The movie “The Imitation Game” has revived deserved interest in Alan Turing, the eccentric genius of Bletchley Park who helped create the marvelous machine that broke Nazi codes and hastened the end of World War II.
The film itself is worth seeing, in the sense that any movie involving Keira Knightley and the defeat of the Third Reich is worth seeing. But the vehicle she shares with Benedict Cumberbatch (who gives a justly praised performance as Turing) is too worshipful for some tastes, including mine. This is the type of biopic that religious people make about heroes of the faith. In this case, Turing was the gay, atheistic, antiwar vanquisher of the Nazis. And he was a martyr of sorts, cruelly subjected to chemical castration for homosexual activity. He died by suicide at age 41.
This is a distinctly modern version of hagiography. But it still tends to miniaturize rather than magnify.
Cumberbatch plays Turing somewhere on the Asperger side of the autism spectrum — compulsively separating his peas from his carrots, socially inept and obsessively focused on a visionary object. Posthumous psychiatric diagnosis is a tricky business (given that diagnosis of the living is a tricky business). But it seems clear that Turing, if he lived today as a 12-year-old boy, might be aggressively medicated in a very different way.
“The Imitation Game,” however, asserts a strong connection between Turing’s eccentricity and his brilliance. The association of scientific or artistic genius with unconventional behavior is hardly new. Aristotle suggested a connection between creativity and depression. Isaac Newton, who displayed a rich variety of mental disorders, once stuck a needle behind his eye socket just for the heck of it. The honor roll of creative genius — Beethoven, Byron, Tolstoy, Van Gogh, Schrödinger, Godel, Turing — is often a story of obsession, compulsion, melancholy and mania.
There are, no doubt, happy, well-adjusted geniuses, pottering around their gardens and playing bridge with their neighbors. And manic or depressive illness is less romantic outside the movies. It is often life-consuming and horrible. But the association of genius with some mental disorder does not seem to be a myth. “When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce,” argued William James, “in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.” A study by British psychologist Felix Post asserted a strong historical correlation between creative distinction and mental disorder, with the highest levels of psychopathology found among writers. Which may also explain the mental challenges faced by editors.
This connection appears to have a basis in neuroscience. Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, blogging for Scientific American, summarizes the research that “the siblings of patients with autism and the first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa were significantly overrepresented in creative professions.” This presents the prospect that a milder version of mental illness is conducive to creativity. And the mechanism may be a form of disinhibition — a failure of the brain to screen out extraneous information that is then combined in original ways. “A reduced latent inhibition,” says Kaufman, “allows us to treat something as novel, no matter how many times we’ve seen it before and tagged it as irrelevant.” The lightning strike of insight seems to come in a mental storm of stimuli.
So there may be a thin line between delusion and creativity. And, as “The Imitation Game” argues, a society often benefits from allowing space for nonconformity.
This presents something of a challenge for conservatives. A broad adherence to social convention is important for a just and stable society. But there is clearly some tie between human progress and the rejection of social and intellectual convention. The existence of norms is essential to social cohesion; the creative violation of norms is essential to social advancement.
The West has often gotten this balance right over the centuries (as opposed to, say, an overwhelmingly traditional society such as imperial China). In our culture (as in any other), tradition and religion reinforce social order. But an integral part of this tradition and religion is the priority of conscience, which sometimes dramatically overturns that order. This is the power of putting the individual at the center of the moral order and building everything, including community, on the foundation of individual dignity.
The room for nonconformity, it turns out, is also the room for genius.