“The bitten world holds the biter fast by his own teeth. There he perishes; unconquered nature lives on and forgets him.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Written in 1835, the short story Berenice, by Edgar Allan Poe, immediately met with public backlash and censorship because of its gruesome content. Initially written because of a bet with his publisher, Poe tells the story of two cousins, destined to marry, and the bridegroom, Egæus’s doomed obsession with his fiancé, Berenice’s, teeth.
Berenice is the unfolding of one man’s mind, of his obsessions and final act of desecration – his removal of Berenice’s teeth while he is in a trance-like state. Yet it is earlier in the story, when the silent Berenice smiles at her fiancé in the library, that asserts that this story is both at once frightening and laughable. Berenice is full of this duality, and Poe carefully develops this tension between comedy and horror, between assertion and contradiction, in order to prime us for the final inversion – where the mind of a man becomes the teeth of a woman. Poe writes, “of Berenice I more seriously believed que touts ses dents etaient des ideés.”, a pun which plays with the French words dents (teeth) and idées (ideas) together composing dent + idées to create identités (identities). Teeth thus become Egæus’s totality, his sole individuality.
In A Bitten World, Vivian Charlesworth embodies the “monomania” of the character of Egæus. By intensely focusing on the creation of teeth in different media and forms, Charlesworth investigates the themes and references present in Poe’s Berenice. Looking towards Poe’s initial inspirations, she investigates the myth of the Egyptian Queen Berenice, the severing of her hair, and ultimate placement in the sky as the constellation “Coma Berenices”, as well as stories such as the salacious tale of 19th century Baltimore gravediggers who stole teeth for dental research. In this examination of Berenice, Charlesworth seeks to figure out how Poe’s gothic gloom subtly subverts narrative expectations and how what we deem the seen world can all too suddenly become a world of seeming.
This project was first shown as part of a residency at the Serlachius Museum in Mänttä, Finland.