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Circle what it is you want

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Entries in alicia puglionesi (8)


In Which We Accept Margery Kempe As A Holy Person

This Creature


Margery Kempe wrote one of the earliest autobiographies in the English language, except that she didn't write it. Kempe dictated her life story to a scribe because, like most medieval women, she was illiterate. This resulted in a number of strange effects, the most jarring of which is that the scribe replaced her first-person “I” with the phrase “this creature” throughout the text. It's possible that Kempe spoke in the third person as "this creature." Some scholars suspect that she was secretly literate and wrote the book herself, taking pains with the story of the male scribe and the elimination of personal pronouns in order to evade persecution.

Other scholars question whether Kempe existed at all because her story is so profoundly strange.

Already this creature leads us into a tangle of difficulties: was Margery Kempe a radical who cannily manipulated religious and social conventions in order to live a life beyond the limits set for women of her time? You wouldn't think so looking at her. In her book she sometimes seems like a wild, frightened animal in our modern sense of “creature." Or a creature in the sense of a monster, suddenly strange and frightening to herself, desperately seeking an escape into the divine. All creature really means in the fifteenth century, though, is a thing that God created, and over which he has dominion. The Book of Margery Kempe is about a normal woman who believes that God chose her – because of her lack of any special merit – to demonstrate how his divine love transcends all human conventions. The question, of course, is whether the bulldozing of those conventions was God's idea or Kempe's, and whether we could ever tell the difference.

People have wondered what was wrong with Margery Kempe for centuries: was she insane, possessed, divinely-inspired, or incredibly canny? She was known for weeping uncontrollably at inappropriate times – like in the middle of a church service, or while traveling with strangers, or while trying to persuade a local mob that she wasn't a heretic who should be burned at the stake. Kempe didn't see her incessant crying as a problem. She thought it was a gift from God – God had chosen her for this form of penance, a mark of difference and divine favor. She seems to have spent a lot of her time sitting or lying down and weeping for the soul of mankind.

This was the late fourteenth century, a time of some political tension and much religious strife in Europe. The Catholic Church was working hard to bring its authority to bear on heretical sects like the Lollards that claimed direct communication with God. The Church found that communication with God was a particularly slippery thing to regulate. A complex set of rules and hierarchies mediated Catholic access to the divine, but the religion was based on stories of ordinary people receiving unexpected revelations. This contradiction was becoming a sticking point. Margery Kempe is a footnote in the long and messy run-up to an even longer and messier schism; her hedge was that none of her words or actions were her own, a common-enough maneuver for speaking truth to power.

Medieval religious devotion was also passing through a sort of ecstatic sentimental phase around this time. Passion and weeping, fantastic love and impossible longing, became popular expressive paradigms, to the consternation of the Church which just wanted people to behave in an orderly fashion.

Since this “affective piety” was coded feminine, some interesting gender issues surfaced – there's talk of suckling at Jesus' teat and quasi-sexual encounters with the godhead. Revelations about the ecstatic nature of God's love came from a new class of religious mystics, many of them women cloistered in religious orders. Marie d'Oignes, St. Bridget of Sweden, Clare of Montefalco, and Julian of Norwich were popular subjects of the female sacred biography genre – texts usually written by male clerics which authorized the spiritual experiences of holy women. Because these women were nuns they could often read and write, but their stories had to be told by men in order to assimilate material that could otherwise pose a danger to the Church.

can I help you with that ma'am?

Margery Kempe claimed never to have read any of the mystic texts popular during her lifetime, although she would at least have heard some of them read aloud. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Bishop's Lynn, a town a hundred miles north of London. The mature Kempe describes her young self as “set in great pomp and pride of the world.” This means she liked to wear fashionable clothes. She was never "content with the goods that God had sent her...but ever desired more and more.” This means that she had an entrepreneurial streak; she ran a brewery and a grist mill. This seems like a medieval approximation of our modern feminine ideal: a woman who runs her own local, independent business and looks good doing it.

When she was twenty, Kempe married a local merchant and quickly got pregnant. The pregnancy was rocky – she was sick and bedridden, and after a difficult birth she “despaired of her life, thinking that she might not live.” Fearing death, Kempe called for a priest and tried to confess to him a dark secret. Keep in mind that matters of Catholic dogma and heresy were very, very serious for ordinary people in the Middle Ages: Kempe's dark secret was that “she was ever hindered by her enemy, the devil, evermore saying to her that...she needed no confession but could do penance by herself alone, and all should be forgiven.”

She had arrived, on her own, at the heretical belief that one could deal directly with God without the church as an intermediary. This was so heretical that the priest wouldn't even hear Kempe out – he cut her off in the middle of her deathbed confession. Without a confession Kempe knew that she was doomed to Hell for all eternity. At this point, she went completely nuts.

no confession? too bad.

Or as she describes it: “This creature went out of her mind and was wonderfully vexed and labored with spirits for half a year, eight weeks, and some odd days. And in this time she saw, she thought, devils open their mouths, all inflamed with burning flames of fire...and [they] bade her that she should forsake her faith...she slandered her husband, her friends, and her own self...she knew no virtue nor goodness...she would have killed herself many a time with her stirrings, and have been damned with them in hell...save she was bound and kept with strength both day and night so that she might not have her will.”

Kempe was tied up in the basement for six months. This was a common medieval strategy for handling what we would call mental illness – modern readers have diagnosed her with everything from schizophrenia to postpartum depression. Finally, one day she had an ecstatic vision in which Christ appeared beside her and ordered her not to forsake him, “and anon the creature was stabled in her wits and in her reason as well as ever she was before.” Kempe's servants untied her and she vowed to devote her life to piety and prayer in thanks for her miraculous recovery. Except that she really liked nice clothes and money, and having sex with her husband. She basically went back to business as usual.

Only after her brewery and grain mill failed and she'd given birth to ten more children did Kempe have another mystical vision ordering her to forsake the things of this world and devote herself to Christ. She interpreted her commercial failure as God's punishment for pride and covetousness. And she wanted to interpret the voice in her head as the voice of God. This time, perhaps with less to lose, Kempe embarked on a mystical odyssey that would take her from Bishop's Lynn to London to Jerusalem, often penniless and at the mercy of suspicious strangers.

When she started weeping uncontrollably in public and preaching about the joy of heaven, her neighbors suggested that she was either mad or possessed by the devil. Kempe, herself fearing that this might be the case, sought explanations for her strange experiences. She consulted the female mystic Dame Julian of Norwich and many other ecclesiastical experts, all of whom reassured her of the authenticity of her visions. She worked her ecclesiastical connections hard – perhaps aware of the precariousness of her position, she shored up support wherever possible.

The biggest obstacle to Kempe's career as a mystic was her status as a married woman. At that point, the Church was advocating celibacy as the highest ideal for all of its followers – everyone who wanted to win God's love and forgiveness was supposed to give up sex. Previous female mystics had been celibate nuns, or widows who became celibate nuns, or virgins forced into marriage who got their husbands to take vows of celibacy before the deal was consummated. Virginity was the centerpiece of female holiness, but Kempe had been popping out babies for years and wasn't able to stop as long as her husband claimed his legal rights over her. She cut a deal that epitomizes her strange intermingling of sacred calling and worldly savvy: she got her husband to sign a vow of marital chastity in exchange for her paying off all his debts.

Even with a piece of paper certifying her (renewed) chastity, Kempe was a tough sell for many of her countrymen. People complained about her flamboyant weeping and wailing, accusing her of overacting. Kempe considered their hatred another test that God wanted her to endure – the more people scorned her, the more highly she would be rewarded in heaven. It seems like she was genuinely difficult to be around – her fellow pilgrims ditched her on the way to Jerusalem, and clerics back in England kicked her out of services because of her disruptive weeping. Her chaste husband, a remarkably loyal supporter of her work, tended to make himself scarce when Kempe started a scene in the public square.

There was still suspicion that Kempe “had the devil in her.” She carried on extensive conversations with God, Christ, and various saints, who she describes as speaking directly to her mind or soul, but the trick of medieval demonology is that demons could masquerade as holy figures in order to plant seeds of evil. Most of the ecclesiastical experts who Kempe consulted chose to interpret her visions through the lens of divine revelation, but many laypeople assailed her motivations as selfish, and her voices as demonic. Madness wasn't off the table either: one friar banned Kempe from his sermons on the grounds that she was not having visions, but rather suffered from a mental disease.

ways to be mistaken for a witchThe thing is that Kempe could be awfully convincing. Claiming illiteracy, she impressed religious authorities by reciting obscure Biblical passages and offering exegeses. She made accurate prophesies and fielded theological queries. Many ordinary Catholics accepted Kempe as a holy person and paid her to weep (copiously) for the salvation of their souls. Kempe won for herself freedoms and intellectual possibilities that were completely off-limits for most women of her time. Just in terms of mobility, she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visited scholars and mystics all over England, when most women weren't allowed to leave their villages without the permission of husbands and church officials. At times she publicly criticized the Church for corruption, and urged women to leave their husbands and become brides of Christ.

To call Kempe's career subversive, though, would be to overlook the very real affective power of faith in medieval life. Maybe she got something she wanted – freedom to think and travel, freedom from endless childbearing – but she was also tormented by desire for what she had given up. The “things of this world” were the things that had offered her the most satisfaction; she particularly struggled with the demands of chastity. Her visions were sometimes terrifying and visceral, and she describes these traumatic episodes as tests of her love for God. Perhaps the deeply Catholic worldview of her age drove Kempe to a life of torment and self-denial, perhaps it equipped her to make sense of destabilizing psychological experiences.  For a lowly creature who had surrendered her will to God, she managed to leave a highly personal record of her interior world – Kempe's voice is incredibly rich, simultaneously familiar and strange. This richness of voice may be all we need to know about her.

Alicia Puglionesi is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here.

"Giorna" - Jeremiah Jae (mp3)

"Fallen Saints" - Jeremiah Jae (mp3)


In Which We Stand Between The Awe And Wonder

A Well-Poised Observer


In 1927 Mary Craig Sinclair was having trouble keeping it together. The Long Beach, California home that she shared with her famous husband, Upton, belonged to stolid upper-middle-class America, but for Mary Craig, Long Beach was the end of the world, or the limit of the world. Nothing but a lonely stretch of sand stood between her front door and the “awe and wonder” of the Pacific Ocean. In this place, the laws of nature and human capability would stretch and break.

The Sinclairs settled in California in 1916, and a decade of radical crusading, political campaigns, and constant work was taking its toll on Mary Craig (who went by her middle name). She began to suffer from a nervous illness that left her debilitated and unable to leave the house. It does not diminish the reality of her physical suffering to add that her ailment was at least partly philosophical. Confined to her study, she sat down and tabulated the practical outcomes of the couple's grinding reform work: “At the rate we were going,” she wrote, “we would be old and gray before we could see much more than the beginning of the social changes for which we were striving...this was too slow!"

Like many Americans looking for solutions to problems that blur the lines between mental and physical, Craig started reading self-help books. When her doctors told her that the problem was all in her head, she delved into the literature of the mind cure, New Thought, and Christian Science, the most popular self-help doctrines of the day. These movements had many differences, but all focused on the capacity of the mind, through unknown mechanisms, to effect change upon the body, upon other individuals, and upon society – let's call these “powers of mind.” Captivated by the promise of a cure, Craig was nevertheless troubled by the suspicion that a placebo effect was at work, rather than genuine telepathy that supposedly allowed mind healers to treat distant patients.

Interest in powers of mind was quite normal for an upper-middle class, educated woman like Craig – crazes for telepathy, hypnosis, and spirit communication had come and gone in the United States and Europe for the past hundred years. Rather than a clear divide between “science” and “the paranormal,” Americans applied an experience-based epistemology to judging such phenomena on a case-by-case basis. That is to say, they trusted a thing they called common sense, inherent to almost all people of respectable social and economic status – particularly the growing middle class. If they could experience powers of mind firsthand or through trusted testimony, and satisfy their curiosities and doubts, ordinary people were inclined to accept the extra-sensory as a matter of common sense.

Grolier's The Book of Knowledge (1931)

Psychical research emerged in Britain in the 1870s, as an amateur science devoted to the investigation of the human mind and its possibilities – most particularly, to discovering factual evidence of the survival of the soul after death. This was actually quite a respectable pursuit, sharing the scientific territory of psychology and psychiatry; however, it sought to undermine the materialist basis upon which scientists were constructing a new, secular reality for the twentieth century. Historians who bother with such dead ends call it a “last gasp of metaphysics,” a search for spiritual reassurance in the wake of Darwinism and the hollow materialism of modernity. The practical work of British psychical research was mostly seances and ghost hunting.

This project spread to the U.S. in the 1880s, but psychical research would lead a very different life here. Ordinary Americans were already debating over spirit mediums, telepathic performers, and mental healers. Newspapers, magazines, and books were filled with the stuff. People wanted scientific investigation to uncover the mechanisms of powers of mind, but many people felt that the most important standard of evidence was their own witnessing.

Founded in 1884, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) boasted many eminent men of science among its members, along with the heads of universities and government research bureaus. Thousands of people submitted reports of paranormal experiences in the hope that the ASPR's experts could verify or explain what had happened to them.

Let's return to Mary Craig Sinclair, who, in 1927, wrote an impassioned letter to the ASPR regarding a series of psychical experiments which she organized among her friends in Long Beach. “It is very different to see such a phenomena than to read of it,” she remarked, explaining how her research into the mind cure led her to seek out an actual psychic medium and invite him into her home. She wanted to test the reality of telepathy, because, if scientifically verified, “it meant a new philosophy, a new religion! And a relief from Socialism!"(Upton had, at that time, run for Congress twice on the Socialist ticket.) Although Craig was a special case in that she married a man of radically materialist politics, her situation was emblematic of a widespread desire for spiritual meaning in the midst of secular modernity.

Ostoja with Leo Tolstoy

The psychic, who called himself Count Ostoja, provided Craig with astonishing evidence for telepathy. A popular stage medium, his act involved entering a trance state in which he could be buried alive or impaled with various sharp implements. He also practiced mind cure techniques and hypnosis. Craig faced a moment of choice: she could ask him to cure her nervous illness, with the possibility that he merely employed auto-suggestion, or she could investigate Ostoja scientifically to determine the ultimate truth of the mind cure. “I decided I did not want to be hypnotized,” she explained, “because this might incapacitate me as a judge of his work – as I would be under his influence. She asserted that “I couldn't rest without knowing whether [telepathy] was real and usable.”

Craig tried to establish herself as a credible witness, motivated by scientific curiosity rather than the selfish desire for physical or spiritual comfort. Her nervous symptoms faded away as she threw all her energy into organizing a rigorous investigation of Ostoja. It was time for that cocktail party of the occult, the séance.

Craig secured the home of Paul Jordan Smith, a prominent literary critic who she hoped might take an interest in Ostoja and help with his rather costly upkeep. Next, she assembled a séance group of trustworthy observers. They didn't need scientific backgrounds – on the contrary, Craig was skeptical of professional science and medicine. Doctors, in her view, were the worst perpetrators of narrow-minded materialism. Scientists were a bit better due to their “patient, exact method of observation and criticism” – they made excellent witnesses as long as they could reign in their professional “repugnance towards unexplained things." Thus, Craig invited a few “prominent scientists and medical men” in part to render the spectacle of unexplainability especially piquant.

the sinclair home, 1934

More than professional credentials, the séance group needed a reputation for common sense. Paul Jordan Smith, the critic, was “a professional sceptic [sic] of the whole Universe,” while his wife, Sarah, was “almost stolidly materialistic; she could never be emotional.” As a final proof of the group's complete lack of preconceptions, Craig declared that “none of them had ever before seen any psychic phenomena, nor had they ever read anything on the subject, though all of them are highly educated and cultured.”

The phenomena of the séance itself are a void at the center of this rhetorical apparatus of witnessing. There are no notes from that evening. Rather, Craig collected numerous statements from witnesses affirming that the medium had not cheated and the phenomena appeared completely genuine. These statements included criticisms of Craig's own conduct during the séance, as if to prove that she had not influenced the testimony. Both Paul Jordan Smith and Melville Ellis, a local physician, accused Craig of trying to influence the medium with her gestures. They claimed that this could not have influenced the outcome because Ostoja's eyes were closed, but suggested that Craig might be lacking in scientific rigor.

It is almost as though the particulars of the psychical phenomena – what exactly was said, heard, and felt by the séance guests – were irrelevant. What mattered was the fact of their experience, an experience attested to by upstanding individuals.

For whom was Craig crafting this very canny representation of the Ostoja case? For what judge did she assemble her evidence? Craig was plagued by doubts about Ostoja, and about her own powers of judgment. She could not rest assured that telepathy had been proven for all time during that summer evening in the Smith's parlor. Although she had “kept in mind the danger of 'believing what we want to believe,' I cannot be certain that I have escaped this danger.”The evidence of her psychical experiment survives because she bundled it together and sent it to Walter Franklin Prince, a leader of the ASPR. She begged Prince to come to California to examine Ostoja and verify his phenomena.

In pleading letters to Prince, Craig repeatedly underlined the problem of subjectivity, self-deception, and inexperience. “My interest in Ostoja's demonstration reaches the point of excitement, perhaps even over-emotionalism...I was not a well-poised observer,” she wrote, but “I do not want you to think I am at all times unfit as a witness. Although Craig possessed a bounty of common sense – both her husband and Prince attested that she could be practically “cold-blooded” in her “skeptical point of view” – she could not help but doubt her own senses when they attested to something as fantastical as telepathy. In search of objectivity, she sought the authority of experts.

“Clairvoyance” George Cruikshank (1845)

For Mary Craig Sinclair and the members of her séance circle in the 1927, the experience of astonishment was still essential to producing knowledge of psychical phenomena. Americans of an earlier generation had enshrined this experiential knowledge as the gold standard in judging the claims of mind cure, mesmerism, and Christian Science. The appearance of the ASPR in the 1880s created a new source of authority, a group of experts with the imprimatur of proper science – some observers were better than others, and some experiences more valid.

Craig never persuaded Walter Prince to come to California. The trip was too expensive for the cash-strapped ASPR, and too long and exhausting for the aging Prince. Sifting through the onslaught of frantic letters from Craig, one can understand his lack of enthusiasm. Prince had explained early on in their correspondence that Ostoja was simply the new stage name of a performer that the ASPR had already investigated and found to be a fraud.

This rejection didn't persuade Craig to drop her seances or her pursuit of telepathy – instead, it sent her off on an even more eccentric course. By the time she was done with the hapless Count Ostoja, Craig claimed to have turned his own powers of mind against him. The only way to judge the reality of the phenomenon, she concluded – rejecting scientific authority and returning to the primacy of experience – was to master telepathy for herself.

Alicia Puglionesi is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Baltimore. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the Personal Pelvic ViewerShe tumbls here.

The next part of this series will appear in early August.

The Best Of Alicia Puglionesi On This Recording Happens Now

Dream of a whorl without pain

Earliest autobiography of Margary Kempe

History of the contraceptive douche

Stands at the vanishing point

The effect of the Dalkon Shield

A woman at home views herself

"Five Senses (Everything Will Change)" - The Wild (mp3)

"There's A Darkness (But There's Also A Light)" - The Wild (mp3)


In Which They Stand At The Vanishing Point

You can find the first part of this series here.

Smile If It Hurts


The actor Steve Martin is not a dentist in that he doesn't have a degree in dentistry. He's done other things, like playing the banjo and writing some books. But he is actually also a dentist, in the abstract sense, in his soul.

Who am I to make this diagnosis? In our culture dentistry has certain connotations. For awhile people thought it was funny to say that dentists had the highest suicide rate of any profession. The idea is that they have traded their souls for the hollow trappings of upper-middle-class leisure. They buy boats that they name “Bicuspid Barge” or “Tooth Ferry" and then they end it all.

Towards the dawn of his filmic career Steve Martin played a dentist. It was 1986, he was ebulliently sadistic and brutal, his oiled brown locks tossed across his forehead, strutting down a nightmare sterile white medical hallway – at the same time wicked and sadly cheap. Martin's character was undone by his own diabolical weaknesses, but before that part of the film we get to see him gyrating and yanking gleefully. Perhaps the character of Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. in Little Shop of Horrors wasn't scripted with much in the way of psychological complexity, but his air of reckless abandon bespeaks an inner void. The emotional numbness that allows him to so profitably inflict pain also forestalls genuine human connection. He suffers an unhappy fate, the fate of a dentist.

The impossibility of genuine human connection is a big thing – problems with intimacy – a generational thing that has eclipsed neurosis, the generational thing of an earlier generation. But dentists were having that problem from the beginning. The invention of dental anesthesia drove at least three men to miserable, lonely deaths. This is the foundational dilemma of dentistry: visceral proximity, emotional remove. The dentist stands at the vanishing point where you slip out of consciousness or become enveloped by your own pain.

Fifteen years later Steve Martin played a dentist again. Again, he did dark and dangerous things that lay waste to our culture's cheery faith in modern medicine. This faith conflates medical, moral, and aesthetic authority. It exists to be luridly violated, both in fiction and in life.

It might be a peculiarly American pathology, at least American in origin. Frank Norris's fictional dentist McTeague was a gold miner, then an (unlicensed) dentist, then a gold miner again. A burly, stupid man with a desire to rise in the world (this related perhaps to the ministrations of his saintly mother and the beatings of his alcoholic father). His dingy dental parlor above the local post office exudes “a mingled odor of bedding, creosote, and ether.” He fantasizes about a “huge gilded tooth, a molar with enormous prongs” that would mark his hoped-for dental empire. When the giant gold tooth actually materializes, a gift from McTeague's lottery-winning girlfriend, his feelings towards it become increasingly sexual.

McTeague is billed as “A Story of San Francisco,” which is to say, a story of the end of the world. McTeague the dentist dies in, yes, Death Valley, handcuffed to the body of his friend whom he has just murdered. This novel, about tooth-fetishism, gold-mania, and other American fixations, was published in 1898. It reflected back upon a century when humans began to gain mastery over the appearance of their teeth – just another destabilizing development in a stable of modern woes.

Erich von Stroheim's 1924 film version of McTeague

That century, the nineteenth, began with American teeth in a predictably sorry state. Physiognomy, the art of reading character from signs on the body, taught people that ugly teeth signaled an ugly soul. However, fluoride had not been discovered. Dentists stepped up during this century, with the aid of new technologies, from their place as lowly craftsmen to a role as professional arbiters of beauty and pain. Gross transgressions of propriety proliferated during the murky middle decades: the invention of dental anesthesia meant that patients lay inert at the mercy of strangers in seedy fly-by-night dental parlors. Many women refused to visit the dentist without their husbands or fathers present.

Naturally dentists of a nobler character were outraged by the exploits of their low-class compatriots. They put in place certain professional safeguards, bodies of oversight, regulation, and enforcement. Through strenuous efforts of self-policing, they gained admittance to the white-tiled halls of proper medicine. It was a long process. By mid-twentieth-century, you would not barter chickens with your dentist, you would not accuse your dentist of picking your pockets, and you would not tell your dentist what was best – all things that had formerly been more or less the case.

In the 1920s, the newly-formed National Dental Association (NDA) became very interested in immigrants, good people to be interested in if you're looking to flex your tenuous authority. The dentists argued for a causal relationship between clean, straight teeth and clean, straight living; in studies on immigrant children, they claimed that poor dental health and failure to visit the dentist produced bad behavior in school. Bad behavior, disobedience, urban unrest, the radical politics of the underclasses: all became conflated in the new propaganda of dental hygiene. Good-looking teeth made good citizens. Dentists were the gatekeepers of assimilation. They made themselves necessary and this was highly profitable.

Toothbrush brigade, an initiative of the Long Beach Dental Society's “Save the Teeth” campaign of 1950.

Maneuvers for indispensability are a sign of unstable ground. The dentist triumphant, sorting the good citizens from the bad, soon became a supremely compromised figure. Dentists in literature of the 1950s and beyond were somewhat less than heroic. The dentist in Updike's Couples is a foul man, impotent, greedy, “obsessed with decay.” E.L. Doctorow's Book of Daniel features a “leering dentist” in the role of selfish betrayer. Philip Roth has a go at the profession: Henry Zuckerman in The Counterlife is another sorry specimen, weakly cheating on his wife with his dental hygienist. These were decades of surfaces, facades, crowns and bridges hiding unspeakable things, unnameable discontents. As in centuries past, the dentist was an ambassador of the corruption of the material body, with the suspect power to conceal it at will. He might bear within him any number of squeamish truths about humanity's inner rot, which would rot him too, in turn. It was not a thing for polite people to think or talk about.

Our inner rot is of course also the stuff of psychoanalysis, a thing that Americans in the 1950s found both scandalous and irresistible. Is psychoanalysis just dentistry by another name? Thomas Pynchon, in the guise of Dudley Eigenvalue, D.D.S., argues that it is. The novel V. features this persistent psychodontist staking his claim as a repository for necessary truths: "psychoanalysis had usurped from the priesthood the role of father-confessor. Now, it seemed, the analyst in his turn was about to be deposed by...the dentist." Usurpation for the sake of reclaiming a birthright is a legally murky area.

McTeague's innocent-enough golden molar – innocent, at least, in the purity and simplicity of its perversion – is a thing of the past by the 60s, and we have instead Pynchon's Golden Fang, a murky dental cartel that controls Los Angeles with invisible strings. The novel Inherent Vice is set in a drug-saturated 1969 – men in a white coats with yachts inspire paroxysms of paranoia. Nevertheless, it is “a bunch of honkey dentists,” the Golden Fang syndicate, who ultimately supply the dope. They deal simultaneously in the drug trade and the rehabilitation trade; they are gatekeepers of a revolving door that promises an escape from the system followed by court-mandated reintegration into the system. They own a schooner of ambiguous provenance.

Such is the broad sweep of dentistry – from golden molar to Golden Fang, from laughing gas to psychodontia. Pynchon of course wrestles with the spirit or spirits of the age, swinging for entire centuries. But where do these cosmic shifts leave an individual answering the call of oral hygiene? What remains for a dentist who just wants to do his or her job, and lead his or her life, in a quiet eddy of history? These are congenitally unhappy men and women, popular culture tells us. For them it is either boredom or pain. Both dentist-Steve-Martins are deeply sad, both of his dentist films would be categorized as “dark satire.” In middle age, though, the sadness is below the skin – slow-dawning despair.

Novocaine is not the only fictional treatment of dentistry in which a dentist extracts all of his own teeth. It's not the only treatment of dentists as drug-pushers or dentists as sad men who cheat on their wives. You do not need to be a dentist to have a ridiculous affair with a character played by Helena Bonham Carter. The joke isn't even that it goes so far, that you see the mundanity of a dentist's life unspool while he remains the same uninteresting dentist. "Lying is like tooth decay," dentist-Steve Martin says in the voice-over narration. That's the joke: a tidy moral. He knows that it is a small, feeble way of making sense of the world. We replace philosophy with something that is sort of a science, sort of a healing art, sort of an anesthetic.

Alicia Puglionesi is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Baltimore. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Margery KempeShe tumbls here.

"Clear the Room" - Guv'ner (mp3)

"Baby's Way Cruel" - Guv'ner (mp3)

"Cameo (Version)" - Guv'ner (mp3)