Saturday, February 7, 2015

"The Prince Arrives Too Late" (on Alan Turing and Andrew Hodges biography of Turing)

the prince arrives too late

Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: The Enigma (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983, 2014

Andrew Hodges’ mammoth book on Alan Turing stands out as not simply a definitive biography of the man, but as a Gibraltar-sized monument to Turing’s life. There is nothing that can replace it, and, although Hodges argues there is still a great deal more to know about the human “enigma” at its center, I might  counter that anything coming after can serve merely as an addendum. This book represents a kind of perfect meeting of forces in its author’s sensibility: who else could so ably describe the science. straddling mathematics, physics, engineering, biology, game theory, cryptology, and all the branches thereof (which Hodges presents without simplifying the concepts while still, somewhat amazingly, giving the intelligent reader just enough clarity to feel that, even if he cannot entirely grasp the ideas, he can sense where they are going. Had I ever encountered a math teacher like him, I might have altered my crippling confrontations with math and science) and yet present us with an empathetic and intelligent exploration of what it meant, during the period of Turing’s life, to be a British gay man. One perceives, in reading Hodges’ sentences, that science and the humanities need never fear one another, coming so perfectly together as they do in the author’s mind. Quoting from Whitman, Forster, Orwell, Carroll, Huxley, and others with an equal facility in describing “word group theory” in mathematics, explaining quantum physics, and diagraming the alphabetical of the German Enigma machine, Hodges simply astonishes us with his breadth and depth of his knowledge. If he might have been tempted, however, to put his eclectic intelligence on display for its own sake, he humbly puts it to use primarily in the service of his subject, a fact which, in turn, makes us even more startled by Turing’s own genius and the complexities, both cultural and scientific, he faced.

After living with this tome now for several weeks, I see it as even stranger that a film such as The Imitation Game might claim, or even want to claim that it was “based” on this biography; certainly one can imagine that the film, as this book claims on the current edition’s cover, was “inspired” by Hodges work, but the movie bares so little common with the biography that to suggest the two have any major relationship is almost comic. Just to get it out of the way, let me suggest that, if Hodges is to be believed (and how could one possibly doubt him?), Turing did not present himself before British military authorities, cockily suggesting that they needed him to solve the problem of the Enigma machine; he did not select, interview, or test Joan Clarke for her position at Bletchley; he did not create a full computer at Bletchley, but with others created smaller machines, Bombes (based on an earlier Polish prototype, and named for the noise they made)—the computer he might have created, ACE, was imagined but never actually realized only after the war; he did not discover that one of his fellow workers was a spy and he did not attempt to report such an affair or control other aspects of their work at Bletchley to an agent of GCHQ or any other such organization; he did not even continue to run the Enigma program throughout the war, leaving the work to others as he traveled to the U.S., particularly Princeton University; he did not suddenly make a break-through in his computer analyses by accidently (or purposefully for that matter) discovering that a German operator was repeating signals (although repetitive signals did help the cryptologists break certain codes); and, although he was certainly eccentric and somewhat absent-minded in his behavior, he was not generally rude, dismissive of others, or unlikeable—indeed he was well-liked my his fellow works and jokingly named the “prof” (although after the war he did become difficult with his fellow-workers at Manchester University); after being arrested for homosexual activities, no officer or other official uncovered his activities during the war, not did Turing interrogate any official about whether or not he was a “machine” (although he certainly might have liked to do so). And those are just some starters in a vast list of differences between the film-script—which we must always remind ourselves is a work of fiction—and the Turing biography by Hodges.

      I don’t particularly care whether or not the facts of the film perfectly line up with the real story. And clearly the film, in its broadest outlines, retained some of the character and essence of the real man. But I do feel, as I expressed in my review of the film, even more strongly after reading Hodges probing masterwork, that by focusing on the science of Turing the film lost the other half of what made up the man and created the terrible dilemmas in his life that ultimately destroyed him: his quite openly gay sexuality. If in the film, he reveals this fact to only a couple of individuals, both resulting in dangerous situations, in fact he openly expressed his sexuality to his closest friends and, even more importantly, he had several close friends with whom he traveled during holidays who were quite aware of his sexual preferences, some of them also gay.

    Hodges argues that, if Turing was decades ahead of others with regard to his mathematical theories, his concepts—both theoretical and practical—about computers, his experiments with encrypting messages involved with his Delilah machine, and his biological morphogenetic studies, he was just as ahead of his time with regard to the British acceptance of homosexuality, identifying himself as a “gay” man at a time when many homosexuals still  referred to themselves as “puffs,” “poofs,” “queers,” “queens,” and in other self-demeaning terms. It was his openness and essential honesty (in all matters) that so shocked him when his straight-forward admissions that he had been (indirectly) robbed by a man with whom he had had sexual encounters brought him to a trial resulting in probation and experimental doses of hormones which scientists of the day believed—quite erroneously—would alleviate homosexual desires. Turing simply could not get it into his head that a society could refuse to accept the idea that some individuals were sexually different from others. But even more radically, at least in terms of the establishment, is that he argued for his right to have homosexual encounters, with no embarrassment involved. After having been arrested, Turing himself visited his closest friends and scientific associates to explain to them the situation. The only person whom he did not wish to openly face was his somewhat religious and authority-minded mother. And the only individual who reacted to his revelations rather priggishly was his brother.

     Despite his forward vision and current openness, nonetheless, Turing seemed to endure his punishments—despite the fact that he temporarily developed breasts from the treatments—in good spirits, even joking to friends that he was steering clear any sexual involvements, including a young man whom he had met in Norway (he permitted himself over-seas dalliances), who unadvisedly attempted to visit him (unsuccessfully) in the United Kingdom. During the period of his homebound treatments, Turing continued his experiments in morphogenesis, and, the two years after seemed in good spirits. His sudden suicide on June 7, 1954, accordingly, was a shock to nearly everyone who knew him, and comes as a startlement to the reader even within the structure of Hodges’ biography, expressed in one of the few cruelly objectified sentences of the book: “A year later, on the evening of 7 June 1954, he killed himself.”

Apparently, despite his anarchic spirit—or perhaps because of it—Turing injected an apple with cyanide before biting into it, dying on the floor near his bed. Although the apple was never checked to see if indeed it contained the poison, the medical examiner declared what seemed obvious to everyone—except, later, to Turning’s mother—that he had taken his own life.

      Like any good biographer, Hodges attempts to retrace his subject’s steps, to speak to all of those who had seen him in that last years of his life, and to ask, in each case, had there been any suggestion of despair, statement of intent, or action that might reveal an instability of his so much admired mind. Anyone’s life, in retrospect, might signify little clues that could be misinterpreted or, particularly in hindsight, seen as evidence that something was amiss. Yet there seems to be no concrete evidence about any preparations for death, and many examples of behavior that might suggest quite the opposite, that he was planning to embark on new areas of intellectual consideration. 

    God knows, Turing certainly would have had enough reasons to give everything up! His brilliant war efforts had not only been forgotten, they had never been known, kept secret as they were until decades after his death. His Turing machine and, in particular, his ACE computer, had never been built and had been shuttled by the government while lesser and cruder versions were created by Manchester engineers and competing mathematicians who received their due, while his plans had been forgotten and buried away in files. Although his brilliant study, Computable Numbers, while increasingly quoted, it was unknown by many younger figures and seemed something of a long ago past. His current biological studies, based as they were on mathematical principles, were often incomprehensible to biologists and practical scientists, and, like most of his work, were too far ahead of their time to be truly comprehended. The Americans, despite the fact that British genius had not only dreamed-up the idea of the computer and the whole field of cybernetics, now dominated the science. 

Yet Hodges, much as Turing might have, boldly moves off into other possible and even probable causes for his hero’s death, exploring a wide range of topics, including the class structures, the isolated camaraderie of British university communities, and, with perhaps a too careful tiptoeing around the subjects, the grown homophobia of the early 1950s, particularly with regard to the involvement of the very scientists who had opened the new fields of nuclear physics and computer science. The conservative phobias of the U.S.—so apparent in the hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but just as insidiously inflicted by Congress and military panels—could only see the potential bribes by spies of intellectually out-of-control men who sexually could not keep themselves in check, namely the detestable homosexuals. Hodges does not make the parallel, but it exists between the lines of his arguments; in the early 1950s, the U.S. and, through
their influence, Britain, almost did to gays what Hitler had done in Germany, to further criminalize their actions and isolate them from society. Prisons, hospitals, and relocation were all on the table, along with chemical treatments, lobotomies, and castration, which were equally considered as methods to control their behavior. Of particular interest, and representing one of the most notable “problems,” was that a man like Turing (although, of course, there was no other man quite like Turing), who not only knew far too much about how the British had won World War II, but had access to the black arts of nuclear power, and the held a magical key to the city in his hands through his imagined Turing machines, was still on the loose. It its apparent that even Turning did not quite comprehend what his Alchemist-like shenanigans represented to the new post-war order; certainly the rather socially ill-at-ease man who shunned nearly all opportunities of power, could not have truly understood just how much of a problem he represented to the powers in charge. As Hodges suggests, he was the loosest of the loose cannons, in a time when spies like Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess seemed to be around every corner. What was he doing on his overseas trips? What was he telling of his wartime secret work? And to whom was he speaking? Could any man so imaginative to question nearly principle of science ever be trusted simply to keep his mouth shut—and then, he was not just any man, but a pansy, a pervert!

Brick upon brick, Hodges layers a case for what could easily be seen, and would be today, as an explanation of why the powers-who-be must have done him in. But then, a man so rational as Hodges would never be able to buy in to any conspiracy theories. Rather, his yellow brick road (and the author is fond of the Wizard of Oz, along with the Alice-in-Wonderland and the  Snow White stories) takes him down the path of attempting to explain how those same pressures began to build up on Turing’s mind, leading Dorothy to bite of the poisoned apple, like Snow White, before he arrived at his destination. It is in Hodges’ numerous psychological speculations, however, that he becomes least convincing. Yes, Turing was undergoing Jungian analysis, and he was reading works of literature by Tolstoy and others which brought up the dilemmas related to the moral quandaries that had suddenly begin to rise up before him, impeding upon his own life. In the end, however, while the truth may, in fact, lie therein, Hodges’ theories sometimes reek of ether. Why wouldn’t the GCHQ or, even more likely, the CIA want to get rid of this freethinking, “immoral” being? To their way of thinking, he represented everything they stood against. He was an impetuous individual daily challenging their rigid intellectual and societal norms, just as Turing’s own mother had seen him doing all of his life. She could not believe he might kill himself, that he might, in the end, given in to the horrific pressures brought upon all perceived outsiders until the whole society self-imploded a decade later. We, however, have no way to be so smug. Looking back from what today may appear as the Emerald City, we can merely shed some tears, regret the awful times—while, hopefully recalling that all times are equally awful*—and ask, endlessly ask, “why, why?” 

     Thank heaven, with the help of Hodges, we now know, at least, part of who this great man, Turing, really was, and can imagine, had the Prince arrived on time, who Turing might have been living amongst us. Surely the visionary scientist would have warned that the imitating Wizard was a fake.

*As Hodges sadly points out, in the U.K., at least when he was writing his book, a man like Turing could still be arrested for his homosexual activities given the laws about street encounters and the fact that the legal age of such encounters is 21 (Turing’s young “pick-up” was 18).

Los Angeles, February 6, 2015