7 de fev. de 2023


The film The genius and the madman shows and unravels the tenuous line between madness and genius, a cult of passion for words by telling the story of the Oxford Dictionary of the English language.

Madness and genius, which sometimes carry such intricate nuances that make them difficult to discern, intertwine in a plot based on real events (O gênio e o madio, 2019, 124 minutes, directed by Farhad Safinia) when the professor and philologist Scotsman James A.H. Murray, played by Mel Gibson, assumes the pretentious mission of elaborating the most complex and complete overview of the English language: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The story, based on the book The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, takes place in 1857 in England. Murray, a man who, despite not boasting an academic education, was gifted with a profound knowledge of languages, gave up his career as a teacher and moved with his family to Oxford when he was commissioned to produce an English dictionary. His ambition was to document the entire language, including not only the definitions of words, but also their origins, their meanings in the most diverse contexts and also their uses throughout the history of literature. Aware that it would be an arduous task and that there would not be enough academics to help him, the philologist proposed that the work be done in collaboration with “ordinary” people, everyday English speakers. He then wrote a letter and distributed it wherever he could, inviting people to send contributions to the dictionary in production.

With the team reduced and with insufficient success in his request for popular cooperation, Murray's undertaking did not look very promising until he received, by mail, the exceptional collaboration of William Chester Minor, played by Sean Penn, who sent, in a only once, a thousand complete entries to be included in the work.

Minor's great contribution might not be a reason for much fanfare, given that he was a surgeon and former captain of the United States army, but the story becomes unusual as we delve into the character. Psychological aftereffects of the time he served in the American civil war are clearly presented in the film, since the character shows traces of schizophrenia when he is paranoid about the pursuit of an enemy who, by all indications, died during the conflict. His obsession makes him locked up in a sanatorium: in the midst of his delusions, he chased and murdered a family father, mistaking him for his rival. And it is from inside the asylum that Minor finds out about Murray's request, through a letter from the professor found in a book he had received as a gift. He proceeds to systematically research and write his contributions to the dictionary from within.

From then on, the story develops around the unusual friendship that was born between Minor and Murray, who despite their notable differences, share a love for the language. This becomes evident when, on his visits to the sanatorium, Murray instigates Minor in different games with words, sharpening the surgeon's mind and providing him with moments of lucidity.

Even in a romantic backdrop, the magnitude of language is explored: Eliza Merrett (played by Natalie Dormer), widow of the surgeon's victim, learns to write and starts sending notes to Minor.

In one of its facets, the film explores how the holding of knowledge is presumably restricted to academic audiences. The ability of both Murray and Minor to produce a book, the first being an outsider and the second a character who is very deviant from the academic world, are questioned at times because they are not part of the British intellectual core. Murray's idea of ​​inviting "ordinary people" to help produce the dictionary is also ridiculed. Despite taking place in the 19th century, this point shows how current society is still a reflection of the customs and beliefs of our ancestors, since, even today, the dissemination and production of knowledge beyond the walls of universities is a hotly debated topic. . Proposals like Murray's, in addition to serving as proof that knowledge is also held by the community outside the academy, even today contribute to various fields of research, as in the case of participatory science projects (which may perhaps be mentioned as replicas of Murray's proposal, applied in the most different contexts today).

However, the prejudice that prevailed (and still prevails) about popular knowledge, even more so when it was known that an essential collaborator was a “crazy murderer”, brought immediate opposition, since the credibility of his contributions and the image of the institution would have been put at risk. At this point, the film raises a discussion around the definition of lucidity and madness – to what extent was Minor really not lucid? If he was considered insane and he was in a sanitarium, how could he be conscious enough to contribute so greatly to the production of such a complex project? What are the boundaries between genius and madness? It would be morally unfair to label Minor, a war veteran who carries the consequences of his army days, as crazy, since his genius and wit were responsible for defining about 10,000 entries for the dictionary. At the same time, the role of genius attributed to Murray can be questioned, taking into account his motivations and the sacrifices he made to achieve his goals. Thus, as illustrated in the first meeting between Minor and Murray, the story is about a genius and a madman – it's just not clear who is who.

The Oxford English Language Dictionary was completed in 1928, years after the deaths of Murray and Minor and more than seven decades after production began. The film illustrates not only the complexity of producing one of the most important works in the English language, but also how profound the interpersonal relationships that permeate the writing work can be, making us reflect and come to the conclusion that behind each story told there are dozens of others lived.


Information about the book


Autor:  Simon Winchester
Publisher ‏ : ‎ Harper Perennial; Illustrated edition (July 5, 2005)
Language ‏ : ‎ English
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 242 pages

Good reading

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