Mar 18, 2024, 06:24AM

The Merits of Good Teeth

Ruminating on my dental life.

Teeth marie duplessis.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

We seldom exist as whole human beings. We’re compartmentalized and each compartment has its own life. To a priest we’re a soul in need of salvation; to a policeman either a criminal or a victim; to a cook a palate and a stomach; to a lawyer we’re a goldmine; to an artist, a potential collector; to a politician we’re fools. And to a dentist we’re a set of teeth and gums.

Dental hygiene has played an oversized role in my life. Yet, until today I’d never thought about what could be called my dental life. I realized that I’ve flossed for 50 years. How long would the string of dental floss stretch if it had remained a single strand? Five miles? Ten? Across the city? In all those years I’ve missed very few flossing days, sometimes flossing multiple times. If I don’t floss each evening, I feel ceremonially unclean.

My mother was obsessed with having good teeth and passed this on to her children. When we were kids, she tried every product imaginable. We were always the first on our block to have water pics, electronic toothbrushes and at-home fluoride treatments. It was only dental floss, along with the toothbrush and toothpaste, that stuck.

Dental floss is good for your gums. Mine are in good shape, but my teeth aren’t. This is because I was relentless in my use of the toothbrush. I’d brush my teeth five times or more a day using force like I was training for the Olympics. Only after years did I discover that I’d been brushing in the wrong direction, side-to-side rather than up-and-down. Now I have grooves in my teeth and the enamel is so thin I have to use “sensitive” toothpaste.

Good teeth do produce a certain effect. I once read the biography of Marie Duplessis, the courtesan on whom Verdi’s opera La Traviata was based. Her effect upon men was supposedly overpowering. Franz Liszt, the composer and piano virtuoso, an unquestioned  super-star of his time, was just one of the many men who begged her to marry him. She rejected him for a banker. Among her numerous charms—she reportedly could speak intelligently on many subjects, play the piano well and had great wit—was that she had perfect teeth. This was a rarity then and added to her uncanny beauty. But even good teeth are no guarantee of happiness: she died from tuberculosis, alone and penniless, at 24.

When I was a kid the idea existed that all Europeans had bad teeth. I’ve noticed, at least here in France, this is no longer the case. Kids here have braces just like they did in the USA when I was younger. A lot of adults do, too. You still see the occasional crooked smile, strangely even among those who could afford to fix their teeth, but I imagine the same exists in the USA. Maybe it’s a question of pride.

A number of years ago, I met the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas in a café in Paris. It was late, he was there with two young filmmakers, proteges I believe. We were all drinking. In the course of the conversation, I told him I’d seen the film he’d shot of the Kennedy children in the early-1970s. I said what I remembered most was how all the Kennedys had such perfect white teeth. This made him laugh.

One could apply this same “dental” optic to all the compartments of one’s life. People speak of their sex and work lives as separate entities. But what about our other lives? Our depression life, toilette life, staring at a blank wall life, becoming-unreasonably-mad-for-no-good-reason life? There’s a point where thinking such thoughts would become intolerable. It’d require being self-conscious at every moment of the day. Teeth or no teeth, we must forget ourselves and just live.


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