The Extraordinary Minds Of Bumbling Idiots

We intuitively accept the fact that extraordinary minds will likely operate in strange ways that we will find unrecognizable. In fact it’d be strange if they were recognizable, if Bobby Fischer, Kurt Godel, and Beethoven were all normal human beings the way we are. Unfortunately we have a unidimensional expectation of what this strangeness must look like, and we restrict it to a very specific form in which they are apt to reject social customs and norms of politeness that make no sense contextually. Nonconformity. This is difficult for us to portray without implicitly acknowledging that all of us conformist sheep are unthinking idiots. So we defer to the rules of polite civilized society, in that we are responsible adults who are willing to sacrifice our individuality and rejection of pointless norms in order to create a comfortable environment for one another, a sort of nudge wink that we’re all in on this gag but we’ll play along because it’s all too easy to throw a tantrum and call attention to ourselves. This lets us off the hook. We are aware of our conformity, of the irrationality of society’s norms, and we have chosen actively to subsume them, chosen actively to make ourselves a part of the crime and partake of the albatross equally. We have chosen actively to punish those who will not do so, and punish those who will not punish those who will not do so. Thus are born our system of meta-norms. So in order to portray an extraordinary mind with no interest in meta-norms, neither enforcing them, nor following them, we have to somehow show that their nonconformity is a feature not a bug. That feature becomes sociopathy, hence we get House and Sherlock, whose rampant disregard for authority and politeness pushes them to the fringes of civilized behavior and generally paints them as childish, stunted, rude, and unfeeling. That is the price of their extraordinary intelligence. This further reinforces our general and flawed assumption that high intelligence is somehow linked with unsocial tendencies like autism or antisocial tendencies like sociopathy. But nonconformity comes in many flavors, and the extraordinary mind may reject society’s stupidity without the element of a sneering ego. The fact that we choose to portray these extraordinary minds as bumbling idiots, like Bean, Clousseau and Jim Carrey, is the failure of our imagination or the success of our uneasy fears.

The King’s Fool is one of our most enduring archetypes, and my personal favorite. The archetypal Shakespearean Fool was the wisest most insightful man in the court, certainly not a bumbling idiot. He was given the authority to share his often subversive but always original perspective without incurring the King’s wrath. The price this wise fool paid for such unparalleled freedom of speech was the sacrifice of dignity. He must debase himself so convincingly, all the time, be such a figure of ridicule, that he would never be a threat to the King in terms of social status. When he delivered his cutting insight therefore, critical of the King, the rest of the court could still laugh at his idiocy, there he goes again the Fool, while the King could ponder the idea seriously. If the King decides to actually incorporate the Fool’s wisdom, then it is in fact testament to the King’s wisdom that he is able to spot truth and clarity even from the unlikeliest sources in the unlikeliest settings and couched in the unlikeliest of deliveries. In the modern age, this is what the good slapstick comedian is, a wise fool whose antics reduce his own respectability while revealing deep truths to the rest of us, sacrificing his dignity for the right to be subversive. The child in the Emperor’s New Clothes. Good slapstick therefore isn’t just one that makes us laugh, but one that reveals the nature of laughter, showing us why we find something funny.

This seems to be what separates the cold algorithmic machine intelligence of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock from the tragically complex genius of Hugh Laurie’s House, the fact that Hugh Laurie is in fact a blindingly brilliant slapstick comedian. Watching a Black Adder scene with Laurie and Atkinson is a whole new experience now, with Laurie’s bumbling slapstick idiot character playing off Atkinson’s cynical genius, given what we know of Laurie’s cynical genius in House and Atkinson’s bumbling idiot in Bean. It is very difficult to watch a scene like this and not realize the arbitrary difference between a competent bumbling idiot and a competent cynical genius, they are simply two versions of the same nonconformist extraordinary intellect. Take Clousseau in the Pink Panther remakes. He is written as so much of a bumbling idiot that he is shown to be bumbling even when noone is watching (unlike a typical clown who is only putting on a show). Yet in the hands of a consummate master of slapstick comedy, Steve Martin, it becomes impossible not to see through the mask and witness the blazing intelligence of intentionality underneath. Where the bumbler encourages you to laugh at his absurdity, the wise fool makes you laugh at the absurdity of everyone else who isn’t acting the way he is. We aren’t laughing at Clousseau’s absurdly inappropriate reactions to the HR lady’s oversexualized story but at the absurdity of all of us having to hide our own unstoppable inappropriate reactions to such overt titillation (with the express purpose of titillation) and then having to pretend we never had them, fooling nobody, especially not ourselves. Martin’s Clousseau dispenses with the intermediate steps, we aren’t fooling anybody, so why bother. Why try and pretend that Beyonce’s flirting doesn’t affect us and make us go weak-kneed and stupid, that we don’t want to slam our psychotic insecure boss’s face on the desk, and that we like and respect a cyclist’s self-righteous entitlement to the road?

Society has made it very clear. Some things are not laws, transgressing them is not illegal, but they are norms and we pay a social price not a legal one. If I don’t care about humiliation I don’t need to act with poise and dignity when it’s self-defeating, pointless, exhausting and distracting. I sacrifice my dignity in order to cut through all the bullshit. As long as most people are unwilling to do so, society will be fine tolerating nonconforming outcastes. If too many of us do it, then the cyclists will organize into a MadMaxian roller derby militia and things will get tricky, but until then society will not only tolerate but actively benefit from its bumbling idiots. Even the word Idiot is from the Greek Idios, one’s own, pertaining to oneself, private, whence we get idiosyncratic and idiom, something that gets lampshaded (I’d like to think it was done intentionally) in the good cop bad cop scene. Perhaps it is therefore no coincidence either that, despite being characterized by Wikipedia as a lucky moron solving cases by pure accident, Clousseau solves both cases (the 2 Steve Martin remakes) with deduction, eidetic memory, and an uncommon sense for patterns, playing 3D chess while Dreyfus and the other pieces are all playing tag.

Our popular entertainment has consistently painted high intelligence with a certain shade of menace. The caring megalomania of Ozymandias or the uncaring megalomania of Rick Sanchez, brooding darkness of Batman, foreboding psychopathy of the Joker, sociopathy of Holmes and House, harmless autism of Abed, schizophrenia of John Nash. We are not comfortable showing the positive force of the mind of human genius. When a genius plays the fool, like Ace Ventura, we can rest easy and actually appreciate his mind, but when he plays a serious man like in the Man On The Moon, it makes us squirm, he has to either be defeated by simple forces of good or by himself, proving the cautionary moral of destructive intelligence. In a world of increasingly cynical humor delivered by overly self-aware comedians taking themselves and their art too seriously (listen to us turn the mirror to society with such blazing wit), what’s truly gone missing is the essence of the immortal King’s Fool, embodied by the profound slapstick artist, the bumbling geniot.

A novel insightful exercise to determine the pragmatic difference in intellectual payoff between a novel insight and an obvious fact mistaken for novel insight.

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