Sunday, October 20, 2019

Cuckoo’s Nest

Every human being possesses one or more talents that vary across a broad spectrum. Deploying our primary senses, we interface with the world through our vision, auditory perception, touch, and other faculties. But while the majority of people perceive nature simply and unvarnished, there are outliers who instinctively search for patterns with their eyes either open or wide shut, indicative of how their brains are wired. Using symbols, logic and pure imagination, gifted mathematicians have the capacity to study the shape and motion of physical objects, and to delineate space in abstraction. As far as the average person is concerned, these brainiacs might as well exist in a parallel universe.

Often when we encounter creative types, such as musicians, fine artists, writers, and prodigious number-crunchers, their non-conventional character traits tend to mark them out as slightly cuckoo, which is not a term of endearment. In this rarefied world, mathematics geeks are a special breed who have provided the underpinning for scientific enquiry in physics, chemistry, engineering, astronomy, and many other fields of study.

Once in a while, even mathematicians encounter problems to which there are no known solutions. One of such uncanny puzzles challenged the best minds in Ancient Greece. For those who absolutely detested geometry as students, the next statement might bring back spastic memories, but try to hang on. “Given a circle, the challenge is to construct - using only a straight-edge and compass - a square equal in area to that circle.” Well, Greek geometers tried and tried, as did others subsequently, but no one succeeded. Just when someone thought that the puzzle had been resolved, it was discovered that their solution was only an approximation. Not until the 19th century was it definitively proved that the problem could not be solved in a finite number of steps. Thereafter, the phrase ”squaring the circle entered our vocabulary to describe the futility of attempting the impossible.

Staying with the theme of elusive puzzles, the first time I watched the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (OFOTCN), I was too young to fully grasp the plot lines. Coming of age during my mathematics-obsessed head-in-the-clouds years, the film provided my first glimpse inside an asylum. Though creepy, my experience was amplified by Jack Nicholson’s stunning performance as Randle McMurphy. Edgy and disturbing in parts, the cast of loonies included outstanding actors like Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif. Decades later, when I viewed OFOTCN the second time, I finally understood why McMurphy’s ploy mirrored a doomed attempt to square the circle.

Briefly, Randle McMurphy was a criminal who had been convicted for rape, assault and battery. Even though he was not mentally ill, McMurphy was momentarily transferred from a regular prison to a mental hospital. There, he encountered certified patients under the stern supervision of autocratic Nurse Ratched, brilliantly portrayed by Louise Fletcher. Despite the strict and austere environment, McMurphy preferred spending the rest of his sentence there rather than return to the hard labour regime at the prison. With the passage of time, his devious personality permeated the institution, often bumping against Nurse Ratched’s authority.

In time, McMurphy became aware that his sentencing judge had ruled that the time he spent in the asylum would not defray or reduce the length of his original sentence. Therefore, McMurphy faced the risk of being trapped in his new abode indefinitely. Realising that his scheme had failed, he began to plot his escape. Having won several skirmishes, ultimately he lost the war when he was apprehended, lobotomised, and returned to the mental institution in a vegetative state. Just when McMurphy thought that he had outmanoeuvred everybody, he discovered that the system had him in a vice-like grip all along.

Another inadvertent example of a cuckoo attempting to square the circle is illustrated by the experience of a pilot in the classic novel Catch-22. Like OFOTCN, there is a large dose of macabre humour at the heart of this story. Captain John Yossarian was a US air force bombardier stationed on an island off the coast of Italy during WW2. The tale depicts the absurdity of war as, progressively, Yossarian’s antipathy towards his commanders actually grew worse than his fear of Germans. Feeling that his side was “out to get him,” Yossarian could never fulfil the criteria for his release from active duty. The more combat missions he flew, the higher his commander raised the threshold.

When Yossarian simulated mental illness to escape flying, he was ambushed by thsquadron physician, Doc Daneeka, who told him that, “Any pilot requesting mental evaluation for insanity - hoping to be found not sane enough to fly and thereby escape dangerous missions - demonstrates his own sanity in creating the request and thus cannot be declared insane. Eventually, Yossarian realised that he was boxed in when he finally achieved his target and the limit was retroactively raised by his superiors. So, just when Yossarian figured that he could finally leave the air force base, he discovered that neither his diligence or feigned madness made an iota of difference.

It does appear that no matter what we do, we often struggle to break free from malevolent characters who sometimes inhabit the cuckoo’s nest, which is what life feels like sometimes. Due to our imperfect nature, we have the propensity to engage in certain activities that weaken us. Conversely, there are actions that we ought to undertake that we neglect. This also weakens us. Try to square this conundrum

And just when I faced the unnerving prospect of spinning my wheels, I discovered that it was time to sign off.


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