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Slow life in the fast lane

By Gina Gotthilf

Section: Features

November 14, 2008

CENTER STAGE: Then 8-year-old Andreas Teuber (PHIL) strikes a pose.  Teuber, who has been teaching philosphy at Brandeis for 23 years, has had a passion for theatre from a young age. <br /><br /><i>PHOTO COURTESY OF Andreas Teuber</i>

CENTER STAGE: Then 8-year-old Andreas Teuber (PHIL) strikes a pose. Teuber, who has been teaching philosphy at Brandeis for 23 years, has had a passion for theatre from a young age.

PHOTO COURTESY OF Andreas Teuber

Whereas Narnia is only accessible to fortuitous small children and Platform 9 3/4 is restricted to Muggles, what lies behind Professor Andreas Teuber’s office door at Brandeis is off-limits to everyone, including himself. Perpetually closed, the door directs students to a nearby office where further directions may be provided, or an e-mail address that forwards to a different account.

Though philosophers are imagined by many to be like Rodin’s Thinker – petrified contemplators cemented to a chair – Teuber is unable to sit still in his own room. Besides teaching at Brandeis for 23 years, Teuber has spent time on stage, in films and television series, planning art exhibitions in New York, and crafting newspaper articles for The New York Times, Newsday, and the Boston Globe. All that in addition to studying under two of the most influential philosophers of our time, teaching, and collecting fellowships and awards.

“It’s hard to think stuck in a chair,” he said. It’s hard to think while snoozing as well, which might help explain why this professor sleeps an average of four hours every night.

Despite Teuber’s active lifestyle and eclectic resumé, his actions and unusual persona do nothing but inspire and promote a life best lived in slow motion.

Though many classes at Brandeis are designed to help students consume large amounts of material, Teuber encourages his students to think by closely examining one or two ideas “Or three or four,” he added. For uninitiated students, it may feel as if time in class is not quite moving in slow motion but frozen. “Didn’t we cover this yesterday?” is a common refrain beneath the Bob Dylan soundtrack that engulfs the room before and after Teuber’s lectures. “Didn’t we see that painting at the beginning of the semester?”

Yet so too do we look at the same campus on our way to class, think similar thoughts and worry similar worries. We voted last election, too. We think we have it all down, but living in a world of perceptions, with eyes that can scan only the surface of things, Teuber reminds us that there is more to what we see than meets the eye.

“Philosophy is thought in slow motion,” he said. “Most people think philosophers only focus on big stuff, big ideas, like truth or justice or knowledge.”

Instead, his classes not only encourage students to ask questions about the big ideas, such as what is knowledge, and whether or not we have any, but questions about the everyday – to look at the world as a talented filmmaker shifts a camera.

“We live in a society that places a premium on time, and there’s a lot of rushing about. Rushing is not conducive to philosophy,” he said. To Teuber, the failure to take our time results in missing much that would otherwise make us stop and wonder: like “a moose standing in between a club of trees on the edge of E lot.”

For Teuber, repetition is not merely redundant, but a way of obtaining fresh perspectives. Whether it is re-visiting ideas or photographic slides, watching films multiple times or having seemingly similar conversations with him, students are constantly encouraged to adopt multiple points of view.

Theater audiences, filmgoers, museum perusers and actors are also well acquainted with Teuber’s tacit request for thought. Drama and art, like philosophy, are also opportunities to arrest time.

The professor’s parallel career in theater dates back to his childhood. “When I was young, I wanted to see what dying was like. So then I’d go ‘ugh’ and die,” he said. Teuber wanted to experience that which he as a child had yet to experience, and already knew the extent to which one must walk through an idea to understand it fully.

Teuber’s first instance of fame came when he was still a student at Oxford, in the major motion picture of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus as Mephistopheles, a devil disguised as a friar. Reviewed by The New York Times, The London Times, The New Yorker, and other major publications internationally, Teuber was the only one to earn praise in a cast featuring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The New York Times review described the production as “of an awfulness that bends the mind,” but distinguishes Teuber’s performance as the only one worthwhile. The London Times wrote: “the best performance comes from Andreas Teuber as Mephistopheles, bald, grave and monkish.”

He also had roles in the original series of “I Spy,” with Bill Cosby, “ The Big Valley,” along with Barbara Stanwyck, and other television series as a child. His most recent appearance on screen was in the movie “The Imported Bridegroom.”

Additionally, Teuber is the founder of the new Poets’ Theater, a venue that featured the original productions of influential writers such as Samuel Beckett, as well as the founder of The Cambridge Theater Company, at The Hasty Pudding. He has directed more than 30 productions and worked with actors such as Claire Bloom, Julie Harris and Christopher Reeve, among others. When asked what it was like to direct people like Claire Bloom, Julie Harris, or Christopher Reeve, Teuber said, “I’m not a director.” He continued, “I’m not sure if he’s very good,” referring to himself in the third person.

Teuber has also directed performances in art galleries. Bringing together philosophy, theater and art, the professor and director teamed with Tino Sehgal last year, a visual artist who creates interactive performance pieces designed to be staged in museums. The exhibition, “This Situation,” performed at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, featured six philosophers whose memorized lines and improvisation elicited thought as well as audience participation. These semi-scripted discussions touched on a wide range of topics, and centuries of Western thought.

He is working again with Tino Sehgal on a piece to be performed at the Gugghenheim in 2019, and the “co-conspirator” on a project with abstract artist Steve Miller, whose work was featured at the Rose Art Museum in 2007.

In philosophy, theater, class, as well as in art, Teuber believes in the importance of involving the viewer in the viewed. A magnified image forces the viewer to try to figure out what he is seeing. So does idiosyncrasy, or trying to understand what takes place in the mind of this unpredictable professor.

Born to an unusual family of doers and thinkers, Teuber’s multi-faceted personality is not happenstance. His mother, Marianne Liepe, Jewish but brought up as a Quaker, was the high-jump champion of all the Swiss universities, as well as a ski instructor and art historian. His father, Hans-Lukas Teuber, founded the Department of Psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and played a major role in establishing the field of human neuropsychology. If this were not enough, his brother Christopher designed the first staging of “The Wall” for Pink Floyd, and staged “The Wall in Berlin” for Roger Waters just after the Berlin Wall came down.

Yet an impressive list of accomplishments, successful family members, and a lengthy resume are meaningless to the tenured Brandeis professor. “Life is not collecting. Where are you gonna put it all?” he said. “It’s about making things happen.”

He continued, “[that’s] probably why it’s hard for me to write an email in any kind of perfunctory way. It’s just gonna sit there dumbly on the page. I hate emails.” Switching back to the third person, he continued, “that’s another thing he detests.”

As for third-person self-referrals, Teuber explains that it is often easier to understand oneself, or admit feelings, by stepping back and viewing oneself from a distance. This habit of constantly moving toward and away from his object of study – whether it is himself, an image or existentialism – prevents him from settling somewhere and failing to see the world “as it is, in its place, and not some other thing.”

Just as his perception of things refuses to fix and label, he himself resists having his photograph taken. “The camera is only concerned with the surface of things,” he explained. And though his name produces 113,000 hits on Google, nearly every link leads to a blank profile picture. Except for this profile – we found one.

“I’m not all that fascinating, I’m dull,” he insists. “I’m not a moose. Perhaps you may want to bring this out in your article.”

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