Saturday, 7 July 2012

Flowers for Algernon

I recently read this interesting commentary on the Globe&Mail website: that got me thinking about a short story I once read years ago written by Daniel Keyes called, Flowers for Algernon, that may be best known as the movie adaptation, Lawnmower Man.

It is not so much the superficial treatment of the commentary in and of itself that got me thinking about the short story but the zeitgeist of corporatism and the psychological bureaucracy that arbitrarily classifies us all into this and that and the other thing. Upon reading Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1792) where he talks about chartered towns and villages of England in contrast to the constitutionally protected freedoms of movement and association in revolutionary America and France, things fell into place.

Paine's criticism that charters (and town corporations) perverse human rights and freedoms by converting the direction in which rights and freedoms are formalized in them is, I think, right on. Rather than giving rights and freedoms charters take away the inherent rights of the majority in favour of the few:

If charters were constructed so as to express in direct terms, 'that every inhabitant, who is not a member of a corporation, shall not exercise the right of voting,' such charters would, in the face, be charters, not of rights, but of exclusion. (Rights of Man (1792), p. 274)

In the face of it it may not sound so bad, even reasonable and normal. But when things become such that societies are grouped into two classes: share-holders and consumers, things become a bit more scary with world-shaking consequences. Votes are taken in the House of Parliament to do away with regulations and legislations intended to protect public interests and environmental integrity without much debate. I know of no one who would gladly give away any of these protections, except for share-holders.

Charlie, the main character of the short story, is an intellectually challenged individual who consents to a surgery to enhance his intelligence after a "successful" operation has been done on Algernon, a mouse in the title of the tale. But something goes wrong and Algernon reverts back into average then madness before dying. Charlie, seeing his own fate in Algernon's demise, tries hard to avert such a thing for himself. (spoiler alert) he does not succeed.

In the course of the story, what Charlie thought and what actually is are slowly brought into focus as he becomes more aware and cognizant: people who thought were his friends only liked him to make fun of him and intellectual challenges; people who he thought were smart have intelligence only in a limited way and he realizes that they just put on airs because of social expectations and mores. What he ultimately fails to realize is that knowledge without functional ethical and moral compass creates monsters like himself.

It is said that Keyes wrote the short story based on his own teaching experience working with students with special needs. One of his students asked Keyes if it were possible for him to get into regular classes if he worked hard enough and became smart. Corporate charters, like aptitude tests, create artificial boundaries and classes that are just as insurmountable as if they were really real. Reasonable intelligence and creativity are often not enough to get one in; one has to meet the "objective" measures put up by people who are, for all intents and purposes, born fully-formed.

Most of us do not own voting shares. In a country like Canada today this means that our interests will never make it onto the floor. Our love of the country, our desire to protect the environment and hope for sound monetary regulations to protect all (not just some), our desire for a peacable and fair society are very much like the kid's desire for progress beyond his label through hard-work and heart which now seem just as pathetic and lamentable.

In the story, the flowers for Algernon are not so much for the dead mouse but the sad end we see for ourselves  we who must pay when the hens come home to roost.


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