Sanders Isaac Bernstein

Stories of Bubby’s Teeth


ISSUE 98 | TEETH | JUL 2021


Untitled, by Mithu Sen, 2016

1.

I first learned of Bubby’s dentures well after her death, when my mother told me a story about the time Bubby, as old as the century, was abducted on a walk in the 1970s. See, my mother told me, I’m an old woman, my great-grandmother had said to the man who had pulled her into his car. You don’t want me. I have grandchildren, she said. I have no teeth, she said. These are dentures, she said. She took out her teeth, my mother told me. Look, I’m an old woman. Just let me go.

The man let her go, my mother said. It was to my teenage ears a tragedy turned something that could among the stark stories of Bubby’s life almost pass as a comedy. So marched Bubby, the five-foot-nothing family heroine of the 20th century, walking with back straight, head high, and handbag in the crook of her arm, undeterred, through personal and world-historical tragedies. She moved across languages, nations, and oceans, feeding my mother and her two siblings boiled chicken and pickle for school night dinners, arroz con leche for when they were sick, and, for special occasions, blintzes and babka. This story of her escape even had this quasi-slapstick element—when Bubby took out her teeth. This was the punctum of the episode, what has always leapt out to me. Even in this terrible situation, in this strange vehicle, Bubby never lost her head. Taking her teeth out was a dramatic maneuver, a negotiating tactic. Her dentures were the currency of her age and agedness. They were what somehow convinced her abductor, in the terms of whatever logic such men live by, to let this woman go.

At a dinner in my twenties my aunt suggested the story may have had a very different ending. My mom, the baby of the family, she claimed, had received from Bubby the bowdlerized version. Bubby, always taking care, didn’t want my mother to worry.

The only person who could resolve the story’s end, if she even wanted to, has been dead for 25 years. What is certain, though, is that the dentures, if they did stand for age, were a false currency. When Bubby pulled out her dentures, it had been over forty-five years since she had any teeth. They had all been extracted in Havana in 1925.

***

Havana, Cuba. 1925. A dentist peers into the mouth of a young Jewish woman from Dolchinov, Poland, waiting with her husband in the island capital to save enough money to smuggle themselves and their infant son into the United States. As young as the century, her teeth ache constantly. Malas dientes, the dentist says, grimacing. The only fix, he claims, is to remove them all. The dentist pulls her teeth from her gums, one by one, just as this woman will later, in the Great Depression, pick out all the stones of her single bracelet to pay for her husband’s emergency appendectomy in Boston.

If Bubby’s teeth hadn’t hurt her so damn much, I would not be here. She met my great-grandfather when she was 19 and waiting to see the dentist in Dolchinov. If not for that encounter, they could easily never have known each other in that town of 2,600 people. Her bourgeois family owned a dry goods store. He was a painter and a socialist, just released from a POW camp in the Great War. Their families did not associate with each other, and her parents tried to prevent the courtship and marriage. But Bubby refused to yield her desire to the class distinctions of her parents, their taste for propriety. If they hadn’t gotten married, had a child, and, around 1923, left Europe forever, the two of them would have, like the rest of their families, vanished in what was to come.

One way of telling this story, then, would be to say that Bubby’s teeth, even though she lost them, became the organs of her fortune, setting her up with love, leading her to her new life in the United States. One could say, in this sparkling, brushed-and-flossed tale, that the loss of her teeth was one of the many sacrifices she made in her journey to immigrate to the United States, one of many rooted relationships she gave up in her search for a new life and so-called “new roots.” And yet, while her difficult teeth could be said to lead her away from Dolchinov and toward a different, and ultimately longer life, the precondition of my own, they did pain her. They pained her before she visited the dentist in Havana and, indeed, after she left the dentist, for the next 71 years, her missing teeth plagued her with phantom pains.

To tell the story of Bubby’s teeth without taking that pain into account would fail to reckon with the texture of her life. Similarly, I cannot forget the pleasures she did take in her daily life, the tinkling laugh that came as if from another world, the simple satisfaction she found chomping on peanuts. My memories of Bubby swirl with the stories I have heard told about her. They mix with the stories about and of the nation she was heading toward, in whose literature and history I have been long steeped, like the black tea she would drink through a cube of sugar held between her teeth.

There she was, on the way to the United States, in what was to be only a temporary stopover on the island, but that brought permanent effects. It was there she learned Spanish, her arroz con pollo, her habit of referring ironically to a certain type of man as a caballero, but also where her teeth were taken from her—and she did not know what would happen next. My mother, who remembers watching Bubby throughout her life brush and massage her gums made tender and sore by the dentures, remains furious about this dental malpractice to this day.

It might not have been sheer malfeasance, though, that led the dentist to do what he did. At the time, one influential school of thought in dentistry, so-called “focal theory,” held that the root of the teeth was the primary source of human disease. In a 1910 speech published in The Lancet, the well-known British medical journal, William Hunter gilded his flawed theory with vivid detail: “Gold fillings, gold caps, gold bridges, gold crowns, fixed dentures, built in, on and around diseased teeth, form a veritable mausoleum of gold over a mass of sepsis to which there is no parallel in the whole realm of medicine or surgery.” Hunter and his many acolytes insisted on mass extraction to heal a host of problems of wildly different etiology—arthritis, depression, pancreatitis, the flu. These physicians, who insisted on “total clearance,” the removal of all teeth, created what can only be called an antagonistic dental atmosphere. In the name of modern medicine, dentists were to empty the mouth. It was a paradigm that reigned from Hunter’s article until about 1940, when the accreting weight of clinical studies that disputed the focal theory’s tenets of disease genesis and the increasing availability of antibiotics finally persuaded the profession to seek out less drastic and invasive forms of treatment of disease and teeth. It is certainly possible that it was in the name of focal theory that my great-grandmother’s teeth were removed, sacrificed at, as one critic called the doctrine, “the altar of ignorance.”

However, dentists also charged per tooth they extracted. It might have been, according to the state of dental knowledge of the day, in the interests of Bubby’s health to remove all of her teeth, but it was certainly in the dentist’s financial interest to extract as many as he could. He would then also be able to sell Bubby dentures, getting paid to replace the very teeth he had taken out. It is even possible, though I hate to suggest it, that Bubby’s teeth were triply valuable to this dentist. In 1925, dentures could sometimes still be found that were not made of porcelain, but of recirculated human teeth.

2.

The same year my great-grandmother confronted this unknown dentist in Havana, another Jew emerged from the underworld of the American cultural imaginary, shooting his cuffs before Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby to show his links: “the finest specimens of human molars.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Meyer Wolfsheim is himself a phantasmic figure, born out of the American nativist mind of the 1920s as the very opposite of a so-called American, a gangster Jew and dentist-speculator. He assumes shape as a nightmare, with the midwestern Carraway, a good representative of Fitzgerald’s idea of the United States, registering his repulsion as Wolfsheim’s features take form in the half light. “A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril,” Carraway recounts. “After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half darkness.”

After Wolfsheim leaves Carraway and Gatsby, though not before consuming his lunch with “ferocious delicacy” and relating the grisly assassination of his onetime associate, Rosy Rosenthal, Carraway asks Gatsby if Wolfsheim is a “dentist.” As Hugh Kenner, the scholar of modernism, wrote without any further elaboration, Wolfsheim “looks like a dentist.” However, in the novel Gatsby responds, almost dismissively, “Meyer Wolfsheim? No, he’s a gambler... He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.” Carraway is “staggered” by this revelation that one man “could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”

The word “faith” does a lot of work here. Wolfsheim’s fixing of the game disabused these fifty million who believed in the sanctity of baseball, the national pastime. This man with molars on his wrists had drilled into the center of this ritual to extract from it the maximum value that he could, unconcerned about its larger spiritual or social significance. He believes only in capital. Allied with this, of course, is that Wolfsheim is, as we learn upon first meeting him, “a Jew.” Wolfsheim’s baseball unbelief is not the only distinct “faith” that he holds. He stands outside of the nation, desiring not to become part of national unity, and take part in its culture, say, of baseball, but only to manipulate its markets, and extract its wealth. Wolfsheim isn’t only blowing a safe, he’s also threatening to disrupt the spiritual unity of the nation.

The idea of the nation as a spiritual, or organic, whole has been used, across history, for a variety of political purposes—it has not only supported the forces of reaction and repression—but in Fitzgerald’s moment, such ideas informed not only the völkisch ideologies emergent in Germany but also Madison Grant’s conception of “America” prevalent in the United States. Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race, published in 1916, advanced an idea of the United States as a Nordic nation under threat from immigration. Grant decried the replacement of what he conceived of as the original stock of Americans by foreign immigrants—particularly “the swarms of Polish Jews” who “adopt the language of the native American.” The Jews might take on the costume and habits of Grant’s so-called “native American,” but they lacked the blood that gave them the real connection to the nation and the capacities to take part in American democracy.

It is texts like Grant’s and The Rising Tide of Color (1920), written by his protegé, Lothrop Stoddard, that the brute Tom Buchanan reads in Great Gatsby, provoking him to say, “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of us.” Buchanan polices racial lines in the novel. It is he, after all, who stands between his wife, Daisy, and Gatsby, born Jay Gatz, suggesting that Jay and Daisy’s union is a sort of intermarriage. Buchanan might not have been one of the six-million dues-paying members of the Ku Klux Klan—too déclassé for him—but he would have certainly counted among the more than half the nation that supported their platform of anti-Catholic white supremacy, which interwove antisemitism, anti-Black racism, and general xenophobia. Though we don’t see Buchanan reading Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, which amplified the Czarist-produced “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” he would have likewise agreed with Ford’s pronouncement on “who makes wars”: “The International Jewish bankers,” Ford had declared, “arrange them so they can make money out of them.”

Fitzgerald’s Wolfsheim stands as one of these Jewish conspirators, manipulating the world without any feeling for his fellow man, but only for profit. One would expect Wolfsheim to wear canines—to represent the ferocity of his consumption. (A canine is the sign of the carnivore, while a molar is the slow, blunt apparatus of the ruminant.) But, if Wolfsheim represents one image of the forces of capital, one produced by capitalism and projected onto the Jew, as I argue here that he does, it could be that Fitzgerald worries about him grinding down American character. (Capitalism works fast and slow—it gets its fangs in, but it also wears down over time, slowly reducing everything to the same.) Or perhaps the molars are simply his trophies from some poor American whom he has consumed. He has expropriated that dope’s means of consumption.

Edith Wharton, in a letter to Fitzgerald, claimed the elaboration of Wolfsheim was sufficient justification for Gatsby to have been written, or at least, for her having read it: “it’s enough to make this reader happy to have met your perfect Jew.” Your perfect Jew. Here Wharton replaces Shylock as the perfect Jew of the canon with Wolfsheim, an American shyster no longer working with debt and flesh, but rather taking from the gentile his money as well as his molars. He is a man wholly of his moment, the monstrous child of the anxieties beholden to static and racist conceptions of the nation-state and the complexities of high finance developing during this second stage of industrialization. And, indeed, the dentist’s fusion with the Jewish speculator takes place within a particular idea of the dentist in American culture. After all, would Carraway have expected a cardiologist to wear his hearts on his sleeve?

3.

“How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness?” asks Egaeus, the narrator and protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice.” The 1835 horror story is also the tale of a beautiful young woman who suffered from an overzealous toothpuller. Egaeus would see her teeth in visions after Berenice leaves the room, their “white and ghastly spectrum” suspended before him, hovering in the air. He becomes obsessed with her smile, longing for it with a “phrenzied desire.” He has “no thoughts but for the teeth.” Indeed “the phantasma of teeth” become realer to him than Berenice herself. Only the possession of these teeth will restore him to reason again. They become the sign and symbol of the intensity of his love for his cousin.

The horror lies in what happens when Berenice is buried after an epileptic fit. Egaeus, mourning and lost to his “monomania,” finds himself alone in his study, when a servant knocks on his door to tell him that Berenice had been heard, screaming, and discovered not to be dead after all. She had been buried alive! And worse still, she had been “disfigured.” A spade by the wall, Egaeus’s muddy footsteps, and the trace of nails on his hand, reveal to him and his readers what had occurred. After the funeral, he had dug up her body and taken out all of 32 her teeth. The possession of her teeth had, indeed, restored him to a consciousness of sorts, if only consciousness of his terrible acts. He is now no longer in a fugue state, slowly realizing what he has done. He grabs a tin box that sits before him, but trembling, drops the container. The teeth of his beloved, scattering on the ground, is the story’s last image: “thirty-two small, white, and ivory looking substances.”

In Egaeus’s desire to capture beauty, he destroys it, leaving only a horror from which there can be no return. In Poe’s world this is an aesthetic trespass beyond grace, where only madness lies—for victim and perpetrator. Egaeus’s desire to extract ruins his world. The smile loses its enchanting character. The perfect teeth become but substances. Dislocated from their context, they lose their shape and meaning. It turns out that it was not the teeth themselves, but their relation to Berenice from which they drew their power. Their value as an image of love, as love’s currency, never inhered in themselves.

A perfect smile might be “priceless,” as so many contemporary advertisements underscore, but not necessarily in the way they suggest—certainly not in the 19th century. In Poe’s story, Egaeus unites dentist and gravedigger, revealing the hidden trade behind 19th-century dental practice. Poe had been inspired to write this story after reading about a ring of gravediggers who had been supplying dentists with replacement teeth. This was not uncommon practice throughout the 19th century. After the battles of the Napoleonic wars, the teeth of the slain soldiers were so routinely harvested for their teeth that for the rest of the century, “Waterloo Teeth” were sold to dentist’s offices for the fashioning of dentures. Indeed, this became the general name for human teeth involved in dentistry. Porcelain teeth did not first become mass produced until 1844.1

Until the latter half of the 19th century, one’s choice of dentures were then wood or ivory—both notorious for their tendency to decay noxiously in the mouth—or a tooth removed from a dead man. To possess the best replacement was only possible by despoiling the sacred. Little wonder that Poe fashioned a gothic tale out of the practices of dentistry. There was something almost of black magic about it, introducing into circulation in the mouth something that had been lost to the world of man—the teeth of the dead given new life, restored to living currency. In this light, the porcelain tooth represents almost a type of alchemy, the conversion of base matter to human organ, a gleaming tooth that would not develop caries, that would not stain, that would not decay, and that was not marred by profane origins.

It was not until the twentieth century that replacement teeth were not harvested from other bodies, living or dead, as a matter of course. Walrus and elephant ivory for dentures were sold to dentists until 1875, but over time porcelain became the replacement tooth of choice as mass production lowered its cost. Although the extraction of teeth from corpses still sometimes occurred, it had become increasingly less profitable than the extraction of labor on the factory floor.

4.

In the middle of the last century, around when Bubby, because of her son’s military service, could finally acquire American citizenship, teeth were extracted from the dead at a scale never witnessed before or since. When the Jews, the Roma, the disabled, and many others were killed en masse at death camps, dentists extracted the teeth of value from them—18 pounds of gold a day in Auschwitz. Sometimes Jewish dentists were assigned the task of pulling gold and silver teeth from the dead, as Benjamin Jacobs recounts in his memoir, The Dentist of Auschwitz. And there was also the trade plied by non-German gravediggers outside the camps, throughout the bloodlands of Eastern Europe. These unfortunates, seeking the stuff of value on and in the corpses, were also called “dentists.”

It was a specific noxious mixture of national and racial ideology that resulted in the Shoah, but capitalism did not cease to operate there—and even intensified. Marx writes of how “the vampire [i.e. capitalism] will not lose its hold on him [the laborer] ‘so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.’” But, even as Marx describes capitalism devouring the laborer, he stops before he reaches the teeth. In the perverse capitalism of the concentration and death camps, this capitalism that built on previous iterations in colonial spaces, the prisoners were worked to the bone. And then when they were deemed useless and murdered, their bodies also became sources of capital for the National Socialist state.

Teeth had been extracted in colonial conquest, the Napoleonic Wars, the Armenian Genocide, and the Spanish Civil War. However, the apparatus of the camps, perhaps, marked a shift in its liquidation of individuality in its extraction. Though “non-monetary” gold, as dental gold was euphemistically called, did contain dental amalgams, it was often melted and purified, at which point it became impossible to tell apart from any other gold bullion. The trace of the teeth, which had contained the markings of a life, vanished completely. Indeed, in 1996 the United States revealed that it had reissued a store of Nazi gold in the 1940s, melting it down, purifying it, and replacing the swastika on the bars with “United States Assay Office.” Underneath Manhattan, in the vaults of the Federal Reserve of New York, lies almost half a billion dollars of gold that could have come from human mouths.

I should mention that not all of the teeth that were extracted in the camps were, however, melted down into something else. Some of them made their way directly into other mouths. Jewish dentists in the camps have recounted replacing the teeth of their camps’ officers with the teeth of the dead. In the case of the Jewish dentist Benjamin Jacobs, his dental services to the German officers in Auschwitz allowed him to save his brother and father from being worked to death. For one gold tooth from a murdered man that he inserted into a Gestapo officer’s gums, he was able to save two lives.

As a former Lithuanian soldier implicated in Jewish executions testified in 1960, his fellow soldiers would sometimes harvest the teeth from the dead. Though it could appear superficially similar in kind to the scavenging of the dead after Waterloo, these were not casualties of war but rather murdered civilians. Zuzanna Dziuban offers a translation of an account of one soldier about his former comrade, Matiukas, who had participated in the execution of 18,000 people:

He showed them to us himself, they were laying in his hand. I asked what did he need the teeth for, and he explained that he was a dental technician, and his wife was a dentist. I saw around four teeth in Matiukas’ hand, they were cleaned and polished.

I cannot stop thinking about all of these teeth—more teeth than I can imagine. Even as I try to write about Bubby’s teeth in 1925, I am haunted by the teeth of the Shoah of 1945. Or maybe it is that, to write about Bubby, I too must be haunted by the Shoah.

The ghoulishness of “Waterloo teeth,” the extracted teeth of those already killed in the war, stands at the root of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror story, “Berenice.” “Berenice” contemplates the desecration of the sacred dead, a transgression of the body after it had been laid to rest, a finding value in a site that had been declared beyond price. However, the systematic extraction of the Shoah, the systematic extraction of the systematically murdered, was an ontological reduction of human beings into nothing but material for extraction. I am not trying to hold Poe up as a moral arbiter—his views on race are their own horror story—but his fiction recognized the horror of deracination, decontextualization, and depersonalization involved in extraction. The horror of his story comes from a recognition of humanity.

The horror of the Shoah emerges because there is no recognition of disfiguration. The very vastness of its scale obviated the possibility of disfigurement because these were not perceived as figures. They existed only insofar as they were disposable resources. Rather than drop the box in terror at the singular horror that one has committed, as in “Berenice,” the logic of the Shoah is to, if one even starts to shudder, repress it, and turn to the next corpse for extraction. It is the very impersonality of it that is most terrifying. Of course, this so-called inhumanity, according to the antisemitic imagination, an imagination hardly unique to Nazi Germany, was embodied by the Jew. They had only done to him what he would have done to them.

5.

The most infamous dentist in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century wore a necklace of 357 teeth, which he claimed to have extracted in a single day. Painless Parker, who changed his legal first name from Edgar to Painless to avoid lawsuits from the American Dental Association about his advertising, traveled with a circus in tow, administering anesthetic cocaine and pulling teeth for 50 cents a pop. By the end of his life, he oversaw a minor empire of dental offices that spanned the nation.

He makes a cameo of sorts in the first feature film about a dentist, Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, which came out in 1924. It is the appearance of Doctor “Painless” Potter at Big Dipper Gold Mine that inspires the mother of McTeague, the film’s protagonist, to apprentice her boy to him. Potter is an itinerant dentist, traveling from town to town, pulling teeth in the center of the saloon, and likely filling cavities with amalgams made of deadly mercury. In the mining town he is afforded the kind of respect of which McTeague’s mother dreams for her son. He is the center of the men’s attention; they gather around the chair where he will remove their rotted teeth to watch him perform on their friends. This Potter represents a 19th-century notion of dentistry, a tradesman who never went to school but learned the profession as an apprentice. He has practical wisdom, but no accreditation. He has learned on the job, just like the miners.

Underscoring the humble origins of this form of dentistry, as well as perhaps its central motivation, Greed begins not in a dentist’s office but in Big Dipper Gold Mine. One of its first intertitles reads, as if the title hadn’t already underscored its interest:

GOLD-GOLD-GOLD-GOLD
Bright and yellow, hard and cold,
molten, graven, hammered, rolled,
hard to get and light to hold;
Stolen, Borrowed, Squandered—Doled.

Stroheim’s adaptation of Frank Norris’s 1899 novel, McTeague, Greed presents the tragedy of McTeague, a man of superhuman strength and determination, who, cast out of the dental profession by the new rules of accreditation, falls into depression, drunkenness, and ultimately thievery and murder. The 19th century was rationalizing at a ferocious pace, but not evenly across society. Dentistry sought to modernize with new dental schools, standardized regulations, and exhibitions of new technology. It would elevate the examination of teeth to a proper medical science, a currency of respectability. McTeague, on the other hand, seeks respectability through wealth, the “famous golden molar with its huge prongs” that he hangs outside of his shop. This molar’s gold represents his prosperity—and it is through this sign that he is known as and knows himself as an upstanding citizen and successful practitioner. However, these two visions of respectability clash—and McTeague, but a single man, even if one with superhuman strength, is crushed by the system.

The association of dentistry and greed certainly was, of course, original to neither Stroheim nor Norris. The idea that the dentist was somehow profiting from pain is there in Lucas van Leyden’s 1523 engraving, “Tooth Extraction,” which depicts a man pulling out a tooth while a woman, presumably his accomplice, picks the victim’s pocket. The relationship between teeth and literal gold came about when Pierre Fauchard, known as “the Father of Dentistry,” began to use gold in his practice. The Frenchman would fashion dentures for 18th-century nobles out of the teeth of dead men, securing them to a spring-loaded metal base, and, in an attempt to hinder decay, sometimes applying gold jeweler’s enamel to the teeth. Thus, to hide the rot was the gold denture invented. Gold, it turned out, is not corroded by saliva.

However, Norris’s novel suggests, gold does corrode the soul. Nowhere is this more evident than in the failed marriage of Zerkow, the Jewish pawnbroker, and Maria, the Mexican cleaning woman. Maria’s stories of a childhood of wealth, where her parents owned a set of golden dinnerware, including, most tantalizingly, a golden bowl, becomes an obsession for Zerkow, who marries her so he can hear her repeat the story. However, after Maria undergoes a horrific childbirth, which leaves her in “dementia” for days, she can no longer remember the tale. It is unclear if these stories are fantasies of which the childbirth disillusioned her or if she has forgotten what really did happen. However, as Norris writes, the story continues to circulate: “the idea of the gold plate had passed entirely out of her mind, and it was now Zerkow who labored under its hallucination.”

Zerkow, presumably driven mad by this phantasmic wealth he cannot possess, turns cruel and abusive to Maria before he murders her. The day of her death Zerkow is found drowned in the harbor, clutching a worthless bag of junk. Similarly, McTeague goes mad when he loses his dentistry practice, and out of a crazed desire for the $5,000 his wife has, who herself has been turned mean and miserly by her fortune, kills her. He too ends up unmoored, in the midst of the sands of Death Valley rather than the water of San Francisco’s harbor, clutching the money that has lost any practical value for him because it cannot prevent him from perishing.

Greed, obviously, dooms both Zerkow and McTeague. Their fantasies of acquisition have unleashed such desire in them that only does it lead them to kill but ultimately proves suicidal. Their similar fates bring together the professions of pawnbrokers and dentists, who, one could say, in an uncharitable reading, make their living through the pain of others; the pawnbroker deals with customers in financial duress, the dentist with physically ailing patients. But their professions also transform private spaces into public markets. A pawnbroker buys and trades the objects of the hearth, while the dentist makes the mouth into a site of extraction and exchange. In this way, they both extend the realm of capital, finding goods for circulation, such as teeth to pull, or returning the stuff of the home to the market. However, while McTeague is called “the Dentist,” Zerkow is named not the pawnbroker or junkman, but rather “the Jew.” I have written this wrong: it is not the dentist and the pawnbroker who make their living through extraction, but rather “the Dentist” and “the Jew.”

6.

Figures like Wolfsheim, this perfect Jew, were almost the pretext to ensure that when my great-grandmother visited a dentist in 1925, it would be a dentist in Havana rather than, say, Boston, where she eventually landed in 1929. Wolfsheim is all that the eugenicists feared about modernity—rootless capital, rootless cosmopolitans, rootless teeth. Not only is he a foreign body in the organism of the nation, but by extracting the nation’s wealth and teeth, he represents the disintegration of the body politic. Where Poe’s Egaeus had defaced his beloved in pursuit of her smile—he at least had an aesthetic desire—Wolfsheim stands as a figure whose desire to extract capital promises only to destroy American unity. He cares only for the substance, regardless of the context.

The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 played upon such demonic images of the Other. Though the push for the bill’s passage, led by the Klansman Senator, Albert Johnson, tried to avoid an explicit eugenic appeal. It cloaked its racism in an appeal to so-called American character. Building on the nefarious success of limiting immigration from Asia, which had been increasingly constrained from 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924 transformed the American Immigration system. Rigid quotas were instituted, keeping immigration to 2% of the number of so-called foreign nationals in the United States in 1890, a choice that choked off the immigrants from South and Eastern Europe. The idea, as the popular conservative magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, put it, was “the safeguarding of our national blood stream.”

The idea of the “national blood stream” reminds us how prevalent an organicist conception of the United States, or better put, America, was in this period. It was conceived, as F.W. Coker writes in Organismic Theories of the State in 1910, as “a living entity”:

These writers described the “tissues” of the State-structure, referred to its systems of nutrition and circulation, and indicated organs fulfilling specifically the functions of brain, nerve fibers, heart, muscles, etc; some found in the State even such organs as stomach, navel, or nose.

Or, one could add, the teeth. The anti-immigration discourse on the Melting Pot figured immigration as a matter of “racial indigestion,” a dish that did not come together and, passing through the teeth, would only sicken the United States. Immigrants, after all, came to Ellis Island through the jaws of the harbor. America’s teeth stood guard at the border.

In this light, Wolfsheim’s extraction of teeth is both a violation of the integrity of the American border as well as an extraction of American vitality. Carrying these teeth, he has left a gap where others like him can come through. And, in doing so, he has eaten away at the energy of the state. The American from whom he has extracted these molars could complain, like the toothless Anse Burden in William Faukner’s As I Lay Dying, that he is unable to “eat God’s own victuals as a man should.” Wolfsheim’s possession of these teeth is a sign of American decay, the fall of a once-great Nordic nation.

Indeed, in perhaps another sign of the changing character of the American organism, by the time As I Lay Dying was published in 1929, Bubby and her family had arrived in the United States, made it to the tenements of Boston’s West End. The specter of Wolfsheim and his molars didn’t keep them out, though, of course, he and other visions of Jews like him continued to circulate as phantasms on both sides of the Atlantic, the currency of fascist politics of the era, with big and small fs. However, that story is a story for another time.

7.

“Everybody knows about tree rings, but nobody knows about the time lines in teeth. Why is that?” The human evolutionary biologist Tanya Smith argues that teeth tell a story. “They are so much more personal.”

Bubby’s dentures were able to lie in a way that her real teeth could not, in part because she didn’t have them—and, in part, because they wouldn’t have been legible to her abductor even if she did. Teeth are considered a currency of youth, dentures of age. Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth insists on the tales the mouth can contain, the value that can emerge from it, both in the form of teeth and words.

Luiselli’s 2015 novel takes the form of the dental autobiography of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who is born with four premature teeth and grows up to become a security guard, then an experimental dancer, before ultimately finding his calling as an auctioneer. “I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects,” he declares, “but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.”

The novel, which emerged out of a residency Luiselli received from the Jumex Collection, the Jumex juice company’s world famous art collection, tells of how Highway begins collecting objects and telling stories as a child, when his father would flick his torn fingernails at him. They become the objects around which he literally draws as a kid and ultimately comes to narrate his life story as an adult. While Wolfsheim’s cufflinks are ground smooth, like “ivory,” Highway notes the traces of life that mark each object. He auctions the teeth of figures such as Plato, Augustine, Petrarch, and Rousseau, to name just a few of the luminaries whose ephemera he claims to own.

At the center of the novel is Highway’s betrayal by his son, Siddhartha, who schemes to deprive him of all he owns because “he thought it folkloric enough to make a good statement.” Conspiring with a priest, Siddhartha tricks his father into signing away all of his goods in the preparation for an auction that was supposed to raise money for the Church. After the auction, Siddhartha, now the deeded owner of all of his father’s worldly goods, including “the sacred teeth of none other than Marilyn Monroe” that stand in Highway’s mouth, drugs his father and pays a dentist, “those sinister doctors,” to take them all out.

When Highway wakes up the next morning, it is for him as if the “Bernini’s St. Peter’s Colonnade” has suddenly disappeared. He goes “to pieces.” But soon, he locates himself in a new story—a quest narrative: “I need to recover my dignities—my teeth, that is—because I can’t recycle anything without them, let alone eat or speak like a human being.”

However, the book is less concerned with the trauma of this extraction than with Highway’s irrepressible storytelling. As Jacobo de Voragine, Highway’s protégé, who writes down and completes the text, notes:

When Highway first began to recount his stories to me, I thought he was a compulsive liar. But then, living with him, I realized that it had less to do with lying than surpassing the truth.

The book itself is the attempt at a resolution, telling the story of Highway’s past teeth so as to earn enough money to pay for new, implanted teeth. But it is also a series of auctions, where Highway demonstrates his various styles of selling an object. By the book’s end, Highway has recovered his teeth, wearing them as dentures where before they had been implanted into his gums, and sometimes plays them like castanets during his performances as an auctioneer. They might no longer be the teeth of his gums, but they have become something else, their very falseness a new narrative element in his arsenal.

The novel ends on an ambivalent note, with a letter that Highway leaves his estranged son, forgiving him and offering an apology for being a bad father. It ends:

You can also keep
All my collectibles, and
The Marylin [sic] Monroe teeth,
Which were false anyway.

Were the teeth false because they were false teeth, as in not his own? Or were they false because they were not those of “Marylin Monroe”?

The Story of My Teeth insists, one might even say defensively, on the transformative power of narrative. Highway’s job as auctioneer is to provide a story that connects his audience to the materials he is selling, to recontextualize the “white substances” of Berenice so that their beauty can be found again. However, is it ever truly possible to recover the roots that were lost?

8.

To construct a narrative is not necessarily to surpass the truth—unless one means to surpass the truth as it once was, to find a new truth. One can transfigure value also by simple redescription, extending and expanding the skein of relation so that this luminous thread runs through the entirety of the present’s flashing image. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari write of this network of relation as rhizomatic—a web of growing connections without fixed origin. They follow the “bible of the American dentist,” which they propose as a quote from Patti Smith: “don’t go for the root, follow the canal.”

One way of telling this story of Bubby would be to emphasize how it is her story alone, or the story only of Eastern-European Jews in the interwar period. This story would doubtless turn on the founding of Israel in 1948. And yet, while certain Jews acquired territory and there emerged a Jewish state, it was hardly the end of the migrant. Indeed, it was also the tragic beginning of new migrations.

Another way would be to emphasize how her position is not just a Jewish one, but shares a great deal with the Syrians entering Greece and Hondurans entering the United States, who would have preferred to remain, if not for regional conflicts and insecurity. Who, after all, desires to uproot one’s world? This is to say that it is one can tell a story of relation and intersection or reify impossible divisions.

One can narrate the United States as an organic entity, emerging from the pioneer spirit and the blood of the Anglo-Saxon “founding fathers.” But one can also conceive the nation as always-already a construction, an ongoing negotiation of distinct demographics—never an organic entity, but always a constructed and negotiated one—and which requires an ongoing reckoning with the nation’s colonial origins in bloody conquest.

In other words, dentures can, in some stories, always be a burden, something foreign to the mouth. Or, painful though they might be, they can also be one’s teeth.

Some stories insist that it is only dentists and Jews who take part in extraction, when, obviously, we all must extract capital to live. And yet, it is little surprise that this splitting occurs. The isolation of extraction can appear to be the very thing that seems to stand against life. But to tell such stories is to imagine that the “we” is somehow completely separate from the “other.” It is to suggest there is a permanent difference in kind. It is to claim perfect innocence.

Stories serve, of course, not only to modify the value of objects but, more perniciously, classes of people, to fix Jews, or Mexicans, or Palestinians, or Black Americans as beyond relation, as expendable.

It seems to me that there is clearly more value to some of these stories than to others. To deny the skein of relations in which we live is to deny the multiplicity and heterogeneity and indeed relational nature of life itself. It is as if one were to say that the teeth in one’s mouth exist independent of the gums, that each tooth is not reliant on and vulnerable to the other as well as the state of the tongue, saliva, and temperature of the humid world in which it finds itself.

As the professor of African American studies, Alexander G. Weheliye, writes in Habeas Viscus, “the concentration camp, the colonial outpost, and slave plantation suggest three of many relay points in the weave of modern politics, which are neither exceptional nor comparable, but simply relational.” The world we live in has emerged from these structures and remains striated by them. They mark the lives we lead in different and unequal ways. But they mark our lives, and our teeth. Even when we go out for a walk on the street.

9.

Montclair, New Jersey. 1972.

“An egg cream for the mister. Yes, sir.”

“And for the young lady? Apple pie. With whipped cream on the side? A little ice cream is nice?”

Unable to say no to this small, gently smiling babushka, dressed fetchingly, if somewhat against type, in the iconic American hat and uniform of the mid-century sodajerk, the two teenagers couldn’t help but order apple pie à la mode.

Bubby bought her Polident at Petty’s Drugstore, in Montclair, New Jersey, on Bloomfield Avenue. Every evening, she’d drop in a fizzing tablet into the water with her dentures on the white wooden shelf in the bathroom. Petty’s doesn’t exist in Montclair anymore, but it was also there that, in the ’70s—which were also her 70s—Bubby served soft drinks and ice cream from behind its counter. She wouldn’t push food on her customers, but sometimes her tongue, pressing against her dentures, might gently cluck in mock disapproval if they decided against ordering the nice ice cream. It would be a mistake.

With her grandchildren having moved out of the house, and her husband having passed away, she had moved herself out too—to a small apartment from which she walked to the pharmacy’s food counter. It was a job, it was labor, but also it was more. She took care of herself, but also of other people. She worked as a companion for some of the more elderly ladies she met, longer established in the United States, hooking her arm under their elbows as they crossed the street. In her spare moments she baked strudel and pies to help support this cause or that.

She moves deliberately and rapidly behind the counter. Punctuating her motions with two short, linked inhalations, sliding like a soft trombone, she readies food and drinks for the kids and adults from the surrounding towns at the integrated counter. They talk and smile as they eat the food she’s placed before them. Friends of her grandchildren who did not leave the town, or have come back from college, sit down and say hello. They chat. She might be a transplant, from Dolchinov to Havana, Boston to Montclair, but she has also rooted herself in this tiny city on the East Coast, filled with dentist offices and glistening, American teeth.

10.

There is a series of four photos, taken by one of my parents, of Bubby reading to me. I must be two or three. I’m clad in turquoise corduroy overalls, and she has one arm looped under mine, securing me firmly to her lap, where I’m comfortably nestled. My chubby concentrated face looks a little sinister, but I have not yet become a little shit, trying to correct her pronunciation of Vs and Ws in the back of the car. I have no idea what her life has been. I have little idea what life is, really.

In three of these images, she is reading. Her mouth forms different words, each one marked by her experiences, carrying the traces of the languages she learned before English and the dentures that she wears. She is patiently reading to me from a red book with a pigtailed blond character on its back. She is teaching me about how words shape the world, creating stories that lend new value to experience—or at least how stories are nice, a concept I could understand then.

When I look at these images now, I can see how her dentures, both bottom and top, are slightly crooked, the tendencies of her body subtly reworking the dentist’s creation. I had no idea, then, that these weren’t always her teeth. She was my Bubby, unique, and not in a relation to history or time or to the many immigrant stories that have been like hers, that have shared her pain of being uprooted, even as their specific circumstances might be different. She might have been Jewish, but this story I tell here is not independent of her experiences as an immigrant and refugee, as a woman, and as a figure who was racialized by the world in which she lived. But that, of course, is not all there is to tell about her—just as not all there is to tell about her teeth is that they were taken from her and that these are only dentures.

In the final photo she holds me up and looks to the camera, smiling. That is how I choose for this story to end. There is, of course, the story of private sadness, of mourning for the many lost, and of the rich world she never fully recovered—the story of the migrant that takes on its own distinct aspects with each instance. But here, in these photos, the sign and symbol of the teeth are not irreducibly fixed. In this moment, she shows them, smiling, and they can only be, whatever else they have been, hers.


1 The search for porcelain had been the sort of thing sought after like the sorcerer’s stone. Eighteenth-century noblemen huffed rot as their dentures decayed in their mouths, their saliva wearing away the ivory and wood from which their dentures were made. They offered mouth-watering amounts of money for less fragrant replacements. Dentists mixed coral and pearls, olive tree resin and mastic root, but it wasn’t until the 19th century when Alexis Duchâteau, an apothecary in Germain-en-Laye, and the dentist Nicholas Dubois de Chemant, first figured out how to fire porcelain teeth—though it still took some time to become effectively mass produced.

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