Too much power makes a person powerless. That is something I absorbed from “The Mirror and the Palette” by Jennifer Higgie.
Once again, “The Mirror and the Palette” is a book about female self-portraiture. And I thought about the grotesque irony of power when I read this part:
In seventeenth-century Holland, a love of both morality tales and jokes resulted in a robust trade in paintings of people drinking and laughing, but in France, smiling – and in particular a smile that revealed the teeth – was sternly frowned upon. Of course, this might have had something to do with the fact that King Louis XIV had no teeth left by the time he was forty and it wasn’t done to gloat.“The Mirror and the Palette” by Jennifer Higgie
I have heard before that in some cultures, people think it’s improper to show their teeth. So that wasn’t the part that felt so grotesque to me. The grotesque part was that the reason it was recommended that people don’t show their teeth might have been because of Louis XIV.
It seems that it’s not for certain whether Louis XIV demanded that people stop showing their gorgeous healthy teeth, or if he implied that he was too sad from seeing people smile openly, or if he did nothing of the sort, but people just assumed.
Whatever the actual situation might have been, the possibility is there, isn’t it? The possibility of a king compelling people to stop smiling while showing their teeth. I mean, a king! No teeth! So everyone around him might have just stopped showing their teeth while smiling. And that, somehow, could have turned into some kind of a… fashion statement? Or some kind of… a way to show how high-class you were?
As in, Hey, if you hang out with Louis, it becomes so normal for you to hide your teeth while you laugh or smile, so anybody who shows their teeth must be total peasants.
It is so bizarre, but you know what? I don’t have that difficult a time believing that something like this could happen. And that is so grotesque, for a king to just… let this happen.
If I had been a king who needed to show who was boss, as soon as I noticed that people weren’t laughing around me with an open mouth anymore, I would have either explicitly ordered them to resume smiling normally, or, alternatively, I might have actually explicitly illegalized laughing while showing your teeth. Basically, anything but the passive-agressive way.
And this wasn’t a timeplace where kings and royals in general were in any shape or form equal to other people, so I’m excluding that equality strategy from this discussion. Like, if I were Louis the Sun King, I wasn’t gonna suddenly advocate democracy because of my toothlessness.
So I might have yelled at the court to stop with the foolishness. In fact, since I am the king, I might have ordered them to laugh. Immediately!
“Hey, you there, you think I’m a total idiot? You think just because I don’t have teeth, and you have teeth, I’ll be mad at you laughing and showing your teeth? Well guess what, I am not mad, and to prove that I am not, I hereby order you to laugh until you faint.”
Or some such punishment. If it was an era where there was even the slightest possibility of people ceasing to laugh the natural way because of the king’s toothlessness, then I am certain that the punishments at the time must have been creative as well as diverse.
So yeah, either this laugh-until-you-faint punishment or complete illegalization of showing your teeth. Anything but this passive-aggressive wuss move of making people guess that maybe the king hates teeth, but maybe not.
Which makes me think about what power is.
Maybe the only reason I think this way is because I am not the king of France and will never be. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, so far, power has always been the ability to make something natural so unnatural, to the point that it becomes culturally natural to adhere to that unnatural. And to accomplish that, one cannot use overt banning or overt orders of any kind. One must passive-aggressively allude to what one wants.
Even in the modern era, something similar happens, in that, people with power cannot necessarily voice their opinions. If they are sad because they don’t have teeth, they cannot admit that. If they are angry because they don’t have teeth, they cannot admit that. Even if they wish that people would smile more around them, they cannot admit that, because maybe that makes them look weak. Maybe to admit one’s very toothlessness is a risky move.
In short, sometimes, power takes away choices.
Now, in this era, most countries either do not have kings and queens at all, or the royal families have mostly transferred their political, legal, and other practical powers to other governing bodies.
But, we still have centers of attention. Such centers are more diversified than ever before, but, to those who pay attention to the center, the center is the center. And sometimes, the center does function with great power.
For example, an influencer. Say they have a million followers. If this isn’t power, then I don’t know what is.
Some influencers enjoy their work, a lot. But also, some of them confess that they are very stressed. They are doing hard work. Because, imagine the pressure of so many people looking at you, even though it’s not in the same timespace as it would’ve happened at a court. In the case of the modern influencers, the witnessing of the center—the influencer—happens across timespace, in a digital way. But, in some ways, that’s… that’s way more intense. The center doesn’t necessarily know when or who or where or how or why the witnessing happens. Anybody could be looking at the center. All the time. From anywhere.
For a million people to have their gaze upon you is extreme pressure. There are, I imagine, certain things that these influencers can only do because of their power, but also, there must be certain things they cannot do.
Going back to Louis XIV. Maybe he thought that everyone was looking at him. And maybe he was right. At court, people must have been looking at the king, at least once or twice. They must have at least glanced at him. Who else would they be looking at?
And so, maybe, after losing all his teeth, he might have been sad, super self-conscious, maybe even depressed, for reasons beyond simple vanity. For the same reasons that today’s famous people have a hard time dealing with very public… scandals, to use a comprehensive word here, for the same reason, Louis might have felt extreme pressure. His power could have put him in a position where he was more vulnerable to his condition. A peasant at the time might have been likelier to happily live with toothlessness than Louis. And Louis as the king perhaps didn’t have as many options as I am assuming here.
And thus, one way or another, too much power makes a person powerless.
And, very quickly, let’s talk about the word “grotesque.” This word doesn’t necessarily mean something negative, in an absolute way. The definition of grotesque, according to Google, is:
comically or repulsively ugly or distorted. Incongruous or inappropriate to a shocking degree.The definition of “grotesque” from Google
Ugly isn’t necessarily bad. Distorted isn’t necessarily bad. Incongruous or inappropriate aren’t bad either. And the word “shocking”? Why should that be bad? People, throughout history, have been known to be shocked by the most frivolous things. Short skirts used to be shocking. They’re still shocking in some places. Shock has little to do with good or bad, or evil. Same with distortion, incongruity, ugliness, and therefore, grotesqueness. Sometimes there is even beauty in grotesqueness.
So, the concept of “grotesque” is something that interests me greatly, which is why, under my Korean pen name, I am part of a project called MODERN GROTESQUE TIMES. Grotesqueness is everywhere, in the here and now. It isn’t something rare. It isn’t even something to be avoided. And it keeps morphing. That’s one of the things that’s so exciting about that concept.
So, given this, I think that the situation with the passive-aggressive not-smiling is grotesque, because it is incongruous with the normal existence of humans, because it is quote, “not in harmony or keeping with the surroundings or other aspects of something.” Showing your teeth while you’re smiling, if you have teeth, is about the most harmonious thing a human can do. As in, to stay in harmony with the body structure of oneself, a human is bound to show their teeth while smiling.
Whether Louis wanted to change this natural tendency or not, we might never know for sure. But however this might have happened, I think there’s no question that it is plenty grotesque.
I’m just glad that I am not a king. Neither am I some nobleperson or servant at a king’s court. And I am not an influencer. And I don’t follow a shining sun center of any kind, either.
If I am ever gonna be toothless, people probably will not know, although, it might be audible through the way I speak on this podcast.
But mostly, I will get over my toothlessness in my privacy, being neither king nor servant. I hope most of us are in a situation to do this: to deal with our own toothlessness, literal or figurative, and to let other people smile in whichever way they want to.
- The Mirror and the Palette” by Jennifer Higgie:
- MODERN GROTESQUE TIMES: https://www.instagram.com/m_g_times/
Everything I do is organized here:
© 2022 Ithaka O.