Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reflections: Flowers for Algernon

Such a classic book. It’s a shame I took so long to read it. Thanks to my good friend for recommending it for so many years! Upon reading, I understand how well she knows me :).

Charlie Gordon is a young man with an IQ of 68. Classified as mentally retarded, he is cast away by his parents. A kind gesture gets him a job at a bakery where he does a few menial jobs. Every evening he attends a special school for mentally challenged adults, where he tries really really hard to become smart. His motivation to learn catches the interest of a psychology professor and neurosurgeon who needs an experimental human-subject to test a new groundbreaking technique that can artificially induce intelligence by changing the biochemistry of parts of the brain. Having tested this procedure on numerous animals (lab mice), they are bristling to try it on a human being. Charlie eagerly consents, for becoming smart is his ultimate goal and yearning in life. What follows is Charlie’s recounts of the changes that push and pull his identity as his intelligence explodes. This is an enormously powerful (if a little disturbing) book on the power and fragility of the human mind. It’s a brilliant and extremely moving read.

Although I didn’t know anything much of the story or the ending, I could predict the path this book would take from the very first chapter. But despite knowing the course and eventuality of the overall story, the book couldn’t have been more gripping. Since the book is framed as a collection of Charlie’s journal entries, it is extremely personal, direct, and honest. The ascent, descent, and changes in Charlie’s personality, or rather identity, is realistically written with clarity and psychological acuity.

The question of what constitutes intelligence is one of the underlying themes. Intelligence is tricky to define and measure. As one’s intellect grows, how does their identity change? Are you the same person if you can approach calculus like it’s child’s play today, and then completely lose the ability to even count properly, the day after? As Charlie’s intellect shoots rapidly, he grapples with his emotional growth (or lack thereof) and battles with some basic psychological dissonance. Is there an old Charlie and a new Charlie now? Is he the same Charlie? Can he be both Charlies? What does it mean to know and have such competing identities within you. It’s one thing to lose your mind and memories completely (such as with amnesia or Alzheimer's), but it’s another to live within two different and conflicting worlds and identities. Charlie’s story unearths all of the basic philosophical questions on identity and “self”. It’s heart-wrenching to witness the transformations within him that drive him to the edge. His nightmares leap from the pages and hold you down with the same terror as Charlie faces.

Identity is usually defined as continuity of consciousness along time. It is so intriguing that one’s consciousness is nothing but a result of one’s neural activity in the brain. As this neural firing changes, consciousness changes, and identity morphs as well. Does it mean the “self” is  also different? Then, isn’t there anything of permanence within a human-being to make him/ his self, consistent? Maybe there isn’t. And that’s the most disturbing aspect. 

The question that bugs the reader is - Was the procedure worthwhile to Charlie, in any sense? Was he better in his shroud of ignorance than in his torturous but enlightening state of intelligence? Was the fleeting, if painful, process of self-awareness worth it? Reminds me of a psychiatrist's quote from some book I read a long time ago. The patient was a woman who was seriously delusional. She had lost her entire family in an accident and was living in an institution. But in her delusional state, she was extremely happy. She wore a big smile every morning and told everyone that she had just sent her kids to school and that she and her husband were planning an exotic vacation, etc. The psychiatrist says to people who ask him why he hadn't "cured" her - "Even if I could magically touch  her head to "cure" her, I wouldn't. She is happiest in her state, and it's a punishment to return her to reality." I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I often think of this quote.

The other overarching theme of the book is the morality and philosophical ethics behind inflicting such drastic procedures on humans and animals when the risks and consequences are high. This was the era during which the Milgram experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment and other disturbing and cruel psychological and physical experiments were conducted in the name of science. Things have changed dramatically (or rather, over-dramatically) today. Now, even a simple experiment or research study involving human subjects needs to pass through a tight and merciless review board. We jump through multiple hoops before we can ask people to estimate colors and play simple video games. I guess it’s better to err on the side of safety. Participant rights, safety and well-being are given wholesome consideration before even a simple research experiment can be put into place. Although human-subjects are treated with more respect and consideration, I can’t say the same thing about animal experimentation. But things are probably a little more humane than they used to be. At the very least, there is awareness.

I could relate to Charlie’s frustrations and complete eagerness to be smart so that he is loved and accepted in society. The world is doubly cruel to a challenged person. At least the physically challenged have their mind as a tool. The mentally challenged are bereft of the one tool that is inimitably essential for survival. Charlie's story is an example of the callousness of earlier generations that didn't even regard the mentally-challenged as human beings, or even beings worth existing.

Charlie’s story also brings to light the intimidation that intelligence brings with it. It’s ironic that people move away from him because of their feelings of inferiority. I have never considered this aspect of human psychology - that people could (and would) scorn and move away from those who are more intelligent than them. I have always been in awe of people with high intelligence and try to be around them like a puppy, hoping their intellect would rub a little on me. Another aspect that comes from this story is the apparent disproportion between intelligence and compassion. The higher the intelligence, the more self-absorbed one is likely to be in their quest for knowledge and self-awareness, and the more compassion and humanness one potentially loses. I guess it’s rare for high intelligence and compassion to exist in equal measures in a human-being; another ironical and unsettling observation.
Intelligence without compassion is dangerous. But I have definitely had the privilege to know and interact with many who break this stereotype. 
Finally, all the characters are sharply and accurately portrayed. Charlie’s memories and relationships with his parents are terribly moving and realistic.  Charlie’s mom is probably the most intense character in this book. And as flawed as she is, one can still sympathize with her motives and perspectives. Parents have no idea how much power they possess to break and damage their children for life.

I will end with the quote that the book begins with. It says it all.

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees anyone whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other...” Plato’s, The Republic


Meens said...

Awesome review. Really awesome.
I want to read this book.

There is so much more in my mind, about every paragraph you've written. I don't know when I can share, and more than that, I don't know when I'll develop the skill to put those thoughts in words.... I hope to spend some time later.

Neeraja said...

You really have to read this book, Meens. There's so much more I wanted to write, but I couldn't put them into words, and I didn't have time to continue writing.

Suvasini.... said...

The book is definitely a wonderful read. A fine example of how a small and simple story can raise such profound questions in such subtle ways and your post does justice to the book - wonderfully written !

SecondSight said...

I was thinking about this book a few days ago and referenced it in something else I was writing, and now you write about it too (as beautifully as always :))

Neeraja said...

True Suvasini. Thanks for your comment and kind words!

Thanks SS :). I can't get over the fact that I'm yet to read so many more such wonderful books! A lifetime isn't enough...

Karthik said...

Really enjoyed reading this post ! :-) I guess most people cherish and value things that they themselves lack ,,

Neeraja said...

Thanks Karthik :). Yeah, very true!