“There is no great genius without a mixture of madness.” — Aristotle
Ron Howard’s touching film, A Beautiful Mind, adapted from Sylvia Nasar’s book of the same name, left more than a few moviegoers feeling a bit uncomfortable as they exited the once-twisted world of John Forbes Nash Jr., and returned to their own familiar existence.
Nash, portrayed quite effectively by Russell Crowe in the film, was a Nobel Prize winner whose accomplishments in mathematics were without question on a plane much higher than nearly all of his peers. A former mathematics instructor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and instructor at Princeton University, Nash detailed algebraic varieties and pondered differential geometry. He analyzed game theory and decision-making and spoke of things that would lead most of us to conclude that he lived in his own universe.
And for 25 years of his life, he did. He suffered from delusions and political paranoia, believing he was charged with single-handedly cracking a Soviet plot to destroy America by breaking a complex Communist code hidden in headlines and stories published in newspapers across the country.
“I started to see crypto-communists everywhere…,” he later said. “I started to think I was a man of great religious importance, and to hear voices all the time. I began to hear something like telephone calls in my head, from people opposed to my ideas. …The delirium was like a dream from which I seemed never to awake.”
“Insanity is relative. It depends on who has who locked in what cage.” — Ray Bradbury
His mental breakdown led to involuntary hospitalization, insulin and electric shock therapy, psychotic violence and vacant roaming throughout Europe and America.
Nash once said, in response to questions about why he believed his delusions were so real, that he did so because his delusions and his mathematical insights seemed to arise from the same place. How could he discount one without discounting the other?
Amazingly, at the age of 66, the schizophrenia seemed to subside, allowing him to return to Princeton in the late 1980s and once again walk the hallowed halls where he spent years as an undergraduate and graduate student, creating what 45 years later would result in a Nobel Prize in economics. His return to rational thought has been described as a “reawakening.”
“So at the present time I seem to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists,” Nash writes in a brief autobiography posted on the internet [www.nobel.se/economics/laureates/1994/nash-autobio.html]. “However this is not entirely a matter of joy as if someone returned from physical disability to good physical health.
“One aspect of this is that rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person’s concept of his relation to the cosmos. For example, a non-Zoroastrian could think of Zarathustra as simply a madman who led millions of naive followers to adopt a cult of ritual fire worship. But without his ‘madness,’ Zarathustra would necessarily have been only another of the millions or billions of human individuals who have lived and then been forgotten.”
“Madness is the first step towards unselfishness. Be mad and tell us what is behind the veil of ‘sanity.’ The purpose of life is to bring us closer to those secrets, and madness is the only means.” — Kahlil Gibran
What may disturb viewers of A Beautiful Mind is what has confounded mental health professionals for eternity: the fine line between sanity and insanity, between rationality and irrationality, between genius and madness. What is it that causes you to see something that I do not see? How does one know when the wheels of rationality are being derailed? And more importantly, how are we to react in the face of apparent mental illness?
A Beautiful Mind is sympathetic to John Nash’s uncertain schizophrenic journey, and it demonstrates that with the support of others, in this case his wife and some of his university colleagues, there is always hope. But not everyone with schizophrenia returns to rational thought as Nash did. The foggy landscape sometimes stays that way.
So, too, does society’s response to mental illness. Silence seems to still be the preferred response.
Perhaps the reason mental illness, or even instability, remains a stigma in our society is because of fear. As each of us walks the tightrope of life, our footing now and again slips and we’re thrown off balance. Sometimes we hang perilously at the whim of a gust of wind, frozen in time somewhere between falling into empty space or regaining our toehold on our familiar world. Perhaps we are afraid to confront that moment of confusion where reality is shaken up to the point that up is down and down is up, and we don’t want to deal with people who live in that space every day.
Or perhaps the reason we have not made advances in treating or even talking about mental illness as a society is because, as Peter Russell contends in his interview with The EDGE this month, collectively we have been unwilling to address the nature of consciousness. We make unbelievable advances in treating physical illness, but our inner space remains a vast, uncharted mystery in comparison.
Until we know more, let us continue to marvel at those who have experienced brave new worlds — genius or mad — and have returned to talk about it. And in the face of such madness, let our heart’s compassion be the guiding force.