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October 14, 2009

CAVAFY: Homoeroticism's pioneer poet

Cavafy I wrote the following for Gay City News, New York's largest queer weekly:
The simultaneous publication by Knopf of two new translations of the poetry of Constantine Cavafy  (left) is a literary event of major importance and for queer readers a particular cause for rejoicing, for these twin volumes should help solidify Cavafy’s stature as one of the great poets of the 20th century. It also provides striking confirmation that he wrote some of the greatest homoerotic poems of all time.

I say “20th century” because, even though Cavafy — who was born in 1863 and died in 1933— spent more than half his life in the 19th century, his finest poems, and those for which he is today best remembered, were all written or revised after 1900; that work represented a remarkable and still somewhat mysterious mid-life transformation of a decent, middling poet into a preeminent one. And because the influential, spare, controlled free verse that flowed from his pen after his reincarnation is so modern, it could have been written yesterday. Even the great W. H. Auden confessed his debt to Cavafy, when he wrote, “I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently, or perhaps not written at all.”

“C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems” and “C.P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems” are both the work of the excellent Daniel Mendelsohn, who translated them and provides extensive introductions and commentaries. A Princeton-trained classicist who teaches at Bard, Mendelsohn is best known to queer readers as the author of the original and stimulating memoir-cum-cultural commentary “An Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity,” which refracted his own queer experiences through the prism of Greek mythology. Although criticized by some sex-negative hetero reviewers for being replete with accounts of his own erotic adventures, “An Elusive Embrace” was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.

Among his other works, last year Mendelsohn published “How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken” (Harper), a collection of his scintillating literary and film essays from the New York Review of Books, including his right-on contrarian challenge to the convention that “Brokeback Mountain” was about love in general, and not just gay love. Mendelsohn argued that to believe that the “normality” of the two main characters takes them beyond their gayness is to imply that gayness makes them something other than normal.

With Cavafy’s ”Unfinished Poems,” Mendelsohn brings us the very first English translation of a cache of some 30 poems from Cavafy’s later years that remained hidden for three decades after his death, and includes such gems as the defense of same-sex love in “The Photograph” (1924):

Looking at the photograph of a chum of his,

at his beautiful youthful face

that forever more; — the photograph

was dated ‘Ninety-two,

the sadness of what passes came upon him.

But he draws comfort from the fact that at least

he didn’t let — they didn’t let any foolish shame

get in the way of their love, or make it ugly.

To the “degenerates,” “obscene” of the imbeciles

their sensual sensibility paid no heed.

Constantine Petrou Cavafy (the poet and his family always used the Anglicized spelling of the family name in Greek, Kavafis) was born in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria to a cosmopolitan family of the Greek merchant diaspora, tended by servants and bathed in wealth and social status, and had a peripatetic upbringing in Alexandria, London, and Paris. Cavafy’s mother — left nearly destitute after her incautiously indebted husband’s death — eventually moved 14-year-old Constantine and his two brothers back to Alexandria, where Cavafy (with the exception of a three-year stay with family in Constantinople, after the British bombardment of Alexandria during the repression of Egytian nationalists in 1882 destroyed their home) would live for the remainder of his years.

“The poet had probably had his first homosexual affair around the age of 20, with a cousin,” writes Mendelsohn, and thereafter led what he described to a friend as a “double life” — by day as a dutiful son to his doting, corpulent mother (whom he called, in English, “the Fat One”) and as a clerk in the Irrigation Office of the Ministry of Public Works for 30 years, and by night escaping to “the city’s louche quarters,” where he “enjoyed the favors and company of lower-class youths.” As he grew older, most evenings were spent at home, with a book, or entertaining a circle that included the world-famous novelist Nikis Kazantzakis and a constantly renewed assortment of younger writers, admirers, and friends.

Cavafy had been writing poetry in Greek, English, and French since the age of 14, and as a young man began pursuing his poetry in earnest. But he eschewed publication, preferring to have his poems privately printed at his own expense as broadsheets or pamphlets, which he then circulated to friends and devotees. Cavafy’s work was first brought to the attention of the English-speaking world by the British novelist and pooftah E.M. Forster, who had befriended Cavafy while serving in Alexandria as a conscientious objector  assigned to the British Red Cross during World War I. Forster’s famous image of Cavafy as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe,” captures the quiet, uneventful nature of the Alexandrian poet’s life.

Cavafy’s poetry was informed by a passionate taste for post-Classical Greek history — “from the Hellenic monarchies through Late Antiquity to the fall of Byzantium,” as Mendelsohn puts it — and, of course, by his homosexual sexuality.

“However tormented and secretive he may have been about his desire for other men,” Mendelsohn writes, “Cavafy came, after a certain point in his career, to write about that desire with an unapologetic directness so unsensational, so matter of fact, that we can forget that barely ten years had passed since Oscar Wide’s death when the first of these openly homoerotic poems was published. As the poet himself later acknowledged, he had to reach his late forties before he found a way to unify his passion for the past, his passion for ‘Hellenic’ civilization, and his passion for other men in poems that met his rigorous standards for publication.”

Thus, the 1911 poem “Dangerous,” Cavafy’s first to situate homoerotic desire in a historic context, is the confession of a fourth-century Syrian student at Alexandria’s famous university, which concludes:

Strengthened by contemplation and study,

I will not fear my passions like a coward.

My body will I give to pleasures,

to diversions that I’ve dreamed of,

to the most daring erotic desires,

to the lustful impulses of my blood, without

any fear at all.

As he neared the end of his life, ended by a laryngeal cancer which for years had reduced his mellifluous voice to a whispered croak, Cavafy’s full embrace of his sexual orientation found increasingly sure-footed assertion, as in the 1927 poem, “Two Young Men, 23 to 24 Years Old”:

Since half past ten he’d waited at the café,

expecting him to appear before too long.

Midnight came and went – and still he waited.

Half past one had come and gone: the café

had emptied out entirely, almost.

He grew bored of reading the newspapers

mechanically. Of his three poor shillings

only one was left: during his long wait

he’d squandered all the rest on coffee and cognac.

He smoked all the cigarettes he had.

All the waiting was exhausting him. Because,

alone as he had been for many hours, he

began to be possessed by irksome thoughts

about the wayward life that he was living.

But when he saw his friend come in — all at once

the weariness, the boredom, the thoughts all fled.

His friend brought some unexpected news:

In the card game he’d won sixty pounds.

Their handsome faces, their exquisite youth,

the sensitive love that they shared between them,

was refreshed, revived, invigorated by

the sixty pounds from the game of cards.

All joy and potency, feeling and beauty,

they went: not to the houses of their upstanding families

(where, at any rate, they were no longer wanted):

to a certain one they knew, and rather special,

to a house of vice they went, and asked for

a bedroom, and expensive drinks, and they drank again.

And when the expensive drinks had all been drained,

and when it was close to four o’clock in the morning,

happy, they gave themselves to love.

Mendelsohn has added immensely to our understanding of these poems and our pleasure in reading them —particularly the historical ones — with extensive explanatory notes on each poem in both collections that make ample use of his own erudition about Hellenic history and literature, previous studies of the poet’s work, and of the wealth of this pack-rat poet’s papers in the Cavafy Archive (which maintains an extensive web site in English at cavafy.com/).

These richly rewarding notes help us enjoy and appreciate the rigor of this poet’s art, for Cavafy was constantly adding to, correcting, and revising his poems before sending them to the printer, sometimes returning to them after putting them aside for years. Mendelsohn’s notes on one jewel from “The Unfinished Poems,” entitled “The Item in the Paper,” about what we would now call homophobia, is a case in point. The translator’s inclusion of earlier drafts in his notes permits us to see how Cavafy crafted the emotional power of the last draft:

A reference had been made, as well, to blackmail.

And here again the newspaper emphasized

its complete and utter contempt for depraved,

for disgraceful, for corrupted morals.

Contempt… And grieving inwardly he

recalled an evening from the year before

which they had spent together, in a room

that was half hotel, half brothel: afterward

they didn’t meet again — not even in the street.

Contempt… And he recalled the sweet lips, the exquisite,

the sublime flesh that he hadn’t kissed enough.

Melancholy, on the train, he read the item.

At eleven at night the corpse was found

on the jetty. It wasn’t certain

that it was a crime. The newspaper

expressed its pity, but, as usual,

it displayed its complete contempt

for the depraved way of life of the victim.

If you do not know the poems of Cavafy, you owe it to yourself to become familiar with this wise and immensely talented queer genius and his “unique voice,” as Auden put it. And if you have some acquaintance with Cavafy’s work, Mendelsohn’s copious, astute, and knowledgeable commentaries on these poems will infinitely enhance your understanding and perception of them, and of their importance. Lovers of literature in general and of poetry in particular owe Mendelsohn a debt of gratitude for these fine new translations and their presentation.

C.P. CAVAFY: COLLECTED POEMS

Translated, with introduction and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn

Knopf

$35; 547 pages

C.P. CAVAFY:

THE UNFINISHED POEMS

The first English translation, with introduction and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn

Knopf

$30; 121 pages


The simultaneous publication by Knopf of two new translations of the poetry of Constantine Cavafy is a literary event of major importance and for queer readers a particular cause for rejoicing, for these twin volumes should help solidify Cavafy’s stature as one of the great poets of the 20th century. It also provides striking confirmation that he wrote some of the greatest homoerotic poems of all time.

I say “20th century” because, even though Cavafy — who was born in 1863 and died in 1933— spent more than half his life in the 19th century, his finest poems, and those for which he is today best remembered, were all written or revised after 1900; that work represented a remarkable and still somewhat mysterious mid-life transformation of a decent, middling poet into a preeminent one. And because the influential, spare, controlled free verse that flowed from his pen after his reincarnation is so modern, it could have been written yesterday. Even the great W. H. Auden confessed his debt to Cavafy, when he wrote, “I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently, or perhaps not written at all.”

“C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems” and “C.P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems” are both the work of the excellent Daniel Mendelsohn, who translated them and provides extensive introductions and commentaries. A Princeton-trained classicist who teaches at Bard, Mendelsohn is best known to queer readers as the author of the original and stimulating memoir-cum-cultural commentary “An Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity,” which refracted his own queer experiences through the prism of Greek mythology. Although criticized by some sex-negative hetero reviewers for being replete with accounts of his own erotic adventures, “An Elusive Embrace” was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.

Among his other works, last year Mendelsohn published “How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken” (Harper), a collection of his scintillating literary and film essays from the New York Review of Books, including his right-on contrarian challenge to the convention that “Brokeback Mountain” was about love in general, and not just gay love. Mendelsohn argued that to believe that the “normality” of the two main characters takes them beyond their gayness is to imply that gayness makes them something other than normal.

With Cavafy’s ”Unfinished Poems,” Mendelsohn brings us the very first English translation of a cache of some 30 poems from Cavafy’s later years that remained hidden for three decades after his death, and includes such gems as the defense of same-sex love in “The Photograph” (1924):

Looking at the photograph of a chum of his,

at his beautiful youthful face

that forever more; — the photograph

was dated ‘Ninety-two,

the sadness of what passes came upon him.

But he draws comfort from the fact that at least

he didn’t let — they didn’t let any foolish shame

get in the way of their love, or make it ugly.

To the “degenerates,” “obscene” of the imbeciles

their sensual sensibility paid no heed.

Constantine Petrou Cavafy (the poet and his family always used the Anglicized spelling of the family name in Greek, Kavafis) was born in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria to a cosmopolitan family of the Greek merchant diaspora, tended by servants and bathed in wealth and social status, and had a peripatetic upbringing in Alexandria, London, and Paris. Cavafy’s mother — left nearly destitute after her incautiously indebted husband’s death — eventually moved 14-year-old Constantine and his two brothers back to Alexandria, where Cavafy (with the exception of a three-year stay with family in Constantinople, after the British bombardment of Alexandria during the repression of Egytian nationalists in 1882 destroyed their home) would live for the remainder of his years.

“The poet had probably had his first homosexual affair around the age of 20, with a cousin,” writes Mendelsohn, and thereafter led what he described to a friend as a “double life” — by day as a dutiful son to his doting, corpulent mother (whom he called, in English, “the Fat One”) and as a clerk in the Irrigation Office of the Ministry of Public Works for 30 years, and by night escaping to “the city’s louche quarters,” where he “enjoyed the favors and company of lower-class youths.” As he grew older, most evenings were spent at home, with a book, or entertaining a circle that included the world-famous novelist Nikis Kazantzakis and a constantly renewed assortment of younger writers, admirers, and friends.

Cavafy had been writing poetry in Greek, English, and French since the age of 14, and as a young man began pursuing his poetry in earnest. But he eschewed publication, preferring to have his poems privately printed at his own expense as broadsheets or pamphlets, which he then circulated to friends and devotees. Cavafy’s work was first brought to the attention of the English-speaking world by the British novelist and pooftah E.M. Forster, who had befriended Cavafy while serving in Alexandria as a conscientious objector  assigned to the British Red Cross during World War I. Forster’s famous image of Cavafy as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe,” captures the quiet, uneventful nature of the Alexandrian poet’s life.

Cavafy’s poetry was informed by a passionate taste for post-Classical Greek history — “from the Hellenic monarchies through Late Antiquity to the fall of Byzantium,” as Mendelsohn puts it — and, of course, by his homosexual sexuality.

“However tormented and secretive he may have been about his desire for other men,” Mendelsohn writes, “Cavafy came, after a certain point in his career, to write about that desire with an unapologetic directness so unsensational, so matter of fact, that we can forget that barely ten years had passed since Oscar Wide’s death when the first of these openly homoerotic poems was published. As the poet himself later acknowledged, he had to reach his late forties before he found a way to unify his passion for the past, his passion for ‘Hellenic’ civilization, and his passion for other men in poems that met his rigorous standards for publication.”

Thus, the 1911 poem “Dangerous,” Cavafy’s first to situate homoerotic desire in a historic context, is the confession of a fourth-century Syrian student at Alexandria’s famous university, which concludes:

Strengthened by contemplation and study,

I will not fear my passions like a coward.

My body will I give to pleasures,

to diversions that I’ve dreamed of,

to the most daring erotic desires,

to the lustful impulses of my blood, without

any fear at all.

As he neared the end of his life, ended by a laryngeal cancer which for years had reduced his mellifluous voice to a whispered croak, Cavafy’s full embrace of his sexual orientation found increasingly sure-footed assertion, as in the 1927 poem, “Two Young Men, 23 to 24 Years Old”:

Since half past ten he’d waited at the café,

expecting him to appear before too long.

Midnight came and went – and still he waited.

Half past one had come and gone: the café

had emptied out entirely, almost.

He grew bored of reading the newspapers

mechanically. Of his three poor shillings

only one was left: during his long wait

he’d squandered all the rest on coffee and cognac.

He smoked all the cigarettes he had.

All the waiting was exhausting him. Because,

alone as he had been for many hours, he

began to be possessed by irksome thoughts

about the wayward life that he was living.

But when he saw his friend come in — all at once

the weariness, the boredom, the thoughts all fled.

His friend brought some unexpected news:

In the card game he’d won sixty pounds.

Their handsome faces, their exquisite youth,

the sensitive love that they shared between them,

was refreshed, revived, invigorated by

the sixty pounds from the game of cards.

All joy and potency, feeling and beauty,

they went: not to the houses of their upstanding families

(where, at any rate, they were no longer wanted):

to a certain one they knew, and rather special,

to a house of vice they went, and asked for

a bedroom, and expensive drinks, and they drank again.

And when the expensive drinks had all been drained,

and when it was close to four o’clock in the morning,

happy, they gave themselves to love.

Mendelsohn has added immensely to our understanding of these poems and our pleasure in reading them —particularly the historical ones — with extensive explanatory notes on each poem in both collections that make ample use of his own erudition about Hellenic history and literature, previous studies of the poet’s work, and of the wealth of this pack-rat poet’s papers in the Cavafy Archive (which maintains an extensive web site in English at cavafy.com/).

These richly rewarding notes help us enjoy and appreciate the rigor of this poet’s art, for Cavafy was constantly adding to, correcting, and revising his poems before sending them to the printer, sometimes returning to them after putting them aside for years. Mendelsohn’s notes on one jewel from “The Unfinished Poems,” entitled “The Item in the Paper,” about what we would now call homophobia, is a case in point. The translator’s inclusion of earlier drafts in his notes permits us to see how Cavafy crafted the emotional power of the last draft:

A reference had been made, as well, to blackmail.

And here again the newspaper emphasized

its complete and utter contempt for depraved,

for disgraceful, for corrupted morals.

Contempt… And grieving inwardly he

recalled an evening from the year before

which they had spent together, in a room

that was half hotel, half brothel: afterward

they didn’t meet again — not even in the street.

Contempt… And he recalled the sweet lips, the exquisite,

the sublime flesh that he hadn’t kissed enough.

Melancholy, on the train, he read the item.

At eleven at night the corpse was found

on the jetty. It wasn’t certain

that it was a crime. The newspaper

expressed its pity, but, as usual,

it displayed its complete contempt

for the depraved way of life of the victim.

If you do not know the poems of Cavafy, you owe it to yourself to become familiar with this wise and immensely talented queer genius and his “unique voice,” as Auden put it. And if you have some acquaintance with Cavafy’s work, Mendelsohn’s copious, astute, and knowledgeable commentaries on these poems will infinitely enhance your understanding and perception of them, and of their importance. Lovers of literature in general and of poetry in particular owe Mendelsohn a debt of gratitude for these fine new translations and their presentation.

C.P. CAVAFY: COLLECTED POEMS

Translated, with introduction and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn

Knopf

$35; 547 pages

C.P. CAVAFY:

THE UNFINISHED POEMS

The first English translation, with introduction and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn

Knopf

$30; 121 pages


Posted by Direland at 07:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

On Alan Turing and Gordon Brown

Alan-Turing-mathematician-001 I wrote the following for Gay City News, New York's largest queer weekly:

Gay mathematical genius Alan Turing (left), considered the father of modern computers and a national hero in Britain for breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code and other German military ciphers and thus shortening the war, has received an official apology from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for being prosecuted and chemically castrated for his homosexuality. The unspeakable torture drove the brilliant scientist to suicide in 1954 at the young age of 41.

Turing’s gay martyrdom was movingly recounted in the prize-winning play “Breaking the Code” by Hugh Whitemore, which had a long run in London’s West End before coming to Broadway for six months, where it received three Tony Award nominations in 1988. The play was later made into a 1996 BBC film seen on American television on several occasions. Noted Tony Award-winning actor Sir Derek Jacobi starred as Turing in all three productions.

In 1999, Time magazine named Turing one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, saying of his seminal role in computers, “The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.”

In a September 10 statement posted on his official website, Prime Minister Brown said of Turing, “It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.”

Brown went on to say, “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him,” adding, “This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.”

Brown’s statement came in response to an online petition campaign earlier this year demanding a posthumous pardon for Turing. Initiated by computer scientist Dr. John Graham-Cumming, the petition was signed by tens of thousands, including a host of well-known Britons — among them the openly gay actor and TV personality Stephen Fry, the biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins, and the Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan.

 
Brown’s apology for what happened to Turing raised more than a few eyebrows in the UK because the dour prime minister, heavily influenced by a father who was a minister of the austere Church of Scotland, has been notoriously unsympathetic to the LGBT rights cause.

The political editor of the Sunday newspaper the Observer wrote, “What had persuaded a man so famously uninterested in gay rights that he has regularly failed to vote in Parliament on key gay issues to intervene?” The newspaper reported that Sarah Brown, the prime minister’s wife — who has been outspoken in support of gay rights, hosted gay activists and intellectuals at the prime minister’s official residence at 10 Downing Street, and made headlines when she marched in this year’s London Gay Pride parade — played the key role in persuading Brown to issue the apology. She was also responsible for initiating the Gay Icons exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, where Turing’s image now hangs.

British gay historian and journalist Neil McKenna — whose must-read, critically acclaimed revisionist biography “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde” I reviewed in 2005 (“Wilder Than We Knew,” Aug. 25-31, 2005)  —  was asked by this reporter to put Brown’s apology in perspective, and responded in an angry e-mail worth quoting at length.

He wrote: “Gordon Brown has said that he is ‘sorry’ that Alan Turing was persecuted, that his treatment was ‘appalling,’ that thousands of other gay men were persecuted and that millions live in fear. Sorry? Is that it? Is that all? Twelve measly lines in an official Downing Street press release to say how sorry the British state is that for 21 years, from 1945 to 1966, it did everything it could to extirpate homosexuality from the British. That thousands, probably tens of thousands, of men were surveilled, stalked, arrested, and sent to prison, or offered — as Turing was — chemical castration, or aversion therapy consisting of electric shock torture or the administration of emetics to ‘correct’ homosexual behavior. That tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of gay lives — including mine — were warped, twisted, damaged, and destroyed by the British state’s blithe belief that it knew best.

“The most insulting part of the press release is the party political point Brown cannot resist making. It is, according to Brown, entirely down to New Labour that LGTB people have any rights at all. How dare he patronize us. Twelve measly, miserable, weasel-worded lines in which Brown fails to acknowledge the half-century-long journey of gay activists who struggled to try and right these wrongs, to try and achieve justice for gay men. I can remember the late 1980s and the early 1990s when Labour was far from friendly towards gay men, when it writhed in a sea of lies, half-truths, and half-promises about reforming the law. I can remember the time was Brown was as silent and as sullen on these issues as the grave.


“We deserve more than twelve measly, miserable, weasel-worded lines. If Gordon Brown was really, truly, feelingly, passionately sorry he should set up a Royal Commission to document and enquire into the holocaust of gay men that took place in Britain. And while we are about it, when is Gordon Brown, on behalf of the British Government, going to apologize for returning those ‘pink triangle’ prisoners liberated from the concentration camps to German Prisons with the foul and twisted logic that these men had been convicted of criminal offences and as concentration camps were not prisons, they had to serve their sentences?

“Brown’s statement means nothing to the LGTB movement. It probably means nothing to Brown himself. It has no historical significance. There has been a change in establishment attitudes towards gay men, but this change has come about over the last fifteen years, beginning with John Major’s invitation to Ian McKellen to Downing Street to talk about a gay rights agenda. I very much doubt whether Gordon Brown even wrote it himself. The statement was only issued in response to an e-petition which thousands had signed. The real question to ask is: would Brown have issued this statement without the e-petition? The answer is quite clearly no. Labour has had twelve years in power. Ample time to apologise. But, curiously, no apology has come forth, until now.

“If Gordon Brown really cared about gay men rather than about saving his miserable political skin in the face of a potential electoral defeat for Labour that will make Dunkirk look like a Sunday School outing, then he would set up compensation schemes for those gay men who were victims of state persecution. Many are still alive. Many more have died. I grew up in a provincial city where I got to know many of these men. I feel their pain. I feel my pain. They were angry, but not angry enough. I am still angry. Furious. Outraged. Disgusted. Twelve measly, miserable, weasel-worded lines to wash away 50 years of pain. It’s not enough. Not anything like enough,” McKenna concluded.

Turing’s persecution came at the height of anti-gay Cold War hysteria provoked by the defection to Moscow of the diplomats Guy Burgess, a notorious homosexual, and Donald Maclean, and in the climate of the day homosexuality was virtually equated with treason in the minds of the police. (For more on what is known as The Great Purge of the early 1950s, which ensnared some 5,000 British gay men, see this reporter’s September 6-12, 2007 article, “Free the Buggers.")

In a way, Turing, who had never made a secret of his same-sex orientation, was a victim of his own candor. In January 1952, Turing — who had received an OBE, or Order of the British Empire, for his war work and been made a Fellow of the Royal Society for his mathematical achievements — picked up an unemployed 19-year-old, Arnold Murray, outside a cinema in Manchester and began a brief relationship with him. Turing took a liking to Murray because of their shared interest in the sciences, but after a few meetings, it was clear that their relationship would never go anywhere. Murray was stealing money from Turing, and Turing broke off the relationship, asking the younger man never to return to his home. When Murray and an accomplice broke into his house, Turing reported the crime to the police. During the investigation, Turing off-handedly acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray. Homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time, and so both were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, the same crime that Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than 50 years earlier (the law remained on the books until 1967).

Turing was given a stark choice — imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido, a form of aversion therapy. He accepted chemical castration via estrogen hormone injections, as a result of which he became impotent and his breasts grew larger. More damaging, however, were the effects on his nervous system. The treatment caused waves of depression and despair. After his conviction, Turing also had his security clearance removed and his work consulting for Britain’s intelligence service ended.

A year after his coercive and barbaric chemical castration began, Turing killed himself by eating a poisoned apple he had laced with cyanide. Urban legend has it that the Apple Computer logo of an apple with a bite taken out of it is a tribute to Turing, the father of computers, although the company has officially denied this.

For more on Alan Turing, see the articles on him in the GLBTQ  encyclopedia online http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/turing_a,2.html and on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing. David Leavitt’s biography, “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer” (Norton, 2007), provides a complete account from a queer point of view of Turing’s persecution.

Posted by Direland at 06:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)