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The man who thought he was stupid

I conceived of writing an act of fiction to be entitled The Man Who Thought He Was Stupid. The idea occurred whilst reading the account of a man who had a stroke. He had lost, for a while, the ability to speak. He was aware, his intellect was unimpaired, and he struggled mightily to communicate. I thought of how frustrating it must be to have one’s intelligence and yet not be able to express it.

I thought of Alzheimer’s disease, of the horror of knowing that your mind, your very self, was going to dissolve while you were still alive. And I thought of the famous short story, Flowers For Algernon.

Perhaps you know the story. It is a story of a moron named Charley. He was good-natured and worked very hard to improve himself. He knew that he screwed up. He thought people liked him whereas really he was the butt of their jokes. When the story opens he is attending an adult remedial English course in the hopes of improving his wit.

Charley is chosen as an experimental subject for an intelligence enhancing treatment. It works. Over a period of time he becomes steadily more intelligent until he is brilliant. Alas, the treatment has a flaw. It isn’t permanent. Over a period of time his intelligence disintegrates. In the end he is Charley, the moron, again and he returns to old life again, vaguely aware that he was smart for a while and that he screwed up somehow. He is imbued with the conviction that if he tries real hard, maybe he will be smart again.

I cried over that story and yet….

Where is the tragedy? The woman who loved him while he was realizing his potential, yes, her story is a tragedy. Algernon, the mouse who was the brightest mouse in the world until he degenerated and died, yes, Algernon’s story is a tragedy.

But what about Charley? In the beginning Charley was stupid and happy. In the end Charley is stupid and happy. If he had never had the treatment he would be no better off, no worse off. Granted there was a short period of time when he knew that he had been lifted out of the muck and knew that he was going to return to it. That Charley, however, existed for but a little while and by the story’s end he was as never was. Where, then, was the tragedy?

[Tangential thought: The tragic Charley who foresaw the forthcoming death of his intelligence was an intermediate self. We all carry within us the ghosts of intermediate selves who have vanished.]

The title may have been suggested by the famous essay, The man who mistook his wife for a hat. I’ve never read it but it is a fine title. That may have been the origin or it may not have – there are so many “The Man Who …” tales.

For example there is The Man Who Never Was. During World War II British intelligence invented a man “who never was”. They created a British officer out of whole cloth, complete with family, fiance, and service records. They attached this fictitious personae to a corpse which was carefully washed up on the shores of Spain. Said officer was a courier carrying plans for the “invasion of Sardinia”. The Germans, who were on the best of terms with “neutral” Spain got a copy of these bogus invasion plans and swallowed them. They were caught by surprise when the Allies invaded Sicily. In The Hornblower Papers Forrester likens the process of creating fiction to an old log which sinks into the subconscious for a while and re-emerges, having gathered barnacles. When enough barnacles have accumulated one has the story. Perhaps Forrester had better barnacles than I.

I began with a sentiment and a title. The title, however, suggests a different sentiment. What on Earth does it mean to be a man who thinks he is stupid? For this fiction I will need some barnacles.

I could write an “ugly duckling” story, a story about a man who believes himself and who is believed by all to be dull witted but who turns out to be brilliant. Folklore has it that Einstein was thought to be dim witted when he was a youth. One could write a little story about young Einstein. It would be very edifying. The Great Stone Face is the quintessential edifying story along these lines. True, our hero does not think of himself as being stupid. He’s looking for someone else to have the right stuff. In the end it turns out that he has the right stuff and doesn’t know it. I don’t think I want to write that story.

I could write an “inferiority complex” story, a story about the travails of someone who believes themselves to be defective. This could work very nicely. The sciences tend to run on the star system – either you are one of the elite who do something very important or else you are a veritable nobody. Science departments are filled with people who are very intelligent and yet, within their domain, are second rate and know that they are second rate, and know that they will always be second rate.

One could write about such a person. The gist of the story, I suppose, would be about how he came to terms with being second-rate. He wouldn’t be happy about it. There are plenty of people who are – people who recognize that they will never be numero uno but are content with who they are and what they do. Such people won’t do. The title demands an element of obsession. One imagines a person who is cankered with discontent, who is brighter than the norm, who has gathered some honors but always in the shadow of others. Our second-rate scientist is suffering from the equivalent of anorexia. Each, the anorexic and our second-rate scientist, insists that they forever fail to meet a standard, that no level of attainment is good enough.

There are the beginnings of a good novel here. It would be literary, of course. It wouldn’t do for science fiction. There you need to give your reader numero uno for them to identify with. But it would work nicely as a literary novel; you would have a protagonist who was obsessed with himself as a failure and that’s very literary.

I might write that story sometime but not now. The title suggests something else to me, something more specialized, something rarer.

What does it mean to be stupid? Stupid is, in the ordinary way, a comparative term, a comparison with others or with one’s own potential. I want something other than that. Some barnacles are needed.

In Larry Niven’s novel, Protector, when Truesdale makes the transition from being a normal human being to being a protector his first thought is “I’ve been stupid.” The protector stage of humanity is so much brighter than normal humanity that the difference is qualitative.

In the March, 1951 issue of the pulp magazine, Future Science Fiction, there is a story by Poul Anderson entitled, Incomplete Superman. In this story aliens who were far in advance of us had visited the Earth; in the course of doing so one of them sired the protagonist. (The biology is as dubious as that of the aliens in Star Trek but never mind.) Our hero is the brightest person on Earth. He deduces that he is not entirely human and builds a signalling device to contact his paternal race in hopes of being united with his heritage. They respond. Alas. To them he is like the child who never learns to speak because he is not exposed to speech when young. By the standards of humans he is a genius. By their standards he is a feral wolf child. He has lost his heritage; he has been spoiled by being raised as a human. In the end they adjust his mind so that he no longer remembers that he is part alien; he believes himself to be solely human. It was the merciful thing to do.

Again there is the theme of the qualitative difference. Anderson, however, gives us a possible twist. Perhaps our man who thought he was stupid believes that his stupidity is a consequence of missed experience. This does not commit him to believing that he is less bright than his fellows. Perhaps humans have a potential which is never realized because of a critical lapse of training.

The themes of vastly greater intelligence and of the superman are common in Science Fiction. It is not orignal with SF; it is inherited from the larger culture and is very Eurocentric.

It is an odd notion. Once upon a time a genius was someone who created great works and did great things. One does not have to do anything to be denominated a genius by virtue of one’s IQ. There are different conceptions here, The Man of Deeds and The Man of Being. It does not matter what Shakespeare’s IQ was; he is a genius because of what he wrote. It does not matter what Marilyn Von Savant writes; she is a genius because of her IQ is high.

Like Wolfe’s astronauts The Man of Being has The Right Stuff. What constitutes the right stuff is a matter of culture.

There was an odd incident at the end of Red Cloud’s war. Red Cloud never received the recognition that Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse did. Everyone knows the tale of Custer’s last stand. Less well known is that the battle of the Little Bighorn was only one of a number of battles that the Sioux won. For all of the battles won, Sitting Bull lost his war. Less often told is how that war was won. The US Army quite intelligently stopped trying to beat the Sioux by main force. Instead they engaged in a campaign of harassment. Destroying winter camps from a distance with cannon was much more effective.

Sitting Bull lost his war. Red Cloud won his. This tale is seldom told. To be sure, the times favored him. The parties in the East calling for reconciliation and a more humane Indian policy were strong. The US was war weary from the Civil War. Even so, Red Cloud won his war with the US, one of the few times that the Indians won in their wars and wrung concessions from the US. The Oregon trail was closed; the forts protecting it were abandoned; the Indian nation comprising the Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana was recognized in the treaty of 1868. It was a bootless victory. In a few years Custer would search for gold in the Black Hills and the US would dishonor its treaty.

This is the odd incident. When the US was ready to make peace they dispatched their representatives. Red Cloud did not immediately show up. Instead he took three months off to go hunting, leaving the US officials to cool their heels at his pleasure. Red Cloud informed them by object lesson which was more important to him – their treaty or his pleasure in hunting.

Red Cloud had the right stuff; he had strong medicine. Shakespeare had the right stuff; he had talent. St. Francis had the right stuff; he was holy. Each of these was a Man of Being. Each was also a Man of Deeds. Red Cloud won his war; Shakespeare wrote immortal works; St. Francis created a new Order of the Church.

While the Sioux were fighting their battles the professors in Europe and American were inventing intelligence, not in the ordinary sense but rather as a reified potentiality. In The Mismeasure of Man Stephen J. Gould gives an entertaining account of how they tailored their measurements to their prejudices. That they did so is a minor matter except to those who have a particular need to be indignant. In due course these maneuvers were exposed and the biases were systematically removed. What was not removed was the glorification of intelligence, the glorification of a selected potential.

To be intelligent as the professors had defined and measured it is to have the potential to take a place in the bureaucratic Academy. The concept of intelligence carries within it the implicit affirmation of a set of values, of that which is important.

Other times, other values. Red Cloud thought hunting was important, more important even than a treaty with Great Father Forked Tongue. St. Francis thought God was more important than worldly position. One does not think of Nietzsche and his supermen as great hunters or as holy men.

A question presents itself. We have a man who thinks he is stupid; what does he mean by “stupid”? We have a tentative answer; he recognizes in himself a lost heritage, an unrealized potential that was lost by never having learned at the right time that which he needed to learn.

But is he stupid? Does he recognize that intelligence is the mana of our age or does he accept that poisoned candy blindly? Is he merely expressing his bereftness in the cant of the age or is his phrasing correct? Perhaps this is a question that should not be answered.

Another question presents itself. How does our man come to this belief? Shall we mine Freud and Kraft-Ebbing to get an account of the origin of obsession? Or should we follow Metamorphosis and have our man awake one day, not as a giant cockroach, but rather as a man with a disquieting conviction? Do we want to know? I think not.

There is a theme in Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces. The hero is born human, albeit with signs and omens. He does not become a hero until he makes the passage. Demanding a psychological narrative, psychoanalyzing Beowulf, is a sublimely irrelevant act.

This work to be makes a final demand. The last question is: How is it to be told? It is a fiction; we do not need to make of it a narrative story. Still, we need to do something. Shall we make it an interior dialog? Shall we make a collection of diary entries? Is the emphasis on his interior or is it on his relationship with the others about him?

This question I do not know how to answer. This fiction is too hard to write. I shall write something else instead.

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This page was last updated April 29, 1998.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Harter