As a cipher mystery writer, I’ve been thinking about the Codex Seraphinianus for many years. And there’s a 2013 edition coming out right about now (allegedly the 3000-strong American first print re-run was fully pre-ordered).

What kind of a thing is it? It certainly resembles a cipher, with all the structure and nuances of calligraphy and page layout, though with the page numbering scheme the least confounding part (this turned out to be a contorted base-21 with a whole load of special rules to mess with your head). For what it’s worth, Luigi Serafini has claimed in several interviews that the text has no meaning, though curiously pretty much nobody believes he’s telling the truth. My own belief is that the text was for him probably an intellectual exercise in calligraphic and linguistic evolution, i.e. that he began with a simple personal expressive form for the text but allowed it to evolve multiple times into something that could ultimately make sense only to him. For what is more truly alien than the intensely private?

All the same, it has to be said that if the Codex were just words, however beautifully conceived and drawn, pretty much nobody would give a monkeys about it (now there’s a marketing lesson for asemic authors such as Michael Jacobson). And so it is that, in the same way that the Voynich Manuscript (which I don’t personally believe inspired Serafini even slightly) is elevated by its unworldly plant drawings, odd circular diagrams and naked nymphs into something on a genuinely higher plateau of mystery, so too does the Codex Seraphinianus manage to transcend its mere textual oddity by dint of its genuinely odd drawings.

To my eyes, Serafini’s diagrams merge the ligne claire quality of Hergé with the visual narrative of tightly-illustrated Japanese car manuals. They smell simultaneously didactic and nostalgic, an extended PDF sent to us from conceptually afar (“Contact”-style) by a dying exoplanet recalling its triumphalist heydays: 1960s America lecturing far-distant Neanderthals about How You Too can live it large in Bedrock by using The Latest Technology.

Much-admired though his surrealism is, I personally find it hard to avoid the feeling that it is almost an afterthought compared to the dominance that style and layout has over the book: these speak far more loudly of the victory of the coldly formal over the uncontrollable heat of humanity. In the end, his Codex falls perilously close to a long-winded exercise in carefully-parodied self-expression, the kind of joke where nobody’s smiling or laughing, an encyclopaedia of meticulous diagrams of rubber chicken gags.

Kudos to the man for his marketing efforts, though, for not many re-releases of old books warrant mainstream articles in Wired (including photos of Serafini), Slate and even Dangerous Minds [a big tip of the missing Somerton hat to Zodiac Dave Oranchak for passing me the links, much appreciated!]

But… I suppose I’ve well and truly got Serafini’s joke, now, such as it is. So, why did the architect have his house made backwards, exactly?

Of late, I’ve been gradually getting into the whole culture surrounding the Zodiac Killer cipher. One pretty good source of information is, where to my great surprise I found a link to a November 2007 Daily Star article (how did I ever miss this?), claiming that troubled dance-pop queen Britney Spears was heavily into the whole Zodiac Killer mystery, and “is convinced she can crack the case as many people believe the culprit is still alive”.

Like, ummm, wowza.

If this Daily Star story is indeed true (hint: the answer’s probably in the question), then what’s next? Justin Timberlake retaliating by publishing a critical monograph on Le Livre Des Sauvages? Madonna announcing her own transcription of the Rohonc Codex? Or – possibly most likely – Christina Aguilera actually solving the Tamam Shud mystery but still selling fewer tour tickets than Britney?

Watch this space, cipher mystery pop funsters…

Just a quick note to say that I’ve been working behind the scenes for a few weeks on a revised Cipher Mysteries home page, incorporating a nice clickable list of what I think are the top unsolved cipher mysteries of all time, some of which you may not have heard of:-

  1. (–Top secret, yet to be announced–)
  2. The Voynich Manuscript
  3. The Anthon Transcript
  4. The Beale Papers
  5. The Rohonc Codex
  6. The HMAS Sydney Ciphers
  7. The Tamam Shud Cipher
  8. The D’Agapeyeff Cipher
  9. The Codex Seraphinianus
  10. The Dorabella Cipher
  11. The Phaistos Disk

Note that the HMAS Sydney Ciphers part isn’t yet live, because I haven’t written the post yet (probably later this week). 🙂  I may update the list later to insert the Vinland Map at #7, but that’s another story entirely…

Incidentally, the reason I ranked the Voynich Manuscript at #2 is because the top spot will be filled (hopefully fairly soon) with an awesome centuries-old cipher mystery I’ve been chipping away at for a while, one that will be eerily familiar to many CM readers. Don’t hold your breath, but I do think you’re going to like it a lot… 🙂

A few days back, two small book-shaped things arrived in the post: and I’ve been pondering what to say about them ever since. In fact, I’ve been struggling to work out what I think about them… you’ll see what I mean in a moment.

You might superficially compare them with, for example, Luigi Serafini’s famously unreadable book: however, I have relatively little doubt that, beneath all its overevolved, madly-mutated faux-alien language tropes, Codex Seraphinianus does actually express some kind of coherent linguistic knot that might ultimately be untied, whereas Michael Jacobson’s “asemic” books claim to be actively meaningless. That is, while they play with the form of narrative and abstract expressive shape, they don’t actually say anything – any kind of meaning you take away from them is your problem (or, conversely, your gift).

Perhaps the right way to classify them, then, is as some kind of visual anti-poetry, a kind of Dada take on the postmodernist anti-meaning turn. Which is to say: if all texts are ultimately meaningless in themselves (and only incidentally form meaning in the reader’s mind), then why are you surprised that these books are too?

Alternatively, perhaps there is actually a hidden higher-level message, so that if you turn the pages upside down and squint your eyes in just the right way, what emerges is something along the lines of “The Magic Words are Squeamish Ossifrage“, etc. So, a good part of the fun is working out whether there’s a joke (and if there is, whether it’s on you).

Whatever your particular take happens to be, I think you can still enjoy them purely on their own visual merits: for all their (claimed) lack of meaning, Michael’s two books do jump with a refreshingly jazz-like joy:-

  1. Action Figures (which seems to have started life in an exercise book) is, I would say, the weaker of the pair: I get the impression of an early youth (mis)spent with a spray can, trying as a young man to give expression to the same basic urges, but channelling them within structural rules (such as minimizing shape repetition, consistency of line, etc). Neat, but Mayan street-whimsical rather than obviously challenging.
  2. The Giant’s Fence is, by comparison, a far more sophisticated objet d’art, even if it is apparently influenced by Max Ernst’s Maximiliana. Here, Jacobson seems to have developed a confidence with his medium that lets him play not only with the interior calligraphic form but also with the structural rules within which they live. Shapes, gaps, multi-line things gradually intrude into the overall text-like flow, their waxing and waning presences driven by a subtly astrological metronome, where the passage of time from page to page has a enjoyably slow, quasi-geological feel. All in all, a nicely done piece that hints that Jacobson has more to come.

You can download your own free copy of Action Figures from the Literate Machine website here, though you’ll have to pay a princely £2.99 to download your own Lulu-ized copy of The Giant’s Fence.

Personally, I see asemic writing (the overall category in which these books live) as sitting on quite a different table to cipher/language mysteries, so I’m not hugely sympathetic to the suggestion that (for example) the Codex Seraphinianus, the Phaistos Disc, or the Voynich Manuscript are themselves asemic. However, it is certainly true that people project all kinds of bizarre historical narratives onto these, to a degree to which asemic writers can only faintly aspire: perhaps such vicariously vivid visions ultimately form a family of warped interpretational artworks all their own, a kind of semantic complement to asemic writing. “Asemic reading”, perhaps?

As part of this year’s week-long typography event at Lurs (August 2009), long-time Voynichologist François Almaleh will be giving a talk on “Le manuscrit Voynich” – but ignore the typo on the page which makes it look as if his session is something to do with HELMO (which is actually the joint name of two French graphic artists – here’s a nice example of their work), because it isn’t.

Incidentally, Almaleh’s website has plenty of interesting pearls for the reasonably determined diver to harvest, such as his discussion [in French] of American artist Timothy C Ely’s mysteriously beautiful book “The Flight into Egypt” (1985), which also tangentially notes points of comparison with Luigis Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.

Hmmm… what with Rene Zandbergen not so long ago and now François Almaleh as well, it does make me wonder whether I should give some talks on the Voynich Manuscript. Our much-appropriated manuscript has stoically endured such a lot of nonsense over the last century, so perhaps it is time to make some kind of public stand. Basically, I think we now know enough to start piecing together its real secret history – so really, if a satirical XKCD mention is enough to treble the VMs’ online visibility, we ought to be doing rather better at getting that essential story across.

But what would be the best format for a Voynich talk session? In some ways, a formally-structured lecture is of little use circa 2009 – does anybody need a Wikipedia-esque recap? Perhaps if people planning to attend the talk (or, in fact, anybody) were to email their own questions in beforehand (or even submit questions on the night), that might give more of a interactive taste of what Voynich research is all about.

What questions would you have me answer on a Voynich talk? What questions do you think would really put me on the spot? 🙂

Too much typing yesterday, hence this ultra-brief post. 🙂

If (like me) you’re fascinated by the Codex Seraphinianus, I think you really, really need to read the article “THE CODEX SERAPHINIANUS – How Mysterious Is A Mysterious Text If The Author Is Still Alive (And Emailing)?” by Justin Taylor from the May 2007 edition of The Believer magazine.

Taylor even includes something which hadn’t previously appeared in print – part of an English translation of the French translation of Italo Calvino’s introduction (entitled “Orbis Pictus”) to the original Italian edition of the Codex Seraphinianus. Plenty of nice discussion of parallels with J. L. Borges’ works, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the playful machines of Serafini’s fellow Milanesi Bruno Munari, and even Leo Lionni’s “Parallel Botany” (of which I have a copy on my bookshelf).

Enjoy! 🙂

According to Pittsburgh-based Chilean artist Alberto Almarza’s blog profile, he “meticulously blurs the boundaries between consensus and potential reality, creating a bridge between the realm of matter and that of inner vision.” All of which rather reminds me of the Jim Morrison quote: “There are things known and things unknown and in between are The Doors“.

Anyhoo, given Almarza’s interests and self-proclaimed liminality, it was starkly inevitable that he would one day pick up on the Voynich Manuscript (as indeed he just has). Even so, I think it’s fair to say that the form of his preliminary sketches (“Voynichus Conifralias”) seems far closer to the draughtsmanlike excesses of the Codex Seraphinianus (though without its whimsical distorted rationality thing, admittedly).

Luigi Serafini’s beautiful objet d’art strikes me as an infinite postmodern jest, an internally evolved architecture of a private language, with too many arbitrary degrees of separation for us to tease out any of the tortuous tweening stages. And what of its striking parallels with the Voynich Manuscript? Having probably grown in similar ways, I say, both ended up broadly as unreadable as each other.

Incidentally, recapitulation theory famously tried to claim that ontogeny [how an individual develops] recapitulates phylogeny [how species developed]. Though this is scientifically incorrect, its internal confusion might help points to the confusion within Voynich Manuscript research – do people look for a macro-level / species-level phylogenetic explanation when they should be looking for a micro-level / individual-level ontogenetic explanation?

Almarza certainly has excellent technique: but to grow his own Voynich Manuscript or Codex Serafinianus, I suspect he would need not a seed, but a weed – something almost with its own will to live that develops almost by itself, despite extensive authorial rational pruning. Surely what is most remarkable about both these texts is not their mad structure, but their lack of construction marks, hmmm?

Here’s the nice little video for David Byrne’s (2008) song “The People Tree”. It mashes up 1920s collage stylings (such as cloche hats) with a man in a black mask being interviewed while holding a mysterious book. Lots of Voynich-like bits (plants and trees, nymph-like people), but with a bit of a Codex Seraphinianus edge to it. Sure, I’m too big a fan of David Byrne’s music to be completely objective: but I enjoyed this vijjo & hope you do too!

PS: a big hat tip to the Xenophilius blog for picking up on this!

…or, in all its prolixitous glory, “The Six Unsolved Ciphers: Inside the Mysterious Codes That Have Confounded the World’s Greatest Cryptographers“, by Richard Belfield (2007). It was previously published by Orion in the UK as “Can You Crack the Enigma Code?” in 2006.

You’d have thought I’d be delighted by this offering: after all, it covers the Voynich Manuscript, the Beale Papers, Elgar’s “Dorabella” cipher, the CIA’s Kryptos sculpture, the Shepherd’s Monument at Shugborough, and the “Zodiac Killer” ciphers, all things that a Cipher Mysteries blogger ought to get excited about. But there was something oddly disconsonant about it all for me: and working out quite why proved quite difficult…

For a start, if I were compiling a top six list of uncracked historical ciphers, only the Voynich Manuscript and the Beale Papers would have made the cut from Belfield’s set – I don’t think anyone out there could (unless they happened to have cracked either of the two) sensibly nitpick about these being included.

Yet as far the other four go, it’s not nearly so clear. I’ve always thought that the Dorabella cipher was a minor jeu d’esprit on Elgar’s part in a note to a dear friend, and most likely to be something like an enciphered tune. The Kryptos sculpture was intended to bamboozle the CIA and NSA’s crypto squads: and though it relies on classical cryptographic techniques, there’s something a bit too self-consciously knowing about it (its appropriation by The Da Vinci Code cover doesn’t help in this regard). And while the Shugborough Shepherd’s Monument (Belfield’s best chapter by far) indeed has hidden writing, placing its ten brief letters into the category of cipher or code is perhaps a bit strong.

Finally: the Zodiac Killer ciphers, which I know have occupied my old friend Glen Claston in the past, forms just about the only borderline case: its place in the top six is arguable (and it has a good procedural police yarn accompanying it), so I’d kind of grudgingly accept that (at gunpoint, if you will). Regardless, I’d still want to place the Codex Seraphinianus above it, for example.

Belfield’s book reminds me a lot of Kennedy & Churchill’s book on the Voynich Manuscript: even though it is a good, solid, journalistic take on some intriguing cipher stories, I’m not convinced by the choice of the six, and in only one (the Shugborough Shepherd’s Monument) do I think Belfield really gets under the skin of the subject matter. While he musters a lot of interest in the whole subject, it rarely amounts to what you might call passion: and that is really what this kind of mystery-themed book needs to enliven its basically dry subject matter.

It’s hard to fault it as an introduction to six interesting unbroken historical codes and ciphers (it does indeed cover exactly what it says on the tin), and perhaps I’m unfair to judge it against the kind of quality bar I try to apply to my own writing: but try as I may, I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it over (for example) Simon Singh’s “The Code Book” (for all its faults!) as a readable introduction to historical cryptography.

PS: my personal “top six” unsolved historical codes/ciphers would be:-

  1. The Voynich Manuscript (the granddaddy of them all)
  2. The Beale Papers (might be a fake, but it’s a great story)
  3. The Rohonc Codex (too little known, but a fascinating object all the same)
  4. John Dee’s “Enochian” texts (in fact, everything written by John Dee)
  5. William Shakespeare’s work (there’s a massive literature on this, why ignore it?)
  6. Bellaso’s ciphers (but more on this in a later post…)

Feel free to agree or disagree! 😉

Another day, another curiously contentful blog to set me thinking: this time it’s Alterati, “The Inside Scoop on The Outside Culture”, and specifically a two-part article there from October 2007 entitled “The Yellow Sign: Manuscripts, Codices, and Grimoires“.

In Part 1, the discussion swoops from our old friend the Codex Seraphinianus (yet again), to Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, to Newbold’s claimed microscopic writing in the VMs, and then on to a powerful idea: that “a void, the right void, will spontaneously generate a stop-gap if there’s enough market pressure“, i.e. given sufficient market demand to scratch an itch, people will start selling backscratchers.

Or perhaps ideas manifest themselves – the more real an idea is the quicker it pops into existence in library-space […]. I still think of grimoires as notes from a journey rather than road maps but I’m now also starting to think of these books as emergent properties of a weird market pressure which demands sources for belief systems“: i.e. given sufficient ‘market demand’ for a religion, books claiming to be the sources of those religions will spontaneously appear.

Here, I suspect the Alterati blogger is thinking about the legend surrounding the Codex Gigas (because that’s what he goes on to discuss), but that seems a little dubious: just about all of the Codex Gigas is mundane, if not actually dull (there’s a set of hi-res scans here, the famous devil picture is on p.290, but big deal, I say). However, it’s actually far closer to the truth with The Grand Grimoire, which is supposed to date to 1522 but which seems to scratch a peculiarly 19th century itch.

In Part 2, the focus shifts to Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, a film I really enjoyed but thought no more than a piece of celluloid mythmaking, a seductive summoning-up of the taste of the Devil’s sulphurous kiss to titillate and amuse. However, I had no idea at all that it was based upon a book – The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Fascinating stuff! (And yes, I’ve already ordered myself a copy). There’s also a set of the engravings from the film online.

After various idle speculations on the Lovecraftian mythos, our Alterati blogger friend wonders whether the mysterious roving figure of Corso (the book dealer / detective in The Ninth Gate / Club Dumas) is actually based on Wilfrid Voynich. Hmmm… Wilfrid Voynich, as played by Johnny Depp? It’s fairly sublime (I get more of a David Suchet vibe): but perhaps I’m wrong…

I think you’ll have to decide for yourself. 🙂