Flowers For Algernon: When Knowing Is Not Enough

Flowers for Algernon (Literature) - TV Tropes

A few months back, when such luxuries were still possible, a friend and I spent a weekday evening drinking at a pub near Queen’s Park. With the closing bell having already rung, and wishing to postpone the cold walk home for at least another hour, I agreed to join him in his nearby flat for a nightcap of whatever intoxicant he happened to have lying around. Ten minutes later, as I nursed a questionable little cocktail of rum and water (“It was good enough for the pirates!” my pal exclaimed, seeing me eye the cloudy brown liquid with suspicion), our conversation turned somehow to the subject of science-fiction literature. I was quick to concede my ignorance; it was not a genre I had any knowledge of, nor one I had an overwhelming desire to delve into. Sure, I had read Slaughterhouse-Five, and I was vaguely aware of Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin and Isaac (K.?) Asimov. But, for me, the term science-fiction conjured up images of mindlessly worshipping futurist technologies like A.I and cryogenics – in short, nothing that was particularly relevant to me or my admittedly tech-unsavvy existence.

Still, my pal was undeterred by my alcohol-induced snobbery. Laying his grog down on the table, he reached up to the bookcase behind him.

“Try this,” he said, sliding a small blue book across the carpet towards me, down the side of which was written, in bold yellow, ‘SF MASTERWORKS’. “It’s science-fiction,” he continued, “but trust me, you’ll get something useful from it.”

*

The book was Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon, a novel published in 1966, though first appearing as a short story eight years prior in 1958. The story centres around Charlie Gordon, a mentally impaired young man with an IQ of 68. Abandoned as a child by his mother for exhibiting sexual desires he cannot understand, Charlie longs to be smarter than he is, believing that this is the key to his mother’s affection. Due to his unshakeable desire to learn, Charlie is put forward as a test-subject in an experiment that will artificially increase his intelligence. The story is told through Charlie’s journal entries, the growing complexity of his insights and the language he uses to express himself revealing the rapid transformations taking place in his brain. Contrary to his expectations, Charlie’s hyper-accelerated learning actually affects his personal relationships for the worse. He comes to realise that he has been the butt of his co-workers’ jokes, despite having previously considered them his closest friends. Meanwhile, a budding relationship with his night-school teacher, Alice, falls apart the more his mental capacities surpass her own. Far from making his life easier, Charlie’s new-found genius leaves him estranged from the world around him. Despite his burgeoning intelligence, Charlie is ill-equipped with enough emotional maturity to process his vast knowledge. He watches as his friend Algernon, a lab-mouse subject to the same experiment, becomes increasingly erratic, eventually losing all will to live. Fortunately for Charlie, the effects of the experiment begin to fade before he is also driven towards suicide. The novel closes with Charlie, aware that he will soon regress back to his original state, checking into a state-sponsored home, unwilling to let himself become a burden on his friends and family.

While Flowers For Algernon succeeds as a sadly touching thought-experiment in its own right, at a deeper level the story asks broader questions on how we in the West have come to equate intelligence with the mere accumulation of knowledge. The novel seems to suggest that the price of ‘knowing’ is an increased likelihood of suffering from depression and anxiety.  At the beginning of the novel, Charlie’s outlook recalls the old adage ‘ignorance is bliss’. He is happy with his job as a cleaner in a bakery and he believes himself to be surrounded by friends who look out for him and care for him. It is only as his intellectual capacities increase that he begins to foster mistrust and an eventual disdain for other human beings. Recognizing that the world is far crueller and far more absurd than he once believed, Charlie falls into alcoholism and finds himself unable to achieve emotional intimacy with Alice, despite the sincerity of his feelings for her.

Keyes’ choice to open the novel with an extended quotation from Plato’s The Republic highlights the explicit influence of the Ancient Greek philosopher’s ideas on the story. Charlie’s journey from ‘ignorance’ towards ‘genius’ mirrors the journey made from darkness into light by the freed prisoner in Plato’s ‘allegory of the cave‘. In The Republic, Plato outlines a dialogue between his brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates as the latter describes the effects on human nature of education and it’s lack thereof.  Socrates tells Glaucon to consider people as prisoners inside a cave, facing the back wall and chained in such a way that they are unable to turn around. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between them and the fire is a walkway, along which pass small objects, casting reflections onto the cave’s back wall. With no evidence to the contrary, the prisoners accept these reflections as the objects themselves; only when a prisoner is freed will they turn and see the fire, thereby recognizing that what they took for reality was an illusion. If the prisoner then leaves the cave, they will be blinded by the intense light of the sun, symbolizing the blinding light of true reality.  If they choose to return to the cave and inform their fellow prisoners that all they take for truth is an illusion, the ex-prisoner will be met with ridicule and likely become ostracized. In the ‘allegory of the cave’, Socrates makes it clear that the choice to live your life in comfortable ignorance is far easier than to choose the pain and discomfort of facing up to the truth.

File:Plato's Allegory of the Cave B+W clear.jpg
Courtesy of John D’Alembert

The allegory of the cave is inherently tied up with Plato’s own Theory of Forms, a detailed analysis of which is not pertinent here. However, its underlying message is one that has fundamentally shaped the development of Western civilisation and influenced today’s acceptance of post-Enlightenment scientific rationalism. For Plato, and by extension Socrates, the highest goal to which we should aspire is the search for knowledge and for truth, and though it may not always be apparent, this belief still shapes our cultural norms today. After the Enlightenment, religious belief was steadily replaced with a belief (itself not altogether areligious) in scientific progress. Today, it is more common to worship at the altar of science than it is to believe in any abstract deity. The desire to ‘know’ is written into the subtext of our everyday lives, from the 24-hour rolling news coverage drip-feeding us continuous information on developments happening across the globe, to our own compulsion to check social media and remain up to date with localized events in our immediate surroundings. Knowing makes us feel better about ourselves – it makes us feel more in control. It is ingrained within us to seek knowledge, to over-analyse and to form an understanding of everything, from the molecular structure of the world around us to the movements of stars billions of lightyears away.

“The hemlocks are on me” – Socrates

The figure of the misunderstood, tortured genius has been unnecessarily glamourized in Western culture. Certain individuals are placed on a pedestal because they seem privy to a hidden knowledge the rest of us cannot access. These are Plato’s modern-day philosophers, those who have torn themselves away from the cave wall but have collapsed in the sun’s blinding light. In Flowers For Algernon, Charlie Gordon is universally admired for his intellectual capabilities, even as he becomes increasingly estranged from himself and the people around him. Charlie is free to journey from the darkness of the cave into the light of the sun, but he is not taught the necessary psychological resilience to process the knowledge he acquires. Blinking into the light of the truth, lauded by others as a genius, Charlie nevertheless feels completely and utterly alone. In Plato’s writings, the figure of the benevolent philosopher is heroized, portrayed as someone to whom we should all aspire. Yet Plato fails to account for the loneliness and ostracization this figure must inevitably endure. The allegory suggests that the only end to which we should aspire is ‘knowing’; but this ignores the multiplicity of ways in which a human being can cultivate intelligence. For there is another, equally important type of intelligence, one which Charlie lacks, and that is emotional intelligence. Instead of being measurable with IQ scores and statistics, emotional intelligence expresses itself in an individual’s capacity for empathy, their ability to understand not just the external world but also their internal self. While Charlie is able to access infinite amounts of knowledge, he is not taught how to process any of what he actually learns. His is not an epistemological dilemma of how much he can know; rather it is an ethical dilemma of what should actually be done with the knowledge he acquires. Ignorance of this ethical question has arguably led to an objective, dehumanised science that, alongside indisputably marvellous breakthroughs, has also, let us not forget, resulted in the creation of atomic bombs, drone warfare, and innumerable other nefarious technologies. Rather than being wholly consumed with a quest for knowledge as its own end, are we not duty-bound to ask whether the knowledge we do accumulate is actually of positive use to us and the world we inhabit?

The purpose of this article is not to decry science and logic, nor is it to preach ignorance in any sense whatsoever. Rather, it is to point out that intelligence is only a single facet of what makes a psychologically healthy, creative, empathetic and mature human being. Knowledge is undeniably important: We do have a duty to learn more, because the alternative is to wallow in cosy ignorance, avoiding truths that scare us, turning a blind eye to cruel injustices and allowing abuses of power to go unchecked. We have a duty to learn about the world we live in, and about the creatures that inhabit it alongside us, to avoid shutting ourselves off from whatever appears alien and consequently frightens us. But, alongside this, we also have a duty to cultivate a mature understanding of why we learn, so that we can process the scary truths wisely, and so that we can consider the potential ends to which each of our unique intelligences might be directed. These days there is a growing distrust of ‘experts’, one which has unfortunately seeped into the highest levels of political office. What this tells us is that knowledge, when hoarded selfishly and without thought towards practical use, becomes alienating and exclusionary. The inevitable, widespread kickback of this is a retaliatory embrace of pseudoscientific falsehoods and a general devaluation of the status of truth itself.

To learn about the world is not the same as to constructively engage with it. Conversely, it is impossible to engage constructively with the world without an openness towards learning, towards empathy, and towards curiosity. We might ask ourselves, now and then, whether we fall into either of two traps – that of avoiding the hard facts of life and succumbing to escapist temptations; or, in contrast, that of throwing ourselves so far into ‘knowing’, gorging every news update and following every minor trend, that we become quite unbearable to the people we surround ourselves with. It is a sad fact that many people aspire towards the figure of the misunderstood, lonely genius. They, above all, need reminding that human relationships are not expendable, and that intelligence can also be a crutch for bolstering a highly fragile self-esteem.  For, as Charlie comes to realise:

“‘Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for intelligence 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. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved with itself as a self-centred end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.’” (FFA, pp.173-4)

To conclude, in an era where truth is an ever-nebulous term, and in a world that is more connected and more informed than ever before, knowledge and the search for what is real still have important parts to play. Nevertheless, Charlie Gordon’s experience in Flowers For Algernon asks us whether we ought not place less value on how much we know and more value on the ends to which we can direct our knowledge. It is necessary that we pause every now and again and ask ourselves whether our endless accumulation of facts and information and statistics and figures is even useful, or whether it only presents us with the illusion of usefulness. We also might consider (and this deserves a whole article unto itself) how our knowledge and information-addicted culture has historically devalued people of disability. In Flowers For Algernon, the scientists and experts talk of ‘curing’ Charlie, making him into a ‘real’ human being. But really, is Charlie Gordon more of a human being when he is an alcoholic, an alienated genius, estranged from himself and the people who love him? Surely the real value of a person should be measured not in how much they know, but in how much they give back to the world with what they have? Perhaps it is time we start educating our children less on their ability to remember and regurgitate facts, and more on their capacity to remain curious, on their ability to connect with others no matter what differences of belief, background or opinion. Perhaps real value lies not in how intelligent a person is, but in how they use whatever knowledge they do possess to better the lives of the people around them, and the wider world.

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