On the contrary

John Nash: Are There Beautiful Minds?

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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On the death of John Nash and the question of genius
What are the odds that a man should have overcome the adversity of having his own mind at war with him, retreat into anonymity, become an object of sympathy and then in his life’s autumn win a Nobel Prize, become a household name across the world through a Hollywood movie based on him, and then, again at a different crest now, die in an accident in the back seat of a taxi? Even John Nash himself couldn’t have calculated the probability. The question that his death throws up is whether genius is worth it. Especially if a man’s big idea, world-altering perhaps, comes before the age of 30 and everything that follows is just a hangover—over half a century being a shadow of one’s own brilliance.

It looks tragically fantastic, but only when analysed in retrospect. Because John Nash was never Russell Crowe, the man who plays him in A Beautiful Mind. The movie shows him willing and thinking his way out of schizophrenia, whereas his ailment actually mellowed naturally with age—you can’t think away schizophrenia anymore than you can think away malaria. Human beings of sufficient greatness got mythologised in pre-modern times; now they are fictionalised on screen. But while the man is alive, his life is just a dull grind. Everyone is tormented; the only concession they have is perhaps being more acutely aware of it.

So is genius worth it? The question has no answer because genius is not choice; it is an automatic function of a combination of genes, a particular construction of the brain that come abouts by chance. You cannot engineer a Nash or an Einstein in a test tube. The more important question is whether such a human being, an anomaly of nature who had no say in what he is, should be put on a social pedestal. If its sounds counter-intuitive, consider the opposite case—of a human being who is mentally challenged. Does civilised society think it one of its better values to look down on such people? It doesn’t, because absence of IQ is not a character defect. If so, then why should extremely high IQ make for an idol who children should emulate?

Human beings are hypnotised by what they don’t have; it is the nature of how we evolve through constant yearning. We admire success unreservedly and conspire to shower the successful with even more gifts. Israel, a state that was guaranteed to be built on war, even asked Einstein, an absent-minded nerdy man with not a violent bone in him, to be its founding president (the smartest man in the planet was wise enough to refuse it). Hollywood wouldn’t spend millions of dollars to make a movie on a schizophrenic unless that person had written papers that changed economics and mathematics in fundamental ways. He has to become a hero with super human resilience. But Nash was just someone who was born with tools that equipped him to see things more clearly than the rest of the world, and that too, only for a very short time.