✍ George Washington’s False Teeth. An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century 
por Teoría de la historia
Some historians like to make the past sound exactly like the present – the same old human race, but without washing machines and computers. Robert Darnton, who teaches history at Princeton University, tries to make the 18th century sound as strange and remote as possible. In The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), he showed how incomprehensible the little details of past lives often are. Why, for instance, did some Parisian apprentices in the 1730s formally execute all the cats they could lay their hands on and then laugh themselves silly? Darnton’s new book, George Washington’s False Teeth, is another collection of witty articles and lectures on the Enlightenment, designed to enlighten the “general public”. The subtitle -An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century- is slightly misleading. The real subject is modern America and its ignorance of the past. It seems that American professors of history have to spend a lot of time away from the archives, answering idiotic questions. Darnton’s “general public” is made up of two groups. The first is a po-faced bunch of petty inquisitors who teach in American universities. In their minds, Enlightenment heroes such as Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson are responsible for imperialism, racism, fascism and all the other sins of elitist white males. Darnton advises these simple-minded theorists to “visit the 18th century, and you will return with your head spinning, for it is endlessly surprising, inexhaustibly interesting, irresistibly strange”. The other members of Darnton’s audience are hedonistic ignoramuses – his students, for instance, who hope that everyone will have “a nice day” and who dot the i’s on their term papers with smiley faces. These irritatingly jolly people are completely flummoxed by almost everything that occurs outside the United States. Why, they ask, do people in Israel, Sri Lanka or Chechnya kill each other for something as vague as “nationalism”? “What we do not and cannot take in is the passion that drives men to kill for such causes.” Instead of telling these news-starved innocents about torture, dispossession and daily humiliation, Darnton asks them to consider the strangeness of their own past and especially their dentally challenged first president. The mouth that uttered eternal American truths contained nothing but a tongue and a lower left bicuspid. Sometimes, it was filled with bits of ivory plundered from an elephant, a walrus or another human being. (Washington’s wooden dentures are, apparently, a myth.) For a population whose teeth stand in perfect rows like US marines in dress uniform, this must be a disturbing thought. As Darnton puts it, George Washington “couldn’t get any juice from his meat without sending shock waves through his gums”. The problem is, why would any of these people want to read about the distant days when toothache ruled the world? Why would they listen to a historian who agrees with JK Galbraith’s description of the American way of life as “private wealth and public squalor”? Darnton’s sparkling book is far more likely to be read by the exotic race referred to in a chapter on “The Pursuit of Happiness” as “Europeans” – those miserable masochists “who prefer the limp handshake, the down-at-the-mouth Gauloise, and the café-slouch as a style of self-presentation”. The parts of this book that really are a guide to the 18th century will bring a tobacco-stained smile to European lips. Familiar figures appear in an unfamiliar light. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was “an intellectual tramp”, who tricked peasants out of their money by pretending to turn water into wine before he discovered a better money-spinning scheme and became a man of letters. Voltaire thought that peasants should not be taught to read, because “someone has to plough the fields”. The Enlightenment, says Darnton, was not a simple philosophy, it was a cosmopolitan movement that was “open to ideas from everywhere”. The most enlightening chapter explains how news spread in pre-revolutionary Paris. Official news was confined to bland court circulars on the doings of the infant dauphin. But there was also “a multimedia feedback system” powered by high-speed gossip. “Stand in the street and cock your ear”, and you could hear the latest news in the form of songs and rhymes. The popular news network might have hastened the French Revolution, but it was also a form of entertainment. The first reporter in French history was a servant who prepared discussion menus for his mistress: one course of reliable news, one course of unadulterated gossip – not unlike a modern newspaper. In case none of this sounds sufficiently strange and remote, Darnton devotes a chapter to the French “craze for America”. According to the radical rationalist the Marquis de Condorcet, writing in 1786, America was a nation of “several million men who… have been made immune to prejudice and inclined to study and reflection”. Condorcet believed that, one day, the peace-loving Americans would bring an end to war in Europe “by the sheer force of their example”. Distant days indeed.
[Graham ROBB. “When Americans had bad teeth”, in The Telegraph (Londres), 21 de julio de 2003]