Friday, 25 November 2016

Something to chew on (you smug gits).

This week has mostly been dominated – at the risk of sounding like the egregious Martin Amis – by my teeth. I'm part way through a dental restructuring exercise which feels more like the medical equivalent of slum clearance. Extractions here, fillings there, and lots of very equivocal promises of a bright future from my dentist (who has very kindly suspended the associated programme of Reproachful Shaming).

Until this week it was fine – even the extraction didn't call for any painkillers once the anaesthetic wore off. Until Tuesday, when a simple filling led to a night of uncontrolled shrieking and sobbing. The pain far outweighed that of the various broken bones and sporting injuries I've had. It still hurts. At one point during that eternal stretch of delirium I found myself recalling the Fredric Jameson I'd been reading earlier. In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act he talks about texts being apparently isolated units while actually functioning as examples of wider social struggles and contradictions, however subjective they appear to be ('a symbolic enactment of the social within the formal and the aesthetic'). Angela Carter makes a related point in the introduction to The Sadeian Woman, speaking specifically of sex:
We do not go to bed in simple pairs: even if we choose not to refer to them, we still drag there with us the cultural impedimenta of our social class, our parents’ lives, our bank balances, our sexual and emotional expectations, our unique biographies – all the bits and pieces of our unique existences.
(Next year I'll be adding the word 'discuss' and setting it as an essay question).

I think it's true to say that the violent encounter between me, my dentist and his assistant is also no simple triangle. We've exchanged details of our working lives, our neighbours, our relationships and on the relationship between the body and the self and whether repair or improvement is a meaningful concept. As I lie there my parents are around me: being medical doctors, I got the sense that they considered dentists to be mere mechanics, on a par with surgeons. I also curse them for never making me look after my teeth as a child, leading me to this humiliating, painful and incredibly expensive situation. My bank balance, therefore, is present: without a secure middle-class job I'd be in even more pain, and so the encounter is also a political one, going back to the abolition of universal free NHS dentistry so that the British could have the atom bomb. I can't say there are 'sexual…expectations' but the dentist and the nurse are now on a very short list of people allowed to stick things in my mouth. My presence at the dentist's and my previous long absence from it, and the way I behave while there are not simple facts but narratives of deluded self-sufficiency, denial, power relations, Catholic notions of suffering, sacrifice ('offer it up') and guilt, fear caused by previous encounters, sorrow and anger (I liked my previous dentist and he retired early through illness, and then the practice was taken over by some disgusting corporation). No doubt the nurse and the brute dentist have similar narratives which resulted in their presence in the room.

Then, finally, are all the cultural associations I've picked up around dentistry: the horror of Marathon Man, the appalling Oedipal-dental sub-plot of the insulting adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the gleaming perfection of Hollywood teeth in in the mouths of actors playing Dickensian urchins or destitute medieval peasants, a practice I've long considered represents a deliberate subversion of realist pretensions, and of course the Simpsons.

Do I, should I, aspire to Richard Briersesque levels of gnasher hyperreality? Should I make myself super-human via implants, veneers and bleach and embrace the full Kurzweil? Or should I accept pain, gaps, gumminess and the inability to eat hazelnuts as a corporeal reminder of impending mortality and my rapidly declining usefulness to the tribe? No teeth, bad eyes, failing legs: all signs it's time I was for the sabre-toothed tiger while the young and hale make their escapes.

Still, there's nothing like overthinking to take your mind of the agony. See you next week.

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