An Invisible Factor influencing all human relationships
Looking back at the modern classic- “Flowers for Algernon”
What if I told you that intelligence plays an important role in all human relationships- be it with parents, friends or even romantic relationships? We think of many factors that are important when we are forming an emotional connection, but we seldom think intelligence to be one of them. By intelligence, it does not mean that the person has to be very smart. It just means that they need to be in the same band of intelligence, or at similar IQ level as us. Too intelligent- we fail to connect with them. Too dull- we think we are better than them.
Even parents of intellectually challenged kids fail to understand and connect with them completely, even though they are loved.
What would happen if it was possible to increase human intelligence artificially? And what would happen to such a person’s relationships with their family and friends?
Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction- but it is not about aliens or time-travel, superpowers or far-off planets. It is a psychological deep-dive into a character and his relationships, after he has artificially been made intelligent. How were Charlie Gordon’s relationships when he was an intellectually challenged man with an IQ of 68; and how was it after he turned into a genius. More importantly, it is a book about compassion and kindness towards people who are written off by the society as retards.
Spoiler - Charlie was lonely before, and lonely even after becoming super-intelligent. When he was slow, people made fun of him. When he became a genius, he became arrogant and impatient with other’s lack of knowledge; and others with his superiority; while he himself wanted less intelligent people to be treated with compassion. The paradox!
Are you as kind a human being as you think you are?
“How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes — how such people think nothing of abusing a man with low intelligence.”
The book initially made me wonder if it was just villainising everyone to create a sob-story about the emotional pains of an intellectually challenged person. Sure we are kinder than that! But are we really?!
We all think that we are the kindest people there can be. But can we be really kind all the time? Every single time? We all are guilty of a mental eyeroll or of our impatience coming out as a slight annoyance in our voice when someone just does not seem to understand simple things. We lose our kindness in that moment. It is so simple, why don’t they get it! Consistency of behaviour is what defines our character.
Conversely, it is also true with people suffering from chronic illness. Have you ever had a family member who has been chronically ill or bed-ridden? Society is very quick to point fingers at a caregiver who seems irritated at a sick family member. Quick to judge their lack of compassion. What you forget is that- all you witness is a moment in time- a moment in the continuous suffering and constant caregiving which drains the carer, and increases the irritability in both the sufferer and the carer alike. How valid are then the moral questions?
Charlie also keeps getting flashes of memories from his past once he becomes intelligent. But how much of it is just one of the bitter experiences from the past, and how much of it is a perception of past in the present?
Social skills becoming a barrier for people with varying intelligence.
We all know some highly intelligent people who lack the social skills and are often made fun of by the ‘it’ crowd, who calls them names like nerds or geeks. Wherever there is a majority of people with similar intelligence levels, they knowingly or unknowingly outcast people whose IQ levels don’t match with theirs.
But sometimes, all it takes is a little empathy.
We do not read about empathy in universities although a lot is taught about being competitive in this world. This book was made compulsary reading in many schools but then it was also banned in some, because of the explicit content. What could possibly be explicit in a book about an intellectually-challenged man you may ask. Well, a lot. Because the author covers the tough life of intellectually disabled people in all its rawness. Facts like sexual awkwardness of intellectually disabled people, when they do not understand what is happening with them, while society(including their own parents) looks down upon them as perverts, are difficult conversations to be had.
People do not have empathy for things which they barely recognise as disability in the first place.
About the Author- Daniel Keyes
I have not been this curious about an author in a long time! As I was reading the book, I had an increasing urge to find out more about him- the genius who could write such a masterpiece. But I held on to the curiosity till I completed the book as I wanted to form my own perception- free from any external inputs. Intelligent writing- simple read but one which presents many complex layers of human psyche. One can keep discovering hidden themes, meanings and unending symbolisms even long after finishing reading!
Turns out, he is a graduate in psychology (no surprises). And he was the frontman, working hand-in-hand with Stan Lee. He was the editor of Atlas Comics- the precursor of Marvel Comics. He has won many awards in science fiction/fantasy writing, including the prestigious Hugo Award.
Isaac Asimov once said to Daniel Keyes that I hope someday you will not come to hate “Flowers of Algernon”, because everything you write after that will be in it’s shadow and will be compared to it. And I don’t want what happened to me, to happen to you, after I wrote Nightfall (which was a massive hit).
Well, it hadn’t and he continued to write quite a few critically-acclaimed books which I hope to read some day.
Leaving you with few thought-provoking quotes from the book.
- “I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.”
- “No one really starts anything new, Mrs. Nemur. Everyone builds on other men’s failures. There is nothing really original in science. What each man contributes to the sum of knowledge is what counts.”
- “That’s the thing about human life — there is no control group, no way to ever know how any of us would have turned out if any variables had been changed.”
- “Intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn…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.”
- (When talking about Warren State Home- home for mentally challenged individuals) “There are a lot of people who will give money or materials, but very few who will give time and affection.”
- (Charlie while talking about the mentally-challenged Charlie) “Who’s to say that my light is better than your darkness? Who’s to say death is better than your darkness? Who am I to say?”
- “The more intelligent you become, the more problems you’ll have.”
- “Now I understand that one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be.”
- ( From Allegory of the Cave - Plato) “…the men of the cave would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes…” (Another interesting story and an important lesson in Greek Philosophy, if you care to read.)