12 September, 2008

An Inconvenient Tooth

He peered sideways up and gave a long slow whistle of call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos.
Sometimes the world has an appalling air of doneness. I work best with unsolved, incomplete and unwoven materials—and the Germans have been doing their utmost to foil me of late. I spend a week researching the story of the Golden Tooth, with the plan to write an article on the subject, only to find that it has already been written, and as a whole book, with a comprehensive bibliography, only four years ago, and in German. The swinehound!

Teeth seem to be everywhere at the moment. My cuñada likes to tell the story of the Ndembu tooth-extraction ritual. The Ndembu culture, according to Victor Turner, attributes great spiritual significance to the front incisors, and when a tribesman is thought to be mixing awkwardly with the rest of his tribe, the witchdoctor pretends to extract one of the man's teeth, as a scapegoat object, symbolic of his social problems. The accompanying ritual includes the airing of grievances on both sides, so that the community can return to normal. Thus, cultural homoeostasis at work.

At the moment, Mrs. Roth's second lower right molar is more than a symbol of difficulty: it is a literal source of agony, having broken apart and set her gums and jaw at war with each other—the dentists can only throw up their arms in helpless confusion. Perhaps extracting the tooth would put her soul to rest, and cure her heart of its intrinsic evil: we are yet to discover. It is not the first time we've had a contretemps with her mandibles. Only last year she had to be fitted with a toothguard for her nocturnal bruxism. They took a cast of her dentures, a picture of which I saved for my own macabre enjoyment—

Fifteen pages of typical elegance are devoted to teeth in D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's On Growth and Form (rev. ed. 1945). This is one of the most beautiful books ever written, on a visual, literary, even on an intellectual level. It is one of those books written for dreaming, and I'm sure I could produce a post on every single page. The images are works of art. A photograph of an elephant's jaw, for instance, could double as a recumbent Surrealist nude:

Meanwhile, a series of diagrams demonstrating the shapes of a horse's molars anticipate the biomorphisms produced by Hans Arp in the 1920s. Here we have the beauty of pure form if we want it, and the beauty of scientific analysis if we want that. Figure A represents an eroded molar in cross-section, and B and C are each less eroded. (Funny that Thompson should have chosen to arrange the diagrams in reverse order.)

What do the key-letters stand for? Logophiles rejoice! a (and a', a'') are ectolophs; b is a protoloph; b' a mesoloph; b'' a metaloph. -loph, here, from the Greek for 'crest'. c and c' are lakes, valleys, or fossettes, x is a col, and o cusps or conules. The vocabulary is ported from topography, which unexpectedly becomes the dominant metaphor in Thompson's prose:

"To recognise this lake or pit in the simple contours of the young incisor is an easy matter; but in the abraded molar the enamel-layer which once covered all its ups and downs forms a contour-line, or "curve of level," of great complexity. This contour-line alters as the levels change, and varies from one tooth to the next and from one year to another, so long as wear and tear continue. The geographer reads the lie of the land, with all its ups and downs, from a many-contoured map, but the worn tooth shews us only one level and one contour at a time; we must eke out its scanty evidence by older and younger teeth in other phases or degrees of wear. The "pattern" of a horse's molar tooth is indeed so closely akin to a map-maker's contours that some of the terms he uses may be useful to us. He speaks, for instance, of ridge-lines and course-lines, lignes de faite and lignes de thalweg; of a gap, or lowland way between two hills, in contrast to a col or saddle at the summit of a mountain-pass; or of a gorge, which is a narrow steep-sided valley; or a scarp, which is a long steep-faced hillside."

All this is consistent with Thompson's overall project to bring the living kingdoms closer to the mineral. In his mechanical-mathematical world, life diminishes in significance, and the processes of life, namely the evolutionary processes, begin to jostle with more fundamental physical forces for impact on living creatures. In perhaps the most dazzling chapter, sort of a twentieth-century Garden of Cyrus, Thompson expounds on hexagonal patterns in nature as the simplest product of symmetrical forces:
If the law of minimal areas holds good in a "cellular" structure, as in a froth of soap-bubbles or in a vegetable parenchyma, then not merely on the average, but actually at every node, three partition-walls (in plane projection) meet together. Under perfect symmetry they do so at co-equal angles of 120°, and the assemblage consists (in plane projection) of co-equal hexagons.
What interests us is that soap and vegetable matter are treated side-by-side, as equals—along with tortoise shells, sunflower whorls, the basalt columns of Giant's Causeway, cracks in drying mud or varnish, honeycomb, and so on and so on. The sheer scope of the argument is greater than any division between living and non-living objects: 'In dealing with forms which are so concomitant with life that they are seemingly controlled by life, it is in no spirit of arrogant assertiveness if the physicist begins his argument, after the fashion of a most illustrious exemplar, with the old formula of scholastic challenge: An Vita sit? Dico quod non.'

On Growth and Form is a great book because it is a transformative book: it transforms, or transmutes, the world we know into a world of fantasy, of secret forces vying for power. It transmutes geology into geometry, biology into pure mechanics. And as Thompson's thought tends towards a procedural (hypothetical) inanimism, it coincides with its opposite, animism. It was an animism, or something like it, that suggested to Jakob Horst, a physician at Helmstedt University (and a contemporary there of Giordano Bruno), the idea that gold could grow naturally, for instance on a boy's tooth. In 1594 he was presented to a young Silesian lad named Christoph Mueller, among whose new adult teeth was—supposedly—one made of solid gold. In his account of the phenomenon, De aureo dente (1596), he asserts:
The strange and distant material of the golden tooth comes about from blood flowing through veins in the cavity and substance of the golden tooth. The golden appendage is born from the tooth's osseous roots. The gold on the tooth feeds, lives and feels.
Horst goes on to argue that on Mueller's date of birth, 22 December 1585, the sun was in conjunction with Saturn in the sign of Aries, producing an excess of heat, which in turn fanned the nutritive force in the tooth, producing gold—an effect both natural and miraculous. Years later, Duncan Liddel, a Scottish physician also working in Germany, pointed out that the sun only entered the sign of Aries in March—even Horst's hokum astrology was bad. In 1599, the Ramist and alchemist Andreas Libavius summarised the philosophical grounds of Horst's thesis, to which he himself was opposed, and invoked an old methodological principle later adopted by Charles Darwin:
That gold can assume a vital principle, and perhaps become vegetable [i.e. growing], will not seem absurd to those who believe in the living gold born in the Danube, on which were branches and leaves of pure vegetable gold. Thence the chemists claim that the golden stone is also vegetable: then it seems that the beginning and foundation of vegetation belongs to 'mineral spirits' (succis mineralibus), since these occupy the middle position between vegetable and elemental things, just as zoophytes are between plants and animals—for Nature does not make a leap (natura non faciente saltum).
Thompson would have agreed: Nature does not make a leap, She makes transformations. Hence the perfect continuity between the organic and the inorganic. Of course, Horst's thesis was soon exposed. The tooth was a fraud: its gold had been merely painted on. One account claims that 'a certain nobleman got an inkling [of the imposture], came to the place pretty drunk, and demanded that the tooth be shown him; when the young fellow, at his master's word, kept silent, the nobleman struck his dagger into the boy's mouth, wounding him so badly that the aid of a surgeon had to be called, and so the deception was fully exposed'. When it comes to the generation of gold, the organic appears demarcated from the inorganic after all, despite such modern marvels as this.

In the West, these sorts of stories attract the positivist mind, comfortable in its assurance that such shenanigans don't get taken seriously by intellectuals any more. Thus Vincenzo Guerini, in his History of Dentistry (1909), scoffs: 'In our days news of such a kind would be immediately qualified, and universally held to be an imposture. But three centuries ago the most marvellous and unlikely things were easily believed in, often even by the learned'. Anthropological respect is accorded only to the superstitions of darkest Africa, as to those of the Ndembu in Zambia—superstitions that are not discomfortably close to home, and which, for this very reason, present no threat of fantastical transmutation, of bouleversement.

Plato has not been of much help to my suffering Lily. (Although she did enjoy having her nails done at Aristotle's little salon, next door.) Too busy with all this deuced chatter about Ideal Teeth and intradentine hierarchies. He has no drills in his office: only an assortment of books and lenses. And his understanding of the human anatomy and physiology, at least such as he presents in his Timaeus, is simply idiotic. His fees are astronomical. When I mentioned to him the possibility of gold teeth, he shook his head. But at least if she managed to grow a bit of gold on the end of her crowns it would help pay for an operation. I think it is worth giving it a shot, "science" be damned.


Paul M. Rodriguez said...

There should be a word reserved to express the delight of discovering that an obscure but fascinating-sounding book is available in a Dover edition.

Anonymous said...

Horses have teeth that continue to grow throughout their lives and have to be filed down (what an idea). Why can't dentists find out the cause of this and do something to make our teeth keep growing. It could 1. stop tooth decay and, 2. be a fashion statement: long teeth, pointed teeth, etc.

chris miller said...

Suffering from mandibular agony, I was also diagnosed with "nocturnal bruxism" -- and some kind of tooth guard was prescribed.

Knowing that I lead a carefree life, I disputed that diagnosis (only a frustrated villain grinds his teeth at night!) -- but as fate and coincidence would have it -- it turned out that one of my teeth had begun to split -- and eventually the oral surgeon had to remove the pieces.

Which is just to say -- that way too much time is spent in our world thinking about the teeth.

(though I think Ms. Roth has a beautiful set)

Regarding the history of teeth in sculpture -- they're something of a rarity -- I really can't think of anything in Europe before 1800 - and all that really comes to mind after that is the sickening smiles of Neapolitan children.

Anonymous said...

The reason nothing comes to mind before 1800 is that hardly any adults had teeth before then. Even the president of the United States had wooden prosthetic teeth. You should think of Jesus, for example, as being completely toothless when he died at thirty something. All those bible people were probably toothless, the same goes for William the Conquerer and Shakespeare. Not a full set between them.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Paul, yes, I have experienced the same pleasure on many occasions!

Arthur: Fashion statement, but I can't imagine it would be very comfortable!

Now you fellows mention it, I can't think of many teeth in art or sculpture. Chris, sorry to hear about your own bruxism / surgery. It is an awful process.

Anonymous said...

Fashion statements are traditionally uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

If you're serious about gold teeth, try Jordan. NOt the young dentists of course, but if you look at some of the older women when they smile, they have had the incisors covered with gold. Personally I find it eerie.

The best way to find these women is by the tattoos on their faces. Typically they will have a horizontal line in the center of the chin, and some unique pattern on each cheek. I am told it's from the days when there were a lot of kidnappings of children and they wanted to identify the girls' tribe.