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Fun with Teeth: How Dental Imagery Works in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

in Ark Review/Essays/Long read by

“Teeth,” WebMD informs me, “are the hardest substances [sic] in the human body”.

WebMD, to be fair, is not renowned for its semantic precision. Nor its grammatical prowess. Nor its utility as a diagnostic tool. Indeed, WebMD is borderline infamous (albeit endearingly so) for inviting the bored and mildly infirmed to abduce that the cause of their runny nose is, in fact, some archaic and/or incurable illness. WebMD’s authors and editors have little time, I’d imagine, for pedantry of the degree championed by the made-up Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts from David Foster Wallace’s 1996 magnum opus, Infinite Jest. And nor should they! For if WebMD were not as risibly inattentive to lexical particulars as they are, I might not have mustered this roundabout introductory preamble; an intentionally infuriating homage to the “tortured and freewheeling” topical transition of the parodic Academese essay plagiarised by junior tennis player Jim Struck in endnote #304 of the novel.

I want to talk about teeth, the mouth, and oral hygiene in Infinite Jest (hereafter IJ). Forwhy? My reasons are threefold. Firstly, given how much casual commentary there is floating around the blogosphere about themes and symbolism in IJ, proportionally little of it (at least upon a most cursory Googling) concerns teeth, the mouth, and oral hygiene. This strikes me as odd, given how much of IJ’s page-space is devoted to descriptions of teeth and mouths in various states of sterility or, oppositely and often alarmingly, disrepair. The word “teeth” is used no fewer than one hundred and twenty-three times across the book’s thousand-or-so pages. The singular form, “tooth,” appears no fewer than sixty-four times. “Gum(s)” comes in at forty-odd mentions (though admittedly I haven’t checked to see how many of these refer to the mastication product), and “tongue” is written ‘round about seventy-nine times.

The second reason I want to talk about teeth, the mouth, and oral hygiene in IJ is that, for me, several passages that make reference to the mouth and associated rituals constitute the most screamingly funny and impeccably played-out scenes in the entire masterwork. Funny because they’re frequently farcical; “screamingly” so because they’re simultaneously shudderingly revolting. Revulsion is relevant. Accordingly, in this idle thinkpiece, disgust shall be discussed.

Reason the third is somewhat epistemological. I’m going to attempt a cross-cultural, reader-centric explanation as to how teeth, the mouth, and oral hygiene serve as such effective vessels for symbolic meaning in IJ. It’s taken for granted that the book’s most prominent theme is addiction in all its various forms and degrees of severity, and I’d like to bolster and build upon this truism by pointing towards various aspects of our necessarily-embodied perceptual and phenomenological experience as perhaps the most plausible explanations for why D. F. W.’s dental metaphors are so chillingly effective. Universally effective, I’d argue. “How so?”, I hear you cry. “Everything is culture-bound. There can be no meaning without context, which is largely geo- and/or demographically determined. Not everybody will regard a lack of oral hygiene as gross.”

And I’d thereby like to make meaningful connections between evolutionary psychology and literary interpretation in a way that seeks to prioritise our understanding of our own mental experience in response to the text over our understanding of the text—often unwittingly implied as existing in a vacuum—in and of itself.

True enough, some individuals may be largely desensitised to dontic dread. Dentists, for instance, probably seldom balk at the sight of a holey, withered, yellowing incisor. But I’d nevertheless like to persuade you that certain features of our common human physiology are highly determining of our affective and behavioural responses to certain imagery. And I’d thereby like to make meaningful connections between evolutionary psychology and literary interpretation in a way that seeks to prioritise our understanding of our own mental experience in response to the text over our understanding of the text—often unwittingly implied as existing in a vacuum—in and of itself.

Only after laying out my theses as to how and why teeth, the mouth, and oral hygiene serve as such shocking conduits of metaphorical meaning in IJ, will I unfurl my own brief reading as to what mouths mean in the book. I’ll start by reviewing but four examples of teeth, the mouth, and oral hygiene being effectively deployed to affective ends in IJ, in case you’re inquisitive and/or bats enough to be reading this without having first read the book.

Our ephebic primary protagonist, Hal Incandenza, has a loose molar. No biggie. We’ve all lost teeth, sometimes even in late adolescence. But Hal does like to poke and prod at said molar methodically and periodically, rocking the enamel jewel back and forth in its socket with his tongue—the tooth tethered by a singular sinewy nerve—so to expose the tender void ‘neath. Hal veritably revels, it would seem, in the sucking sound and sensation produced by the loose tooth’s four roots see-sawing around in their sensitive, fleshy holes.

Is the skin on your head tingling yet? No? Alright. Hal also has a recurring dream:

Hal had this horrible new recurring dream where he was losing his teeth, where his teeth had become like shale and splintered when he tried to chew, and fragmented and melted into grit in his mouth; in the dream he was … spitting fragments and grit, getting more and more hungry and scared. (p. 449)

Yikes. What do garden-variety frameworks of dream interpretation have to say about this? Standard frameworks of dream interpretation—often couched, unsurprisingly, in either Freudian or Jungian psychoanalysis (and bastardised further, it would seem, by websites even more spurious than the aforementioned WebMD)—suggest that dreams of losing/crumbling teeth relate to anxiety, insecurity, loss of control, compromise, life-changes, and so on. Rational, yes. Intuitable, certainly. But let’s see whether we can strive for a modicum of empiricism!

Keeping within the realm of dreams, another lead character, Joelle van Dyne, a.k.a. Madame Psychosis, a.k.a. Lucille Duquette, a.k.a. P.G.O.A.T. (Prettiest Girl of All Time), freebase crack smoker and, often relatedly, habitual/obsessive scourer of surfaces, also has a dental dream. In Joelle’s dental dream, she’s laid back in the trademark mechanical chair with boxcar custodian of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic] Don Gately leaning over her, dressed as a mouth doctor, poking around in her gaping oral orifice. Wallace’s description of this dream subtly yet successfully conveys Joelle’s unrealised fondness for Don G., with narration noting the warmth of his meaty, ungloved digits working her mouth; the “abstract” kindness of his eyes contributing a “yielding and trustful quality of calm” to the scenario. The passage is tranquil in that particular, paradoxically unnerving way only a brightly-lit, sterile-smelling medical office can be. But the sequence is not without alarm. Glimpsing her own not-so-pearly whites in dream dentist Don G.’s circular handheld mirror, Joelle sees

long rows of canine teeth, tapered and sharp, with then more rows of canines behind them, in reverse. The countless rows of the teeth are all sharp and strong and unblackened but tinged at the tips with an odd kind of red, as of old blood, the teeth of a creature that carelessly tears at meat. … [Joelle] is seized with fear of her teeth, a terror, and as her spread mouth spreads farther to cry out in fear all she can see in the little round mirror are endless red-stained rows of teeth leading back and away down a pitch black pipe… (p. 724)

As is common in real life, it’s likely that the character’s teeth dream was bootstrapped at least in part by waking encounters with similar stimuli. That preceding evening, Joelle was treated to exhibitions and accompanying descriptions of fellow recovering addicts’ “blackened and disintegrating,” “corroded stumps” (p. 723). I dare you to Google image search “crack cocaine teeth”.

Let’s move from fictional dreams to fictional films. Hal’s late father, James O. Incandenza, was a world-renowned optics expert and prolific filmmaker. One of his features, Fun with Teeth, is a black and white silent film “w/ non-human screams and howls,” in which a dentist “performs sixteen unanesthetized root-canal procedures on an academic … he suspects of involvement with his wife…” (p. 987). I dare you to Google image search “root canal surgery”.

Another horror committed to magnetic tape within the novel’s alternate near-future concerns titanically successful advertising firm Viney and Veals’ continued exploits in pathos-as-blunt-rhetorical-strategy (successfully creating, it is shrewdly noted, “an anxiety relievable by purchase,” p. 414). The ad in question is the latest in a series of hysterically evocative segments to garner pointed criticism and yet simultaneously sharply increase product sales. This time, V&V are advertising NoCoat brand tongue-scrapers, and, in their exploration of “the eschatology of emotional appeals” (p. 414), manage to cross “some kind of psychoaesthetic line” (p. 413), thereby “[shaking] viewers to the existential core” (p. 414):

[T]he NoCoat spots’ chilling emotional force could be located in the exaggerated hideousness of the near-geologic layer of gray-white material coating the tongue of the otherwise handsome pedestrian who accepts a gorgeous meter maid’s coquettish invitation to have a bit of a lick of the ice cream cone she’s just bought from an avuncular sidewalk vendor. The lingering close-up on an extended tongue that must be seen to be believed, coat-wise. (pp. 413–414)

I dare you to Google image search “coated tongue”.

About halfway through drafting this piece, I did find a similarly-opinioned blog post from 2014. Its author shares my conviction that denticulations and things that can happen to them may be the zenith of abhorrence in IJ; “the apogee of dread,” as they eloquently put it. It’s full of apposite observations, the post, and arguably does a better, more concise job than I do here of communicating quite how minging descriptions of teeth, the mouth, and oral hygiene can be, within the context of IJ’s largely piteous, drug-addled universe. But the post is indeed quite short. It misarticulates the role of cognition in the phenomenon of interest (i.e., disgust), and it stops shy of (A) expounding the extent to which the teeth etc. device is used or (B) offering an understanding of causal mechanisms and/or epiphenomena at play. Allow me to use a misphrasing of theirs to springboard into my own exposition:

Not one of us can deny the powerful physical effects of this novel’s most disturbing moments. I have watched arms curl, jaws stiffen, hands rush to cover defenseless knees, heard breath entering lungs at staggering rates—all involuntarily—at the mere mention of certain events in Infinite Jest. The reactions are unavoidable, superseding the mollification of cognition.

The author is right, I think, about such reactions being largely involuntary and generally unavoidable. But it would seem as though the author is using cognition in a way that renders it dichotomous with affect. Cognition as I understand it is part of our emotional experience. Cognition cued by imagery of smashed and splintered teeth, shrivelled stubs, fungus-like tongue coatings (and so on) is scantly “mollifying,” per my understanding. Au contraire: The adaptive evolutionary advantage of affective states underpinned by perceiving or imagining another’s extreme displeasure lies precisely in bringing us as close as possible to the experience of the other. Teleologically, empathic disgust is mortifying; functionally, it is mirroring: We empathically “mirror” that which we perceive (literally, via our sense organs) to be happening to other people, real or fictive. Without wanting to delve into the ongoing debate as to whether neuroscientists are yet justified in generalising the role of so-called “mirror neurons” found in macaque monkeys to the domain of human cognition, suffice to say that if you watch someone accidentally smash their fingers with a hammer, more or less all the same brain regions will light up (as confirmed in and by fMRI scans) as if you were the unlucky finger-hammerer yourself. Fortunately, of course, the actual pain receptors in your non-smashed digits decline to fire.

Painting still in quite broad strokes, the really wild thing is that this isn’t an exclusively perception-driven phenomenon, empathic mirroring; it also happens to an extent when you simply imagine something, e.g. by mentally reconstructing an authored verbal description. Were I to describe a fresh puddle of hot, smelly vomit, you automatically consult your previous experience of similar situations and literally simulate—in your entire embodied nervous system; not just your brain—that experience, effecting highly similar psychophysiological reactions. Some people might even gag or retch at the thought; especially if I were to encourage the reader to imagine bending down over that spicy puddle of chunder and taking a nice, deep inhalation. Hence, presumably, D. F. W.’s (and my) insistent descriptions of all o’ them nasty mouth things have heretofore successfully made you feel at least slightly disgusted.

This is the container metaphor, or the “interior–boundary–exterior” image schema. It denotes the idea (and reality) that certain surfaces demarcate and protect that which they are contiguous to. The violation of some boundaries, biological or otherwise, can spell disaster.

Empathic imagining is an enabling factor, then, but what even is disgust? Disgust is a curious emotion. It’s very direct. You seldom have to engage in introspection to figure out whether or not you’re truly, viscerally disgusted. It’s not one of those fancy emotions like schadenfreude or ennui, which are kind of tertiary and abstract by comparison. Paul Ekman considers disgust to be one of six “basic” emotions, insofar as it is prelinguistic and irreducible, seemingly universally experienced, and has a distinct accompanying facial expression that likewise transcends upbringing. The Handbook of Emotions (Third Edition) notes that “[t]he English term ‘disgust’ itself means ‘bad taste,’ and the facial expression of disgust can be seen as functional in rejecting unwanted foods and odors” (p. 758). (Another interesting factoid best explored another day is that the word for taste—as in, “your taste in epistemology is vile”—has etymological links to olfaction or gustation in almost every language.) So there’s a big clue: It’s generally accepted that the disgusted reaction helped prevent our hunter-gatherer forebears from ingesting spoiled or otherwise nasty edibles. Contamination is a key concept here; perhaps the most superordinate in my argument. We also avoid feces (unlike dogs, thankfully), visible signs of infection (think chickenpox) and, often relatedly, violations of physical bodily integrity.

The envelope formed by your skin isn’t just handy for keeping, like, dust and dirt off your spleen. Along with other features of our anatomy, the boundary of the dermis serves to reinforce a vital ontological metaphor that shapes how we understand the world not just as civilised beings, but as physical entities. Some readers may by now have clocked that I’ll loosely be following points laid out in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By. Very briefly, we are all creatures that walk upright; we all have heads; our heads sit atop our shoulders; our heads have faces, and our facial features—several of them important sense organs—are on the front of our heads, literally establishing which way is forward, which just so happens to be the direction in which people prefer to perambulate. Lakoff and Johnson argue that our humanoid embodiment and cephalic topology enable—even determine—a number of spatial and orientational metaphors. They note that across linguistic cultures, progress is metaphorically but irrevocably tied to forward motion (also, time is described as moving forwards); down is unhappy, unconscious (i.e., literally sleeping), and depraved (“that was low, even for you”), whereas up is invariably positive; awake; respectable (“get up!”, “you’re held in high regard”), and so on. Most of their examples are written in English, but we’re assured of their claims’ generalisability, and the core theory seems darned plausible given how they relate each and every metaphor itemised to physicality.

Among the orientational metaphors that invisibly pervade and shape our experience of the world, there are, as mentioned, also ontological metaphors. “We are physical beings,” Lakoff and Johnson write, “bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skins, and we experience the rest of the world as outside us” (p. 29). This is the container metaphor, or the “interior–boundary–exterior” image schema. It denotes the idea (and reality) that certain surfaces demarcate and protect that which they are contiguous to. The violation of some boundaries, biological or otherwise, can spell disaster. National borders can be breached by little green men; private servers can be infiltrated by fancy bears. Shy of disaster, even, such violations can easily sow discord, paranoia, and anxiety. The Crimean Peninsula is a physical place, but what began there in 2014, and what happened—and continues to happen—to high-profile Western IT systems at the hands of former-Soviet black-hat hackers-for-hire is, foremost, psychological warfare. Effective psychological warfare, I’d argue, because it’s abstractly linked to disgust, via the notion of violation and subsequent contamination. Like Wallace’s prose, no direct perceptual witnessing is needed; imagination is what does the work of violation and disgust, here. It’s like being told there’s a tapeworm in your gut, but not being able to (or needing to) see or feel it. It’s like discovering a massive, inaccessible cyst, way under the surface of your skin. Instinctively, we do not want unrecognised and/or foreign bodies inside of our bodies or body politics, unless invited, even when their cause is ultimately endogenous. But while we’re on a geopolitical tip, let’s not limit my critique to modern-day Russia. Contemptible rhetorical devices devised in service of vilifying certain populations has always leveraged the idea of contamination. In 2015, rival fuckwits David Cameron and Nigel Farage were each called out for likening migrants to pests. (“Swarms,” I believe, was the word they each used.) It’s a discursive strategy as old as the hills, but still worth remembering that the next time your friendly neighbourhood populist evokes disgust, they’re appealing to an evolutionarily intrinsic part of our individual and collective psyches.

Our innate disgust at the idea of contamination is why, I believe, teeth, the mouth, and oral hygiene are such compelling sites of affective imagery, especially in IJ. The mouth is already the biggest hole in our bodily envelope, so it follows that we’d be doubly squeamish about what happens in and to it. There’s also the counterpoint observation that the mouth is a primary site of extreme hedonic pleasure. The rich, velvety daub of cheesecake slathering the palette; the glossal abandon of a deep, impassioned kiss. Moreover, cognitive dissonance stemming from one of our greatest anatomical assets also being our most delicate liability may be unconscious, but perhaps contributes to the magnitude of the reactions previously described. What Wallace achieves with his vivid, repulsive descriptions of cavities in teeth and wounds in mouths is essentially nested compound metaphor—holes within holes; a vulnerability within a vulnerability. We’re perfectly comfortable with holes in our bodies when they’re natural and have necessary biological functions, but small, unexpected holes have (pre-)historically signalled extreme danger.

One last phenomenon I’ll point to is trypophobia. It’s not formally recognised in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual V, but, then again, they’ve just decided that Internet addiction disorder is discrete enough a behavioural maladaptation to be considered a specific mental condition—almost as if they can be influenced indirectly by lobbying interests! (Consider the APA’s role in the U.S.A.’s opioid crisis, also predicted by the ever-prescient D. F. W. in IJ.) Trypophobia describes the very real aversion to clusters of small holes or deep, tightly-packed divots in (esp. organic) surfaces. Some trypophobes are triggered by the mere sight of a strawberry’s skin; the surface-embedded seeds’ repetitive undulations somehow reminiscent of contaminated corium. Other trypophobes are set off by images of lotus flower pods; this is my own approximate trigger threshold for a mildly disgusted reaction, often manifesting as light cranial goosebumps. Something about the depth and contour of the holes in lotus flower pods is, for me, evocative of how the bot fly or the mangoworm—two especially emetic, ectoparasitic pests; do not Google—burrow into the host’s skin and anchor themselves uninvited in bespoke recesses that (thankfully, perhaps), while breaching tissue, rarely haemorrhage. A recent paper hypothesises quite plausibly that “aversion to clusters is an evolutionarily prepared response towards a class of stimuli that resemble cues to the presence of parasites and infectious disease. Trypophobia may be an exaggerated and overgeneralised version of this normally adaptive response,” further noting that respondents “also described skin sensations (e.g. skin itching or skin crawling)” upon exposure to said stimuli. If the image of the toothed shoes at the top of this page makes you feel physically uncomfortable—makes your skin crawl, for example—you might be experiencing something like a mild trypophobic reaction.

My opening gambit—the WebMD quote—wasn’t entirely derisive. Teeth are indeed comprised of some of the toughest substances in the human body, and, as such, are particularly alarming to see riddled with holes; holes that might signal the presence of a nestling parasite or the prior work of a corrosive pathogen having eaten its way through your enamel. This is how I’m linking boundaries, holes, teeth, and disgust in my mind palace: IJ’s descriptions of unfortunate mouths might not be precisely trypophobic in their imagery, but they do elicit a similar reaction in normal populations, irrespective of cultural background. But what does it all mean?

The meaning of some of IJ’s dental imagery is fairly self-evident, although it isn’t necessarily consistent. One of the story’s undercover agents undergoes “full dental extraction” in order to accommodate ever-more-elaborate disguises: He spends much of the novel’s timeline masquerading ineptly as a female reporter, rendered literally toothless by his organization’s (and country’s) nonsensical whims. But the teeth/castration metaphor here presumably isn’t so unsubtle as to pertain foremost to the character’s partially involuntary cross-dressing. Rather, I’d assume that Wallace is making a point about political chauvinism being the preserve of the collectively insecure; the nation’s protection at the hands of cabals and secret services necessitating figurative surrender from their bastion to the point of turning in one’s testes, or teeth. Jodorowsky plays a similar hand in The Holy Mountain when Neptune, there imagined as a chief of police, takes the testicles of his new recruits, reimbursing them in turn with institutionally sanctioned power.

I must resist the temptation to go on itemising all the hilarious examples of mouth-stuff being masterfully used to narrative, comic, and symbolic ends simultaneously, and instead come slowly to a close with my understanding of two of the biggest mouths and mouth metaphors in the book.

What Wallace achieves with his vivid, repulsive descriptions of cavities in teeth and wounds in mouths is essentially nested compound metaphor—holes within holes; a vulnerability within a vulnerability.

Hal, our teenage protagonist whose affluent family resides atop a looming artificial plateau in the Greater Boston metropolitan area, MA, is addicted to the ritual of surreptitiously smoking weed. He believes it doesn’t do him any harm, the substance, and, on chemical bases alone, I’m inclined to agree; one does not become dependent upon tetrahydrocannabinol. (Habit-forming, of course, is another issue entirely.) Consequently, perhaps, Hal has never hit rock bottom, and even believes that his smoking serves a vital function, keeping him in some sense mentally balanced. Don G., our colossal loveable rogue—formerly addicted to oral amphetamines among other things—is in his late twenties, and has most certainly seen rock bottom. Now clean, Don knows the depths of depravity that can be plumbed by narcotics addicts. He grew up in the suburbs over which Hal’s home, Enfield Tennis Academy, towers. Don G. is already at the foot of the social ladder; Hal was born on a high-up rung. Don G. has an early childhood memory (dreamlike, or embellished by the vivid imagination of an infant) of a mouth in the ceiling of a dilapidated beach cottage to which his mother would take him. Looking up from his oversized cot, the young Don G., “aged like four,” would see the hole in the ceiling of the cabin’s living room, covered with polyurethane sheet, pulsating; sucking and shuddering, bulging and settling. Toddler-age Don G. was terrified of that hole; that “vacuole,” and even named it Herman in an attempt to come to terms with its presence.

Similarly, Hal has a dream—possibly a semi-conscious vision—of a face in the floor of his dormitory. This monstrous, “evil” face is described briefly, once and only once, in one of the few scenes narrated in the first-person (the narrative significance of which you’ll have to discover for yourself). Its “horrid toothy smile” (p. 62) wrenches itself agape upon contact with the beam of Hal’s flashlight, and is never mentioned again.

All throughout the novel, addiction is imagined as an arachnid; a wicked, somehow intelligent spider that lurks in the nearby shadows, waiting. It’s waiting for a moment of weakness, whereupon it ensnares you in its web, wrapping you up like a helpless wad of candyfloss, to be later digested. It’s the addicts’ way of dissociating their impulses from the self; a way of externalising weakness and vindicating their sense of inevitability; of powerlessness. Hal’s and Don G.’s visions of mouths are likewise external to the self, but they are inextricably linked to corporeality; anatomical thresholds; the gateway to the inside. Don G. looks upwards at his mouth in the ceiling, for it is already apparent from infancy that Don G. will never have far to fall. He was, after all, born more or less in the gutter. In the case of poor little Don G., the only way is up. For Hal, however—privileged, mollycoddled Hal—there’s an awful long way to fall. And so while Don G. must gaze upwards, Hal looks down at his hole, his mouth. Hal doesn’t understand why the mouth is there, or fathom its consumptive power. Hal doesn’t ascribe significance to the ability of the mouth to chew him up; to devour him.

In Infinite Jest, the spider is a red herring of sorts. The mouth is the overarching polyvalent metaphor, doing the work of many. Primarily, as I have argued, teeth, the mouth, and (a lack of) oral hygiene disgusts; it serves as a highly visible reminder of how our mental weaknesses can ruin, in turn, one of the most vulnerable—and also the most socially vital—parts of our physical person. But the mouth is also addiction itself; the part of you that enables it, both literally and figuratively. Whether your mouth hangs above you in the ceiling—a precarious Sword of Damocles—or whether it sits waiting for you in the floor, in the centre of the room, anticipating your misstep, the mouth functions as a gateway, poised to swallow you whole.

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Dooley is a cognitivist and media theorist by training and affiliation. He's inexplicably excited about the latest, most expensive representational form, Virtual Reality. "Inexplicably" because he finds the majority of VR to have emerged so far—narrative, ludic, and artistic alike—to be so woefully under-informed and uninspiring that he's going to have to have to remedy the situation by making VR experiences himself. He enjoys surrealist existentialism whatever the medium.

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