If a man is a genius, a certain amount of unlikable personality traits will be tolerated. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is often portrayed as austere and aloof. While he is not rude to others, he can be insensitive. In The Sign of the Four, Dr. John Watson, fed up with Holmes’ superior manner, decides to put him to the test, handing him his watch, sure that Holmes will not be able to glean anything from it. After Holmes deduces that Watson inherited the watch from his elder brother, who had inherited it from their father, he shrugs off the fact that there is not much to work with, concluding:
“He was a man of untidy habits,—very untidy and careless. He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died. That is all I can gather.”
Watson is taken aback by this unfeeling description of his brother. Holmes apologizes:
“My dear doctor,” said he, kindly, “pray accept my apologies. Viewing the matter as an abstract problem, I had forgotten how personal and painful a thing it might be to you….”
The apology Holmes offers shows that he is not completely without feeling. It’s just that when engaged in a problem requiring the concentration of his intellect, he can sometimes be oblivious to the feelings of others. In fairness, however, Holmes never gets his feelings hurt by the remarks of others, so the possibility of hurting others sometimes has to be brought to his attention. This is one of the shortcomings of the Golden Rule. Doing unto others as you would have others do unto you can lead to just such a situation, where you hurt someone’s feelings because your own feelings would not have been hurt had you been in his place.
It makes sense, furthermore, that Holmes is celibate. In real life, geniuses fall in love, just like everyone else. But in creating this character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew that Holmes’ intellect, in order to be regarded as preternatural, must be such as to exclude all tender feeling. The only woman that ever really impressed Holmes was Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and that was only because she proved to be his equal in one of his cases. At the end of The Sign of the Four, Watson tells Holmes he is going to marry Miss Morstan. Holmes explains why he has a dim view the matter:
But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.”
The eponymous character in the television show House (2004-2012) is essentially a Sherlock Holmes character in the medical field. He cares nothing about the patients he treats as human beings, but only as the embodiment of medical problems that may challenge his intellect.
Cultural changes, however, required a couple of modifications. Holmes used cocaine to relieve his boredom, which was fine for when The Sign of the Four was written, inasmuch as this drug was more acceptable in the late nineteenth century than it is now. Today, we typically dislike characters in a movie that snort cocaine, although Scarface (1983) is an exception. But even the title character of that movie had to die in the end. The use of opioids, on the other hand, is more likely to elicit our sympathy than our disgust. Therefore, House is addicted to Vicodin.
A second change concerns sex. We could readily believe that Holmes was celibate in the nineteenth century, but such abstinence is not acceptable today, where the audience will insist on a character’s sexuality whether it is depicted or not. Therefore, the next best thing to celibacy for House is his employment of prostitutes, with whom he wants no conversation, just physical sex. But it has the same effect as celibacy for Holmes, where having a superior intellect seems to come at the cost of being unable, or unwilling, to love someone.
One reason we like stories with such characters is that we vicariously enjoy their arrogance, since we ourselves often chafe at having to be so darn humble and polite. In The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger) is a genius who does not suffer fools gladly, but we suffer him gladly because he is so brilliant. His foil is Captain Frank Towns (Jimmy Stewart). Stewart’s screen persona is that of a man with common sense. As a rule, when Stewart gives a speech in a movie, he’s right. So, it comes as something of a shock in this movie when, following one of those common-sense pronouncements for which Stewart is famous, Dorfmann, just barely able to keep his exasperation in check, has to explain to Towns that he is wrong. This happens again and again. At the end of the movie, Towns is finally allowed to redeem himself, where his experience as a pilot completes Dorfmann’s expertise in the principles of flight. As for Dorfmann, as he attempts to build a smaller airplane out in the desert out of the parts of the original plane that crashed, he regards people as merely objects that may be of practical value in his project or a hindrance to it. At one point, he shows some kindness to one of the passengers who has become weak, so he is redeemed in that regard, at least to that small extent.
The theme common to these stories would seem to be that having a superior intellect precludes the possibility of also being kind, compassionate, and lovable. From a strictly logical point of view, there would seem to be no reason for intelligence and a pleasant disposition to be mutually exclusive, that if you have the one, you cannot have the other. Surely there are geniuses that are kind and loving, just as there are simpletons that are mean and cruel. But as a practical matter, the one does often seem to come at the expense of the other. It may be that a superior intellect has a natural tendency to make someone arrogant, impatient with the dimwitted fools with whom he must deal.
In any event, there are novels and movies that complement the ones above, in which someone with a mental defect of some sort is more compassionate and lovable than ordinary people, as if an impairment of the intellect is conducive to a pleasant disposition. In Regarding Henry (1991), the title character (Harrison Ford) is a partner in a law firm. When the movie opens, we see snow falling hard in front of a courthouse in New York City, and it looks really cold, cold as the heart of this protagonist. He is in a courtroom defending a hospital that is being sued for malpractice. In summing up for the jury, he talks about feelings, about sympathy and understanding, about human nature. But, he concludes, almost reluctantly, that the plaintiff is the one that is really at fault, not the hospital. Back at the office, after having won the case, he mocks the defendant, belying all those fine phrases he uttered in the courtroom. (We later find out the hospital was at fault.) In general, Henry is arrogant, ruthless, and demanding, as unpleasant at home as he is at work. Then he gets shot in the head during a holdup, and after a little therapy, becomes a really sweet, loving family man who realizes that when he was a lawyer, he did things that were immoral.
This is not realistic. My guess is that if brain damage caused a personality change, it would more likely be for the worse. The story of Phineas P. Gage leaps to the mind. In the nineteenth century, Gage was a railroad construction foreman. An accidental explosion drove a tamping rod through his head, taking out a fair amount of brain matter in doing so. Somehow, he survived. But whereas he was likable before the accident, he became irritable and difficult to get along with afterwards. Therefore, a more likely outcome would be that a man like Henry would still be the same obnoxious person he was before, only worse, for now he would be even less inhibited in his ill treatment of others. He would never again be able to fake sincerity when summing up before a jury. But stranger things have happened, so I suppose the combination of a bullet in the head and lack of oxygen could destroy the part of the brain that makes a man a jerk.
Our ability to suspend disbelief is not helped by the fact that the matter of their finances is never really addressed. Henry’s daughter Rachel asks her mother Sarah (Annette Bening) if they are going to be poor, for which Sarah has no good answer. The advice she gets from a friend is not to tell anyone about the dire nature of their finances, but to go out with some friends and spend lots of money, as if keeping up appearances is the solution to Sarah’s problems. That strikes me as a formula for disaster. Sarah does have a job, they do find a less expensive place to live, and they eventually pull Rachel out of a private school, although the movie would have us believe that it is for emotional reasons rather than financial ones. In short, we do not have enough specifics to draw any definite conclusions about their finances, but I would have expected more drastic cutbacks in expenditures than that. And it would seem that Sarah will need new friends, a little lower down in the socio-economic scale. So, when Henry resigns from his law firm, the sense of financial doom is still hanging over them, even if the movie appears to be in denial about that. The point is that our credulity is already strained by the premise that an obnoxious man would be transformed by brain damage into a wonderful person. But a functioning brain is necessary for paying the bills, and the additional unreality of their financial situation pushes our ability to suspend disbelief just a bit too far. The story is unworthy of its moral, which is that the heart is more important than the head.
Another movie in which brain damage of a sort paves the way for a pleasant personality is A Chump at Oxford (1939). Through plot complications that need not be detailed here, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy end up enrolled at Oxford, where they are harassed by other students that are hazing them. Stanley is recognized by their valet as Lord Paddington, the greatest scholar and athlete the university ever had. However, the valet goes on to say, one day a window fell on Paddington’s head, causing him to lose his memory and wander away. Stanley and Ollie dismiss the story as impossible.
While trying to cope with the other students, Stanley sticks his head out the window, the same one as before. It falls and hits him in the head, returning his memory, intellect, and athletic ability. He makes short work of the bothersome students.
Eventually, Stanley, now Lord Paddington, condescends to let Ollie be his valet, though he verbally abuses him, and so much so that Ollie is ready to quit. But as fate would have it, Paddington looks out the window again. It falls on him, thereby returning him to the lovable Stanley. Ollie is delighted to have him back, even though it would likely not be long before there will be another fine mess that Stanley gets Ollie into.
This is a simple story about the head and the heart, in which the latter is more important. Better to have Stanley, who is dull-witted but good natured, than to have Lord Paddington, who is superior in intellect, but is rude and arrogant, even if damage to the brain is necessary to bring it about.
Another movie that champions the heart over the head is Harvey (1950). James Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, who claims to have an invisible giant rabbit named Harvey as a companion, for which reason his sister tries to have him committed to an insane asylum. In addition to appearing to be crazy, Elwood comes across as simpleminded. However, he is always nice to people. Once again, we have the connection between a mental defect of some sort as a condition for a pleasant disposition. We get the sense that Elwood has not always been like this. At one point, while talking to the head of the insane asylum, he says:
Years ago, my mother used to say to me…, “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.
There is a drug that can be administered to people with Elwood’s problem, Formula 977. However, according to the cab driver, while it will cure Elwood of his madness, making him a normal human being again, he will no longer be the nice, polite person he is now, but will become irritable and rude, just like everyone else.
Once again, the idea seems to be that intelligence precludes a pleasant disposition, that the more you have of the one, the less you have of the other. The title character of Forest Gump (1994) also exemplifies this principle, for he is a really nice guy, but slow-witted.
One of my favorite words on this question of the head and the heart comes at the end of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Unlike the movie versions of this novel, which end optimistically, holding out the hope that the Time Traveller, upon returning to the future, will be able to rebuild civilization with the aid of three books he takes back with him; the novel itself is pessimistic, holding a low regard for the accomplishments of human intelligence. After the Time Traveller has left once again, never to return, the author reflects on the story he has just been told, dispelling the folly of optimism, of the belief in progress:
He, I know—for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made—thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilisation only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank—is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.
These stories where a loss of intelligence results in kindness and compassion should not be construed as saying that the former must be destroyed in order that the latter may flourish. That simply would not be true. Rather, the loss of intellect is a dramatic device by which we can see which of the two is more important. Perhaps it was Arthur Schopenhauer who said it best in The World as Will and Representation (translated by E.F.J. Payne):
Brilliant qualities of the mind earn admiration, not affection; that is reserved for moral qualities, qualities of character. Everyone will much rather choose as his friend the honest, the kind-hearted, and even the complaisant, easy-going person who readily concurs, than one who is merely witty or clever…. The known goodness of a character makes us patient and accommodating to weaknesses of understanding as well as to the obtuseness and childishness of old age…. For just as torches and fireworks become pale and insignificant in the presence of the sun, so intellect, even genius, and beauty likewise, are outshone and eclipsed by goodness of heart. Where such goodness appears in a high degree, it can compensate for the lack of those qualities to such an extent that we are ashamed of having regretted their absence. Even the most limited understanding and grotesque ugliness, whenever extraordinary goodness of heart has proclaimed itself as their accompaniment, become transfigured, as it were, enwrapped in rays of a beauty of a more exalted kind, since now a wisdom speaks out of them in whose presence all other wisdom must be reduced to silence.