“Here, Dad, read this story,” said my son Matthew. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.”
The story was “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes, a celebrated piece of short fiction from 1958. I had heard about it before, but never read it. The story, in short, is written as the diary of a mentally disabled man, Charlie, who is the subject of a neuroscience experiment. Scientists perform an operation on him that triples his intelligence. Charlie finds that the dawning of a superior consciousness makes him, in fact, miserable. He becomes aware for the first time that the good old boys at the factory where he mopped floors don’t like him, as he thought, but actually make fun of him. With greater intelligence comes alienation. The factory folks present a petition to their foreman, demanding that Charlie be fired. His difference makes them feel uneasy. He is sent away. Yet he is also coming to feel resentment at those who aren’t as smart as he is — which, given the effect of his operation, is everybody, even the scientists who gave him this brilliance — as if their limited intellect were some sort of moral defect. Charlie comes to have the same sort of scorn for those beneath his cognitive level as the good old boys at the factory once held for him.
I won’t tell you how the story ends, but I will say it raises difficult questions about intelligence, morality, and community. I finished the story five minutes ago, and wanted to bring it up here as relevant to our discussion about Charles Murray, elites, class, and community. Murray, as you know, is concerned that our meritocratic society has led to a cultural chasm between cognitive elites and the working classes — a chasm maintained and even expanded by geographical patterns of segregation. He suggests — with wild implausibility, to my mind, for reasons I’ve discussed earlier — that the way to build bridges and help improve the dysfunctional behavior of the lower classes is for elites to leave their enclaves and settle among the poor and working classes.
“Flowers for Algernon,” with brutal elegance (which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but in this case is not), illuminates the folly of Murray’s suggestion. It is against human nature. People tend to fear and resent intelligence, in part because it makes them feel inferior. On the other end, the intelligent tend to fear and resent those who don’t have their abilities. I know, I know, this is hardly news; what “Flowers for Algernon” points out, though, is how difficult it can be to empathize, to see those unlike oneself as human beings, not subjects for mockery, experimentation, or in some way the object of one’s spite, amusement, resentment, or some other form of objectification.
Maybe the cognitive elite prefers to live apart because they don’t want to be subject to the scorn of the others. Maybe the others want the cognitive elite to live apart so they don’t have to be reminded, by the presence of these “snobs,” of the things they lack. People are tribal by nature, and instinctively react against those who threaten the tribe, its values, and its cohesion.
Anyway, this story made me think of the Charles Murray issue, and I wanted to throw it out there for discussion.