Was John Forbes Nash insane?

A popular film of 1951 (list of 1951 films)
Look magazine: "The best of the science-fiction movies!":

soundtrack to The Day the Earth Stood Still by Bernard Herrmann

Let me tell you, as someone who was a young person in 1951,
that that movie had a great effect on many of us back then.
So far as I can recall,
there was no one who said that such things could not happen.
Not that they necessarily would happen,
but there was no reason to doubt their possibility.
That was the intellectual climate then.

I have noticed that some members of Team PC have been having a jolly old time,
yukking it up about how crazy
the (politically incorrect) mathematician John Forbes Nash allegedly was.
This belief was conveyed to the general American population
by the 1998 book A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
and the 2001 Hollywood film of the same title.
I have not seen the film (although I have read Wikipedia's summary of it),
but I have read the book.
The book describes a number of incidents in Nash's life and asserts,
based on the authority of the author and various "experts" whom the author quotes,
that these indicate clearly that Nash was, by some definitions, mentally ill.
She asserts specifically and without qualification that Nash was mentally ill.
In the book's Prologue, on page 17, she writes:
Nash succumbed [to schizophrenia] at age thirty.]
At the top of the front cover of the hardcover edition of the book (12th printing, copyright 1998),
above the title, appears the following in red type:
A legend by the age of thirty,
recognized as a mathematical genius even as he slipped into madness,
John Nash emerged after decades of ghostlike existence to win
a Nobel and world acclaim
But how did she and others arrive at that conclusion,
and why should we, the readers of the book, reach the same conclusion?

She begins the book, at the start of the Prologue,
with a strikingly detailed description of a scene
(the comments in square brackets have been added by the author of this blog):
John Forbes Nash, Jr.
mathematical genius, inventor of a theory of rational behavior,
visionary of the thinking machine —
had been sitting with his visitor, also a mathematician, for nearly half an hour.
It was late on a weekday afternoon in the spring of 1959,
and, though it was only May, uncomfortably warm.
Nash was slumped in an armchair in one corner of the hospital lounge,
carelessly dressed [Is it supposed to be significant that he was “carelessly dressed”?]
in a nylon shirt that hung limply over his unbelted trousers.
[“hung limply”? “unbelted”?
These facts, if true, must be significant to the author,
or she would not have put them in this book.
But what is the significance?
Are “unbelted trousers” a sign of mental illness?
What will the shrinks and those egging them on think of next as a way to smear people?]

His power frame was slack as a rag doll’s, his finely molded features expressionless.
He had been staring dully at a spot immediately in front of
the left foot of Harvard [math] professor George Mackey
[author of, among many other excellent books,
Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics]
Hardly moving except to brush his long dark hair away from his forehead
in a fitful, repetitive [got to watch out for those repetitive acts!
In particular, I also sometimes do things repetitively,
like listening to the same Bach cantata as I am now.]
motion .
His visitor sat upright, oppressed
[“oppressed”? Is that the right word?
Maybe discomforted,
but then is it the job of a person incarcerated in a mental institution
to make conversation with those who visit him?
It seems to me that clearly it was Nash who was the oppressed one in this situation,
not his visitor Mackey.
But the author Nasar couldn't figure that out.]

by the silence, acutely conscious that the doors to the room were locked.
Mackey finally could contain himself no longer.
His voice was slightly querulous, but he strained to be gentle.
“How could you,” began Mackey
“how could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof …
how could you believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages?
How could you believe that you are being recruited
by aliens from outer space to save the world?
How could you …?”

Nash looked up at last and fixed Mackey with an unblinking stare
as cool and dispassionate as that of any bird or snake.
[A comparison to birds and snakes?????
Are those the only creatures that have cool and dispassionate looks,
if indeed their looks possess those qualities?
Why, then, the comparison to birds and snakes,
other than a deliberate attempt to smear Nash?]

“Because,” Nash said slowly in his soft, reasonable southern drawl,
as if talking to himself,
“the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me
in the same way that my mathematical ideas did.
So I took them seriously.”
[Endnote: George W. Mackey, professor of mathematics, Harvard University,
interview, Cambridge, Mass. 12.14.95]

[An aside: That description of a 1959 scene is remarkably detailed
to be recounted in an interview in 1995, 36 years later.
Would one really remember 36 years later
that Nash's shirt "hung limply" and his trousers were unbelted?
I doubt if I would.]

Well, let me break off from recounting parts of Nasar's book
and switch to describing my own reactions to it.
When I first read this book, in 2010
(I had, of course, learned from newspaper stories about the book,
but had not read it.),
I took that passage at face value.
I trusted the author to be an unbiased observer and narrator,
setting out the key facts in Nash's life to enable her readers to understand the man and his environment.
Given the front cover blurb and other background information,
I took that passage as being an indictment of Nash's mind.

But then, some time later, I thought about the general situation in the 1950s,
a period I had and have personal familiarity with,
familiarity which, of course, those born after 1960 certainly do not have.
In fact, discussion of the possibility of the possibility of extraterrestial life
(generally presumed to have reached a far higher level of advancement than "earthings")
was a commonplace event in the 1950s.
Sci-fi films were a staple of the 1950s, I think to a far greater extent
than in more recent decades.
Two I remember in particular were:
but there were many others.
Beyond Hollywood, there was much discussion in the magazines of the time about the possibility of contact with extraterrestrials.
In later years, this talk moved into discussion of "Area 51"
and people who claimed to actually have had such contact,
and even, in some cases, having been abducted by outerspace aliens and taken to their space ships,
only to be returned to earth.
You can read about people making those claims.
I am not aware of people making such claims being, in general, deemed "insane".

Getting back to Nash,
the path to his thoughts that extraterrestrial aliens were trying to contact him,
was a path that general America culture of the time had opened up.
If one asserts now that that claim is absurd on its very face,
one is ignoring the general cultural climate of the 1950s.

As to Nasar's many other descriptions of Nash's behavior,
I often felt the desire to question how "insane" his behavior really was.
For example, she describes how Nash, while walking with a companion,
noted that "There's a dog following us."
My thought: so what?
Do dogs sometimes follow people?
Of course they do.

In general, I wonder how "insane" Nash really was.
She states that he had opinions now described as politically incorrect,
racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic.
Further, she has very extensive coverage of the thoughts of his wife.
She states that his wife,
before she signed the papers that involuntarily committed Nash,
was worried that Nash was going to abandon her and their young son.

I know nothing about Nash besides what I have read in Nasar's book
and the occasional references to him in newspapers
(although I do have some knowledge of the environment in which he was,
in particular, the intellectual and social life
of a mathematics department of a Boston area university,
and know that the mathematicians whom she quotes uniformly
are very, very well-regarded mathematicians,
and in one case one of the mathematicians she quotes was one of my professors).
But she mentions on the second page of the Prologue
that one psychologist thought Nash was never mentally ill.
I wonder how well-founded the diagnosis of his "mental illness" was.
No doubt some of his other claims, as quoted in the book,
claiming to be "the emperor of Antarctica" and other such claims,
are clearly absurd and delusional.
But the Hollywood film version of the book,
as described in Wikipedia,
contains supposed episodes not described in the book.

Quoting now from Wikipedia:
Some years later, Nash is invited to the Pentagon to crack encrypted enemy telecommunication. Nash is able to decipher the code mentally, to the astonishment of other codebreakers. He considers his regular duties at MIT uninteresting and beneath his talents, so he is pleased to be given a new assignment by mysterious supervisor, William Parcher (Harris) of the United States Department of Defense, to look for patterns in magazines and newspapers in order to thwart a Soviet plot. Nash becomes increasingly obsessive about searching for these hidden patterns and believes he is followed when he delivers his results to a secret mailbox.

Meanwhile a student, Alicia Larde (Connelly), asks him to dinner, and the two fall in love. On a return visit to Princeton, Nash runs into Charles and meets Charles' young niece Marcee (Vivien Cardone), whom he adores. With Charles' encouragement he proposes to Alicia and they marry.

Nash begins to fear for his life after witnessing a shootout between Parcher and Soviet agents, but Parcher blackmails him into staying on his assignment. While delivering a guest lecture at Harvard University, Nash attempts to flee from what appear to be foreign agents, led by Dr. Rosen (Plummer). After punching Rosen in an attempt to flee, Nash is forcibly sedated and sent to a psychiatric facility. He believes the facility is run by the Soviets.

Dr. Rosen tells Alicia that Nash has schizophrenia and that Charles, Marcee and Parcher exist only in his imagination. Alicia investigates and finally confronts Nash with the unopened documents he had delivered to the secret mailbox. Nash is given a course of insulin shock therapy and eventually released. Frustrated with the side-effects of the antipsychotic medication he is taking, he secretly stops taking it. This causes a relapse and he meets Parcher again.

After an incident where Nash endangers his infant son and accidentally knocks Alicia and the baby to the ground (thinking he's stopping Parcher from killing her), she flees the house in fear with their child. Nash steps in front of her car to prevent her from leaving. He tells Alicia, "She never gets old", referring to Marcee, who although years have passed since their first encounter, has remained exactly the same age and is still a little girl. With this, he finally accepts that they are part of his hallucinations. Against Dr. Rosen's advice, Nash decides not to restart his medication, believing that he can deal with his symptoms in another way. Alicia decides to stay and support him in this.

Most of this is not in the book.
It no doubt makes a great story, but it is not in the book.
One may wonder:
did the fact that Nash was worried about Jewish domination of the world
influence how he was portrayed,
both in the movie (with screen play by Akiva Goldsman)
and in general culture?

One other note:
Poor John Forbes Nash was pilloried by various people
for thinking that people from other worlds were communicating with him via the newspapers.
Where on earth could he have gotten such a crazy idea?
Well, not only was there the culturally significant 1950s film The Day the Earth Stood Still,
but also note the following description, from Wikipedia, as of 2014-09-11
(but the emphasis is added by the author of this blog):
The Tom Swift Jr. stories
[which were quite popular with young males in the 1950s]
had stronger science-fiction elements
than the earlier series,
particularly in the later volumes.
One subplot which, beginning on the first page of the first volume,
ran the length of the series, is
Tom's communication, via mathematical "space symbols,"
with beings from "Planet X."

This mystery is never completely resolved
despite the beings sending an artificial "energy brain"
to occupy a robot body built by Tom in book #17 (see illustration [below]).

So, a thought that may seem really crazy in the 1990s or 2000s
may not have seemed so crazy in the sci-fi-obsessed world of the 1950s.
Of course, that is not to deny that some psychologists in the 1950s
did indeed declare Nash insane and requiring involuntary confinement,
just to suggest that some of what was presented in the books and movie A Beautiful Mind may look different if viewed from the cultural context back then.

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