Review of Flowers for Algernon (1966)


Daniel Keyes (writer).

Read in 2018.

Am I a genius? I don’t think so. Not yet anyway. As Burt would put it, mocking the euphemisms of educational jargon, I’m exceptional – a democratic term used to avoid the damning labels of gifted and deprived (which used to mean bright and retarded) and as soon as exceptional begins to mean anything to anyone they’ll change it. The idea seems to be: use an expression only as long as it doesn’t mean anything to anybody. Exceptional refers to both ends of the spectrum, so all my life I’ve been exceptional.

The author’s understanding of intelligence isn’t bad for 1966, or 1959 in the case of the short story, but it hasn’t aged well. Keyes is surprisingly narrow in his focus on Charlie’s emotional intelligence. Specifically, he assumes that Charlie’s personality must be a product of subconscious lessons from past social interactions, much more than it is a product of genetics, randomness, or learning by inference.

Keyes’s defence of the sufferers of senile dementia, phenylketonuria etc. is sincere, except when he invites the audience to laugh at Charlie’s abuse of the comma, but it is intellectually shallow. He notes, correctly, that such people are tragically dismissed as non-entities and non-individuals (not “human”), but in clinging to a pop-culture concept of intelligence working over a blank slate, Keyes himself dehumanizes Charlie. He implies that Charlie is an individual mainly as a function of how other people have treated him in the past.

Keyes also assumes deterministic effects of intelligence that seem to have no relationship with individuality or reality. When he’s smart, Charlie likes classical music and does academic research, as if all smart people would. When he’s dumb, he likes modern music. The cultural effects of intelligence here, in particular, are uncomfortably naive within the framework that Pierre Bourdieu was mapping out at the time of writing. Keyes uses the conceit of a traumatic childhood memory to explain why Charlie, while dumb, takes no interest in sex. Keyes himself seems uncomfortable with the subject, preferring to conflate childhood asexuality and stupidity. Likewise, for some strange reason, negative ideation comes only with intelligence here, as if dumb people never imagine the worst.

The effects of intelligence on social status are depicted more accurately in my estimation. Charlie eventually becomes contemptuous of the professors for being less intelligent than he, repeating the mistake of Frank, Joe and Gimpy, but he never goes so far as to reflect on how this status-seeking and dehumanizing impulse arose or how it could be counteracted. Keyes never takes the opportunity of Charlie’s high intelligence to explain anything, not even Pinker’s euphemism treadmill. He doesn’t seem to see anything to explain, which is strangely typical of popular English-major science fiction. It appears that Keyes views the blank slate theory of mental development not as a premise of his science fiction but as fact. This raises the question why Charlie ever becomes super-intelligent. Normal intelligence seems like it would have been a much better fit for Keyes’s own knowledge and interests.

I expected to find Charlie’s reversion sad. It left me unmoved. I am not sure whether that’s because Keyes worked so hard to build respect for Charlie in his natural state, because of the above-mentioned flaws in the underpinnings of the work, or because the illusion was damaged by other flaws like Fay, a manic pixie dream girl stereotype. Ultimately, it is only just barely science fiction. In one anthology, Martin H. Greenberg interprets the short story version as treating “the dangers of trying to improve the human race”, but the reversion is a premise, unrelated to real dangers. In a 2014-06-18 Guardian obituary for Keyes, Alison Flood describes the premise as “so perfect, so horribly disturbing”. I suspect most people just read it as conservative horror, a more intimate form of the old pattern of rags to riches and back again.

References here: “Understand” (1991), Rec (2007).

text fiction