Yesterday I saw financial guru Suze Orman
for about 90 seconds on PBS. It was 90 seconds too long. Her teeth are preternaturally white, and I feared that prolonged viewing would burn my retinas. Orman's fangs remind me of James Carker's (Dickens, Dombey and Son
, chapter XIII):
Mr Carker was a gentleman thirty-eight or forty years old, of a florid complexion, and with two unbroken rows of glistening teeth, whose regularity and whiteness were quite distressing. It was impossible to escape the observation of them, for he showed them whenever he spoke; and bore so wide a smile upon his countenance (a smile, however, very rarely, indeed, extending beyond his mouth), that there was something in it like the snarl of a cat.
Catullus wrote a naughty but clever poem on the subject of white teeth (39, tr. Roy Arthur Swanson):
Because Egnatius has white teeth, he smiles
without a stop. And should it come to trials
where lawyers move the court to tears, he smiles.
Suppose a mother mourns her only son,
he smiles. Whatever it is, whatever he's done,
wherever it is, he smiles. It's a disease,
not elegance, I think, nor does it please.
So, good Egnatius, I must give you warning,
were you a Roman, Sabine, Tiburtine,
or frugal Umbrian, or fat Etruscan,
or dark Lanuvian with big buck teeth,
or Transpadane — to bring my people in —
or one of any group which cleans its teeth
with water, constant smiles would still displease:
nothing's as far from tact as tactless grins.
But you're from Spain, and Spain's the spot
where teeth are scrubbed and red gums rubbed with what
is pissed the night before into a pot,
so that your tooth tells by its higher shine
how much you've drunk the dregs of bedroom wine.
Egnatius, quod candidos habet dentes,
renidet usque quaque. si ad rei ventum est
subsellium, cum orator excitat fletum,
renidet ille; si ad pii rogum fili
lugetur, orba cum flet unicum mater,
renidet ille. quidquid est, ubicumque est,
quodcumque agit, renidet: hunc habet morbum,
neque elegantem, ut arbitror, neque urbanum.
quare monendum est te mihi, bone Egnati.
si urbanus esses aut Sabinus aut Tiburs
aut pinguis Vmber aut obesus Etruscus
aut Lanuvinus ater atque dentatus
aut Transpadanus, ut meos quoque attingam,
aut quilubet, qui puriter lavit dentes,
tamen renidere usque quaque te nollem:
nam risu inepto res ineptior nulla est.
nunc Celtiber es: Celtiberia in terra,
quod quisque minxit, hoc sibi solet mane
dentem atque russam defricare gingivam,
ut quo iste vester expolitior dens est,
hoc te amplius bibisse praedicet loti.
This is not just a figment of Catullus' filthy imagination. Strabo 3.4.16 (tr. Horace Leonard Jones) confirms the use of this dentifrice by the Iberians:
They have regard, not for rational living, but rather for satisfying their physical needs and bestial instincts — unless some one thinks those men have regard for rational living who bathe with urine which they have aged in cisterns, and wash their teeth with it, both they and their wives, as the Cantabrians and the neighbouring peoples are said to do. But both this custom and that of sleeping on the ground the Iberians share with the Celts.
You can buy teeth whiteners at the pharmacy. The whitening agent in them is peroxide. I don't know what it is in urine.