John Nash's Renunciation

A quaint ceremonious village" is how an elderly villager, Albert Einstein, described Princeton. There, in 1948, a first-year graduate student from West Virginia dropped by Einstein's office to suggest improvements to the great man's understanding of quantum theory. Einstein was polite but unpersuaded by John Forbes Nash Jr.

For most of the more than half a century since then, Princeton has been a therapeutic community for Nash, who has taken a torturous path to his present quiet life there. In an autobiographical essay composed after he received a 1994 Nobel Prize, Nash wrote: "When I had been long enough hospitalized... I would finally renounce my delusional hypotheses and revert to thinking of myself as a human of more conventional circumstances." Note the verb "renounce."

What is the possible meaning of that verb? It pertains to Nash's horrifying descent into, and astonishing, if precarious, ascent from, paranoid schizophrenia. That question is the central subject of the book, "A Beautiful Mind," that has become a movie with that title. The movie is based on Sylvia Nasar's elegant biography, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

That bland phrase "based on" can cover a multitude of moviemaking sins. But in this movie, which opened nationally last Friday, there is none of the (for example) adolescent, ax-grinding meretriciousness of Oliver Stone's reckless misrepresentations of historical persons and events. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have taken what they call "the architecture" of Nash's life from the book, in a way Nasar warmly approves.

The young Nash was a mathematical genius. He also was egotistical, obnoxious, childish and petulant. As Nasar writes, such "strange and solitary personalities" as Descartes, Newton and Wittgenstein suggest that "an emotionally detached, inward-looking temperament can be especially conducive to scientific creativity." Wandering around Princeton's Graduate College whistling Bach, Nash arrived at a revolutionary new theory of rational conflict and cooperation, "the Nash equilibrium," which Nasar calls "one of the most influential ideas of the 20th century."

World War II produced soaring confidence in sophisticated mathematical analysis and cloaked prominent mathematicians with prestige. By age 23 Nash was an instructor at MIT. As he neared 30, Fortune magazine called him a star of American mathematics. But about then, at the age when many gifted mathematicians fear that their creativity is waning, he slid into paranoid schizophrenia.

This illness arises in part from inherited--genetic--vulnerabilities. (Nash has a schizophrenic son.) And it can be triggered by life stresses. The social environment--in Nash's case, the Cold War--can give content to delusions without causing them. Nasar says Nash's delusionary life was not untypical. Neither were his delusions random, but obeyed almost inscrutable rules. He felt that he was simultaneously the epicenter of the universe, yet controlled by a psyche other than his own. He was both an abject petitioner and a figure of gigantic political or religious--but secret--importance. One moment he was furtive, then he was Emperor of Antarctica.

After repeated involuntary incarcerations, he returned to the wary tolerance of Princeton, bearded and bedraggled, haunting the mathematics department and the Institute for Advanced Study. Then, slowly, strangely and against all odds, there was remission. In 1994 in Stockholm he accepted the prize for achievements in his distant youth.

Goldsman's script tries to "recapitulate what it might feel like to have your life invalidated." Howard has succeeded in drawing the audience into Nash's mind by intimating--art can do no more--"the experience of being schizophrenic." Howard was brilliant and bold in discerning a popular movie in the story of the severe mental illness of a peculiar and unsympathetic young man. Mental illness is, says Howard, a largely unknown facet of human experience that "provides tremendous performance opportunities." Those opportunities are seized by actor Russell Crowe, who plays Nash through 47 years of aging.

A well-known movie about mental illness, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), pandered to a political stance of that era, the notion that what is called mental illness often is a healthy refusal to conform to the irrational standards of insane societies. "Charly" (1968) and "Rain Man" (1988) presented afflictions (retardation and autism, respectively) in terms of observable behavior. That was a task less challenging than Howard's, which was to suggest visually something invisible to everyone but a schizophrenic--an inner landscape of delusions.

It would be a disservice to the movie's makers and audience to tell how this is done. But the result is a breathtaking movie about a beautiful mystery. It imagines the almost unimaginable: how the intersection of a woman's love, a cluster of caring individuals and a sick man's will contributed to something extremely rare--remission from a disease that is almost always irreversibly degenerative.

Did Nash really "renounce" his delusions? That is, did he will his climb up from paranoia? He thinks so. It is probably more precise to say that Nash willed a strategy for dealing with delusions. Nasar writes, "Nash has compared rationality to dieting, implying a constant, conscious struggle. It is a matter of policing one's thoughts, he has said, trying to recognize paranoid ideas and rejecting them, just the way somebody who wants to lose weight has to decide consciously to avoid fats or sweets." Neither Nash nor Nasar nor anyone else can be certain how his remission came about.

"The most incomprehensible fact about the universe," said Einstein, "is that it is comprehensible." The nature of the mind is not comprehensible, not yet. However, "A Beautiful Mind"--Howard's deeply humane movie and Nasar's rigorous, demanding book, to which many moviegoers are turning--will enlarge society's stock of empathy for those with mental afflictions that are now a bit more comprehensible.