Toothaches and popular culture

PERHAPS, a toothache is the most significant aspect of dentistry, which, understandably, represents a lot of cultural connotations. For instance, just recently, a young man came to see me on an emergency, accompanied by both a severe toothache and a very pregnant wife. The husband cradled his face, while the wife held her belly.

The two fidgeted together in the reception area for several minutes. Then the woman went into labour. Murmuring apologiesfor leaving abruptly, the man herded the gasping mother-to-be towards his car, but promptly returned to have his tooth treated.
Toothache has a compelling way of commanding our attention; it has a great distracting, yet focusing effect. According to Shakespeare: “For there was never yet a philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.” It is said that toothache is the small thing that can shake up larger events. The novelist, Vladimir Nabokov mused, “A toothache will cost a battle, a drizzle and an insurrection.”
The young husband of my anecdote had scarcely deposited his wife with the hospital staff than his own dental preoccupation drove him away from the drama of birth and back to my office.  “The man with toothache thinks everyone happy whose teeth are sound”, declared George Bernard Shaw.
For romantics, philosophers and poets alike, toothache has traditionally been a refining fire. It is a holdover from the Medieval sense that physical pain should produce a certain purity of spirit. The 19th Century German author cum artist, Wilhelm Busch, thought a toothache gave exactly the right melodramatic depth to a poet’s search for meaning. As he once wrote, “Concentrated in his soul, in his jaw’s aching hole.”
Toothache has two functions in popular culture, which are reflected in literature. A toothache is a private signal traditionally connected with other, larger events. It has been interpreted as both a consequence of some action, and a forerunner of future events.
While, historically, it was seen as castigation for sin, today, it is still regarded as the inexorable punishment for overindulgence in sweets, obviously by the less informed.
The pangs of love had been allegorically intertwined with dental pain. The idea is that both are equally intense, unbearable and incurable. Broods, a character in English dramatist, Phillip Massinger’s 1624 play, Parliament of Love, is quoted as saying:  “I am troubled with a toothache or with love, I know not whether.”
Patients know that a toothache is a warning, meaning perhaps an impending abscess or a coming sinus attack. Toothache has also been seized as a literary tool for overshadowing. In his short story, The Body Snatcher, Robert Louis Stephenson spins the tale of a medical student named Fettes, who made a horrifying discovery after having a tremendous toothache.
And the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns, suffered toothaches that sapped his creative drive. In 1795, he wrote: “The delightful sensations of an omnipotent toothache so engross all my inner man, as to put out of my power even to write nonsense.”
Two years later, Burns composed, Address to the Toothache, in which he excoriated the condition in Scottish dialect.
Dentistry’s relentless arguments are to seek to abolish toothaches. The disappearance of this ubiquitous symptom, however, will rob the art and literary worlds of a potent metaphor.
When Vincent van Gogh praised the work of the French illustrator, Honore Draumier, he, too, reached for the famous comparison: “Draumier’s prints are so true, they almost make one forget the toothache.”

Address to the Toothache

[“I had intended,” says Burns in writing to Creech, 30th May, 1789, “to have troubled you with a long letter, but at present the delightful sensation of an omnipotent toothache so engrosses all my inner man, as to put it out of my power even to write nonsense.” The poetic Address to the Toothache seems to belong to this period.]

My curse upon thy venom’d stang,
That shoots my tortur’d gums alang;
And thro’ my lugs gies mony a twang,
Wi’ gnawing vengeance;Tearing my nerves wi’ bitter pang,
Like racking engines!

When fevers burn, or ague freezes,
Rheumatics gnaw, or cholic squeezes;
Our neighbours’ sympathy may ease us,
Wi’ pitying moan;But thee—thou hell o’ a’ diseases,
Ay mocks our groan!

Adown my beard the slavers trickle!
I kick the wee stools o’er the mickle,
As round the fire the giglets keckle, To see me loup;
While, raving mad, I wish a heckle
Were in their doup.

O’ a’ the num’rous human dools,
Ill har’sts, daft bargains, cutty-stools,
Or worthy friends rak’d i’ the mools,
Sad sight to see!The tricks o’ knaves, or fash o’ fools,
Thou bears’t the gree.

Where’er that place be priests ca’ hell,
Whence a’ the tones o’ mis’ry yell,
And ranked plagues their numbers tell,
In dreadfu’ raw,Thou, Toothache, surely bear’st the bell
Amang them a’!

O thou grim mischief-making chiel,
That gars the notes of discord squeel,
’Till daft mankind aft dance a reel
In gore a shoe-thick!—Gie’ a’ the faes o’ Scotland’s weal
A towmond’s Toothache.
–Robert Burns

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