Tuesday, February 01, 2005

in praise of the tongue

[photo: dave kaul, 1999]

they tend to get thought of just as biological entitities, like, oh I dunno, gall bladders, or spinal cords - something that you only think about either in biology lessons (that experiment that everyone remembers about dipping a paintbrush into different substances - sugar, salt, lemon juice, quinine [in tonic water?], is all I remember - in order to locate the discrete areas of the tongue that are responsible for sweet - salt - sour - bitter, and then mapping those areas on a drawing of the tongue) or when you burn it or get an ulcer or - god preserve us - when you're getting it pierced. but it's actually one of the most wonderfully under-recognised organs in our bodies, and we shouldn't be shy about singing its praises.
when I think of all the areas of pleasure it's involved in - it's responsible for all that scrummy yummy tasting of good food and fine wine, it seems to possess near-infinitely nuanced capabilities in sex, and it sports a miraculous function as a shaper of sounds in song and words in conversation: all this in a motile fleshy appendage tucked neatly away inside our mouths, except when we want to be rude and stick it out.
it has another function, though, that I suppose I must have know about but hadn't paid any attention to until one day, a few years ago, when a crown got sucked off a tooth by a particularly glutinous chocolate caramel toffee and I had to wait a full weekend before being able to get it attended to (these things always happen just before the weekend - usually over christmas). it was then that I discovered that the tongue has what I think is known as a semi-autonomous function, ie, although we can take control of it whenever we want to, it is in fact in constant motion, on automatic, acting as a searcher-out of little scraps of food debris caught between the teeth, so that, when it's suddenly confronted with a huge gap where a tooth used to be, with a spike at the bottom of this cavity screwed into the jaw as an anchor for the crown that is no longer there, it just can't help itself - it worries away at this thing, this spike, as if it could dislodge it, despite the fact that, whenever it probes at the spike, it damages itself.
that weekend was endless - it felt like having a piece of barbed wire stuck in my mouth - and there was no way I could persuade my tongue from doing its job - there was no way I could switch off the automatic pilot that kept telling it, whenever I forgot for a moment to still it myself, to try again - to probe at this alien object lodged in my jaw and prise it away. I ended up stuffing wads of cotton wool into the gap and looking and sounding like marlon brando in the godfather (I wish).
whenever I've told anyone about this, they've always reacted in the same way: "you mean, it's like having a kind of little animal inside your mouth, moving around and cleaning up all the time?"
you too, huh?
sorry about that.

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