Flowers for Algernon (1)

I always think people are going to think I am an idiot. It doesn’t matter what I am doing, it always occurs to me that whatever it is, I might find myself doing it wrong, ludicrously wrong. And when this occurs to me, it also occurs to me that someone might be watching and that person watching, upon noticing that whatever I am doing I am doing ludicrously wrong, will conclude that I am an idiot. I can see myself quite clearly as an idiot, and I don’t like what I see. When I say idiot, I mean drooling idiot. Even if the wrongness of the thing I am doing is very simple and commonplace, merely the result of temporary absentmindedness—for example, attempting to open the apartment door with my car key—I still picture myself in the moment in which I realize the utter ludicrousness of my action, as a complete, drooling idiot.  What an idiot! I say to and of myself as I thumb over to the correct key on the ring, and as I say this, the vision of myself as a drooling idiot idiotically attempting to open an apartment door with a car key flashes across my consciousness. I suffer a bit while that is happening.  I suffer from the image of myself presented by myself and to myself as a drooling idiot.  It’s not much suffering in any single instance, but the instances add up. How many times have I called myself an idiot? How many times have I seen myself as an idiot? A hundred? A thousand? Millions, surely.

Fortunately I instantly forget.  I instantly forget that I thought of myself as an idiot and saw myself as an idiot almost every time I do it. I forget it completely. In fact, outside of incidents like the one mentioned above, I bask in the sunshine of a robust—even possibly too robust—admiration of my own intellect.  If I had to fill out some kind of survey in which I were asked to rate my own intelligence, I would undoubtedly rate it near the top, and not only that but when I was rating it near the top, I would be thinking, if I really wanted to be honest, I wouldn’t rate my intelligence just near the top but put it at the very, very top. However, since it would embarrass me to be that honest, I rate it only near the top to show a due amount of humility. In the moment that I was filling out that survey I would be completely oblivious to the thousands—millions—of moments in which I considered myself and pictured myself and displayed that picture emphatically to myself as a drooling idiot.

Of course at the very same moment I am picturing myself that way, I am also always thinking, I can’t very well actually be the drooling idiot I am picturing because if I were, I could not possibly picture myself as such.  The chief if not defining quality of a drooling idiot is his (or her) complete obliviousness to his (or her) idiocy. That much is absolutely clear. There are no drooling idiots out there picturing themselves as drooling idiots.  They don’t know they are drooling idiots. If they knew, they wouldn’t be drooling idiots. They would be at least one intelligence step above drooling idiot.

When I was a kid, I read this very sad and affecting book called “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.  In this book, this drooling idiot named Charlie is given an experimental drug that changes him from a drooling idiot (his original and natural state) into a complete genius. As you can imagine, everything pretty much sucked for Charlie when he was a drooling idiot. Everyone made fun of him, for example, and he was shunned by women. But after the treatment, his situation improves dramatically. In fact, everything becomes really great for Charlie then. This beautiful woman falls in love with him, and he attains the respect and admiration of his peers, in fact, of everyone. He gets a job at the very laboratory in which, as a drooling idiot, he had been used as an experimental animal. Not only does he get a job among the very scientific hotshots who had been experimenting on him but he gets the chief job there. That is to say, he becomes their boss.

(Come to think of it, at that point, if he had wanted to, Charlie could have fired the whole lot of other scientific hotshots who had been experimenting on him, couldn’t he? He could have fired them out of resentment, for example, for experimenting on him back when he was a drooling idiot. He could have held a grudge is what I’m saying.  But of course he doesn’t because, after all, the experiment had been a success and certainly anyone who used to be a drooling idiot but then found himself both transformed and elevated to a scientific hotshot—indeed the chief scientific hotshot at this particular lab, if not the world, complete genius in fact—is hardly going to hold a grudge against the guys who made that happen. He wouldn’t hold a grudge even if he considered—as he undoubtedly would, being a genius—that as the treatment was experimental his particularly positive result might very well have “gone the other way” as they say. He wouldn’t hold a grudge even when he considered (as he would have to do) that that experimental drug they had given him might have, instead of turning him into a complete genius, turned him into a vegetable. Granted if he had been turned into a vegetable, he would have held a grudge (to the degree that such a thing was possible in a vegetative state) but as instead he was turned into a complete genius. . .well, let’s just say, all’s well that ends well.)

But it doesn’t end well. How could a book that began in that manner end well? A drooling idiot gets an experimental drug, is transformed into a complete genius, wins the love of a beautiful woman and becomes chief scientific hotshot at some unbelievably prestigious lab, the end? No way. Who would want to read a book like that? Who would believe a book like that? Only drooling idiots would read or believe a book like that. In fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if drooling idiots read and believed only books like that. Well this book, contrary to what you might expect as the protagonist of the book is in fact a drooling idiot, was not one written for drooling idiots. No sir. It didn’t end there. With a build up like that, there has to be a fall. In this case, as it turns out, very sadly and affectingly (and even in fact, horrifically) the effects of this particular drug are only temporary. That’s where the sad part comes in. One day Charlie—the complete genius—is running experiments as a scientific hotshot in this incredibly prestigious lab and he notices that Algernon is getting stupid again. (Algernon’s the mouse. The one they tested the drug on before they shot it into Charlie.) Being a genius, Charlie can’t escape the conclusion that sooner or later he too—as the only other recipient of the experimental treatment—will soon start to get stupider again, in all likelihood ending up as stupid as he used to be, to whit, a drooling idiot.  And sure enough that’s what happens.

But not without a fight. Charlie is a hotshot scientist after all and a complete genius to boot. Naturally, he tries to fix the treatment. He tries to fix himself. And all the while he is trying to fix himself, he knows he is getting stupider. He does all kinds of experiments, but with every experiment he becomes stupider. He writes long complicated equations on the blackboard, but with every equation he becomes stupider. And of course, all the while, even as he is getting stupider and stupider, he knows he is getting stupider and what’s more he knows that his chances of successfully fixing himself are getting smaller and smaller with every passing second. It’s actually quite excruciating—that part of the book.  Charlie’s brains are slipping away, but he needs those very same brains to save himself. Well, he doesn’t save himself. He ends up just as stupid as he was to begin with. The end.  And that was very sad. It really got to me when I was a kid. It felt a lot like a punch in the stomach. I couldn’t believe it.

But now, I wonder. Really, for Charlie, was it so bad? After all, the defining characteristic of being a drooling idiot is one’s complete obliviousness to one’s own idiocy.  When Charlie became a hotshot scientist you can bet he was all too aware that he had been a drooling idiot, but at the same time when he returned to being a drooling idiot, maybe—as he could not be aware then that he had become a drooling idiot—just maybe he believed he still was a hotshot scientist, on vacation say. Of course, the beautiful woman would be a problem. You can bet she wasn’t going to stay in love with the Charlie she had known as a hotshot scientist now that he was a drooling idiot. As far as I remember, the book is not explicit on this point, but I think it’s a fair guess that when Charlie lost his brains, he also lost the beautiful woman. She might retain a fondness for Charlie as a drooling idiot but those feelings wouldn’t be anything like her feelings for him when he was a complete genius.  You can bet on that.

It’s the impossible futures that are the most desirable.


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