Christopher Norris: "Enigma Variations"

"In 1954 Alan Turing, the inventor of one of the first modern electronic computers (the 'Turing Machine'), killed himself. Two years earlier, he had been prosecuted for 'gross indecency' - that is, for having sex with another man. His crime had been to desire the wrong person, to have the wrong desire. The man who, with others, has transformed our world by the manipulation of a binary code (on/off), was prosecuted and persecuted thanks to another binary system - right/wrong, good/evil, moral/immoral, legal/illegal, heterosexual/homosexual, normal/perverse. There is a terrible irony here. Turing's machine and its descendants exploit a simple polarity to develop the most complex patterns imaginable (and those beyond imagination). Society's programme of ethics and legality, by contrast, can often seem to be based on rigid and unforgiving binary oppositions. Desire: right or wrong." (Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, p. 207).

The regress problem, but you had to try;

    Always another code there to be cracked,

And always knowing the one key you lacked

    Was just the one you needed to get by.

Not lost on him, that meta-language fix,

    Like Russell's concept-busting 'set of sets

That are not members of themselves', and let's

    Add to it Zeno's nifty bag of tricks,

Plus Epimenides the Cretan who

    Declared all Cretans liars. Still the case

Seemed different in that wartime Bletchley place,

    With nothing paradoxical to screw

The whole thing up, or give the other lot

    Some signal that their codes were open wide,

That something must have wormed its way inside

    Their cryptograms, and now they'd lost the plot.

But that was then, when things were black and white,

    Or so he'd thought, and getting the machine,

The bombe, to stay one step ahead had been

    Enough to keep the demons out of sight,

With him past master of the master-code,

    Cryptanalyst of infinite resource,

For whom no counter-stratagem could force

    His failsafe systems into overload,

Or frame some enigmatical device

    That his Enigma could not use instead

To turn straight back on its inventor's head

    And second-guess each loading of the dice.

But afterwards he'd somehow lost the knack

    Of teasing out what subtlety concealed,

Now that the only sense they seemed to yield,

    Those master-codes in place when he got back

From war-work and the Bletchley world apart,

    Was perfectly unsubtle and in need

Of no such curious skills as those that he'd

    Acquired by grace of of his hermetic art.

Simply they said: don't try to pull that stuff,

    That boffin-stuff that kept you desk-bound when

The fighting fell to others, fell to men

    Like us who saw the issues plain enough,

And broke no codes because the codes they knew

    Were those they fought for, and that told them straight

Why merely the being-male should allocate

    To them the job of seeing this one through,

Whatever might be thought the 'vital role'

    That his sort played in efforts of the kind

Best left to women and the more refined

    Or intellectual types for whom the whole

War-effort came down to an office chair

    Or cushy number well out of harm's way,

Despite what all the papers had to say

    About their having done a hefty share

To turn the thing around. At any rate

    Something had gone awry and made him think

That, since the joint effect of fags and drink

    Did nothing to relieve his current state

Of (maybe) paranoia, then the best

    Solution might lie readily to hand

In something he recalled from Disneyland,

    That scene from 'Snow White' where the poison's pressed

Into the apple. Funny how it ran

    Like some malign yet intimate refrain

Through all the convolutions of his brain,

    And most insistently when he began

To doubt that even the subtlest of his skills

    Could beat their power to fix things in advance,

And fix them so that nothing's left to chance,

    No room for those whose subterfuge instils

An artist's way of being clever-wise,

    Rather than worldly-wise or clever at

The sorts of power-game which saw to it that

    They and their kind should stay the regular guys

While he and his - code-breakers - stayed outside,

    Leaving the master-codes intact. And so

His mind turned back to those lines from the show,

    The Disney film that up to then supplied

Some comfort in dark times, but now conveyed

    Their own dark message: 'Dip it in the brew

And let the sleeping death' (they said) 'seep through'.

    Its time come round at last, the jingle made

The kind of sense that all his expertise

    At cryptanalysis had up till then

Failed to decipher, till this moment when

    He had no use for such code-breaking keys

Since now the code was breaking him. More like

    A flipside version of the Turing Test

Where you could pass for human if they guessed

    Your weakness or allowed your case to strike

Themselves - the code-enforcers - as the kind

    That called for treatment, whether this involved

The talking-cure for issues unresolved

    In some sad recess of the sufferer's mind,

Or (as the judge decreed) a hefty dose

    Of gender-bending hormones that might save

His errant drives from making him behave

    Like that again, or perpetrate such gross

Infractions of the one code set in stone.

    Better the apple soaked in cyanide,

It seemed to him, than that he should decide

    To take their beastly stuff, and so disown

Whatever in his history or genes

    Led him not only to this new bad place

But also to Bletchley and the magic space

    Where he and his fantastical machines

Were all that stood between the Nazi boot

    And those who now, in peace-time, had the clout

To legislate what codes were all about.

    And drag him to this zone of disrepute.

Cruellest of ironies was when they'd cite

    'Interests of state' that made him out a threat

To national security, and set

    Old colleagues to detect whatever might

Damage those interests in his boffin's way

    Of being on the one hand very clever

(Itself the sort of compliment that never,

    On their lips, missed its moment to convey

'Too clever-clogs by half') and on the other

    So perfectly indifferent to their rules

Of conduct as to make them feel like fools

    In the observance. Then there was his mother,

Those journal entries, all that tangled stuff,

    'Classic love-hate relationship', no doubt,

And family smash-ups when he talked about

    The great untalked-about. More than enough,

You might think, to re-scramble all the keys,

    'Disturb the balance of his mind', or send

Him back to when the categories friend

    And foe, or us and them, were binaries

And when recursive functions he'd defined

    Gave logic room to get to get a decent hold

And let him feel that he, not they, controlled

    Whatever new enigmas taxed his mind

Or punchtape patterns came to occupy

    His every thought. But now the whirring frame

Stood silent, and its rusty cogs became

    Just one reminder of the reasons why

He and his kind outlived the Bletchley years

    Only as names in some top-secret file

Unknown to family and friends. Meanwhile

    Those friends dropped off, and left him with his fears

Of family crisis should the truth come out,

    The truth of his 'condition', as they thought,

Those shrinks and medics whose well-thumbed report

    Gave him the choice but left him in no doubt

Which way to choose. Swallow their stuff, and then

    The other lot had won, his codes were cracked,

They held the master-key, and all his tact

    And subtlety would count for nothing when

The game no longer found a role for such

    Archaic talents. So the apple's taste

Seemed good to him, and all the more when laced

    With cyanide to add that final touch,

That last twist to the Snow White story-line,

    Which this time meant the big sleep, not a nap,

And seemed the springing of a long-laid trap,

    Or last fine detail of the grand design

Drawn up, perhaps, by some ingenious foe,

    Some arch manipulator of the codes

That brought him to this block on all the roads,

    Save those marked 'exit' or 'dead-end'. But no,

Nothing so Oedipal: just the combined

    Effect of childhood, mother, genes, a friend

Now friend no more, the war, the peace, the end

    Of his great challenge to the myth of mind

As ghostly Doppelganger, and machine

    Or body as the crass accompanist

To its ethereal ditties. What he missed,

    Old Descartes, was the living tie between

Body and thought that fled his grasp, absent

    The shuffling alibi of God as sole

Stopgap-provider, or the saving role

    Of some choice physical integument

Such as (absurdly) the pineal gland.

    This much he knew: enigmas of that sort,

Mere products of the 'faculty of thought',

    Were flat-out fake, while on the other hand

Machines like his Enigma showed how far

    Those new Cartesians still got it wrong

By taking mind and body to belong

    On either side of some prescriptive bar

That once cleft soul and body by divine

    Injunction. This, or something like it, lay

At root of what he'd always tried to say

    About how hard it was to fix the line

Without enlisting God to keep it fixed.

    Along with that, he'd hoped, the lesson might

Extend to other binaries (and quite

    A few of them) whose shadow fell betwixt

Thought and desire, or intellect and drive,

    Or what it was about that brain that made

Him such a whizz at the code-breaker's trade,

    And what it was that made him once contrive

Those few brief opportunities to break

    One code too far, and then compound the crime -

For so thought his tormentors at the time -

    By turning down the stuff they'd have him take,

The sex-change stuff, and swallowing instead

    The cyanide-soaked apple. Yet what swung

Him finally that way was what she'd sung,

    The wicked Queen, or what the lyric said

Of life and death, or mind and brain, or how

    They erred who thought to split his life in two

And said 'break these codes, and we'll honour you;

    Break those, we'll see you damned'. No matter now:

He'd bitten deep, and as the witch's brew

    Coursed through his veins, found reason to allow

Himself some smoothing of the furrowed brow,

    Some sense, if not that everything he knew

Of codes and cryptograms had seen him through

    The Bletchley war of nerves, then anyhow

That he'd been right to let Enigma plough

    Those furrows in his quest for what held true

Despite the trickery. For this might show

    How truth entailed code-breaking since the few

Rare truths that mattered were the ones that grew

    Down deep where all the paradoxes go.

"Enigma Variations" is to appear as part of a volume of philosophically themed verse-essays by Professor Norris, in mid-to-late 2013, from the University of Manila Press.

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