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Algernon, Charlie and IReview - Algernon, Charlie and I
A Writer's Journey
by Daniel Keyes
Harvest Books, 2000
Review by A. P. Bober
Oct 20th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 42)

Flowers for Algernon writter Daniel Keyes can't figure out, p. 4, what's "haunting," him 40 years later so he manufactures a "mystical" S.Q.--"Spiritual Quotient" or "Soul Quotient"--an "answer" that won't wash. I suggest a more cogent one using his own insights aided by experiences I had both helping to standardize the "newest" Wechsler intelligence scale, in the '60's at the Psychological Corporation, and much later in a graduate assessment course where I used that test--the WPPSI ("Woopsie"), and the other two--to reach a conclusion in a paper that responds, in his own terms, to Keyes's "hauntedness." The aspiring writer can use the book as a resource on the craft. More will appreciate the evolution of a heart-tugging story and a writer's self-creation. Others drawn to the psychology may be annoyed. Keyes also regales us with his adventurous life, including a quasi-Melvillian period as ship's "doctor."

The interested reader can't avoid the "intelligence" issue before an evaluation of "the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"--since I find myself in Eastwood's Monterey peninsula--of this bio-documentary work Keyes calls a "memoir." For example, probably fewer than 25% of people today get an "I.Q." rather than the "scaled" score of the Wechsler(s) which neatly parallel Charlie's ascent--WPPSI for pre-school and primary; WISC for children; WAIS for adults--from the Platonic cave "screening" of the Baconian "idols" that delude the unreflective. The mental-age-divided-by-chronological-age "I.Q." of the Stanford revision of the original Binet test, not to mention inadequate group tests taken in schools, will probably apply to a diminishing minority. So eleven subtests become "scaled score" will continue as the bread-and-butter measure of "intelligence" despite their being conventional-noninformation ["Columbus 'discovered' 'America'" gets a full two points] "achievement" tests rather than ways to sound "innate" intelligence.

The Good:

Keyes provides dreamy-eyed key-clackers with tasty aperçus from writers on the process such as the suggestion to read Hemingway's "The Killers" and insights into an Adam- Smith "invisible hand" that reorganizes a writer's life-experiences, journals, and notations like so many puzzle pieces into serendipitous syntheses. Keyes reminds those interested in his "medical" experiences that Maughan, Chekhov, and Doyle  pp. 7-8, also came to writing thereby. His baker's-helper experience surfaced in the novel version of Flowers for Algernon, pp. 23-4, as just one of many, some impinging on his awareness through bizarre dream-state byways. His invaluable pulp-editor's experience in Chapter Nine confirms his "perfectionist mother." Finally, blocked writers could take Keyes's implicit advice, p. 93, to marry (or cherishingly live with) a person lulled to sleep by the sound of keyboard tapdancing (who also awakens to the "sounds of silence").

The Bad:

Although Keyes mentions his graduate psychology experience, p. 63, needless infelicities make the careful reader question his training: terms that seem off ("low mentality"), p. 95; bizarre use of the Rorschach (missing the newer "child's version" or the more concretely interpretable Holtzman cards) at Charlie's "child" stage when the simpler number-and-figure reproduction of the Bender-Gestalt and the emotionally revealing House-Tree-Person "fly" easier; making Algernon a more reader-pleasing mouse rather than a white rat (including the methodologically impossible premise of an adult human competing in traversing a maze); the probable non-existence of a Vrostadt equation or "semantic progression" level, p. 207, as well as mention there of a doubtful composer named Dorbermann. Verisimilitude would have done no harm; indeed, realism might have girded the work with cogency though the fictional versions are now petrified.

It's worthwhile, en passant, to correct a misunderstanding I once shared with Keyes, p. 35, about a seeming onomatopoeic "mystical" phrase that Freud probably misunderstood as some kind of womb-waves or breastfeeding-ecstasy fantasy--the "oceanic feeling." It was given to him in 1927 by the French poet Raymond Rolland reported by a yogin who described "union" as feeling like a river entering the ocean. The sense is that of enlargement of the "deeperness" within as an expansive "ecstasy"--"standing" ever more widely outside of ourselves as pebble-circles "stand evermore out" of the entry-point in the pond rather than a "standing-next-to-outside-of" like a cosmic clone.

The Ugly:

It's more a great loss due to shortsightedness than an "ugliness" that makes Keyes fail to see the "eschatological" implications of the key insight and stimulus of the work, that of a "slow" young man who offered to work hard to be placed out of the "dummy class," p. 90, because "I want to be smart." The alternative insight I achieved appears in the assessment paper I wrote having had a "peak experience about the Wechsler" of all things. Prefacing my conclusion I must highlight certain Wechslerian views: intelligence is a function of the whole personality determined by emotional and conative factors (the following three references from Allen J. Edwards, ed. Selected Papers of David Wechsler. N.Y.: Academic, 1974., p. 48); the central attribute of intelligence is to perceive and educe rational relationships (Edwards, p. 81);  finally, intelligence is a "radio-frequency" Gestaltist "resonance" in which the whole "engramic" "stock of experience"--to adapt a Schutzian phenomenological term-- reverberates in the soma to produce purposeful, practical action greater than the parts that make it up, the "intelligent" person having more "resonators" (Edwards, pp. 171-82). That 1981 paper anticipated and transcended Keyes with these words: "If we step back . . . from intelligence testing and ask what is important, we consider three things: 'intelligence,' will, and love. The world is not governed by intelligence; rather, history moves by the power of those who seize the time, whatever the quality of the effect. But of these three we may say that 'the greatest of these is love.' That is, if I had a child and [wished] it to excel . . . in any one, it would be [in] love. Love alone is humanely self-correcting as it becomes increasingly altruistic . . .," a Buddha-like, compassionate view that jumps out at us from countless "topoi" in Keyes's biographic memoir. Thus, beyond intelligence lies compassion as the solace of sympathy, if not of a cooler empathy, that equilibrates the "Dionysian" and "Appollonian," the cranially right and left as we like to say today.

That an "intelligence" of doubtful value pales next to "compassion" hits me as I relate the actuality of another "Charlie's" fall from grace. As a youth in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I learned the local legend of "Charlie the Bum." I easily envision a stocky, squat, Mediterranean-looking man, dirtily wrapped in a tweed overcoat, ensconced in the doorway of a stone plumbing-supply building as the Gray Line bus I rode prepared to lumber under a railroad viaduct. But the driver stopped short of the stop sign that announced it, opened the front door, and passed Charlie a nearly full pack of Camels left behind. Another day it would be a sandwich-half not eaten though not unwanted. Charlie was said to be a concert-violinist scion of a rich family in love with a woman not of their class, wishing to marry her. His family disowned him for his persistence. So it came to be that all of us as children feared this harmless man as later we'd say "Hi, Charlie" in honor of his legendary status. We were also told that the cops took him to the North Avenue jail once a year, stripped him, and hosed him down for de-lousing, offering him clean clothes as they burned the old. Compassion!

Time to bring this review home. Keyes's Wayne State University colleague suggested, p. 132, "something [was] missing," leading the author to posit his "S.Q." which his fictional "multiple-personality" counterpart expresses in typically vague "cosmos-merge," p. 134, language--"blue-white glow," feeling of floating ( again, not "oceanic"), and "expanding up and out."

There are too many suggestions that connect Keyes's life experiences and his opus to touch upon here, though he himself lists many, early on, for the edification of writers.

The reader may make connections Keyes is unaware of. For example, Keyes doesn't register the influence of the organisimic-"humanistic" psychologist Kurt Goldstein, p. 53, who read to the class from his work "word for word, with an impenetrable German accent." Result? That "compensating for organic brain damage" is likely key to understanding, both in "Charlie," as Keyes spells it, and in the book-inspiring "slow" student, an ardent desire to be more than seems mentally possible. Dollard and Miller have told us that aspiration frustrated, unable to find compensating capacity, must lead to aggression (or internalized anger?), as with Charlie. I offer two final hints: As an increasingly intellectual adolescent, he felt he was "losing" his parents, p.7, his education, p. 8, "driving a wedge between me and the people I love", he "drifting" away into the world of books, just as Charlie "drifted" away from his "slow" self only to drift down again much as the Alzheimer sufferers we know today. Finally, Drs. Strauss and Nemur are actually Keyes's parents: the "inferior," Depression-unemployed, father and the perfectionist mother; moreover, Charlie himself spans the range from their "retarded" parts through their hopes for their son, for example, to become a doctor, p. 7. 


© 2005 A. P. Bober 


A. P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view.  His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields.  Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neurophysiology.


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