A Personal Response to Teeth and Spies: What’s the Point?

Maybe the point is I had the most difficult time reading and analyzing Giorgio Pressburger’s Teeth and Spies. The text finds me panicked-yet-joyful as I approach the end of one of the most painful, and at the same time, pleasurable episodes of my life. My time at Chapman University grinds to a terrifying end, creating fear and doubt about an unknown future yet hindsight facilitates a deeper appreciation of the experience as a whole. Soon I’ll be able to put a big pretty bow on the memory of Chapman, a memory composed of all the individual experiences I’ve had here, and simply consider it an accomplishment (ego).

Right now however, in this moment, I can’t do so just yet. First I have to get through this paper, then a final, then a thesis defense, so that each moment remains taut with fear, mental anguish and anxiety. In much the same way, Pressburger presents a protagonist who constantly projects an empty future and experiences the present while analyzing the past. Teeth and Spies therefore captures the complexity of life while demonstrating the inherent difficulty of discovering the meaning of it all.

All these states of being are determined inadequate for providing any acceptable answers to the question of why life is the way it is. Why man is is the creature he is? Why pleasure is linked to pain? Pressburger doesn’t provide answers to any of these philosophical questions, but presents a protagonist who broods upon such questions in old age. Pressburger, with an anonymous protagonist, reveals that everyone has experiences like these. I know I can certainly relate.

People experience pain, and life wouldn’t be worth living without that  pain. How would one know what pleasure is? These experiences, these trials of life, help shape and mold an individual. They force one to constantly redefine oneself. By revealing the impossibility of simultaneously experiencing and analyzing these moments in life, Teeth and Spies demonstrates how life’s experiences encourage one’s appreciation of the different phases and stages of life, even through the difficult times.

Expectations, immediate experiences and memory prove too limiting to ever provide any real answers to the grand question of life, but what of art? The “Author’s Preface” establishes the protagonist’s early formation of life expectations through a single experience. He realizes his own mortality the moment he witnesses the actor’s/beggars recitation (an artistic expression). This leads him to formulate certain expectations about life. His ideas about old age and death are all based on his childhood experiences. He knows fear in that moment and spirals through a life full and complex in its varied phases, good and bad, painful and pleasurable, often all this at once.

The chapters that follow reduce the protagonist’s life to a string of experiences and demonstrate how little time one has for self analysis when busy experiencing the moment. Each moment requires action, doing, living, decision making, and applies pressure, crippling one’s ability to analyze.

Maestro G. appears to be the aggressive, ultra masculine aspect of the protagonist’s personality. Early on, the protagonist expresses the feeling of being linked to another, he says, “someone is holding the other end of the thread, someone is holding me tied to myself and to him, the pain is keeping us tied to one another” (34) and Maestro G. suddenly appears in the same LR3 chapter where the protagonist declares, “Music had entered me” (41). This Maestro G., probably the ego aspect of the protagonist’s personality, is first mentioned by name on page 44; “Maestro G. before he became my mortal enemy.” Can one be one’s own enemy? I think so and will elaborate later in this response.

Maestro G. routinely appears at pivotal moments in the protagonist’s life, offering advice or stepping up to do what the protagonist wants to do, but lacks the courage to. Maestro G. even goes as far as to eliminate Dr.Kraus; “He had killed that dentist, he had wanted to save my life at all costs, just as I had saved his” (181) and is last mentioned as being “in even greater despair than before” when the narrator gets involved in that disastrous affair with Judy (247). Could it be that in finally losing his teeth (aggression), the protagonist was better able to quell that ego and conduct the self analysis necessary to create this text?

The chapters of the text in the voice of the unnamed protagonist (i.e excluding the editor’s notes) are all presented in hindsight. The protagonist’s arrival at old age, a concept dreaded from childhood, provides him the opportunity to look back, place judgment, analyze and attempt to define and explain those most intensely painful or pleasurable moments of his life, yet he still falls short of providing answers. So, what is the point?

My entire experience at Chapman now appears singular, in hindsight, in much the same way the protagonist’s life appears singular in the form of the text. My memories of Chapman will forever remain an amalgamation, and a somewhat unreliable construction, of the countless individual experiences I’ve had here. In much the same way, the protagonist’s life remains a compilation of memories, but the question still remains why? Was it all for nothing? Why would Pressburger create such a protagonist? Why present this unreliable, pain obsessed, violent, unlikable protagonist to readers? And why in this form? Why the duality of it all? Also, does art provide a suitable outlet for simultaneously experiencing and analyzing life? Did Maestro G.’s music make him more reasonable, or maybe even rasher, than the old man he eventually becomes? Does his writing of the text provide him answers? Does the writing of this piece provide me with answers?

Take this my final semester for instance, in knowing that this semester would bring this particular episode of my life to an end, a final chapter in a memoir perhaps, I led with my ego and became my own enemy. I tried to pack as much as possible into the experience, bleeding it for all it’s worth and am now holding on for dear life. As a result, I decided, maybe not consciously, that reading Teeth and Spies would be a painful experience in much the same way the boy convinces himself that growing old is to be a bad experience. Even before I opened the covers to read the first word, I feared and hated it. The experience was tainted from the beginning. Plus, the eerily colored monster-tooth on the cover wasn’t exactly inviting. Teeth and Spies was just another thing that had to be done before I could get that all important passing grade and attain what I’ve been determinedly pursuing for the past three years; those degrees. It didn’t help that when I finally opened Teeth and Spies, praying for an easy, enjoyable read, though not really expecting the former, this is a Mark Axelrod course after all. I got the most complex and confusing text that I have ever encountered in my student career (I used to think Lolita was complex).

That first read was a slow and extremely painful experience as I couldn’t get past the protagonist’s voice, the complicated structure which requires an introduction, foreword (including international notations and diagrams), excerpts from a father’s prison diary, dental terminology, spy codes, wars, historical dates, affairs, violence, pain, pain and more pain. Even in going over my notes, analyzing, trying to decide what to write about, I came away not knowing what I should have gained from reading this novel. I knew Axelrod chose this text for a reason, but what was Pressburger’s point? How to get to the root of it?

It was only with looking back, trying to analyze the work as a whole that I began to enjoy the idea of such a text. Pressburger’s genius lies in the way the text haunts a reader; the same way his spent life haunts the unnamed-old-man-protagonist trying to repent and make sense of a lifetime of experiences. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist, S.G or Maestro G. is reliable. It doesn’t matter if I hate or like his character. It doesn’t matter what order we read the sections in or that we have an Introduction, Foreword, Author’s Preface and a staggering collection of chapters all struggling to find meaning within themselves. What matters is that the paper has to get done and the experience, no matter how painful was also enjoyable in spite of my expectations.

Maybe the point is in having done it, having read it, having experienced what there was to experience even when one never gets all the answers. What would be the point of doing it if we already knew the answers? The ego wants to project that future but in the end, one can only get there by actually experiencing it. The protagonist had to experience all these trials before he reached that old age he had projected in childhood.  It is therefore fitting that I struggled with this response, that I struggled through the text, that I struggled through the MA/MFA program, for now I can almost see the end.

Still, I can only truly appreciate that sense of relief that comes with having endured once I have complete this paper, passed this course, earned those degrees and move on to asking “what is the point” of the next book, the next episode, or chapter in my life. I may find that in the end I did “all that delicate work for nothing” but I don’t think so. Maybe the experience is enough and doesn’t need to be judged as being either good or bad, just done.



  1. Ana Atille said,

    May 5, 2011 at 7:25 AM

    You are such a talented writer Natalie, love it! <3

  2. AphroditeAres said,

    May 7, 2011 at 11:30 AM

    Thanks Ana! That means a lot.

    • Lottie said,

      May 14, 2017 at 7:24 AM

      Lynne, this sounds wonderful and yes, a completely different slant to to discover unexpectedly that you are a Princess. Wow. What a slam to the psyche!I like the fact that Raja is prepared to change for the woman he loves and that Ruby learns to look at a situation from his peesvrctipe.This story sounds rich and many layered – but then, your stories always are!

  3. Michelle Arch said,

    May 23, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    Natalie, I’ve been wondering how you’ve been this past semester, knowing you were sprinting down the home stretch. This post is beautiful and sad and so incredibly poignant. I think you’re right; there doesn’t really need to be a point. The experience is enough. Even so, your future, unlike Pressburger’s protagonist’s, is anything but empty.

    Congratulations on it all…


    • AphroditeAres said,

      September 11, 2011 at 6:38 AM

      Thanks, Michelle! :)

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