Dr. Quilty, I was undergoing the ministrations of my own first dentist, a Polish gentleman named Dr. Koplowicz, who practiced in my home town in the 1950s. Probably he was a good husband and father, and kind to small animals, but I recall him as an irascible ogre whom one could never please, no matter how wide one opened one's mouth, how stoically one endured his probings, or how promptly one obeyed his curt order: "Please to reents now." He was the custodian of a satanic contraption that still towers over me in nightmares, a monstrous cantilevered thing of whirring black belts and rattling pulley wheels that would not have been out of place in one of Piranesi's Carceri d'Invenzione. Dr. Koplowicz knew of only one form of anesthetic, the general, and it was while in a stupor thus induced that I revenged myself on him and his chair, though unintentionally, having omitted to empty my bladder before entering the torture chamber. I can still recall my anesthetic dream from that occasion: Walt Disney's Seven Dwarfs (I suppose I must have just seen the movie), in bright primary colors, gamboling silently against a background of perfect blackness infinitely deep.

My daughter will know nothing of all this. Even should she suffer the misfortune of having teeth knocked out in an accident, I see that a researcher in England has succeeded in growing human teeth in (for reasons I do not completely understand) mouse kidneys, and has high hopes of transferring his techniques to the actual human gum. One day our descendants will build statues to this man, and to those others who have liberated us from the dental horrors of the ages. If you get a conversation going about past times, and raise the question whether life was better then or now, it is never very long before someone brings the talk round to teeth. "I wouldn't mind living in [historical epoch under discussion], but for the state of dentistry …" This common instinct is surely correct. There is a case to be made for the modern world, and it starts right there behind your lips. Open wide!