Seems like it was just yesterday that I was singing you that song about Don Quixote and his teeth. As a matter of fact, it was just yesterday. Yesterday of last year.
Well, tonight I was reminded, as I leafed through a 2004 copy of the New England Journal of Medicine, that the Man of La Mancha was not the only literary character to have dental problems.
In a letter to the editor, bearing the catchy title, “What Made Hanno Buddenbrook Sick?” our correspondent Howard Fischer, M.D. of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan observes:
One of Hanno’s two most serious health problems is dental in nature. His gums repeatedly become inflamed and form abscesses. Tooth eruption is painful. His permanent teeth come in “all wrong, crowding each other.” He requires multiple dental extractions (presumably of deciduous teeth) to accommodate the eruption of permanent teeth. The other critical problem, as already suggested by the presence of the gum abscesses, is recurrent infection. The adolescent Hanno says that “a wound that heals for other people in a week . . . takes four weeks with me. It just won’t heal, it gets infected, gets really ghastly, and gives me all kinds of trouble.”
Dr. Fischer goes on to speculate that Hanno suffered from “The hyper-IgE syndrome, formerly called Job’s syndrome, [which] is “characterized by recurrent staphylococcal skin abscesses, pneumonia with pneumatocele formation, and extreme elevations of serum IgE.”
Note that the title is not, “What Killed Hanno Buddenbrook,” but rather what made him sick. That’s because we know what killed Hanno, from Mann’s famous chapter-opener: “Typhoid runs the following course.”
Anyhow, back to teeth. Mann scholars have observed that dental problems are a recurring theme in Buddenbrooks and that dental health is treated by Mann as symbolic of mental and moral health.
Hanno’s frail constitution was deeply disappointing to his father Thomas, robust and capable inheritor of the four-generation family business. Hanno is generally understood to personify The Artist, and even to represent Mann himself; the tension between Hanno and his father embodies the tension between the artist and bourgeois society.
And how, then, does Thomas die? Falling face-first into a snowy street, after a harrowing tooth extraction.