Flowers for Algernon

These days I  hear a great deal about neuroscience, identity, empathy and so on. All matters that address the question, what makes us who we are, where does the seat of the self reside? Just as philosophers have wondered about the soul, today we scratch around in search of explanations for the mind. Before neuroscience was anything at all, writers speculated on the workings of the brain, the distinctions that make each one of us unique and yet closely alike. This seems all the more pertinent today as we learn about the working of not only our brains but those of other vertebrates. Indeed, sentience itself is at the very core of such empirical and metaphysical enquiry.

I read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes in my teens. It is a moving tale of Charlie, a janitor with an IQ of 68, volunteering to have an experimental surgical procedure that has been shown to increase the intelligence of a laboratory mouse called Algernon. This is successful, but as Charlie reaches the height of his intellectual powers, Algernon’s increased intelligence starts to reverse. Charlie discovers that he too will revert to his former self and desperately tries to find the flaw in the procedure. As he finishes his work, it is too late to halt the reversal and rapidly regresses to his former state. He attempts to return to his job as a janitor but cannot bear the realisation that he would be tolerated by his work colleagues out of pity. Charlie leaves home to wander away from the city. His last wish is that flowers be put on Algernon’s grave buried in his back garden.

This book is considered to be a science fiction work but it is much more than this. It is a commentary on society’s attitudes towards the vulnerable, drawing from Keyes’ experiences teaching special needs. The narrative contains other autobiographical references, drawing from his conflicted relationship with parents who wanted him to study medicine and time at university. It is also a masterful work of empathy, the mouse itself becoming an object of transference of emotions as one hopes against hope that things will go well for Charlie. However, the story ends in reverting to reality and the status quo, leaving behind the quasi-scientific ideal of enhanced intelligence.

I remember the story possessing tender claustrophobia. It questions normative judgements about mental capacity. Human behaviours are seen through the narrative of the people around the main character and the psychological tension between him and the mouse is kept taught by the changes that affect the sense of self of Charlie. It is a tragedy of self-realisation. The journey that Charlie undertakes is not too dissimilar to that of Mary Shelley’s monster, one of awakening to the knowledge of life, and like Frankenstein’s creature, doomed to dissolution and despair. It is a moral tale of the dangers of playing with the laws of nature, akin to the search for immortality in The Monkey’s Paw. A case of, ‘careful what you wish for’.

This story has always stayed with me and was brought back sharply in focus when we returned back from being abroad and found a new inhabitant had moved into our home. A field mouse had made its presence clear, evidenced by its physical traces and the noises it made at night as its tiny claws tapped on the wooden floor. Not wishing to kill the creature, I ordered a humane trap and set it the very night it arrived. The trap branded itself as professional, notwithstanding its low price, and indeed fulfilled its every promise. Janet went to bed while I worked a little more on this blog. No sooner were the main lights out, Janet called out, ‘he’s caught’. It had taken only a few minutes for the naive creature to enter the metal box and release the trap doors shut.

We kept the creature until the following afternoon in an acrylic display case. It was at this point of capture, observing its behaviour, making itself at home with half a grape and a few grains of muesli, that the mouse became a quasi-mythical creature endowed with anthropomorphic characteristics. I felt a joy at not having killed the animal and at its release a few hours later by a hedgerow where it promptly jumped and skipped its way back to live out its short natural life.

I say all this because this experience made me reflect on the porcelain creatures I have been making for Spes Contra Spem. Being encased but observed made me wonder about the mouse and how conscious it was of its life, capture and release: what might be the quality of its sentience? Obviously, any empathy felt towards the little animal was purely coming from me. I have not delusions that given the chance, the animal in all its innocence, would have caused harm had it stayed in the building.

This event started a thought pattern which led to the resolution of a problem I had been struggling with for some time in relation to embedding sounds in the sculptures. I was bothered by the conceptual relationship between the sound and the porcelain sculptures. I asked myself, what should this relationship be like; is there a synthesis between the two modalities in the context of the porcelain pieces; what sounds would be consonant with such a pairing?

A week after the mouse’s release, just a few days ago. The encasement of the mouse in an acrylic display case made me think of the porcelain being encased. This idea goes hand in hand with the nominal theme of the project proposal, Enshrinement. An idea that emerged during the preceding tutorial to this post. However, this could not just be a means of display. A vitrine is not terribly interesting in and of itself, it is a curatorial convenience and could even be seen as a lazy way of conferring status to a work with its associations of museums. Additionally, I would be removing the works from the ability to touch them.

The encasement of the porcelain I see as creating a sealed space not only inhabited by the solid works but also the sounds of the work. The case creates a boundary, a separation, a sacred space where the sound is sealed and barely audible. However, by creating perforations in the acrylic glass, a possibility is created to approach the case and listen in, eavesdrop on the conversant pieces. This invitation to the viewer becomes a physical act of engagement aimed at bringing one into closer proximity with the work whilst remaining separated, another theme of the project. My aim is to raise questions, infer ideas parallel to those others offered by the installation as a whole. For me, these questions lie in the domain of sentience, empathy, curiosity, purpose, sacredness and profanity.

However, such a scenario remains a relatively static one. In a world where movement is so evident in everyday life, I have thought of converting the vitrine from a piece of furniture to a mode of movement. The aim is to imply potential movement in which the viewer is encumbered with its psychological inertia. A connection is therefore thickened between the work and a no longer passive viewer. The aim is that inferences of ritual, procession, celebration and burden become part of the narrative unfolding in the project proposal, forging connections in which the self is only part of a wider ecology of selves, past, present and future.

I do not want to disclose images of the proposed work at the moment but would rather disclose parts, documented during their making, as a puzzle slowly pieced together. This is a way of keeping the work alive in an evolving process and narrative – a secret in the open.