Friday, January 16, 2015

Review of Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Can intelligence solve all human problems? Is more knowledge the answer to human suffering? Sadly, most people would answer yes to both, and that’s partly what this story responds to. Leftovers of the Enlightenment still permeate society at all levels, and are preponderant in our public educational process. Voices in the scientific community are more vociferous than ever in hailing the supremacy of intelligence and objective knowledge in achieving a meaningful life. And yet, not a single datum has saved anyone yet, or brought one bit of good into the world. Information about the empirical world has been here since the beginning of time, sitting on its fat ass. But information in the right hands can revolutionize human existence. The difference isn’t the information. Information is everywhere…we ARE information, life is information! We inhabit it. But the proper use of information to gain very specific ends is a different thing altogether. The meaning is in chosen ends, in the passion and will to achieve those ends, and not solely in the instruments utilized. Our significance is found in wanting good things, and working towards good things. When people don’t want good things, they don’t use knowledge and information for good ends, and they ultimately hurt themselves and others. This ‘bad living’ isn’t always necessarily unintelligent—unless you characterize abortive ends, ineffective methods, and harmful relationships with others, yourself and the world as unintelligent…which I sometimes use as a definition depending on the context—rather this is a bad use of information and intelligence in that it is ultimately abortive and contradictory. Our goal as human beings is to be as happy as possible, and to increase our happiness in the context of community; but when tools like information and procedures are used for anything other than the happiness of the individual and the community, then it is not the fault of mathematical intelligence or empirical knowledge, but it is a symptom of destructive and individualistic intentions that appropriate the instrument of reason to sabotage an individual’s happiness or the happiness of the community with which an individual is interdependent.

In our post-information age—what some have deemed the ‘inventive age’ for the desire to put all of our information to some new use—the most common criticism of ineffective people is that they are ignorant, uneducated, or just ‘stupid’. Even astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson sees some meaning in including other types of cognizance and human functioning to broaden our notion of intelligence.

“Humans aren't as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were 'reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.'”

Here is a story that demonstrates the absolute failure and futility of mere intelligence in both the protagonist and in those around him that parade themselves as knowledgeable. The narrative captures the arc of one person as he rapidly travels from mental disability, ascends to the heights of genius, but plummets back to mental disability again. The story is really about what is gained along the way, what is lost, and what is essentially a wash.

Charlie starts off wishing to be intelligent, and others around him wanting that for him too. He is warned, however, that “the more intelligent you are, the more problems you’ll have”, but the meaning was lost upon him as it is most who don’t understand that the instrument of knowledge and genius, like any other instrument, only amplifies the intentions of the user.

Charlie’s awakening did not come without its delights. His intelligence brings with it the possibility of romance, friendship, power, and mastery. He grows very curious about life in general, and more specifically, about his past, “like a man who’s been half asleep all his life, trying to find out what he was like before he woke up.” He is now fully conscious of things that escaped his notice before, and his memories are much more clear. As his intelligence continues to soar far above the average person, he realizes that his prior ignorance may protected him on more than one occasion, and insulated him from the full gravity of how lowly he was estimated in others’ opinions. At times he had been treated like an inanimate object. His discoveries hurt him now, but he much preferred his freedom and awakening, with its concomitant pain, to his life of groping in the dark.

The loss of friendship was probably the harshest reality check for Charlie, especially the estrangement that occurred because he now surpassed his acquaintances in comprehension and capability. Watching people withdraw hurt him.  He quickly saw through the shams of people he thought were intellectual giants—afraid that the rest of the world will find out they’re full of bull*hit.  Everyone began to fear and resent Charlie, because his “growth diminished them.”

Charlie quickly learned that his genius wasn’t alone. The former innocent, illiterate Charlie had never left. He discovered with bleak clarity that “nothing in our minds is ever really gone. The operation had covered him over with a veneer of education and culture, but emotionally he was there—watching and waiting.” The veneer didn’t run as deep as he had hoped, nor does it for anyone one of us. Here the author takes a moment to pontificate on the destitution of reason without affection:

“Intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn…don’t misunderstand me…Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love…Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis…the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.”

The authorities are passed over one by one as they manifest themselves as flawed humans who are searching and desperate like the rest of us. Charlie starts looking for answers in himself, not trusting to purebred truths passed down inviolate through the ages immune to the contaminating egos of people trying to survive. He learns that he can not entirely capitulate to external authorities. As the poet Al Shapiro wrote, Sentio Ergo Sum—we must feel our way. We must trust ourselves.

Charlie’s descent back into the mental vortex of cognitive disability is fascinating and tragic. It makes us appreciate our grasp—however feeble it is—of information that can be accumulated and constructed into ideas which help us interpret the world. Without some hold of discrete facts and memories, there is no sense of a past or future, and this yields a very hazy sense of identity. Watching the margins of Charlie’s world shrink into a limited, purely temporal consciousness with only shadows of further horizons was almost claustrophobic for me. As Simone DeBeauvoir has pointed out, in order for us to be fulfilled our concept of human freedom “requires that it emerge into an open future” (Ethics Of Ambiguity).  I’m sure there are times when we all live moment to moment, our minds centered on evanescent experiences of our world—and this can be a good thing, as mindful, meditative ideologies like Taoism and Zen Buddhism have demonstrated—but imagine the depths of experience that would be lost if each day was an eternity to itself without consideration of the past or the future. A balance, however tenuous, of temporal living with chronological thinking is the goal; not slipping into the error of believing we can evade the ennui or terrors of existence by “escaping from the sensible world or by being engulfed in it, by yielding to eternity or enclosing oneself in the pure moment” (DeBeauvoir).

Although something tells me that this book that once began as a short story should have stayed a short story (just a extremely biased, personal opinion founded only on my sense of boredom around the middle of the book), still the story is a fantastic idea: take a mentally disabled adult, perform an operation that rectifies his brain-break, and watch the slow dawn of his genius rise to its meridian, before it sinks back down to its former disability. Win-effing-win. I’m sure it made great strides in promoting awareness and compassion for those who are mentally delayed or disabled, making it clear that they are people of worth no matter their IQ. And it’s mockery of so-called geniuses “devoting their lives to studying more and more about less and less—filling volumes and libraries with the subtle linguistic analysis of the grunt” deserves uproarious guffaws at the colossal waste of a life spent navel-gazing and not loving fellow human beings. Where my Dickens at?

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,'' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
``Business!'' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ``Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!''

If you can’t understand that, then Keyes’ message may not reach you.

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