A Brief Remembrance of a Beautiful Mind
David R. Weiss, May 24, 2015
Yesterday John Nash and his wife Alicia were killed in a car crash in New Jersey. Nash was a brilliant mathematician who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994.
Like most of you, I knew of Nash by way of neither math nor economics, but film. His life story was featured in A Beautiful Mind, which chronicled not only his mind’s brilliance, but also its fragility. Both his career and marriage were nearly lost to schizophrenic paranoia and hallucinations, which plagued him in his early thirties and accompanied him for years afterwards, although he eventually struck a sort of uneasy peace with them. The movie also told the story of his love for Alicia—and hers for him. (They were married from 1957-63, then divorced during the height of his illness, but remained lifetime companions and were remarried in 2001.)
Everything I know about Nash I learned from the film or the internet, which is to say, not all that much—and, as several internet articles remind me, not entirely accurate. Although according Sylvia Nasar, author of the biography on which the film was based, the internet critiques often lack the same nuance they find wanting in the film. Without aiming to sort out fact, fiction, and film, I owe John Nash a word of gratitude, and I intend to offer that here.
I saw A Beautiful Mind in 2001 at Main Theatre & Pizza in Waukon, Iowa. I took my then 13 year-old son, Ben, and his best friend, Forrest. I knew little of Nash at the time and went innocently, thinking I would share this film about a brilliant man with these two kids, bright minds in their own right. We ordered pizza and watched the film. At some point I realized I was watching more of my own inner life projected on the screen than I had thought possible. I was trembling for the second half of the film. As I walked to the exit with two teenagers I had never felt more publicly exposed in my life. I couldn’t talk about the film until a few weeks later when I took Margaret to see it up in Saint Paul. Even then, the words came only tentatively and after we both sat out in the car in stunned silence for a good while.
I need to be careful here. I am not paranoid or schizophrenic, and probably not brilliant to anywhere near the degree Nash was. But this much is true: my mind is almost always chaotically overfull with ideas, opinions, suggestions, even accusations … voices that stop short of full personages but make for a very crowded room in which I am sometimes at a loss to say with any confidence “this one is me.” Like Nash, my life is a 24/7 engagement with an inner cacophony in search of patches of calm and moments of clarity. I am not without occasional success in this searching, though consistency still eludes me.
I suspect I am, at least in part, such an introvert, because I can only juggle so many conversations at one time, and I almost always have several going on before anyone else walks up to me. That sounds like wry humor, it feels like weary exhaustion many days. People read my essays, poetry, hymns, stories and think me creative. For me, the experience is rather different. Most days I just wish I could mute the incessant chatter long enough to pick one strand of thought and follow it to completion. And most days I fail.
But besides showing me a dim though overwhelmingly recognizable reflection of my most vulnerable self, the film was also was deeply affirming. In two ways. First, simply that there was such a story of fragile brilliance. Each of us dwells in a story that is singularly ours, but we know ourselves as we find points of recognition with other stories. I know myself better for knowing John Nash’s story. Second, to see the exquisite love between John and Alicia, strained at times but each reaching past what was possible to be present. Simply, sufficiently, miraculously present.
The movie concludes with Nash offering remarks at the 1994 Nobel awards. The scene is fictional, but the remarks ring true: “I’ve always believed in numbers and the equations and logics that lead to reason. But after a lifetime of such pursuits, I ask: ‘What truly is logic?’ ‘Who decides reason?’ My quest has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional—and back. And I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life: It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reasons can be found. [Looking at Alicia] I’m only here tonight because of you. You’re the only reason I am … you are all my reasons.”
No film before or after has ever affected me so deeply. After perhaps a dozen viewings, each time I still tremble. Each time I still sob. Each time Margaret and I know in a most vulnerable and visceral way that there is a mystery that binds us together, deeper than words. Although she is so much more than this, she, too, is the reason I am. And although neither of us fully understands it, we both know it—and know it better because of John and Alicia Nash. May they rest—side-by-side—in peace.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org; read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” He recently published a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book, When God Was a Little Girl (2013). Learn more at www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com.