Saturday, July 17, 2010

Surrealist writers: Frustrated dentists?

Or are all dentists surrealists manqué?
The evidence piles up. Item 1 is Chapter 2 of Locus Solus.

Professor Canterel has invented a new method of painless tooth removal, involving "an irresistible and specialized magnetic force operating exclusively on the calcareous element of which human teeth are made." Faced with a vast and steadily-accumulating stockpile of discarded teeth, he decides to create a mosaic that will take advantage of their
great variety of shapes and colours. Some were dazzling white, contrasting with the incisors of smokers which provided the complete range of brown and chestnut. All tints of yellow found their place in the weird collection, from the palest straw colours to the darkest tawny shades. Blue teeth, both light and dark, contributed to this riot of colours, completed by a mass of black teeth and by the pale or gaudy reds of many a bloodstained root... A glint of metal blossomed here and there, derived from fillings or gold caps.
Naturally he uses a dirigible to assemble the teeth. Who wouldn't? It rises and alights again, catching the breezes while it picks up one tooth at a time, carries it, and sets it in its assigned place in the mosaic using a kind of paving machine.

Item 2: Tlooth.
Imprisoned in a Siberian internment camp, the narrator -- who has lost two fingers through surgical misadventure -- becomes a dentist as one step towards wreaking her vengeance upon the surgeon. This provides the author with a convenient excuse to explain (a) the mystical doctrines of R. King Dri, Philosopher-Dentist; and (b) how to improvise a prosthetic beak for an injured vulture.

Item 3: Dentist of the Old West. Really there is no alternative to quoting at length:
It was the exciting yarn of Doc Mulligan, Dead Rock's only dentist and a keen Roman Catholic. Indeed Doc Milligan wants to become Pope, but the Jesuits, who are strong in Chicago, hire Billy the Kid to deal with him. MacKellar did an imitation of Billy the Kid's toothless mumble after Milligan had finished with him. Then he rushed on to the penultimate scene in the book, the Crazy G Saloon, where Milligan, surrounded by a ring of cowpokes with guns trained upon him, still succeeds in killing Cardinal Vito Borgia by filling his teeth with poisoned amalgam.

MacKellar had been doing research for this book and seizing the skull, he started drilling one of its molars, all the while improvising the showdown dialogue between Vito Borgia (rather strangulated because of the number of instruments in his mouth) and Mulligan (silkily triumphant).
Thinking about it, dentistry is an inherently comic profession, what with spending all day talking to people who can't answer and trying to squeeze too many power tools into a space not designed to accommodate them. So it is perfectly natural to imagine them in incongruous settings and surrealist scenarios. And it shouldn't come as so much of a shock when you go in to have a molar crowned and discover that the dentist modeled the design of the crown upon the one worn by the titular tsar in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible.

Teeth are also inherently surreal, their hardness contrasting with the soft bezels of the gums, like stalactites in an oozy cage. They grow from buds, but then they stop, just when it seems that they should keep growing until we discover the plant of which they are the seeds or the alien beast of which they are the eggs.

Cadmus had the right idea -- for which he is held in high regard across the dental profession -- which is to plant the dragon's teeth and see what they grow into.


Jennifer said...

Teeth are also inherently surreal, their hardness contrasting with the soft bezels of the gums, like stalactites in an oozy cage

I've always thought of gums as being sweaters that the teeth are wearing. Ideally, the tooth wears a mock turtleneck. A full turtleneck would mean inflammation and would not be good... a crew neck would mean shrinkage... also not good. Heaven forbid the tooth ever end up with a cowl. I'm not sure what it would mean if the tooth were wearing a dickey... perhaps it would be alone in the mouth, all other hipper teeth having left it to its own sad devices.

I don't think teeth have ever worn party pajamas.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

The story begins in a prison camp in Siberia, with a baseball game between the Defective Baptists and the Fideists...

Though many of its individual parts are entertaining and provoking, others don't come off so successfully, and Tlooth as a whole doesn't really hang together. It's a must for devotees of Oulipo-style experimental literature (though written before Mathews became a member of the Oulipo himself), but may not appeal to a much wider audience.

Tlooth, I never knew ye.

mikey said...

"an irresistible and specialized magnetic force operating exclusively on the calcareous element of which human teeth are made."

See, this is what happens when a novelists decides to write about a field he knows nothing about and so seeks out the services of Insane Clown Posse as science advisers.

I can completely understand the use of an airship for this kind of work, but would strongly recommend a blimp over dirigible, not only for cost/effectiveness reasons but also because, as good and tinny an old word like "dirigible" might be, "blimp" is just that much more fun to say. Blimp. Blimp. Blimpy McBlimp.

"Dentist of the Old West" turns out NOT to be Doc Holiday? What mischief is this? If there was a better day job for a killer/gambler/drunk than dentist, I cannot imagine what it might be. Dance instructor, perhaps, but certainly not plasterer or fisherman...

Substance McGravitas said...

Perhaps we agree on the best picture border.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Lord Monckton

(File under: Now For Something Completely Different)

Smut Clyde said...

Perhaps we agree on the best picture border.

In a more funny universe, that album would have been released on Dental Records.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Just imagine what the frustrated proctologists would come up with.

77south said...

I am surprised more gunfighters of the old west did not work as economists for their 9-5 jobs.