Last updated: June 18, 2019
Topic: ArtBooks
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In the play “Proof” Catherine and Robert were both mathematical geniuses. They were brilliant, but at the same time, mentally unstable. They were contrasted with Hal and Claire, who lacked the genius of the other two, but were in touch with reality and adjusted to the outside world. I chose to write about the play over the movie because the language seemed more powerful to me in the play; as the movie proved to be more visually stimulating. On the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, Catherine, the troubled daughter of Robert, was having a conversation with her father that revealed that Robert suffered from mental illness.

According to Wikipedia, mental illness is, “any of the various forms of psychosis or severe neurosis”. The nature of Robert’s mental illness radically distorted his perceptions of the world. Afflicted by this mental illness, Robert was deceived into thinking that his perceptions were completely grounded in reality, when in reality they were not. Robert was a respected, world renowned, brilliant mathematician. He revolutionized the field of mathematics twice before the age of twenty-two, before he went crazy. He made contributions to three major fields: game theory, algebraic geometry, and nonlinear operator theory.

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He also discovered the mathematical technique for studying rational behavior. In spite of all his success, his career had been cut short by a debilitating mental illness. The play does not identify the exact nature of the illness. What it does present is Robert experiencing hallucinations and delusions. To illustrate the point of Robert’s madness, I can say this. He went from ruling the math universe with his proofs, to attempting to decipher the Dewey decimal codes of library books. He did this because he was convinced that aliens were sending him secret messages.

The mental illness that inflicted Robert began when he was about twenty-three, twenty-four years old. It ruled the rest of his life until his mid fifties when he died of heart failure. Robert became so incapacitated that Catherine had to stay home and care for him. She spent her life with him. She listened as he talked to people who weren’t there and as he moved around like a smelly ghost. However, Catherine refused to institutionalize him. She felt that he needed to have familiarity and to be close to the University, as this might spark something in him.

Essentially, Catherine withdrew herself from society in order to be his sole caretaker. In the end of Act II, there was a emotionally distressing scene where Robert makes an appearance in the way of a flashback. About four years before his death, Robert had experienced about seven months of clarity when his illness went into remission. He taught for one more academic year. He felt as if he had regained all of his intellectual brilliance and that no time had passed since he was twenty-one. He felt that he would be able to produce exciting ground-breaking work in the field of mathematics.

His recovery had become so significant that Catherine, who had given up search of her own career in mathematics in order to care for him, was able to return to school at Northwestern University as a mathematics major. One day, after being unable to get in touch with her father via telephone (of whom she spoke to once a day), became frantic and feared that something had gone wrong. She drove to the house and discovered her father sitting out in the freezing cold weather working. She asked him why he didn’t answer the phone. He said that it was a distraction and explained the importance of priorities.

He said that work takes priority above all things, and that she, of all people knew this. Robert said that his “machinery”, referring to his brain, was once again firing on all cylinders. He was exhilarated to the point of being overheated and had ventured out on this December day in order to cool off. In an effort to explain to his doubtful daughter the incredible feeling that he was experiencing, Robert tells her that it is not as if a light had suddenly turned on his mind, but rather the whole “power grid” had been activated after years of dormancy.

Robert said, “I’m back in touch with the source – the font, the – whatever the source of my creativity was all those years ago. I’m SITTING on it. It’s a geyser and I’m shooting right up into the air on top of it” (60). Robert demanded that Catherine read what he had been scribbling in the notebook. He requested that Catherine collaborate with him to produce the general outline of a proof. Quickly, it became painfully obvious that what had returned to Robert was not the spark of a genius, but that of insanity. It was just a bunch of confusing, rambling nonsense. Clearly, his mind was confused and was lapsing into insanity.

Robert expressed to Catherine that he was terrified that he would never work again. He says that he pressed on because Catherine was his inspiration, and that what he couldn’t accomplish, she indeed would. He recalls his mental state soon after falling ill. He tells Catherine about the clarity of which he viewed things, and believed that his mind was sharper than ever before, “If I wanted to look for information – secrets, complex and tantalizing messages – I could find them all around me. In the air. In a pile of fallen leaves some neighbor raked together. In box scores of the paper, written in the steams coming up off a cup of coffee.

The whole world was talking to me” (10). Robert was no doubt mistaken when he claimed that his mind had become sharper because during his mental illness his mental processes no longer bore any relation to reality. The insights that he thought had attributed meaning to, only had meaning to him. These insights were useless for the field of mathematics as objectively verifiable knowledge. Early on in the play, Catherine referred to her father as a graphomaniac. She tells Hal that he would find nothing in the one hundred and three notebooks because Robert had no connection between ideas, and in fact, there were no ideas at all.

The question as to whether Robert’s mental illness was connected to his mathematical genius is left unanswered. However, the play said that by the age of twenty-five (the same birthday Catherine is celebrating when the play begins), Robert had completed all of the work he would in his field, and perhaps felt inadequate as his mental capacity deteriorated. The implication in the play is that mental illness is somehow connected with genius. Another implication is that insanity may also be inherited. Catherine worries about this possibility for herself right from the eginning. Catherine, too, shows signs of mental illness and instability. In a vulnerable position, she considers her own level of mathematics at the age of twenty-five. She also considers the general confusion of her life after the death of her father, and is uncertain whether she too will succumb to the same type of mental illness. All of the signs point to the fact that “it” has already happened. Although a highly intelligent woman, she had no direction in life. According to her father, she slept until noon and some days failed to even get out of bed.

Obviously, she was suffering from depression that was causing her to not function effectively. Catherine had a hard time accepting the good intentions of others because of her paranoia of being classified as crazy and therefore being stuck with a label. Her outlook on life is grim and bitter. Her mood swings, sarcasm, and high intelligence are simultaneously character traits, responses to her father’s death, and possible warning signs for her present and future. It was about midway through the Act I, scene 1 that we realized that Robert was actually dead and Catherine was hallucinating.

All of what was portrayed was only a figment of her imagination. It is here that her sanity is first questioned. Robert tried to reassure Catherine that she would not inherit the mental illness and that just because he went bughouse didn’t mean that she would too. Robert tells her that there are all types of factors in the medical literature. He said, “Crazy people don’t sit around wondering if they’re nuts” (10). As their conversation continues, he reinforces the point by saying, “Take it from me. A very good sign that you’re crazy is an inability to ask the question, “Am I crazy” (11)?

Catherine failed to realize because she was sick that she was young, and her creative years were just at the beginning stages. Robert tells Catherine that she has so much potential and there were measures that she could take to prevent inheriting the illness. He told her to push herself by getting the “machinery” going. Hal also tries to help Catherine cope by telling her that the University’s health service would be a good way of releasing and getting help with her condition. He tries to relate to her and understand what she was going through, because when his mother passed away, he was distraught.

Just by this example, it was apparent that Catherine refused to accept the fact that she had a problem. She is stubborn and doesn’t want to admit that she is a modified version of her father, as this is socially unacceptable, by the outside world. Evidence of Catherine’s unstable mental condition emerged in Claire’s repor of her aggressive and abusive behavior toward the police officers. The police officers came to the house after Catherine had reported a burglary in progress, which was her extreme reaction to Hal’s attempt to smuggle out one of her father’s notebooks.

Catherine reasoned that her actions were perfectly viable and that the police officers were assholes. She said that one was spitting all over her. After learning from Claire that the off duty officers had come to check up on her to make sure that everything was alright, she felt no shame or regret. If you were in your right mind, there is no way, no how that you wouldn’t feel some type of remorse. Consequent to her actions and behaviors, she is guarded and refuses to accept the insights of a certified crazy person. Claire thought that Catherine shared some of their father’s talent along with some of his tendency toward “instability”.

Claire had a great fear of unstable, unpredictable situations that both Catherine and Robert represented with their bright minds. Claire wanted her to move to New York so she could keep an eye on her and arrange for the best possible medical treatment. Instead of feeling happy that her sister cared, Catherine resents her interference. In this way, Catherine showed that she had doubts and insecurities, and that she in mentally unstable. She questions Claire. She asked her beside the “cute apartments” that she had “scouted” out for her what other options she had explored.

Catherine accused Claire that her intentions and efforts were geared in a malicious direction, in a way to mistreat her. Catherine felt that Claire was scouting out a different kind of living facility, like an institution, for her bughouse self. Catherine refused to institutionalize Robert because she did not want to be institutionalized for her illness. It is rather ironic that Claire thought Catherine was mentally ill. Catherine was the sister who stayed at home caring for their ailing father, and yet it was now Claire that was attempting to step into the caretaker role now because of her suspicions as to Catherine’s mental health.

While Catherine gave up college to care for her father during his illness, after his death, she is left in a state of limbo where she was not prepared to deal with the outside world. Another factor that pointed to her instability was the fact that she had no friends. She didn’t even care for her own sister. The only person that she interacted with normally for the most part was her father. However, her life was not solely devoted to her father. She had in fact kept herself mentally active by studying mathematics in her free time.

This drew her closer to her father, as well as increased the fears of those around her that she was suffering from the same illness as Robert did. Catherine proved to be as brilliant of a mathematician as Robert. She was overtaken by madness and failed to keep a firm grasp on reality. So there were two: Robert, the genius mathematician who went mad and eventually died, and Catherine who gave up a potentially great mathematical career to look after Robert and, in the process, allowed herself to run down, perhaps irreversibly.