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Posts tagged ‘AS Byatt’

The Story of the Teeth

I was born with comically bad teeth. I have only one wisdom tooth – welded firmly to my jaw – and had multiple permanent teeth for some of my milk teeth, and none for others. (I still have two milk teeth.) That I don’t look like a caricature of a Blackadder-ish wisewoman is down entirely to my parents’ swift removal of me to a brilliant orthodontist who – with the aid of braces, plates, and two operations – gave me a decent set of teeth.

I spent rather a lot of my childhood and adolescence in pain, as my teeth and jaw were cajoled and wired into place. (I must add, though, that my parents provided me with an endless supply of sympathy, and soft, delicious things to eat, as well as plenty to read.) It was partly for this reason that I never understood the outrage that greeted the news of Martin Amis’s decision to spend around £20,000 in fixing his teeth, ending decades of persistent toothache.

Of course, much of the anger about this amount was linked to his lucrative move, in 1995, from the late Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent who helped him to build his career, to Andrew Wylie, causing an acrimonious rift with Julian Barnes, Kavanagh’s husband. Indeed, AS Byatt later apologised to him for having criticised both his dental work and his acceptance of an extraordinarily high advance negotiated by Wylie, explaining that she had had toothache at the time.

In his memoir, Experience (2000), Amis writes evocatively of the hell of toothache: that it seems to be the only manifestation of dull pain which can’t be blocked out or ignored. It demands attention. (Apparently James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov were fellow martyrs to tooth pain. There is, clearly, a link between toothache and stylistic experimentation.)

It’s no wonder that modern dentistry is usually cited as one of the best reasons against time travel. The dentist Horace Wells (1815-1848) originated the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as an anaesthetic during dental surgery. Wells died – partly as a result of an addiction of chloroform, ironically – before nitrous oxide became the anaesthetic of choice, rather than ether for example, among dentists. In South Africa, I’ve found evidence to suggest that it was possible to have teeth extracted under anaesthetic from around the 1880s – although it’s likely that this was available to wealthier patients before then.

In fact, the state of one’s teeth has been a potent indicator of class difference since at least the nineteenth century. Access to dentists and technology – powders, pastes – to prevent tooth decay meant that the middle and upper classes had better teeth than those who were poor, whose diets tended to feature substantial amounts of tooth-eroding sugar, and whose visits to dentists – who had usually had little or no training – were done only in case of dire emergency.

In the pub conversation described in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), the speaker refers to a friend, Lil, who worries that her recently demobbed husband will leave her, partly because she had aged so much during the recent Great War:

Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set

As false teeth became cheaper and more widely available, it seemed to make better sense to have all one’s teeth out at once, rather than suffer a lifetime’s worth of dental pain.

We attach a wide range of meanings to teeth: from the elongated incisors of vampires, to the whiter-than-white rictus grins of celebrities. My friend Shahpar in Dhaka points out that in south Asia, some Muslims associate oral hygiene using the bark of the miswak tree with holiness, as they believe that the Prophet used the bark to clean his teeth. More generally, people in the region place an exceptionally high value on having a healthy, full mouth of teeth – reflected in some truly appalling jokes.

I’ve been reading about anxieties about oral hygiene and dentistry recently, hence this interest in shifting cultural and social constructions of teeth. During the early decades of the twentieth century, global anxieties about infant mortality and childhood health, resulted in a heightened concern about the care of children’s teeth. This was part of an infant welfare movement which had emerged all over the world at the end of the nineteenth century, in response to unease about high rates of infant mortality (usually as a result of diarrhoea), the apparently failing health of urban working-class men, and eugenicist anxieties about maintaining white control over political, social, and economic power.

Denture Shop, India, 1946*

Although child welfare campaigners during the nineteenth century drew parents’ attention to the need to instil in their children good habits of dental hygiene, the discourse around the state of children’s teeth during the early twentieth century differed. To be fair, rotting teeth and gum disease are the cause of a range of health problems, and it makes sense to direct public health policy towards making dental services freely available.

But particularly during the 1920s and 1930s, preventing poor oral hygiene and tooth decay began to take on moral overtones. Doctors and child welfare activists increasingly understood bad oral health as a signifier of chaotic, ‘unscientific’ upbringings – which, they believed, tended to occur in working-class families. Writing about Major General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice’s influential 1903 study of the large numbers of volunteers who were deemed to be physically unfit to fight in the South African War (1899-1902), Anna Davin explains:

If, as it seemed, these puny young men were typical of their class (‘the class which necessarily supplies the ranks of our army’), the problem was to discover why [they suffered from so many physical ailments], and to change things. Proceeding to speculate on possible explanations, [Maurice] accounted for the prevalence of bad teeth among recruits by unsuitable food in childhood (‘the universal testimony that I have heard is that the parents give the children even in infancy the food from off their own plates’), and decided at once that ‘the great original cause’ (of bad teeth at this point, but subsequently, and with as little evidence, of all the ill-health) was ‘ignorance on the part of the mothers of the necessary conditions for the bringing up of healthy children’.

This was one of several essays and articles which argued that poor nutrition in childhood – most notably feeding babies food meant for adults – caused ‘bad teeth’ and, thus, compromised health in adulthood. The best means of remedying this situation was to encourage mothers (and in the minds of doctors, welfare campaigners, and policy makers, these mothers were inevitably working-class) to adhere to ‘scientific principles’ in raising their children, chief of which was providing babies and young children with a diet calibrated precisely to their needs. These principles and diets were formulated by health professionals – medical men – and they, as well as nurses, health visitors, and others, encouraged mothers to abandon ‘superstitious’ and ‘ignorant’ childrearing practice in favour of properly ‘scientific’ guidelines.

Those doctors and campaigners influenced by eugenics argued, though, that children’s moral character depended on good dental hygiene. (Susanne Klausen explains what we mean by ‘eugenics’: ‘in its broadest definition…eugenics was concerned with improving the qualities of the human race either through controlling reproduction or by changing the environment or both.’) In The Story of the Teeth, and How to Save Them (1935), Dr Truby King, the extraordinarily influential founder of the global mothercraft movement, argued that the health and strength of babies’ and children’s teeth depended, firstly, on the health of the pregnant and lactating mother, and, secondly, on proper nutrition.

Breastfeeding – not on demand, but at regular intervals depending on the age of the baby – was, he believed, the foundation for the development of strong teeth and jaws. The introduction of nutritious food once the baby was six months old should, he wrote, encourage the child to chew, thus stimulating the nerves and blood vessels in the face, causing the milk and permanent teeth to emerge quickly and cleanly.

King had dire warnings to those parents – particularly mothers – who, he suggested, ‘gave in’ to the demands of their babies and children:

Decay of the teeth is not a mere chance unfortunate disability of the day – it is the most urgent and gravest of all diseases of our time – a more serious national scourge than Cancer or Consumption….

Why? Because oral hygiene and healthy teeth ensured that the citizens of the future would be morally good, productive, conscientious individuals:

‘Building the Teeth’ and ‘Forming a Character’ are parts of construction of the same edifice – standing in the relationship of the underground foundations of a building to the superstructure.

Our dentists tell us that nowadays when they insist on the eating of crusts and other hard food [necessary for encouraging the child to chew and, thus, in King’s view, develop its jaw], the mother often says ‘Our children simply won’t!’ Such children merely exemplify the ineptitude of their parents – parents too sentimental, weakly emotional, careless, or indifferent to train their children properly. The ‘can’t-be-so-cruel’ mother who cries half the night and frets all day on account of the mother’s failure to fulfil one of the first of maternal duties, should not blame Providence or Heredity because her progeny has turned out a ‘simply-won’t’ in infancy, and will become a selfish ‘simply-can’t’ in later childhood and adolescence. Power to obey the ‘Ten Commandments,’ or to conform to the temporal laws and usages of Society is not to be expected of ‘SPOILED’ babies when they reach adult life. …

Unselfishness and altruism are not the natural outcome of habitual self-indulgence. Damaged health and the absence of discipline and control in early life are the natural foundations of failure later on – failure through the lack of control which underlies all weakness of character, vice, and criminality.

Good teeth meant good citizens. Bizarre as this thinking may have been, it did – often – have positive outcomes. For instance, similar views held among South African doctors and child welfare campaigners were behind the establishment of a network of dental clinics for poor children – albeit mainly white children – during the 1920s and 1930s. Children whose parents could not afford private dental care, could attend these clinics gratis.

One of the most striking characteristics of eugenicist thinking was its tendency to blame mothers’ ignorance, stupidity, or credulousness for the poor health of their babies and children, ignoring the environmental factors – the contexts – in which they raised their offspring. King’s implication was that mothers were ultimately responsible for the ‘vice and criminality’ of society: if they, he wrote, had simply disciplined their children, feeding them properly and ignoring their demands, then all adults would be productive, self-controlled citizens.

Although King’s reasoning is demonstrably bonkers, this tendency to blame (single) mothers for children’s anti-social behaviour persists, particularly within right-wing political and media circles. This is a strategy which absolves the state and other institutions of any responsibility for ensuring that children are adequately care for.

The study of attitudes towards teeth and dentistry reveals a range of beliefs about parenting, childhood, and, nutrition. It seems, then, that we are not only what we eat, but we are also how we eat.

Sources cited here:

Anna Davin, ‘Imperialism and Motherhood,’ History Workshop, no. 5 (Spring 1978), pp. 9-65.

Susanne Klausen, ‘“For the Sake of the Race”: Eugenic Discourses of Feeblemindedness and Motherhood in the South African Medical Record, 1903-1926,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 23, no. 1 (March 1997), pp. 27-50.

Antora Mahmud Khan and Syed Masud Ahmed, ‘“Why do I have to Clean Teeth Regularly?” Perceptions and State of
Oral and Dental Health in a Low-income Rural Community in Bangladesh’ (Dhaka: BRAC, 2011).

Truby King, The Story of the Teeth and How to Save Them (Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombes, 1935).

Further Reading:

Naomi Murakawa, ‘Toothless: The Methamphetamine “Epidemic,” “Meth Mouth,” and the Racial Construction of Drug Scares,’ Du Bois Review, vol. 8, no. 1 (2011), pp. 219-228.

Alyssa Picard, Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 2009).

David Sonstrom, ‘Teeth in Victorian Art,’ Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no. 2 (2001), pp. 351-382.

* This photograph is from Retronaut.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Thirsty Knowledge

I’ve recently resuscitated my iTunes account, and I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the joys of the podcast. As a mad fan of Internet radio, having the most recent episodes of More or Less, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian‘s Science Weekly, NPR’s Fresh Air, the Granta Podcast and, obviously, the Food Programme, arriving periodically is a glorious thing.

Relatively recently, I’ve become faintly obsessed with This American Life, and have relied on its extensive archive to keep me sane while writing lectures. I particularly enjoyed two, linked, episodes on Pennsylvania State University. The first, broadcast in December 2009, is an account of why Penn State has consistently been nominated as ‘America’s number one party school,’ and the second, from the end of last year, revisits the university’s reputation for heavy drinking in light of the recent scandal.

As you’d expect of This American Life, both episodes are thoughtful, intelligent accounts of life in State College, PA, where townsfolk have to put up with the antics of drunken students – from stealing traffic signs, to urinating in private gardens – and where the university’s various strategies for dealing with the campus’s drinking culture are impeded by a strong lobby from alumni and other donors.

A lot of what these episodes covered felt familiar. I grew up in a South African university town and now hold a fellowship at that university. The institution is based in the heart of the country’s wine-producing region, so alcohol is cheap and plentiful. As someone with a comically low tolerance of alcohol, I’ve never been a big drinker. I sailed through university as, usually, the only sober person at parties.

A while ago, I wrote a post about academia and the food at conferences, and one of the themes in the responses I received was that I needed to focus more on the booze. And that’s absolutely true: while we may be – justifiably – concerned about undergraduate binge drinking, there’s a stereotype that academics drink – in the same way that we dress badly, drive banged-up cars, and are chronically forgetful. As Malcolm Bradbury writes in The History Man (1975):

It has often been remarked, by Benita Pream, who services several such departmental meetings, that those in History are distinguished by their high rate of absenteeism, those in English by the amount of wine consumed afterwards, and those in Sociology by their contentiousness.

I think that many would suggest that Benita’s point about the wine could apply to all departmental meetings, regardless of the discipline involved.

Just about every decent campus novel contains at least one scene of drunken, academic embarrassment. Or, indeed, in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), of success. Jim Dixon spends most of the novel either pursuing the pretty-but-dim Christine in a fairly desultory way, or trying – in post-war, still rationed Britain – to scrape together enough money to buy cigarettes and drink.  In the famous, final scene, he gets completely hammered, delivers a speech which should get him fired, but which, instead, gets him both the girl and his dream job.

My two favourite campus novels, The History Man and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995) – yes the one that was turned into the surprisingly fun movie – both feature heroes whose academic careers are linked to the – occasionally excessive – consumption of alcohol and various banned substances. Both novels have parties at key turning-points in the narrative. In The History Man the suave socialist sociologist Howard Kirk and his long-suffering wife, Barbara, host parties at the beginning and end of the novel – places where students and lecturers at a red brick, radical university mingle, discussing contraception, Hegel, revolution, and, of course, religion:

No sooner are the first arrivals in the living-room, with drinks, talking breastfeeding, when more guests arrive. The room fills. There are students in quantities; bearded Jesus youths in combat-wear, wet-look plastic, loon-pants, flared jeans, Afghan yak; girls, in caftans and big boots, with plum-coloured mouths. There are young faculty, serious, solemn examiners of matrimony and its radical alternatives…. Howard goes about, a big two-litre bottle hanging on the loop from his finger, the impresario of the event, feeling the buoyant pleasure of having these young people round him…. He poured wine, seeing the bubbles move inside the glass of the bottle in the changing lights of his rooms.

Howard maintains – and gains – his position of power within his department and on his campus by wielding wine at important moments.

The appropriately named Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys uses grass and a range of other drugs – legal and illegal – to cope with the collapse of his marriage, his career, and his reputation as a writer. He holds a position at a small liberal arts university in Pittsburgh, but can’t finish his novel, is having an affair with the Chancellor, and has been (deservedly) deserted by his wife. Over the course of the university’s annual Wordfest weekend, his life falls apart. As in The History Man, parties take place at pivotal moments – one of them in Grady’s house. He returns to discover

writers in the kitchen, making conversation that whip-sawed wildly between comely falsehood and foul-smelling truths, flicking their cigarette ash into the mouths of beer cans. There were half a dozen more of them stretched out on the floor of the television room, arranged in a worshipful manner around a small grocery bag filled with ragweed marijuana, watching Ghidorah take apart Tokyo.

But most academic drinking is done more decorously: over dinner, and after conferences and workshops. Some of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges have legendarily well-stocked cellars. Just about every seminar I attended in London ended with a trip to the pub. There’s even a Radio 4 series called The Philosopher’s Arms, where Matthew Sweet and a collection of philosophers discuss ideas and issues in a real pub:

Welcome to the Philosopher’s Arms, the only boozer in Britain where, if you ask the landlady whether there’s a happy hour, she’ll remind you of the words of John Stuart Mill: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you’ll cease to be so.’

The appeal of the pub is that it allows for the usually fairly byzantine rules which govern academic life to relax a little. Anxious postgrads get to talk to well-known, senior researchers, gossip is exchanged, and friendships and alliances formed. One very grand historian who used to convene a weekly seminar I attended, was transformed from an incisive and ruthless eviscerator of poorly-constructed arguments, to a jovial old cove as he nursed his half-pint of real ale.

It’s also true that pubs and drinking can be used to exclude those who don’t drink, for whatever reason, or those who don’t feel welcome in pubs or bars. As AS Byatt points out in an interview with the Paris Review, up until the mid-1960s, university departments could prevent their female staff from contributing to important decisions by conducting meetings in pubs, then an almost exclusively male preserve.

But I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that pubs, in particular, feature so strongly in a lot of the mythology surrounding significant moments in academia: in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, and in the meetings of the Inklings – the most famous members of which were CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien – at the Eagle and Child in Oxford, for instance. Pubs – and other, similarly festive occasions involving drinking – provide academics with a chance to talk and to think beyond the usual strictures of academia and, in doing so, to arrive at new and surprising ideas.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.