The Chair of Metaphysics


THE one requirement I make of dentists is that they shall be able to administer the consolations of philosophy during the prosecution of their researches in physical torture. A dentist may have all knowledge and all charity, together with all the latest textbooks and a surgeon’s case full of the most perfected and lethal implements of his trade; he may have a resounding reputation and a clientele of the most distinguished impressiveness; but if he have not philosophy, all the rest is as nothing.

On the other hand, let him beguile the hours of torture with impersonal discourse, tending from my immediate pain to the secrets of anatomy, and thence through psychology to cosmic themes, and I forgive him everything; nay, I remember my hours with him as among the pleasant ones of a variegated personal history, and value his ministrations above those of the more knowing efficient ones who, I realize, are later to criticise his technique, damn his methods, and undo his work, as a preparation for doing it over in their own more expensive ways. For to me the chair of dental torture has always been, essentially and inherently, the chair of metaphysics.

There must be many who find that the body’s pain unbars curious doors of speculation, admitting the mind to broad halls and chambers of impersonal thought which, in the hours of normal comfort, remain unvisited. Pain is an elemental thing; it knocks and pries and twists at the very root of individual consciousness, and strikes so much deeper into the mysteries of being than anything else does, that it forces one to the brink of startling discoveries about space, time, and the ultimate secrets of things. Extreme pain forces us to the wall, the limit of the personally endurable; and we grope for the one possible way out, which is the way of impersonal thought. Many, I say, must have learned this fact — by living it.

But I dare say there are not so many who, like myself, find that the door yields more readily when another helps one push it open, and who can fare farther along those strange dim cosmic highways companioned than alone. It is, if you like, paradoxical and perverse. Yet the fact remains that, at odd times, I have positively relished the nibbling of dental instruments at an exposed nerve, and used it as the point of departure for the airiest philosophic flights — granted only a practitioner who spoke my language and was always ready with a theory for my facts or a criticism for my theory. On the other hand, with a dentist whose mind was only on his work, I have found in a mere painless cleaning of the teeth the most prosaic and unredeemed torture, and cursed each crawling minute, together with the dial that recorded it. Give me, every time, the physician who is also a metaphysician.

My first dentist I may be said to have inherited. At least, as a young man he had attended my grandfather, and in middle life my father and my uncle. Then, as a sallow, dignified, rather frail old man, he attended me — just once, when, a gawky lad of seventeen, I went to him because a certain molar and I had come to the parting of our ways. He was a stiffly dignified old gentleman, in both mind and outward appearance. His mental operations were chiefly Calvinist, strongly and very oddly tinctured with science.

I went to him in vacation, and found him in his dingy office at the top of a three-story ‘block’ in the little home town. He received my name with a patient abstractedness. It was manifest that he had forgotten me. He was, in fact, so aged that he was fast forgetting everything merely personal.

He seated me in the operating-chair facing the two windows above the street, prepared the tank of gas, and began slowly administering it. Remembering my last previous experience of an anæsthetic and my writhing struggles with black and demoniacal shapes, I had resolved that this time I would be the most tractable of patients. Accordingly I gripped the arms of the chair and braced my whole body rigidly, in the intense effort of self-command. Presently I heard the gentle voice of Doctor Zachary, heaving toward me in hollow waves from across a black void: ‘There now, there now; relax, just relax.’ I relaxed; and further, to show him the docility of my compliance, patted the arms of the chair in a soothing and reassuring gesture, as if to say, ‘Have no fear of me, my good sir!’

To my astonishment, I could by no means stop doing this, once I had begun. I went on increasing the amplitude and the velocity of my gesticulations, until I was swinging my arms through the air like great flails, beating him away from me, striking down his apparatus, and behaving like an insane demon generally — all in pure goodnature gone daft, like that of the trained bear who crushed his sleeping master’s skull in killing the fly on his master’s forehead.

We began over. This time I just relaxed, without any urbane attempt to demonstrate the completeness of my relaxation. And this time the gas accomplished what was desired of it, or at least a part thereof.

I drifted out among star-ways, and a galaxy of saffron constellations whirled about my head. In some outer void of space I took my station on a base of infinite nothingness. Presently a great yellow world sped by me with the speed of a cannon-ball, yet deliberately enough so that I could read, in characters of flame, against its black equatorial belt, the figure 1,000,000. Another world sped after it in the same track, similarly inscribed, but with a figure of still huger magnitude. After this one came another; then others still, the series increasing in size and speed, and each world marked with a figure greater than any that had appeared before, until they had mounted to sums for which there is no designation in human speech. And as they receded and fled away, diminishing down the appalling void, and I felt myself blown upon by the cosmic winds of their passage, it was borne in upon me somehow that I was now contemplating the cycles, not of time, but of mortal sin. These that sped by me were the æons upon æons of sin through which the stellar universe must win to its ultimate purification. Eventually there was to come, in the wake of all, a world white and lucent, gleaming like the plumage of an angel’s wing. It would mean that the planetary system had won through turmoiling cycles of sin to its redemption. There rang in my ears an immemorial phrase, ‘The Blood of the Lamb,’ and a surge of cosmic music, somehow crimson, was to engulf me.

But alas! this white and splendid consummation depended on my fully taking in, with my one poor finite unarithmetical brain, each and every one of those staggering figures. If I missed so much as a single cipher, the whole universe was lost to darkness and dissolution, it might be for ever and ever.

Suddenly I had come against a purple veil-the uttermost firmament of all things that ever were. Only, a part of me seemed to be on one side of the veil, and a part on the other. The part on the other side was the supernal part which, if I could but get at it, flow into it, could take in those colossal figures, and by comprehending them save the universe from lapsing into aboriginal chaos, perhaps to begin its weary cycle all over. Somehow I must make the two sundered parts of myself fuse and coalesce — the part which was mortal and finite and baffled, and the liberated and untrammeled part beyond. To accomplish this there was no way but to rend the veil. When I had done this, I should comprehend within myself all that has ever been, is, or shall be.

With a convulsive and superhuman effort I laid hold of the veil with both hands and strove to tear it. At the same time something seemed to tear madly at the fabric of my own being. A dull explosion shattered the universe about me — only, in some curious sense not open to definition, it seemed to be the inside of my own head that had exploded. There came a sudden silvery tinkle of music, incommunicably sweet, and —

I sat bolt upright in the dentist’s chair. An unusually tall person, I had contrived to thrust a foot firmly through each of the pair of windows in front of me, and from the street below came the last tinkles of the falling splinters of glass. In my two hands I still clutched the two halves of Doctor Zachary’s glossy Prince Albert coat, which in my final paroxysm I had seized by the tails, reaching behind the old gentleman, and split clean up the back by the simple act of spreading my arms apart as far as they would go.

Doctor Zachary stood there panting and disheveled, but not abating by one jot the mild dignity of his usual air. In the ruin I had created, the first aspect to come uppermost in his mind was the foolish circumstance that his forceps, on which he had not for an instant remitted his grip, had miraculously come to light at the wrong end of his sleeve.

The nerve of the misbehaving molar, barely loosened from its hold on my lower jaw, jumped in a savage rhythm, as an infuriated beast springs to the length of its chain over and over, or as your heart, pounds in a sudden deadly fright. I was maddened with the pain — but I was more maddened by the interruption of my all-but-consummated dream. The dénouement was unspeakably prosaic. But I was unspeakably above prose.

Doctor Zachary reasphyxiated me, and the extraction was achieved in short order. When I was conscious again, he quizzed me, not without an effort of sympathetic understanding, about the sensations which had dictated my grotesque behavior. And as I went on groping for the words to recreate my cosmic vision, he began to nod more and more frequently. And then, for something like an hour, we discoursed together on the various philosophies of sin and judgment, coming round in the end to the problem whether there can be, modernly, any such thing as direct revelation.

I see now that many of his ideas were old-fashioned, out-moded; if I heard them restated, I should doubtless be filled with abhorrence. But to a boy just beginning the painful processes of thought, it was a famous dialogue — the first halting parasang of an intellectual anabasis which may perhaps be cut off when this machine stops, but which I trust is never really to be completed. Anyway, this talk laid the foundation of my permanent requirement that the dentist’s operating-room contain the chair of metaphysics.

When next I had need of Doctor Zachary, he was dead.

His successor in that same office, a profoundly reflective young man just out of dental school, carried me through several successive developments in metaphysical rationalism. He was withal a person of delightful tact. He knew how to make me laugh at my own grotesque attempts to converse on lofty themes through, or round, a rubber dam, without in the least degree laughing at them himself; though the language I spoke must have been practically devoid of consonants, and in fact more than a little like that of a man remembered from my early childhood, who was whispered to be without a palate and almost without a tongue. His ideas touched the central problems of consciousness exactly when his burr touched the central nerves of the tooth. Altogether he was a most gifted and indispensable young man; and never a session with him so painful that I could not have wished it longer. When he went to Colorado, — for a month or two, — I waited and let my teeth go to pieces for two years and a half, because I could not force myself to go to anybody else.

But he never came back.

There was a succession of others, of greater and less expertness professionally. I valued each according as it had or had not pleased his Maker to endow him with philosophy.

Latterly, I parted with a wisdom tooth, as hard-earned (and as useless) as wisdom itself is often said to be, at the hands, or forceps, of a very modern, very efficient young dental surgeon of absolutely no capacity for generalization. He has — you know the sort — one of those utterly concrete minds.

He injected a local anæsthetic with the hypodermic needle. Then he stared out of the window and drummed with his knuckles on the sill for a minute, in impassive silence, waiting for the stuff to ‘take.’ Then, with a pretty little blued-steel knife, he slashed the gum here and there to make sure that there was no feeling left in it. There was indeed none. In its incapacity for sensation, it was precisely like his own mind.

His forceps closed on the tooth. He rocked it gently this way and that. Then there was a barely audible spat! of some hard particle falling upon crumpled paper. My contemptible wisdom tooth had somehow got into his wastebasket.

It was a triumphantly perfect job of its kind. Considered purely as a technological achievement, it was immense. The whole transaction, from my arrival at the office, could hardly have taken six minutes. It was as devoid of ugliness and pain as of philosophy. There could have been no greater contrast to the methods of old Doctor Zachary, locked with his patient in a prolonged and seemingly deadly struggle over the possession of one insignificant bit of white bone with a jumping hot pain at the centre of it. And yet —

Well, others may elect bare science an they will. But as for me, give me philosophy every time.