Have you read Flowers for Algernon? I have, because I’m really clever. Actually that’s not my point, my point is that the book tries to question the idea that ‘ignorance is bliss’. The main character is intellectually below average, takes a drug that makes him clever, and then is forced to stop taking it, knowing he will turn back into his original self. It also involves a mouse who takes the drug too but luckily doesn’t suffer the same level of emotional turmoil. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor used the ‘lab mouse foreshadowing’ idea in the same way, but with a hamster. Clever.
Anyway, it might be my favourite book, because it questions the idea of intelligence, and what makes a person happy in relation to that. At least I think that’s what it’s about. It certainly could be, but what if I’ve totally misinterpreted it? What if it’s actually about how mice are harbingers of misery, or it’s about the virtues of animal testing? What if, try as I might to ingest interesting art, I just don’t get it? It’s not hard to read works of the literary canon, it’s just time-consuming. What’s hard is understanding its intention, interpreting it in a way that speaks to you. I don’t want to turn into one of those people having an unironic ‘Great Gatsby’ party, celebrating the aesthetic of that era, totally oblivious that the book is about the pointlessness of shallow artifice. I want to be one of those people who has an accurate ‘Great Gatsby’ party, where someone ends up dead in a swimming pool. I think that’s what Michael Barrymore was going for.
I do wonder if society now is as anti-intellectual as it used to seem when I was at school. Back then, to know things was considered shit, and to try was pathetic. So imagine being in an environment of learning, the awful combination of trying to know things. I really hope this has changed since, because I persevered with the whole trying to know fad when all it got me was mild bullying leading to lifelong self-doubt. But without that need for approval caused by bullying, maybe we wouldn’t have this blog, or me trying to do stand-up, or a podcast, or make everyone I meet like me, or me needing constant reinforcement from friends, or a pervading sense of dread lingering over every moment that I’m not bettering myself intellectually or creatively. So you know, is anti-intellectual bullying really so bad?
It didn’t help that people thought I was more intelligent than I was, due to the perceived correlation between intelligence and social ineptitude. So because I had so few friends, people assumed I must know pi to one hundred places, or the difference between a simile and a metaphor (actually I did, I just remember that a simile is like a metaphor, and a metaphor is). Surely I couldn’t just be bad at making friends and be only mildly intelligent? What would be the point? Cool and stupid, or alone and clever. That’s the rule.
Although I wouldn’t classify intelligence as necessarily knowing things, it’s wanting to know things. It’s a curiosity, a thirst for knowledge which obviously leads to taking on interesting information. I like to learn new words for example, and to use them wherever possible in conversation or written text, to practice using them in their proper context, to avoid sesquipedalianisms. Unfortunately, this can lead to me appearing pretentious, as in the previous sentence. I was recently on a date with someone who, after hearing me use the word ‘egregious’ took it upon herself to refer to me as ‘Mr Dictionary’, which to me just sounded like an underdeveloped Countdown mascot. “What’s Mr. Dictionary up to this week Rachel?”
“Well it looks like he’s just added a new word: Yolo!”
“Oh well, off to the furnace with him.”
I’m not condemning her for not knowing the word, but rather for making me the butt of the joke for knowing the word. I should have responded by saying, “Mr Dictionary? Well first of all, aardvark. Secondly, you do know that the dictionary wasn’t named after the person who invented it?” But I just tried to ignore it, while making a mental note to ridicule any aptitude she showed in any area for the rest of evening. Supposedly everyone has some unique skill.
Einstein famously said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” In fact, Einstein said it so famously, that people don’t seem to care that he never even said it. That’s how much of a genius Einstein was. And in fact, if you judge Einstein by his ability to come up with a pithy bon-mot, to the extent that you attribute him with quotes he never said, he will live his whole life believing that he is a wit, when in fact all he is, is a genius. And frankly that should be good enough.
Also, I like the idea that you could communicate to the fish your judgment of its tree-climbing abilities and that it would take that criticism so harshly as to change its self-image. Presumably within the quote, the royal ‘you’ is Aquaman.
So maybe my genius comes in the form of desperately trying to improve myself, instead of actually utilising any of the skills or ideas I try to acquire. I liked Flowers for Algernon. Maybe for the wrong reasons, and maybe that doesn’t matter. At least I’m trying, I’m curious. And wrong as it might seem, I’m suspicious of people that aren’t. Maybe in her own way, my date was trying to sniff out pretension, thinking that I was using the word to impress or intimidate her, which would be a worthwhile condemnation.
By the end of the date, I was desperate to deliver a witty retort to her dictionary remark. But she hadn’t brought up anything up in particular for me to gently mock, so, I decided to depart by confusingly calling her ‘Miss Ellaneous’.
Maybe this is why Mr. Dictionary’s still on the shelf.
Next time on the bandwagon, the transient new extreme sport sweeping the nation, bungee scuba.