Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing and the Ridiculous Gift of Genius


I never saw a man who looked / So wistfully at the day…

(Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol)

So I think I managed to miss an entire year on the Frog, apart from dealing with some rather indecorous comments. Apparently some people don’t like it when you decide that a book is crap after the first five pages. And here I am now, posting twice on the same day. It’s no coincidence that I have the next few weeks off on Summer holidays.

Yesterday I had the privilege of watching a film called The Imitation Game.  Spoiler Alert!  If you aren’t aware, it deals with Alan Turing’s efforts to crack the German Enigma code during World War 2, housed in a former radio factory at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. Turing is played beautifully by Benedict Cumberbatch, in one of those performances where the actor disappears completely, as arguably an actor always should. Turing, as portrayed in the film, was quite the eccentric; today he would no doubt be considered autistic (“on the spectrum”, in the parlance of the teaching fraternity). He was a gifted mathematician with a very limited capacity to make or sustain friendships; one of the funniest scenes in the film is one in which he attempts to become friends with the other members of his team at Bletchley, most of whom despise him. This attempt involves giving them all an apple, and then telling a joke rather badly.

The most moving scene is perhaps the one that occurs the morning after they manage to crack the Enigma code. Their jubilation at doing so is quickly contrasted by the realisation that they can’t tell anyone, or else the Germans would know and they would reset Enigma and years of work would be wasted. And so, with their full knowledge, lives will continue to be lost.

Alan Turing lived with a secret during all of this: he was homosexual. This was eventually discovered in the early 1950s and he was charged with indecency and chemically castrated (as an alternative to spending two years in prison, an option Cumberbatch’s Turing could not entertain). Eventually he committed suicide in 1954 and the film is not subtle in suggesting that the drugs used to castrate him also gave him something like Parkinson’s Disease, affecting (among other things) his highly cherished mental acuity.

So I couldn’t help but think of poor old Oscar Wilde, who suffered a similar fate (although he served his time in Reading Gaol; the chemical option perhaps wasn’t  available at the turn of the twentieth century). From memory, Oscar chose to defend himself and arguably he had a fool for a client. It’s also interesting to consider how relatively recently we’ve abandoned our Judeo-Christian distaste for The Love that Dare not Speak Its Name and that now the argument rages (in my little corner of the world at least) over whether or not men and women in same-sex relationships should be allowed to marry.

There are very few direct comparisons between Wilde and Turing; they were both eccentric in different ways, and homosexual, but that’s probably about it. They also possessed singular gifts which have contributed significantly to the world since their respective deaths. Wilde’s incarceration even inspired one of his famous poems, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, passages of which I memorised in Years 11 and 12. “Each man kills the thing he loves / yet each man does not die. / He does not die a death of shame / on a day of dark disgrace…”

Some subtitles at the end of the film reveal that cracking Enigma possibly shortened World War Two by up to two years, saving countless lives; yet it remained a secret for the next fifty years. And in 2013, Turing was posthumously awarded a Royal Pardon by Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of his enormous contribution to the war effort. With Oscar we have the enduring legacy of his work–the sublime comedy of his plays, his wit, his embrace of aestheticism. With both men, we have a reminder that genius often has a price. People who don’t fit the pattern are difficult, perhaps–to work with, to live with, to endure. But endure them we should. Almost certainly, they will have something to offer us that is beyond our immediate understanding. I’ll leave the last word to Oscar, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Thanks for reading.

And strange it was to see him look
  So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
  Had such a debt to pay.

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