It must seem like I’m fixating on everything apart from the VMs itself, but sometimes that’s how blogging works: and, indeed, how life itself works. This June 2005 entry from visual poet Geof Huth’s “dbqp: visualizing poetry” blog takes a confidently sideways angle on the manuscript from most people.

Geof talks of the Voynich’s “hypnotic beauty” and wonders whether “the draw of this book is that we must treat it as a child treats a picture book: We read the images and look at the text.” Yet I happen to believe that there is more visual poetry to be found in the VMs than even he thinks, many miles beyond the limited horizons of “The Friar and the Cipher” (which he had just read).

Geof also suggests that the VMs might have influenced the DIY cultural anarchist mIEKAL aND. Certainly, there’s some visual overlap with the fonts here (one grabbed from the Rohonczi Codex), but as for the VMs’ influence on the “crossmedia beliefware” here, his Zaum Gadget and other hypertoys at Qazingulaza, and according to this page, “THE DRIFTLESS GROTTO OF WEST LIMA, a permanent public grotto/park/installation which when finished will feature a bird-operated time machine in a 25 ft blue glass tower“, I really couldn’t say.

I’d never really thought of it before just now, but to me the Voynich does have the same kind of deep structure as poetry: that ineffable feeling of polished granite blocks effortlessly grinding past each other in an unseen topology, far below the surface. And a kind of coruscating anti-etymology too, that elegantly hunts down and destroys the patterns our magpie eyes feverishly search out.

Burning flames, dead stars humming:
Rhythm of a dance? Each thing
Is lost inside this packed-in future –
The one you tried to grasp so much.
We throw our words, our empty hopes,
And foolish dreams upon this pyre,
To keep you living in your fire.

Make of it all what you will.

Codex” (2005) , another Voynich-ish thriller to add to the Big Fat List, is by New-York-based writer Lev Grossman who you might know as the author of the “When Words Fail” article (a nice introduction to the Voynich Manuscript) in April 1999’s Lingua Franca I have favourably cited here several times.

In his novel, an investment banker gets roped in by a wealthy couple to track down a medieval travel narrative, which may or may not be a fraud. Lev’s website says (of his own book) that “It’s also an unusual love story, as well as a love letter to the mysteries and wonders of the Book, the death of which has been wildly exaggerated“: sounds plausible to me. 🙂

Oh, and it genuinely does appear to be an international bestseller, as evidenced by the 25 copies of it in my local libraries (where most interesting books don’t even merit a single copy, sadly).

There’s a new book just out, self-published through, called “Codice Voynich” by Claudio Foti. It’s 143 pages long, 6″ x 9″, and in Italian – though fewer pages, it has the same dimensions as the VMs and, who knows, perhaps even the same language. 😉

But printing is basically easy now: and so the big issue for publishers and self-publishers is sales and marketing – getting people to buy your wares. Yet for print-on-demand business wrappers like Lulu, the economics are somewhat suspect: unless you’ve got absolutely killer content that large numbers of people need right now and can be compressed into a tiny number of pages (like, say, “Getting Laid with Facebook“), who is going to pay £13.15 for a softback? Yeah, Voynich completists like me, sure: but are there really more than 20-30 of those in the world?

For my own Voynich book, I worked out that for digital printing to make good economic sense, it could sensibly have no more than 240 pages, and I could charge no more than £9.95 per copy, no matter what I actually put inside it. And so I’ll be very interested to see what makes Claudio’s book worth more for 90+ less pages.

Incidentally, typical keywords Claudio has flagged are: magic alchemy Prague Rome medieval Middle Ages manuscript codex Atlantis Bacon Kelley mysterious rune Lovecraft Necronomicon Nostradamus Dee Voynich. No huge surprises there: which itself is a bit of a shame. If it had been “Voynich Facebook Smurf Cheeseboard Helicopter“, well…

Here’s my current reading list: make of it what you will.

Shopping in the Renaissance“, Evelyn Welch [just finished, will review here soon]

Of Grammatology“, Jacques Derrida [100 pages in, which is about 98 pages more than most people… but it’s a desperately slow read]

The Occult Sciences in Byzantium“, Paul Magdalino and Maria Mavroudi [about halfway through: a fascinating (if piecemeal) collection of essays]

Secrets of the Code“, Dan Burstein [150 pages in: an interesting compilation of snippets, but all a bit off-topic for a Voynichologist – I was more interested in figuring out how to to compile a Voynich reader, like a more text-based version of D’Imperio]

PopCo“, Scarlett Thomas [50 pages in: will review this shortly]

Lucrezia Borgia“, Sarah Bradford [I’ve not yet started this: but it seems to have lots of interesting Quattrocento texture to look forward to]

Elizabeth’s Spy Master“, Robert Hutchinson [Not yet started]

The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader”, Keith Whitlock [Not yet started]

History of Astrology“, Peter Whitfield [Not yet started: I liked his “The Mapping of the Heavens” and “Mapping The World”, so I have high hopes for this]

I recently found a German Voynich Lexicon wiki-page, with lots of nice things that appear almost nowhere else (such as a link to my Compelling Press Voynich book page, *sigh*).

It has quite a light touch, reminiscent of my old Voynich friend Elmar Vogt: for example, it has a short “Newbold of the month” section pointing to two latter-day Voynich “solutions”, neither of which I’d heard: Erhard Landmann’s book, and Dirk Schroeder’s kabbalistic numerology.

Perhaps more usefully, the site also has a list of Voynich media mentions, going from 2001 all the way up to 2008. OK, it’s in German: but even so, you can get a good idea of what’s being said about the VMs (and where). There’s a link there to a 2007 Suddeutsche article I was interviewed for (and which I’d forgotten about until I saw it there just now).

But here’s the punchline: the more Voynich coverage from around the world I see, the more it seems to me that the English-speaking world doesn’t currently give a monkey’s about the whole issue. With all due respect to the army of novelists out there slaving away on their Voynich-themed soon-to-be-masterpieces, you might consider avoiding making them too parochial: the translations may well make you more money…

Incidentally, I’m now 50 pages into Scarlett Thomas’ novel “PopCo”: I’ll post a review here as soon as I’ve finished it…

I just stumbled across part 1 and part 2 of a long-ish Dutch blog entry on hoax theories of the Voynich Manuscript, specifically Gordon Rugg’s Cardan grille nonsense. If, like me, you don’t speak Dutch, note that Google Translate‘s Dutch-to-English translation appears not to be working, and so use instead (which does work fine).

Actually, I do (thanks to Tanya) have a single Amsterdam survival phrase, which I learnt long before I was married: “Zeker niet, mevrouw: ik word getrouwd!” Anyway, moving swiftly on…

What tickled me about the Dutch bloggery was the fact that the people commenting on it were amused by f78r’s “qokedy qokedy dal qokedy qokedy” sequence, with one of them asking “Wat dacht je van de smurfen?” All of which prompted (Proust-stylee) long-buried memories of the abysmal Smurf collectible figurines BP gave away as promotional items in the 1970s (and which are doubtless now worth the GDP of Morocco each) to surface. I just never dreamed I’d join Smurfs and the Voynich Manuscript in the same sentence. Life is strange.

Incidentally, 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the Smurfs’ burf: thankfully, the movie tie-in has been delayed to 2010 (though if we’re really lucky, Paramount will cancel it first). But here’s a blog entry on them that does ring true (oh, and here’s a working Smurf Name Generator).

You may not have heard of them, but the six books in The Spiderwick Chronicles – stories that follow a group of kids in their everyday struggles with elves, goblins and boggarts – have (according to a piece in this week’s MCV, which seemed to have been written by Vivendi’s PR folk) sold six million copies worldwide, more than a million of which were in the UK. Oh, and the US box office release of the movie grossed nearly $25m: and there’s a computer game imminent, too.

LA-based blogger Martin van Velsen caught the film’s opening: and was struck by the title-sequence, during which Arthur Spiderwick constructs a book, one page every day, by gluing down small objects and animal (mostly insect) parts and writing a commentary around them. Martin wonders if the Codex Seraphinianus and the Voynich Manuscript (both of which he describes as “pure works of fiction, a flight of fantasy out of control… [yet] based… on the real world“) were effectively the real Spiderwick Chronicles.

“When browsing the Voynich Manuscript I tend to find myself wonder what was drawn true to life and what was made up. More importantly, did the author deliberately stay on the edge as to lure the reader into believing some of the imaginary depictions are actually real?”

All good thoughts. He ends his blog with a rather splendid quote from H. P. Lovecraft:-

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

This whole blog entry warmed my heart, simply because here we have a blogger who really gets the Voynich. OK, he’s into H. P. Lovecraft and Luigi Serafini too, so it wasn’t a massive jump sideways: but all credit to him regardless. 🙂

(…da Vinci, not di Caprio, in case you think I’ve lost my mind).

Sure, Leonardo was a lovely guy, great technique, cutting edge, a bit flaky – but he was a Quattrocento Florentine, and (if you read Jacob Burckhardt only a little bit too literally) they were pretty much all like that back then. So what is the modern-day ‘cult of personality’ surrounding Leonardo really about?

An old friend’s Italian partner once told me that people in Italy generally rated Brunelleschi over Leonardo: and I can quite see (Brunelleschi’s famous sinking barge aside) why that might well be true. For me, there are two raw types of genius: visionary (who can see how things ought to work with a clarity the rest of us don’t have access to) and practical (who make the impossible actually happen). Sure, Leonardo was a visionary genius, who managed to ‘ship a few products’: but Brunelleschi’s genius comes across as both visionary and practical.

And so it seems to me that sometime over the last century, we (as a society) began to value the visionary over the practical (and the inspiration over the perspiration), as if we can somehow subsist on ideas without action. The cult of Leonardo merely rides this cultural wave, not unlike a carved figurehead on the prow of the ship we’re sailing in: he was simply a good match for the impractical historical non-hero archetype we happened to be looking for.

Which is not to say that I don’t value all the wonderful books on Leonardo out there: my two current favourites are the epic 3d model-fest “Leonardo’s Machines” by Mario Taddei and Edoardo Zanon (Giunti, 2005), and Martin Kemp’s splendid “Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design” (V&A Publications, 2006). But rather, I see Leonardo as being the poster-child for modern anti-practical sentiments, chosen centuries after his death: and the modern worshipping of his life and work as being part of an ideological programme I don’t really understand. The culture preceded the cult, if you like.

I can’t also help wondering if the study of Leonardo is somehow holding back our notion of early modern history, as if we cannot but help look at the Quattrocento through the knotted cluster of ideas about invention we project so strongly onto da Vinci. Perhaps we can do better…

Anyway, today’s gratuitous Leonardo link comes courtesy of The Guardian: a story about film director Peter Greenaway quite literally projecting his own story onto the Last Supper. Having said that, Leonardo would probably have approved: his career in Milan revolved not around painting or engineering, but around designing dramatic entertainments for the Sforza court and its visitors – he was essentially a film director without film.

Incidentally, I recall a Philip K. Dick short story where a whole sequence of “Mona Lisa”s are discovered, along with a huge wooden machine in a cave for “playing” them, like a gigantic zoetrope: which then reveals the (surprisingly saucy) secret behind her smile… But perhaps I just dreamt it. 🙂

Back in 1991, sardonic linguist Jacques Guy concocted a deliberately false theory about the Voynich, “to demonstrate how the absurd can be dressed in sensible garb“. His “Chinese Hypothesis” had Marco Polo bringing back two Chinese scholars to Venice, who wrote down their encyclopaedic knowledge into a book in some semi-improvised European script… you guessed it, Voynichese. He never believed his pet canard for a moment: it was a rhetorical gesture to the interpretative folly – which I call “the curse” – that surrounds the study of the manuscript.

But then in 1997, Brazilian computer science professor Jorge Stolfi pointed out that, actually, Voynichese as transcribed does share a lot of statistical properties with Mandarin Chinese texts. Though technically true, the problem is not its stats, but rather that the Voynich Manuscript is (with very little doubt) a fifteenth century European cultural artefact. Stats only indicate correlation, not causation: so all Stolfi’s results really say is that the Voynich Manuscript transcription correlates moderately well with certain Mandarin Chinese transcriptions. But lifting the abstracted text out of its codicological and stylistical contexts can easily give rise to the kind of plucking fallacy Gordon Rugg’s work suffers from. Is the statistical similarity Stolfi found in the texts themselves, or in the methodology used to design the two transcriptions? I suspect it may well be the latter: the map is not the territory.

So why am I so fascinated by the news that some indecipherable Chinese texts have recently been found? They don’t look anything like Voynichese (and why should they?): but they do look like a pictographic script not entirely dissimilar to Chinese. Their finder, 38-year-old Zhou Yongle, suspects they might be written by the Tujia, a large ethnic minority in mainland China which has a spoken language but (as far as anyone knew) no written one. For what it’s worth, Wikipedia asserts that Tujia is a Tibeto-Burman language with some similarities to Yi: but – come on – you’d have to be a pretty h4rdc0re linguist to know or care what that means.

No: what I find intriguing is that these texts do look precisely like the kind of cultural artefacts you would expect, with (real) Chinese annotations and marginalia. If Jacques wants a proper historical linguistic puzzle to get his teeth into, then this would surely be exactly the right kind of thing for him: honestly, where’s the fun in devising a Sokal-like hoax at self-mystificating Voynichologists, when they’re already more than capable of tying themselves in knots over essentially nothing?

Of course, we mustn’t forget the possibility that Zhou Yongle may (for whatever reason) have faked these unreadable documents. You may not have heard of the huge “paper tiger” scandal in China recently over photos of the South Chinese Tiger, believed to have been faked by hunter Zhou Zhenglong; or indeed the whole issue of the 1421 (1418/1763) map hoaxery, as ably deconstructed by Geoff Wade et al. Were all three simply ‘Made In China’? It’s a good question…

If you like Voynich-themed short stories, there’s most of one posted on the Analog website here. It’s called “Guaranteed Not To Turn Pink In The Can”, by Thomas R. Dulski: I mentioned it here a few days ago. Of course, the extract stops just at the point the story starts getting interesting, to try to get you to buy a copy of the April 2008 issue (where it appears in full): but that’s fair enough, I suppose.

Voynichologically, a few minor typos (“Athansius”, “Kirchner”, “Baresche”, etc), but it’s basically all there. Yet to my jaded eyes it reads like a brandname-laden faux-noir short story and a Wikipedia article whose pages have all been shuffled together, not unlike Herbal A and Herbal B.

Turning the whole Big Jim/UFO/Voynich link on its head (as the remainder of the story undoubtedly does) is a nice idea: but writing Voynich fiction is a desperately hard balancing act, and I can’t help but feel the attempt to shoehorn plot and history into a short story needs a lighter touch than this.