June 29, 2020

Flowers for Algernon

Dominant Narrative: 

Charlie Gordon, is a 68 IQ 32-year adult, whose intelligence is increased through a newly discovered scientific method which is applied to him through surgery. We follow his journey from low to high intelligence and then back again. The value of intelligence is explored and questioned by following Charlie and his trials and tribulations. The primary take-away is that intelligence is that not everything in the human condition can be solved or improved with intelligence.

Charlie’s Realizations & Observations:

(1) Phenomenon of psychological projection:

  • Charlie slowly realizes that his co-workers do not perceive him as a friend; and they do not laugh with him, but at him. He starts perceiving that people are not always out for his good like he once thought in his previous mental state.
  • The incident of the Mixer. His co-workers try get him to work a mixer at the bakery as a joke since they expect a complete failure: “I think she will be happy but I dont know why Frank and Joe are mad at me. I asked Fanny and she said never mind those fools. This is April Fools day and the joke backfired and made them the fools instead of you.” Charlie’s value to his co-workers was his perceived low value and incompetence which is what allowed his co-workers to feel good about their own place in the world. Once they started questioning his low value, they turned on him.

(2) Suspicion & Anger at the world

  • Memories from childhood start coming to him more frequently: he perceives more clearly the times in his life where he was abused by his “friends” from work and elsewhere but was too dumb to realize. 
  • “That was the same thing that happened at Halloran’s. And that was what Joe and the rest of them were doing. Laughing at me. And the kids playing hide-and-go-seek were playing tricks on me and they were laughing at me too.”
  • He then starts suspecting the researchers who are involved in the experiment of also playing tricks on him and abusing him:

“Pictures! Hidden in the inkblots! Last time you told me that everyone could see them and you wanted me to find them too.’ ‘No, Charlie. I couldn’t have said that.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I shouted at him. Being so afraid of the inkblots had made me angry at myself and at Burt too. ‘That’s what you said to me. Just because you’re smart enough to go to college doesn’t mean you have to make fun of me. I’m sick and tired of everybody laughing at me.’ I don’t recall ever being so angry before. I don’t think it was at Burt himself, but suddenly everything exploded. I tossed the Rorschach cards on the table and walked out. Professor Nemur was passing by in the hall, and when I rushed past him without saying hello he knew something was wrong. He and Burt caught up with me as I was about to go down in the elevator. ‘Charlie,’ said Nemur, grabbing my arm. ‘Wait a minute. What is this all about?’ I shook free and nodded at Burt. ‘I’m sick and tired of people making fun of me. That’s all. Maybe before I didn’t know any better, but now I do, and I don’t like it.”

(3) Insights into human nature

  • He eavesdrops on a conversation between the researchers who are involved in the experiment and comes to realize: “It was dark, and I walked for a long time trying to figure out why I was so frightened. I was seeing them clearly for the first time – not gods or even heroes, but just two men worried about getting something out of their work.” And he realizes that he is their work.

(4) Romantically repressed desires or thoughts

  • Charlie starts becoming aware of repressed sexual desire and feelings of unworthiness and his own attraction to his teacher, Alice. This relates to the next insight:

(5) Psychological complexes developed from his mother

  • His mother instilled several detrimental beliefs in him, a significant one being attributing his learning disability to lack of effort, i.e., a belief that he is at fault and therefore unworthy of love. 
  • In one scene of a recalled memory his mother rips a toy out of his hand and shouts at him that he needs to go learn and study the alphabet; in another she shouts at him for touching his sister; and then later scolds him for looking at his sister’s friend and tells him that he doesn’t deserve to look at her.

(6) Moral Dilemma

  • With his sharpening perception and mental abilities he’s able to observe a co-worker, Gimpy, undercharging customers and pocketing the difference. He is torn both by reason and feeling: he realizes that logically it’s wrong to steal but on the other hand, he’s also aware that Gimpy has a family and so he doesn’t want him to lose his job. This is a dichotomy of the head and heart he the experiences. 

(7) The experience of being de-humanized

  • Charlie is at a psychological conference in Chicago and he experiences being talked about like he’s not there, as if he were perceived to be simply the subject of an experiment. He experiences a sense of alienation.

(8) Head-heart dichotomy

  • He realizes that he cannot solve every problem with logic alone after falling in love with Alice. He’s trying to articulate why he feels what he does towards her and not other women. The answers are not in books he says.

(9) Attitude to cirumstance

  • After seeing the mouse, Algernon, reach a zenith in cognitive capacity and then plummet back he conceptualizes his own demise and begins working to understand it. He becomes bitter, resentful and more angry at the world and begins alienating those people who are close to him.
  • Alice points this out to him:
    “You’re right. I never said I could understand the things that were happening to you. Not when you became too intelligent for me, and not now. But I’ll tell you one thing. Before you had the operation, you weren’t like this. You didn’t wallow in your own filth and self-pity, you didn’t pollute your own mind by sitting in front of the TV set all day and night, you didn’t snarl and snap at people. There was something about you that made us respect you – yes, even as you were. You had something I had never seen in a retarded person before.’ ‘I don’t regret the experiment.’ ‘Neither do I, but you’ve lost something you had before. You had a smile . . .’ ‘An empty, stupid smile.’ ‘No, a warm, real smile, because you wanted people to like you.”


The primary is the need for comprehensive development which is at its essence the development of the head & heart.

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” —Aristotle

‘people tend to develop their potential insofar as they cultivate their reason and love’ (paraphrased) —Eric Fromm

1st Implication: The value of fiction

Charlie (at his cognitive peak): “I’ve learned that intelligence alone doesn’t mean a damned thing. Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now there’s one thing you’ve all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn.” 

This instantiated in several ways. The first is a comparison of the effectiveness of objective information, advice and principles vs. that same objective information, advice and principles imbued with narrative and archetypal story. 

One example of the power of tempering intelligence and education with human affection is our oral tradition. Human’s have had an oral tradition of story (Ancient Greek myths like the Odyssey or Illiad, fables, etc.), which preceded the written word and recorded history, and it served to help us retain principles and knowledge in memory much longer than would’ve otherwise been possible. 

A more concrete example is the hero’s journey. Essentialized to logical principle it instructs us to get out of our comfort zone, overcome obstacles and then return to baseline as a better person; compare this to leave the walled city, slay the dragon, extract the gold, and return to your city and inspire the youth. Imbued with human emotion the principle makes use of both brain hemispheres, i.e., our full capacities. 

2nd Implication: Intellectualism as an escape

Charlie (at his cognitive peak): “Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it  to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis.”

One psychological complex Charlie received from his mother is to subconsciously equate intelligence to worth which was hammered into him through his mother. This complex is a tragedy central to this story throughout: at the start he is so eager to volunteer for the surgery “I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me.” (progris riport 6th Mar 8) and at the end, the pain of his inevitable intellectual decline and his perceived unworthiness of Alice’s love and the emotional discomfort accompanying it is what leads him to push her away. 

His original desired end for increasing intelligence was to address his need for community, affection and love (and especially his desire for his mother’s love) but throughout the need to address the deep-rooted psychological turmoil of his childhood was displaced by a single-tracked focus on cultivating intellect – which was emotionally more comfortable.

3rd Implication: Learning to love fate as an antidote to the victim mentality

Charlie (at his cognitive peak): “And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain. ‘When I was retarded I had lots of friends. Now I have no one. Oh, I know lots of people. Lots and lots of people. But I don’t have any real friends. Not like I used to have in the bakery. Not a friend in the world who means anything to me, and no one I mean anything to.”

Charlie concertizes the victim mentality which is expressed in the climax of the story: Alice, while aware of his eventual cognitive decline, reciprocates his love – she’s wanting to capitalize on the time they have left to live fully. But as time goes on and Charlie notices distinct signs of his cognition slipping, e.g., forgetting tasks, languages, etc., he becomes bitter & resentful and emotionally shuts down and closes to Alice while there was still time for them to enjoy their love. He cannot deal with the emotional pain of his declining intellect and shuts both Alice and Dr. Strauss out when they try once again to reach out to him.

The antidote: Neitzsche’s formula for greatness, Amor Fati, “love of fate”, and its cultivation. How would the story have played out had Charlie adopted and cultivated this?

The Lessons:

Lesson / Application #1: Step out of your comfort zone with experiments

Engage in as many experiments as possible: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Why? to identify our “blind spots.” It’s easy to over-estimate our competence in any given area, to remain the big fish in the small pond, to never get out of our intellectual or emotional or physical comfort zone and to properly grow. Charlie remained in the realm of the intellect with its predictable certainty, but shied from the realm of emotion with its accompanying discomfort and uncertainty, i.e., the realm of loving and receiving affection and being vulnerable with another.

Lesson / Application #2: Develop a methodology for internal & external feedback

Quantify your life, i.e., develop a methodology for reflecting on and organizing your life to learn from errors and defeats. If you’re uncomfortable in a situation, ask why? and what can you learn from it? If you failed at something, what’s the moral to be extracted from the temporary defeat? The aim is to develop a healthy and constructive attitude towards vulnerability, temporary defeat, failure, embarrassment. 

Lesson / Application #3:  Be alert to rationalizations justifying inaction

It’s easy to stay in a psychological rut by rationalizing, e.g., at a suggestion or goal of getting into shape and its accompanying benefits which you agree with, you might explain the goal away with rationalizations which defend the complacency, e.g., not everybody can get into great shape, some people have genetic conditions, some people don’t have time, etc. Take note and be alert when something appeals to you but has accompanying rationalizations which justify inaction. Look at fear and discomfort as indicators and their lack in life as a possible symptom of complacency. Worthwhile results accompany fear and discomfort, not complacency. This is instantiated with end-of-life surveys which show that most people regret what they don’t do rather than what they do. Discipline is easier to live with than regret. 

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

The first step, the first action is the hardest, but the momentum gained from the first step perpetuates further evolution & development.

Posted in Extraction Essays