The real John Nash, from the Nobel Museum Web site.
I keep watching the film A Beautiful Mind because I have this idea that to see it only once is to miss a great deal and would prevent any real understanding of The Great John Nash! It’s a phrase that is repeated often in the film – a film adapted from Nasar’s unauthorized biography, and it’s a phrase used by persons real and unreal and always mockingly.
The truth, the truth that would finally be acknowledged a great many years later in 1994, was that, in fact, John Nash is indeed great and a true genius. Winning the Noble Prize was simply the public acknowledgement of this and by then, no one was mocking John Nash anymore. It’s hard to imagine though that anyone who took the time to know John Nash, could not see his brilliance, the beauty in the very way in which he thought. The film does convey this – that much one can say, but still, there is that underlying mockery and although this supposed to be, one gather’s a “sympathetic” portrait, that’s just it; it seems to look down on Nash, as though he were a child, incapable of taking care of himself and oh, gosh, thank god for Alicia, were it not for her, he’d never have achieved greatness. There’s a real martyr thing going on here and at a price to John Nash.
I have to confess too, that part of my atttraction to the film is that all too often i’ve felt as i imagine Nash must have felt at times, because although the origin and cause are different, temporal lobe epilepsy can often make you “different” in ways that others cannot quite pinpoint. And although epilepsy is a neurological illness often caused by mesial lesions in the brain (such as I have), the effects are similar. More – when researching Nash for another article, I found a relation between Nash and my friend Ian, also a mathematician and also with roots in the South (suffice to say he not only resembles Nash, particularly in the ears, which i happen to like, but also in the way he thinks,) and so here I am, drawn in.
It was John Nash, who, as a student at Princeton, turned Adam Smith on his head. Smith had said, to paraphrase, that you do what is right for the individual, and the group will benefit It became the equilibrium of modern mathematics. And it was Nash who, as a graduate student, refused to attend class because he felt that it deadened the mind and stood in the way of original thought and ideas. During this time, Nash developed his theory which became the cornerstone of mathematics today and is even used in antitrust cases. He said, in short, do what is right for the group, then the individual and the group will all benefit. This was his theory of what he called Governing Dynamics. Nash is also known for his work concerning Game Theory, using which, he believed and proved many times that he could predict the outcome of any game (which would be most useful now, for what is war if not a game? John Nash might be the only guy in the world right now who could tell us how to best play our hand and get out of this alive, and am I saying, victorious, whatever that would mean.)
Nada’s film succeeds in illustrating how Nash was an original thinker. Portrayed by Russell Crowe (who is very unRussell Crow in this film), he can be seen in the university courtyard taking notes as a group of pigeons feed, pecking at breadcrumbs as he tries to extract an “algorithm” from their behavior. This algorithm and other equations, written with grease pencil on his dorm room and school library window. Whether Nash really wrote his equilibriums on windows or not, I don’t know. Regardless, as a visual, the elaborate etchings are a marvelous way of showing how Nash’s mind weaves such extraordinary and complex patterns. We see the algorithm of the pigeons, shaped like intersecting diamonds that criss cross back and forth, mirroring the path of the pigeons. Another equation illustrates a woman being mugged, the path of the mugger breaking into Ys, end to end, as he tries to flee, the woman’s running indicated by a broken line of white dashes.
Nash’s ability to see mathematics in most everything is astounding and actually does reveal the underlying beauty and precision of the world.. To Nash, the world is not random, which is interesting for a man who ultimately, was at various points unable to reason for himself because of the chaos in his head. Imagine what it would be like to live in a world so mathematically precise and then have the bits and equations come raining all over you as they fell apart and broke and you drowned in a sea of x, y, and z and schizophrenia.
Too often, we stereotype and assume, and one such assumption seems to surround the mentally ill. And other, those who have neurological illnesses like epilepsy that are not mental illnesses, yet the ignorance of frankly, far too fucking many, label epileptics as such. Which is not to say that there is something awful about being mentally sick or manic depressive; there isn’t. What bothers me though is the ignorance, and then, not only are you stigmatized, but it’s the wrong stigma, which is just dumb and really aggravating. If you’re going to marginalize me, at least put me in the right category. If you’re going to label me, be smart enough to know which label and where you can stick it, because I’ve got a few of my own and know exactly what you can do with those labels.
Epileptics are “spastic” or “mouthing idiots”. Schizophrenics have multiple personality disorder and are just “nuts” and “wacko paranoiac freaks”. And Nash sadly, had far too much experience in this world of, yes, now it’s my turn, idiots who labeled and taunted him. He was vastly underestimated by both fellow students and professors who mocked Nash’s confidence, his belief in himself, so much so that Nash himself began to doubt the merit of his own thought and ideas – which is to question your very existence and why you are even alive. Put it this way: if you’re mission in life is to write, to write things that will change the world and you fully believe you can, and those you trusted tell you absolutely not, it will never ever ever happen, what would you do? These are those who are closest to you. And that is what happened to John Nash. He was undermined and bullied and teased and taunted into submission, the way people like to humiliate those who are smarter than they are because it’s just to fucking threatening to really know and accept that someone who is not you is capable of doing something truly original and great. That they are a genius.
It was too much for anyone to assume, let alone prove, that Adam Smith was not completely right and had not accounted for every variable. Yet is there any doubt that even in his day there were those who even mocked Adam Smith. He too was no doubt a genius, and sure, so he missed a few things, but that doesn’t diminish the incredible impact of his work to this day. Without Smith, John Nash wouldn’t have accomplished what he did in that specific way. Maybe some other way, but we can never know. All we know is that it began with Smith. If one is to extrapolate a logic equation from this type of human behavior – this mocking and mockery making – it is a simple one. When you are alive and young and you fly in the face of convention with an idea so bright it scintillates but flies in the face of all that is known, the pre-existing, then you are wrong and a madman or just self-absorbed and arrogant and nuts, like Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Gauguin, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf and this list could go on for ever, and note that of those listed, more than half of them had Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or Manic Depression.
There are an astounding number of epileptics who are now confirmed geniuses. Infact, it has been proven that up to 35 percent of people with temporal lobe epilepsy have a genius level IQ, which is significantly higher than in the general population. No wonder such people are mocked. That’s a pretty threatening statistic. Note also, that of those with temporal lobe epilepsy, we are up to almost forty or fifty percent more likely than the general population to commit suicide and something like four out of five people with temporal lobe epilepsy has made some type of suicide attempt or suicidal gesture and suffer from depression. I don’t think it’s crazy that we’re speaking of. I think this stems from living in a world that cannot accept a person because they are different and they are different in a way that is shiny and new. People like Lewis Carroll or Sylvia Plath were and sometimes still are, so universally hated and yet loved that one wonders what that is about. In life, they were pretty much hated and treated poorly. In death, they are revered and mythologized.
John Nash, for all that he went through, was lucky because in the end he was vindicated with his Nobel Prize, thank god. He gets to have his last laugh, should he want it. But what of those who never knew – like Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, Plath, etc etc. – who will tell these incredibly driven and talented people who wanted only and so much to succeed that , in the end, they did more than that. They became almost legendary.
Nash’s brilliance, like Carroll, like Pythagoras (also epileptic), Alfred Noble (again) is born of an ability to see what for others is overlaid and hidden. That all can see through the physical world somehow to the metaphysical underpinnings where nothing is as random as it seems on the surface. Nash can and did work out an equation for almost every possible situation where there are winners and there are loser. He could apply his theory used to model behavior such that one gets the best outcome for the group. How fitting that a prize named after an epileptic (Alfred Nobel) should go to one they labeled a madman. A prize that celebrates those who have been mocked and written off, and in the end, are recognized for the very things they were renounced for in the first place.
It is mystifying that no one in our present government has talked to John Nash about our present and possibly fatal circumstance with the present wars we are in. who better than the master of Game Theory to help us achieve the best result for everyone. Have we written him off again because of his schizophrenia? Is this all that people see? Was Pythagoras, Socrates, Nobel, Alexander the Great, and on and on… were they all just crazy? Napoleon? Sure, some of these are debatable, but isn’t it just possible that one can be both mad and a genius – an epileptic genius or schizophrenic genius? Are the two mutually exclusive, and why is it so fucking threatening that one or many can be both?
Director Ron Howard called Nash “Delusional” and noted that Nash didn’t “achieve much at Princeton.” Which in reality, was the where Nash formed the seed of the idea that would make him who he is today. He turned Adam Smith and 150 years of economic theory on its head, but other than that, he didn’t do much at Princeton. Sure.
How unfortunate that when we see a person as delusional and indeed they may be, that that blinds us to those other things that make them genius. Van Gogh and his paintings, those he had trouble selling and he died and lived always poor, largely supported by his brother Theo. Yet years after his death, we see Starry, Starry Night and we see a vision that is unlike any other. It is a world slightly out of focus and one that swirls and spins to dizzying effect – the same world, surely, that Van Gogh experienced during seizures. The same epilepsy that caused him to cut off part of his own ear because he couldn’t suffer the auditory hallucinations and that caused him to take his own life – all of this is part and parcel of what made him great and these things cannot be separated.
There is the mathematician Pythagoras who had a cult around him. People who at the time recognized his genius and wanted in. He too was written off as mad and eccentric, and to note, he is rumored to be one of the first animal rights advocates as well, another group that is still written off as mad.
One could go on with such examples but the point is made. Schizophrenics, Epileptics, though with disease of different origin and different path will always see the world in a different way. They are drawn to rigidity, discipline, and pattern. They will seek logic and pattern in everything and they will find it. Perhaps this is a way of making sense of a world that otherwise, makes no sense because of seizures or other spells that dizzy and stupefy. When the brain betrays you seek logic.
You are drawn to the clean and sharp lines of geometry, liner equations and calculus where shapes and equations can exist on an imagined plane – where the possible is impossible. A world where even though a thing person should not exist or succeed does so nonetheless.
Sadi Ranson-PolizzottiPowered by Sidelines