Flowers for Algernon is a horrifying book to read when you are worrying about losing your ability to see. I’ve added it to Battle Royale and Vanilla Sky in my list of fundamentally moving stories that I could never bear to experience again.
The psychological exploration was intriguing, but more than anything I find myself concerned with one of the book’s central hypotheses: With a mental disability, the “natural” Charlie Gordon easily earns affection and friends. He is sympathetic, genuine, concerned both about others and about whether he is perceived as a good person. The hyper-intelligent Charlie Gordon earns only disdain. He has no close relationships, neither sympathizes nor garners sympathy, and has no concern for how he is perceived or how his actions affect others.
Is the author, Daniel Keyes, suggesting that human bonding is a result of our individual weaknesses? Do we look to relate to others, to please them and make them like us, only when we recognize that we need them to complement our own lives? We see the holes in our own systems, and seek to fill them with the vibrancy of others. Yet when we are self-sufficient, when there is no hole to be plugged and nothing that any person can offer us, we cannot bond.
Is bonding a primitive instinct that can be outgrown through intellect? Could it be possible that intellect and human bonding are antithetical to one another?
I find myself identifying with both Charlies. Am I a genius with an IQ of 180 who speaks a dozen languages? No, of course not. But have I been a child who sometimes watches what I do now with a sense of perplexity, wonder and condemnation? Yes, absolutely.
I have a lot of trouble bonding. I don’t go out of my way to be arrogant as Charlie the genius does (or at least, I like to think not), but I still find it difficult to connect. Throw me into a social situation and I look for a topic of mutual interest. If I can’t find one, I’m out to sea; and even if I should latch onto something, if you don’t engage me with a level of detail and interest matching my own, the conversation is stillborn. Very often I hold back because I know I’m too intensely involved in the subjects I care most about. Even if I find someone with the same intensity, it’s often limited to the one subject. Shift a step to the side and the bond falls apart. It’s only intellectual, not emotional.
I sometimes talk over people’s heads. I used to think it was always my fault, and that I was just bad at explaining things, or too long-winded. Sometimes I am. But sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I feel like both the man with the disability and the genius who can’t connect.
I live intellectually. I don’t rely on anyone else, nor do I anticipate much from others. When I meet people who truly engage me, we connect only intellectually. I fall in love with people based on their intellect, then I run into the same problem that others have with me: I have nothing to offer that they need. All I have to offer is intellectual stimulation. If they don’t value it, I am useless.
Keyes ultimately puts more stock in the human relationships that natural Charlie achieved than in everything genius Charlie produced with all his endowments. It’s reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange (a natural horrible human is preferable to a clockwork orange) or Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov (life cannot be lived as a theory), with hints of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the chaos of life is preferable to controlled numbness of the mind). Charlie the genius was self-contained, as was his benefit to humanity—a dead end, a product that served only itself. With all his intellect, Charlie proved only that the process that had created him was untenable. He lived only to definitively prove that he could not live. Yet the real, limited Charlie had people who loved and hated him, people who brought him joy and to whom he brought joy in return, and his imperfect memory shut out all traces of hatred or envy. With the fruit of knowledge, he lost his paradise—yet Paradise Lost is the one book he remembers when he loses his intellect again.
I’m not as sanguine about the “ignorance is bliss” concept, and it is only one of many woven through the story. I look more to the thesis that intelligence alone is meaningless if it is not applied humanely—“man cannot live on bread alone”. Pure intellect is asocial, and whatever its benefits, be they in a bakery or in the field of neuroscience, it will be feared and rejected by humanity, precisely because intellect alone lacks humanity.
In the end, Keyes places greatest value in the honest desire to push one’s own limits for the purpose of pleasing others—in the desire itself, rather than in any actual achievement as a result of that desire. In fact, achievement of what we desire can be the greatest detriment to our humanity. Perhaps self-acknowledged imperfection is the secret to a good heart, and to a meaningful life blessed by the companionship of others.