Are All Geniuses Crazy?
Genius in the movies
I watched the movie "Proof" some time back - Gwyneth Paltrow plays the daughter of Anthony Hopkins, and both are extraordinarily mathematically gifted. The story was interesting, in its own way, but what struck me most was its thematic connection with movies such as "A Beautiful Mind" and "Good Will Hunting." The presupposition each movie makes is that a person with a high degree of genius mathematical intellect must also, necessarily, be crazy.
This theory comes from where? Einstein, presumably, since he was brilliant, but didn't have the presence of mind to comb his hair. Hair combing being the sign of unequivocal sanity, of course.
But what's interesting to me this common thread we're supposed to automatically understand as the viewer, which is that mathematical genius is just a step from psychosis, or paranoid schizophrenia. Certainly it borrows some origins from that of the (idiot) savant - the functional illiterate whose cognitive powers are, somehow all channeled into one talent that they master above all else - such as playing the piano, or solving complex mathematical algorithms.
What we don't understand
It makes for an interesting premise, and it's even more intriguing to me why we, the audience, buy it so readily. In high school, my two best friends were mathematically gifted. One was probably destined to be an engineer by the age of eight - he's just that technically-minded. Back then, my friends would have these high-brow calculus+ level discussions about things I didn't understand, subtley patronizing me when I asked inane questions. I was, you see, their mathematically average friend - good in English, but so what, right? Just to rub it in, my engineer friend was able to get one of his essays from English class published in a school textbook - take that, English-boy! See how inconsequential is writing knowledge?
I bring this up to make a point - writers make movies, and writers are seldom gifted mathematicians. So, naturally, people strong in the language arts are apt to look at the mathematically-gifted with the same kind of drunken awe as I did when I was in high school. What we don't understand, we either idolize or condemn. Or, we do both - so we create this "crazy genius." The mad scientist. Can't be smart and literate, right? That would make us feel small and inconsequential beyond words!
I know I'm being flip, but it is an interesting way to look at it, isn't it?
With that said, I do find it intriguing to examine who we, as a society, find crazy vs. who we determine to be genius. There can be a fine line. Take the proverbial downtown transient - let's call him Marvin Schlinkmann. Marvin doesn't bathe, shave or sleep indoors. You see him early in the morning sleeping on the steps of a church. At lunchtime, he's wandering down the street muttering to himself while we glance the other way as we head to meet our friends at Hamburger Mary's. Who's to say he really isn't talking to someone who we're too unevolved and self-absorbed to see or hear? This person may exist on a separate plane of existence, and through some tweak of cosmic fate, Marvin was granted unique insight into this parallel dimension. His conversation is simply him serving as tour guide for his cosmic neighbor.
How do you feel about that? Does it make you want to idolize or condemn Marvin?
Bottom line, don't we all just want to know what we don't know? When we see glimpses of insight into areas of knowledge we don't understand, I'm afraid we sometimes grant those persons credibility and standing far beyond what they deserve. Certainly, there are savants, people who stand at the precipice of both genius and insanity, but sometimes movies like these remind me of Peter Sellers' amazing character Chauncey Gardener in "Being There."
Sometimes crazy is just crazy.
And sometimes we may just have to surrender to the notion that there are some things we are never going to understand - and make some sort of peace with that.
Either that, or go crazy ourselves.
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