Like real teeth, the mind’s teeth must be cared for or they will decay and rot. The kind of “dental hygiene” needed to maintain healthy teeth is to make an appointment with a sound literary critic every four to six months. Not book reviewers, actual critics. In the past this might have meant reading the critical works of Oscar Wilde, Edmund Wilson, G.K. Chesterton, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin. Today, we might read Frederic Jameson or Slavoj Zizek.
The loss of one’s teeth is a catastrophe – but not one that is irreversibly damaging. Today, there are a wide variety of prosthetic options available for neglected teeth, or teeth that have simply “lived their life” (god rest these in peace). Alas! there is no such prosthetic for the mind’s teeth. It is sad that, today, so many minds have let their teeth rot and can no longer chew on any kind of art that is at all difficult to masticate (e.g. Céline, Gombrowicz, the atonal music of Schönberg, etc, etc).
Teeth and the mouth is where the dialectic of nutrition begins. If, as Scarry says, “the purpose of art is to refine the reflexes of language,” the mind’s teeth are of the utmost importance for two reasons. The obvious reason is that we need teeth to chew. Less obviously, teeth are absolutely essential for the way we pronounce words correctly with our mouth. Without healthy teeth (in our mouth or in our mind) we cannot appreciate fine food or fine art; we will not be able to refine the reflexes of our language in either speech or writing. In speech, because our words will be garbled; in writing, because if the mind’s teeth are decayed and rotten, the only art we will be able to ingest will be mushy, tasteless, and barely nourishing – and what can possibly be written about that?