Excruciating & Tragic Dentistry of Buddenbrooks

I had two wisdom teeth removed on June 3.  Dentists had been telling me to do so for at least 15 years, maybe longer.  I’m not sure how my current dentist convinced me; I think in part because he was pretty lowkey about it, and didn’t seem to be pressuring me.  Anyway, I made the appointment and had it done.  The few days immediately afterwards were not as bad as I feared.  The pain, managed with Vicodin for a few days and then a lot of ibuprophren, was very bearable.  I went to my office to do some work on the Monday after the Friday appointment and felt ok.  However — the (bearable & manageable) pain did not go away.  It turned out that I had the disturbingly-named Dry Socket.  I ended up going back 4 times or so for Dry Socket treatment, which consists very simply in sticking some intense clove oil, and clove oil-soaked gauze, in the back of your mouth.  It tastes absolutely terrible, like you’ve just swallowed some kind of potpourri spice ball, and numbs everything for a while.

So I kept going back… finally the dentist himself met with me… They were worried about infection, but the wounds were healing fine.  In they end they told me that at my age, early 40s, it’s not so unusual to have a long reaction time as the teeth readjust themselves.  I kept taking 9-12 ibuprophren a day, which is what I needed to go about my business (it still hurt, too), and it was seeming like quite a long time to be keeping up that rate of the medication, I was getting a little worried about the ol’ liver — and then finally in late July it just stopped hurting, all of a sudden.  I’ve had occasional twinges since then, but only enough to make me feel relieved that the real pain is over with.

Kids, get your wisdom teeth out before you’re 30!!

Anyway, as I was enduring this in July, I was reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.  I kind of have a tradition of trying to read at least one door-stopper classic work of fiction, preferably one not directly related to ‘work,’ when we’re in Maine.  I absolutely loved Buddenbrooks; I’d read The Magic Mountain a few summers ago, and I think that’s more original, weirder and probably greater, but BB (published 1900) would be a good candidate for the Last Great Nineteenth-Century Novel, one of those (like Conrad’s, James’, a few others) that seem to have one foot in the realist novel, one just starting to move towards new approaches (although BB is pretty heavily realist).  It’s mindblowing to me that Mann published in at age 26 — amazing.

Anyway, in some ways Buddenbrooks turned out to be exactly the wrong choice for me this summer because it contains so many hair-raising descriptions of painful dentistry.  It’s practically a Big Book of German Smiles.  And without giving anything away, this is a novel that demonstrates very vividly how dangerous 19th-c dentistry could be for a patient.

The young boy Hanno, whom I presume is based on Mann himself, has teeth which

had been a source of trouble and the cause of many painful episodes… His teeth, which were as beautiful and white as his mother’s, were unusually soft and brittle; they came in all wrong, crowding each other.   And because these complications had to be corrected, little Johann was forced early on to make the acquaintance of a terrible man: Herr Brecht, the dentist…

The man’s very name reminded Hanno of the horrible sound his jaw made when, after all the pulling, twisting, and prying, the roots of a tooth were wrenched out.  The mere mention of that name would jolt his heart with the same fear he felt whenever he had to sit cowering in an armchair in Herr Brecht’s waiting room…

Hanno would sit there in a limp cold sweat, unable to protest, unable to run away — in a state no different from that of a felon facing execution — and with enormous eyes he would watch Herr Brecht approach, his forceps held against his sleeve, and he could see the little beads of sweat on the dentist’s brow and that his mouth, too, was twisted in pain.  And when the ghastly procedure was over — and Hanno would spit blood in the blue bowl on his side and then sit up pale and trembling, with tears in his eyes and his face contorted with pain — Herr Brecht would have to sit down somewhere to dry his brow and drink a little water.

(Part of what’s amazing and excruciating here is the way Herr Brecht suffers along with Honno…)

Here’s another scene in which Hanno’s father Thomas Buddenbrook sits in Herr Brecht’s chair:

Thomas Buddenbrook grasped the velvet armrests firmly with both hands.  He barely felt the forceps take hold of the tooth, but then he heard a crunching sound in his mouth and felt a growing pressure in his head…. It took three or four seconds.  Herr Brecht quivered with the exertion, and Thomas Buddenbrook could feel the tremor pass through his whole body;  he was pulled up out of his chair a little and heard a soft squeak coming from somewhere deep in his dentist’s throat.  Suddenly there was a violent jerk, a jolt — it felt as if his neck had been broken — and one short loud crack… [H]ot pain raged in his inflamed and maltreated jaw; and he felt quite clearly that this was not what had been intended, that this was not the solution to his problem, but simply a premature catastrophe that had only made matters worse.

Ow!  I can read it a bit more dispassionately now, but I was really squirming and clutching my jaw when I first read it a few weeks ago.  Of course modern life is crap in many ways, but I feet deep gratitude to live in the post-anesthesia era.  They knocked me out for the wisdom teeth, I did not feel a thing.

Then, I finished Buddenbrooks earlier than I thought I would, and decided to move on to Classic Bookstop #2, Anna Karenina, which I read in high school, I think, but not the Pevear/ Volokhonsky translation I’ve been curious about.

There’s certainly not as much dentistry in this, but there is this interesting passage when Anna Karenina’s husband finally learns definitively that Anna has been unfaithful to him:

He felt like a man who has had a long-aching tooth pulled out.  After the terrible pain and the sensation of something huge, bigger than his head, being drawn from his jaw, the patient, still not believing his good fortune, suddenly feels that what has poisoned his life and absorbed all his attention for so long exists no more, and that he can again live, think and be interested in something other than his tooth… The pain had been strange and terrible, but now it was gone; he felt that he could again live and think about something other than his wife.

Perhaps Tolstoy had had better luck with dental care than Mann.

It’s a somewhat chilling image.  You can sympathize with him to whatever degree the tooth in the metaphor is the affair, but the tooth also seems to be Anna herself, whom Alexei proves very ready to discard as something poisonous and tainted.

There are probably some (likely boring) dissertations out there on such topics…

4 thoughts on “Excruciating & Tragic Dentistry of Buddenbrooks”

  1. In the future they will give us oldsters human growth hormone when we undergo such procedures.

    Loving, but fearing, Buddenbrooks as I do, I am glad that my only child son is turning out to be unmistakable for Hanno.

  2. It’s funny you say that as I actually got a shot of steroids in my thigh this morning for what seems to be a very pervasive case of poison ivy… it’s been a medicalized summer.

  3. Brilliant post. I have had tons of (post-anasthesia) dental work since I was a tiny tot and my father bartered the veterinary care of Dr. Kluzak’s Arabian horses for Herr Kluzak’s terrifying attentions. I felt just like little Hanno, and still do. Glad you are recovered Ivan!

  4. Thanks Lisa!! Poor little Hanno. One of my favorite parts of the book is the section at the end about his traumatic experiences at school. I’m guessing maybe this book was an influence on Haneke’s The White Ribbon, although likely there are endless historical and fictional examples to choose from when it comes to frightening German patriarchs and pedagogues in the late 19th/ early 20th century,

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