An Ode to Chewing Gum

Ever broken a piece of gum? Broken its spirit, I mean. Chewed it for so long, and with such absentminded, mechanical fury, that its molecular structure finally collapses and it dissolves into a kind of traumatized putty in your mouth. I’ve done this only once in my life, after a night of what we used to call “raving” (dance floors, chemicals) in London, but it impressed me greatly.

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First I was impressed with myself, the up-all-night masticating lunatic. Then I began to think about the piece of gum. Its elasticity. Its resilience. How many hours of thoughtless gnashing had it given me, before I killed it with my power jaws? Its tiny dowry of flavor—spearmint? cinnamon?—was exhausted in the first five minutes; after that it was pure endurance, pure interior technology, shifting and resisting, on and on until dawn rose whitely and everything sort of fell to pieces.

Gum is not exactly a handmaiden to the arts—it’s not opium or Earl Grey—but it does enhance concentration. It helps you get on with things. Maybe because it feels almost autonomic, like something our body is taking care of without us, the act of chewing-for-the-sake-of-chewing smooths out anxiety and irrigates the brain. “Dad,” my son asked me last week, “do you think you have ADHD?” “No,” I said, “but I am quite lazy.” If the choice is between two hours of rapturous flow-state composition and a 43rd viewing of Scent of a Woman, I’ll pick the latter. So I need my gum. It lets me know I’m working.

Of course, once it’s served its purpose, it’s rather disgusting. Used gum, chewed gum. “What I do is me: for that I came,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, a huge fan of Trident Original Flavor. And gum’s grand refusal to surrender its form, to be anything but what it is, becomes in the end a bit of a problem. How to dispose of it? Me, I like to throw it from the window of a moving vehicle. Not really a long-term solution.

Someone told me at school that if you swallowed a piece of gum it would wrap itself around your heart. Amazing image. So chew on, humans. Those knobs of used gum—they’re tiny monuments to contemplation, really. They memorialize passages of the mind. The thoughts are flown, but the gum remains. Get some on your shoe, wrap it round your heart, and think of me.


This article appears in the June 2022 print edition.

The Atlantic

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