Broken teeth and blasphemy

Back when I lived in Idaho I did many strange things. One of the odd things I did was read Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I love Russian history–a lot–but I don’t always love Russian writers. They make my head ache.

Ache is my theme tonight. I know there is a major league toothache involved in the book somewhere and a man of action. The narrator is unreliable. I know that. I have no idea if the man of action is the Underground Dude or not. And I can’t remember who has the massive toothache. But I know a toothache is there. So I’m an unreliable narrator it seems. What I think I remember maybe sort of kind of perhaps is that a man of action must share his tooth pain with everyone because he cannot contemplate in silence–no metacognitive life or lack of self-awareness or something like that. It’s like toothaches are a sort of pleasure then–the pleasure is had in the pain and in making everyone experience the pain as well. Is that it? No idea. What I remember from my late 1980s reading could be way way way off base.

Tonight, I don’t care about being right, nor do I want to bother going to an online version of the text to try and figure out what I really read or what that passage is really about. I have grave tooth pain. Not pleasure. Pain. Not good. Never good. But I’m sharing it like a man of action. (I think.) (I don’t think I liked the book at all.) (Or maybe it was the teacher.) (That happens.)

My new dentist said I was having a tooth crisis. I said, I know. It hurts. A lot. She said, what’s the matter with you that you waited so long to come see me? I said, I fear dentists. She said, Pshaw, stop that nonsense now, we’re here to help, we have novacaine (procaine), lay back and let me take a whack or two at the wounded tooth with this metal torture device, and you say when it hurts, okay?

I really like her.

No. 31 is seriously injured–about a third of it broke off and the tooth is a shambles with a large, old filling just hanging in there. No. 30, right next to it, may have deep trauma–a break beneath the tooth–after a root canal in 1993. There’s a suspicious dark line in the x-rays (in the bone in the root area). WHAT? How does that even happen? Broken down deep? Really? I don’t know for sure because I need to see a tooth crisis specialist–who I could not see today, though I’m in grave tooth pain. He could not work me in before the long holiday weekend. Happy Independence Day!

(And I’m fairly fainting from panic about even having had to go to the dentist, and a tooth crisis specialist, and that all makes the rolling waves of pain interspersed with shooting, stabbing pain just this much ______ worse. I have a few phobias–one is loud drills, small picks, tiny axes, and large needles in my mouth. It’s a long story, but it includes the words “SHE BITES” in bold capital letters in red ink across the top of my dental chart, a numb cheek, and a whole lot of fighting.)

Chewing ice, grinding teeth, clamping teeth, biting my tongue (every day every week every month every year for decades), drinking ice tea and hot coffee, eating caramels and/or nuts, using my teeth to uncap bottles, rip out corks, untie knotty things–all that could have contributed to the current crisis. Apparently, I am late coming to the knowledge that my mother was right when she cried out, “Good Heavens! Child, don’t use your teeth for that”; “Right now. Stop chewing ice”; “Don’t eat your popsicle with your front teeth, for Pete’s sake” and more. (Who is Pete anyway? Mom also said, “For the love of Mike…” and I always wondered about that, too. I had an Aunt Mike, for instance, but that’s not who she meant. My mother was never a cusser. Not ever. She was a lovely woman. She wore diamonds and pearls and dresses. I wore blue jeans, smoked, and swore.)

And this all brings me to blasphemy. I am tempted to blaspheme right now. At least I thought I was tempted to blaspheme, until I looked up a definition of the word:

Blasphemy is irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs. The Abrahamic religions condemn blasphemy vehemently. Some countries have laws to punish blasphemy, while others have laws that give recourse to those who are offended by blasphemy. Those laws may discourage blasphemy as a matter of blasphemous libel, vilification of religion, religious insult, or hate speech.”

Oh my God. Sweet baby Jesus. Lord have mercy. I had no idea it was like that. But I might as well confess now, if I haven’t already, that I was raised a Roman Catholic and attended Catholic school forever, well, at least through my first two years of college. First thing you should know is that the the Church is like the marines: no one isn’t changed. Semper Fi. I mean, I can still recite many prayers and can attend mass and do everything I’m supposed to do, including genuflecting as if I’d been doing it all my life (which, of course, I have). When I taught second grade at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic School, I got all those kids ready for their first communion. I needed super genuflecting skills for that. Second thing I need you to know: I love cathedrals. I’m in awe of them. Always. In fact, most holy places hold me enthrall (or in thrall, or is it both? Damn the ambiguity of the English language.) A temple, a church, a mosque–inside or outside–I’m agog at what humans have done to express reverence and enable worship for a deity or many deities. Third thing: I love going to Latin mass. Or mass in Spanish or French. Love it. English mass–not as glorious. I like the mystery of another language. Last thing: Fr. Michael said that if you were directing God to do something for you without saying please or praying, it was blasphemy. Otherwise, not. For instance, “God damn it,” is blasphemy because you are telling a holy personage what to do. “Ganesh damn it”–same story. (But if you said, “God damn it, please”–that’s okay? I never asked. I wasn’t going to ask a priest a smart-ass question like that. Still wouldn’t.)

By that argument, though, “Sweet baby Jesus (in swaddling clothes)” is not blasphemy. But “Lord have mercy” is. “Oh my God”–not blasphemy.

According to the version of the Ten Commandments I remember (and this could be the Hollywood version), the 2nd commandment is something like: “Thou shalt not take the Lord thy God’s name in vain.” What’s “in vain” mean exactly? I never really had that explained to me, and really, even now being a writer and a teacher of writing, I still don’t get this usage precisely. (I think there are translation issues.) Does it mean that if we vainly, for our own selfish purposes, invoke a deity’s name to suit our momentary needs in explicative form, that’s blasphemy? So all the instances above of my use of the Christian God’s various names is blasphemy, and as predicted I was tempted and caved, despite my research in investigating this deed.

Thus I head back to territory I can deal with intelligently: literature. I can’t ever talk about blasphemy without also mentioning Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (a favorite of mine, the zenith of the gothic novel in my informed opinion). It caused such an uproar after it was published in the mid-1790s that it’s probably never been out of print since then. Some critics praised it for its invention; some deplored it as lurid, blasphemous, and worse. Of course, it nearly flew off the shelves and into the hands of the reading public who had to see for themselves just what all the blasphemy was about. Of course (look at the sales for banned or censored or “questionable” books now). (Can you see how the books might truly fly, the covers turning into powerful wings, to carry the books actually off the shelves and into the open hands of the hungry, greedy, scandal-loving public?)

There is one part where Lewis suggests an unexpurgated Bible is not fit reading for a young lady. He later apologized in print for this one page that might have been blasphemous. If he was Catholic (and I don’t know that he was or wasn’t), and if he’d lived into the mid-1840s (which he did not), he could have said The Golden Arrow Holy Face Devotion to ask forgiveness for blasphemy. I’d never heard of this prayer before a quick Google search just now, but I like it. It’s 19th century. My time. It’s a French devotion not British, but still I claim a love of the Victorian period everywhere.

(Another interesting fact about The Monk… Lewis was accused of plagiarism by some critics, even Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But what Lewis had done was rip, remix, re-use, emulate, copy, transform, and share his combination of the gothic in his novel. It’s a brilliant mash-up. Like I said, a zenith of gothic novels.)

In my digging around about blasphemy (and successfully sublimating my tooth pain), I also found that a person can commit blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. There is information about this act available to knowledge seekers (should they want to head in that direction) and an alternate idea about blasphemy itself. Now I’ve gotten back to a place that is truly shifting sands, or quick sand, and hence, I begin to sink… (in the South, we can this a sinking spell).

In my defense, I have a toothache and wanted to be distracted by writing; I didn’t mean to blaspheme, if I did indeed blaspheme.

I have learned a lot while aching (and maybe blaspheming): 1) pain is a great motivator; 2) aching teeth beget aching other things (head and neck, for example, and back); 3) it’s so humid in the South tonight, one has to part the air to walk (and that just makes me more cranky); 4) I love writing even when I hurt; 5) I am so grateful to be alive at this point in history so I can write like I do, like I have this year–the world at my fingertips, literally. And I learned a lot about blaspheming–not bad for a few hours’ work.

Blasphemy in Islam is as complex and complicated as it is in Christianity. Blasphemy in Judaism is also a serious offense. In fact, it’s an issue that has merited the attention of world leaders. What started out as a silly little post on my current tooth pain, and how I wanted to react to it, has ended up in an intriguing journey across a few world religions, global concerns, and concepts of what it means to blaspheme.

So, is blasphemy the right response to a broken tooth and grave tooth pain? Probably not. But research, reading, thinking, and writing is. I’m still in pain, something a man of action (I think) might need to inform you of–I’m all about that as my theme is ache tonight. But my pain is tempered a little by weaving in and out of literature, writing, history, belief systems, memories of teaching, and going to mass. More proof that writing heals. Sometimes. A little. Okay, not really. (I so wanted to try for that slightly sanctimonious ending that might be too over-the-top if not read by a generous and gentle reader, but it was really pompous, wasn’t it? Hellfire and damnation.)

Okay, let’s try this for the ending: St. Francis de Sales was a writer. He’s the Roman Catholic patron saint of writers and journalists. The all girls’ high school I was supposed to attend was named St. Francis de Sales High School before it went co-ed the year I started 9th grade and merged with the all boys’ high school, Notre Dame High School–so that’s where I went. I’m sorry I missed that opportunity now that I’m a writer (plus St. Francis’s uniforms were way better looking, and plus times 100: a patron saint of writers).

Nope. That didn’t work either. No way I’m wrapping this one up with any grace or dignity.  In Magnum Force, Harry Callahan, says, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I just figured out mine. I got nothin’ (and I didn’t work in a real reference to Writing Spaces, which I vowed I would do in every single post). And my tooth still hurts.


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