How to Become Simple-Minded

''You have to brush your teeth more carefully!''

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Monday, August 19, 2002

How to Become Simple-Minded

(or: "You Have to Brush your Teeth more Carefully")

by Rolf-Peter Wille

"What are you reading these days?" An important question. If you ever plan to get into the doctoral program at the Juilliard School they will ask you this question, or so I am told.

"What are you reading these days?" I am asking my student. "I am reading a book on brain surgery." "…brain surgery???" "Yes. It is extremely interesting. If you remove, let us say, a section of the brain [they call this lobotomy, I think] you can still function quite normally. They removed the entire brain of a cat, and the cat could still walk and eat." Now this I do not believe. Maybe if it were a pianist she could still play certain scales.

A week later my student is reading a book on the FBI. "It is quite horrifying."

"And what are you reading this week?" I asked her last week. "The Thief’s Journal. A very interesting autobiography by a French writer who spent his childhood among thieves and prostitutes." "Do you want to become a thief or do you want to become a pianist?" I want to ask my student. But maybe she wants to become a piano teacher and the book might still be quite helpful.

"But—seriously—brain surgery, the FBI, and the Thief’s Journal. Maybe you’ll become a genius. But how do you crystallize such different interests into one grand vision? How does it help you in your artistic endeavor?"

"I don’t know."

Actually I don’t know it either. In the last few days I have read Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, seen the silent horror movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and now I am devouring a book on love, La llama doble, by the Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz (I recommend this clever book highly). But it is Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendhal’s novel, that has made the strongest impression on my mind. This young French commoner of the early 19th century has a phenomenal memory. An absolute memory. He comes from a very low-class background in provincial France, but—being interested in reading—he has memorized the entire New Testament of the bible in Latin (without—naturally—believing a single word). This astonishing feat enables him to gain a foothold as Latin tutor in a certain noble family. Unavoidably this intelligent and revolutionary young man has a love affair with the noble lady who happens to be the mother of his young students. Subsequently he is sent away to the seminary in Besançon to prepare for the priesthood.

True to his ambitious character, Julien Sorel tries to surpass all the other seminarists in order to secure a high position in the church hierarchy. But to his utter chagrin he has to discover, that all of his abilities are a hindrance in this regard. His fellow seminarists are farmers and mostly complete idiots, who are sent to the priesthood just in order to save them from utter starvation They regard any show of knowledge with utmost suspicion, and Sorel’s arrogance is held in contempt by them.

True to his ambitious nature, our hero tries to appear stupid now—just to curry favor with his fellow seminarists. For days he locks himself up in his cell and tries to practice ignorance. In front of a mirror he imitates the most stupid facial expressions, the simple-minded stare of utter bewilderment. Very soon he discovers, that though having been able to memorize the bible in Latin, he is quite unable to imitate the gestures of stupidity.

I think it is a pity that Julien Sorel could not have come to Taiwan twenty years ago. I am sure he could have seen this simple-minded stare on the faces of 90% of the population. In fact, what Sorel did not know: There are certain Asian methods to learn simple-mindedness. The Indian method is to repeat the same gesture ad nauseam. You spend your entire life repeating a mantra: "Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare!" Again, and again, and again, and yet…, again, until you forget everything else. Or maybe you just chant "Ooooooooooom" until your entire soul fuses with the low vibrations of the sound "Ooooooooooom" in your breast.

I had a piano teacher—his wife is Indian—who experimented with photographic memory of the musical score. He had hurt his hand trying to learn Chopin’s Etude op.10,2 and, since he could not play the piano for two years, he would lie on a couch with the music in front of his eyes. He would stare at a line of music (his facial expressions resembling a Besançon seminarist). Then he would close his eyes. He would open them again for two seconds—close them for two seconds. Having repeated this procedure 2 or 3 million times, eventually it would not make the slightest difference anymore if his eyes were open or closed: the image would be identical. He had obtained a complete photographic memory of that line which would stay in the hard disc of his mental images forever.

Being a very good student in those days, I took a piece of music. I made myself comfortable on a couch and, having opened and closed my eyes 20 to 30 times, I was asleep. So much for the Indian method.

Concentration is very difficult. It requires a talent for ignorance. If you are too intelligent your mind wanders off. You start to daydream or even to reflect. And…

In this case I suggest the Malaysian method. But what is the Malaysian method? Well, I am going to introduce it here: I am sure you have read about that famous prison in Kuala Lumpur which is a museum now. It is an old fortress and was one of the most terrifying prisons in the world. Some foreigners were executed there for drug trafficking and even now museum visitors regular faint when they hear the footsteps of the executioner, simulated by a hidden hi-fi system (persons with a heart condition are discouraged from visiting).

Prisoners were also caned in this fortress, and I read to my amazement that, in order to facilitate the procedure, some special pants were designed for the purpose. These pants would make you appear normally dressed, but they would leave the buttocks bare in order to be caned (I saw toddlers in China wearing similar pants to facilitate "small business"). In terms of achieving concentration, I believe this method to be much more efficient than the Indian one. Imagine the hardened and proud criminal being reduced to a pair of buttocks. After just a few strokes of the cane his entire soul would fuse completely with his screaming buttocks, and I am sure he wouldn’t fall asleep during the procedure.

The conclusion of these thoughts is: Do not just try to ignore everything but strongly emphasize something. I do not know if you remember the famous Bulgarian artist who wrapped up entire buildings. He wrapped up the Berlin Reichstag several years ago. The Berliners were highly impressed and began to imitate this artist by wrapping themselves up. Just a short while before, it had been popular to stroll through the park stark naked, and now one could actually see persons looking like mummies.

Interesting as this may be, I think both of these extremes are wrong. If everything is exposed, you can hardly decide what to look at, and if everything is hidden, then—quite obviously—there is nothing to see anymore.

I am much more intrigued by a little story of Heinrich Heine, who witnessed a certain young lady in the shadowy front of a confessionary in a dark Italian church. This lady was completely wrapped up in a black dress (not by Bulgari). Was she a widow? Doubtlessly she was confessing her mysterious sins to the priest, but all that enchanted Heine could see was the elegant hand of that lady, a hand like an independent living being, expressing and confessing all her sins in the most eloquent manner. Heine fell in love with this hand immediately and left the church truly enraptured.

I have to admit that I had a similar experience a few days ago, although I was only the object of that experience. What happened? I became a mouth. No, I don’t mean to imply that I spread gossip. I simply became an independent non-talking mouth. As a frequent visitor at the dentist, I am used to the condition of opening my mouth without talking. Once, during an operation, the dentists of the hospital took a photograph of my mouth. "Wait—I forgot to smile…," did I utter. "No, no, this is for scientific purpose." answered the dentist. Since this incident my mouth has tried to maintain a scientific silence in front of a dentist’s camera, but the hospital I am talking about has improved its approach in accordance with the Malaysian method. The moment you make yourself comfortable in the dentist’s chair, you are covered with a facial mask, that will only leave your mouth free. In the good old days I was still able to meditate on the dirt patterns of the ceiling while my dentist was cleaning my teeth, and—being more advanced now in the Indian method than during my student days—I had already obtained a photographic memory of that ceiling.

But now this is impossible. My entire being is just reduced to the eloquence of a non-talking mouth. Finally my dentist removes the facial mask. I can see, that—ironically—he is wearing a surgical mask that leaves everything free and just covers his mouth. Why isn’t he completely naked, just wearing the surgical mask? This would make the situation even more grotesque.

"Since when do you use facial masks?" I ask my dentist. "What is the purpose of this?"

My dentist is hesitating. Should he answer or not? "You have to clean your teeth more carefully." he finally utters without removing his surgical mask.

"Can you please remove your surgical mask? It is impolite to talk like that." I say. Thanks God, I am not in Kuala Lumpur. My dentist—certainly a victim of lobotomy—just says: "You have to clean your teeth more carefully." I should be grateful, because fate has finally sent me the perfectly scientific specimen of a seminarius besançoniensis.

Should I not teach piano like this? I would wrap up the student completely (in Bulgari fashion) until you could see only her enchanting hands. I would sit next to my student—maybe stark naked—and just wear a pair of plastic gloves.

"Teacher. How to play this Chopin Etude op.10,2?"

"You have to play your scales more cleanly."

"Teacher. Did you eat dinner already?"

"You have to play your scales more cleanly."

"How do I become the greatest pianist in the world?"

"You have to play your scales more cleanly."

But I am unfair. Why do I make fun at my poor dentist. All he sees his entire life is a series of mouths. "Open your mouth…, close your lips…, open your mouth…, close your lips…" Who could preserve his Indian sanity with such an occupation?

Rather than being arrogant, I should practice Tibetan mercy with my dentist. But what is Tibetan mercy? It is the ability to adjust to the spiritual condition, or Karma, of your fellow being. Julien Sorel almost practiced Tibetan mercy in his attempt to emulate the stupidity of his fellow seminarists. But he was not sincere, of course, because he only wanted to advance on the social ladder.

How to be a polite mouth? I think I know. On my next visit to Afghanistan I shall buy a black burqa (by Bulgari) which will cover my entire body. I shall take a pair of scissors and cut a mouth opening into it. Then I shall take a taxi in Taipei. "Going where?" "I have to clean my teeth more carefully." shall be my answer. The taxi driver will surely understand and drive me straight to the […] hospital.

"Where is your insurance card?"

"I have to clean my teeth more carefully."

"Please have a seat."


"Are you Wei Le-Fu?"

"I have to clean my teeth more carefully."

"Please open your mouth."

"I have to clean my teeth more carefully."

"You have to clean your teeth more carefully."

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