In his memoir/novel A Million Little Pieces (first pitched as the latter, then sold and made famous as the former, then eventually exposed as largely the latter), author James Frey tells the harrowing tale of undergoing a double root canal without any anesthetic. It’s one of the most cringe-worthy moments in the book, because anyone who has had a root canal even with anesthetic can testify it’s an uncomfortable experience, to say the least. To have two at once without painkillers seems beyond the realm of the possible. In Frey’s case, it was—he later admitted the details of the root canal story (among many other stories) were somewhat fudged. In terms of the structure of Frey’s book, however, the scene accomplished several tasks: it showed the reader just how serious his addictions were, that he could not have even novocaine; it provided a benchmark for physical pain that many readers could relate to in some fashion; and, perhaps most importantly, it established the author as a tough guy nonpareil. Not a bad haul for a story about one’s teeth, yes?
I am teaching a class on Religious Memoir this semester, and our first text is Augustine’s Confessions. It includes of course the famous story of his theft of the pears; there are the years spent in dissipation; one finds the tales of his mother’s stubborn refusal to give up on her son. Then, right there in Chapter 4 of Book 9, nary 500 words from his account of his own baptism: a toothache! Here is Augustine’s account, addressed to God:
When shall I call to mind all that happened during those holidays? I have not forgotten them; nor will I be silent about the severity of thy scourge, and the amazing quickness of thy mercy. During that time thou didst torture me with a toothache; and when it had become so acute that I was not able to speak, it came into my heart to urge all my friends who were present to pray for me to thee, the God of all health. And I wrote it down on the tablet and gave it to them to read. Presently, as we bowed our knees in supplication, the pain was gone. But what pain? How did it go? I confess that I was terrified, O Lord my God, because from my earliest years I had never experienced such pain. And thy purposes were profoundly impressed upon me; and rejoicing in faith, I praised thy name. But that faith allowed me no rest in respect of my past sins, which were not yet forgiven me through thy baptism.
I doubt Frey was using Augustine as a template, but it is an interesting coincidence to see them both give pride of place to such a story. And with all that Augustine could have written about (and all that he could have left out), why mention a toothache? (Another bit of historical trivia: the painting above, “St. Augustine Reading The Epistle of St. Paul” by Benozzo Gozzoli, originally was envisioned as a painting of Augustine suffering a toothache. Recognize that expression?). In a memoir chock-full of dramatic interpersonal relationships and ruminations on the nature of existence, why bring up one’s dental troubles? Perhaps for the same reason that Frey mentioned the root canals. Severe tooth pain is not something one can endure or ignore, because it reduces even the most capable and self-possessed person to a state of helplessness: “from my earliest years I had never experienced such pain.” Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote much the same about enduring a dentist’s pliers for the pulling of a tooth: “There never was a bird or beast that was the cause of such anguish or apprehension, such howls of agony, as that diabolical instrument.”
There is a mental and spiritual element to this, too—ask a psychologist what dreams about one’s teeth usually mean: a feeling of powerlessness over one’s place in life, or anxiety about loss of control.
Of course, there are different kinds of pain, and not all are physical. And while sympathetic to a fellow with a toothache, the aforementioned Holmes had little time for St. Augustine’s most famous obsessive rumination on the nature of sin and spiritual torment, calling it a “[r]um thing, to see a man making a mountain of robbing a pear tree in his teens.”