A not-so-beautiful mind


By Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)



It seems its easy to idealise, and - in some cases - to idolise. Idolising is about creating icons, making people into objects, and making these objects the basis for uncritical devotion. Idealising is a necessary basis for our simple minds to comprehend the complex nature of the world we live in, because it is so much easier to deal with masses of information by classifying things into groups with identifiable traits, and in the case of people, those with similar characteristics. It is, of course, then, not difficult to proceed to the next step of creating stereotypes. This is only human. Our minds require order and classification systems provide this order. There are two problems with this. First, most of us are guilty of over-classifying, by which I mean attributing characteristics to individuals on the basis of the category we have assigned to them, despite the absence of evidence to justify our actions. Second, classification leads to de-humanisation, in the sense that people may become their labels to us. They move into the realm of objects.


But to study the creation of objects and their uses (and misuses), however interesting, is not the remit of this essay (although one can use such an argument to explain racism, and a number of other ‘-isms’). It is instead to raise what may seem to the reader to be a self indulgent and superficial concern. It has to do with having viewed the much-lauded film, A Beautiful Mind. I can say with little hesitation that I did not like it. It disturbed me. I fidgeted throughout the movie, pausing numerous times, unable to switch it off, fighting the urge to fast-forward, hoping that it might have some redemptive feature somewhere.


An unspectacular film, by all accounts. Uncontroversial, for it raised no social issues, crossed no boundaries, touched no taboos. In a word, antiseptic. Designed for mass viewing. I had no reason to be agitated, but I clearly was. Thereby (how well you know me by now, delightful reader) this essay. The cause of my disconcerted state, was not, as you might suspect, my aversion to American cinema, but to the symbolism of this cinematic oeuvre. Let me explain, dear friends.


I am currently going through a strong aversion to plots. Life is many things, but it has – I firmly believe - no clear theme. Instead life is a series of snapshots, of random postcards. I dare you, bold reader, to go through your life and find a plot. Maybe that’s why we love plots. They are an escape, because they do not happen to us. They happen to the bold and the beautiful, to movie stars, to politicians, and to Juana’s cousin three times removed on her mother’s side, and whom no one has actually met.  But for most of us, life is too dreary. We hope that someone, somewhere, some day will think of our life and see meaning, however modest, to our existence. We love the idea that people have destinies, that our lives at some level have a story, a tangible conclusion.


Most people are born, they live, and eventually they die. It is often the obituary writer who draws the random, scattered various pieces together and says, he lived and died, and this is the circle that he drew, his sound bite, his legacy, this is how his life had meaning. Nunc dimitis. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. Simeon has spoken, Simeon has seen, Simeon has died.


This is what fiction does. This is why people write autobiographies, because they seek to draw everything together, to square the circle, to provide a fantasy, to fulfil an existence. Autobiographies –like films - offer an alternate existence where one can go for a few hours to live an alternate life vicariously, where it all makes sense after all, albeit ex post. 


But this was not the root of my discontent. I am, after all, the man who proudly admits to watching Buffy the vampire slayer on a regular basis. Why should Ron Howard’s plot-based offering fire my engine?


Because, patient reader, I saw my own life in him.  They had caricatured the intellectual, and in doing so, touched a nerve.


I freely admit to being an intellectual. There is no point in denying this. I am not a man of action. I do not climb rocks on weekends.  I am given to the cerebral. I should point out that I am in no imminent danger of winning the Nobel Prize, nor do I expect ever to do so. It is not necessary, beloved readers, to be gifted with brilliance to be an intellectual. An intellectual is simply a person who is given to study, reflection and speculation. It is not necessary that the subject of study be of value to everyone or indeed anyone, (‘what are the viral infections of ornamental plants?’). It may also be self-centred and introverted (‘Why do I have ingrown toenails?’). An intellectual simply does this sort of thing more of the time than the average person. It is also not quite the same thing as being an academic. Not all academics (sad to say) actually reflect as much as they should. The intellectual goes on a cerebral voyage, as it were, for its own sake. Climbing the mountain because it is there.


The motivation to be analytical is in some instances a deliberate attempt to come to some sort of understanding of the real world, or the part of it with which we choose to interact. It is probably genetic in the sense that some people are given to reflection from birth. The life of an intellectual tends to be lived out between our ears, or largely so.


Not all intellectuals, however, seek to distil their lives into a tangible output. They prefer to reflect for personal satisfaction, or towards a personal goal. Others seek an outlet for their thought, to embody their reflections into physical form. Some write things down, draw, paint, direct. I suppose there is an urge to create. It matters only secondarily that the uniqueness of the reflection and creation is recognised as such, because the creator is convinced of its beauty.


A beautiful mind romanticised all this. It objectified intellectual life, and there are few things more terrifying than looking into a mirror. I am here to tell you, dear friends, that there is nothing beautiful about this state of existence.


Intellectualising is a lonely task. I detest the loneliness of thought, because I am isolated. I can tell no one what I think, because I myself have no idea why, or what or how an idea will play itself out. I just know. I know I must, because it is there in my head. You want to say to the people around you (just as I am doing now), look, touch, see what I have wrought, it is a thing of beauty I have nurtured in my head. Or I want to scream, please, please, take this away from me, I can do nothing with it, it is unruly, excise it from my body. But I cannot, because it is mine and in any case you cant take it away, because it has no presence, no shape, and it means nothing to anyone else. Every reflection is – to me – a thing of infinite beauty. It is my child, my creation, however ugly, however, valueless, because I have put a part of my soul into it. But you – friends and lovers past– do not see this. I want your sympathy, your support, your shoulder, your advice, your understanding, but oftentimes you cannot, because you do not see. And I cannot see why you do not see the imperative of my work. I cannot conceive my life any other way, no matter how much you say to me, ‘you think too much’ just as you cannot see why I do not opt for the 2.4 children and station wagon.


It is but a logical step to talk to oneself, and from there, less than the leap of a flea to create imaginary friends. I am not quite there, but I live in fear of losing my marbles. I realise I am occasionally on the threshold of losing my grip on reality. There is nothing beautiful about this. I have friends who have made the transition to full-fledged fruitcake, and the power to travel without the constraints of reality is a truly terrifying concept.


Creativity and intellectual reflection is simply a refined form of madness. The dividing line between the two is vague: madness often indicates a failure to tame the wild horses in one’s head that drag the thought in contrary directions. Madness is an extreme: even when one maintains a tenuous grip on reality, it is not uncommon to be eccentric.


John Nash did no more and no less than a billion other people have done. He may have gone too far down the loneliness road, let the horses in his head run out of his control, been too ambitious, but I can walk you through any reasonable university and show you a thousand such people.


My complaint is this: I do not see how being any of these things constitutes a beautiful mind. John Nash may have had some beautiful thoughts, created memorable concepts, but this does not take away from the inherent potential ugliness of it all. Beauty, patient folks, implies a pleasing experience, because it is pleasurable to the senses. Madness (or its controlled version) can produce aesthetic beauty. But the mind that produces these creations, no matter how well organised and disciplined, rarely is.


In retrospect, perhaps a beautiful mind wasn’t that simplistic after all, or maybe I have demonstrated par excellence the dangers of over-analysis. My friends and colleagues shall no doubt be keeping that straitjacket handy in my company henceforth.


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