I pitched the Believer on a Codex Seraphinianus essay in October 2005. I had just moved to New York and was a first-semester M.F.A. at The New School. It ended up taking two years to get the thing written (some of the delays, such as nobody answering my letters, eventually became part of the story) and revised into publishable form. “A Fragment of the Complete History of an Unknown Planet” came out in May 2007, the same month that I completed my M.F.A. When my contributor copy came in the mail I saw that I had made the cover—along with essays by Rick Moody, John Hodgman, and Rivka Galchen—and that the piece itself, lavishly illustrated with images from the Codex, spanned eleven of those thick, handsome, generously bordered Believer pages. It felt like the most important thing that had ever happened to me in terms of my quote-un-quote literary career—i.e., undeniable proof that I actually had one. Six years later I still get occasional letters about it: from Codex-philes, from people hoping I can hook them up with the full text of the Calvino introduction or a copy of the book itself (respectively: maybe, no), and from other former or current students of Dr. Terry Harpold, who, in case the piece is unclear on this point, was the best teacher I ever had.
— Justin Taylor
HOW MYSTERIOUS IS A MYSTERIOUS TEXT IF THE AUTHOR IS STILL ALIVE (AND EMAILING)?
DISCUSSED: Extremely Limited Editions, The Metamorphic Bicranial Rhino, French Booksellers, Grievous Errors, Italo Calvino, Plinys Natural History, Hieronymus Bosch, 70s Pop Art, eBay, The Voynich Manuscript, Italian Aristocrats, Bodoni, In Watermelon Sugar, Ovid, Lewis Carroll, Photographs of Children, Hypertext Fiction, Taxonomical Surveys, Alchemical Etchings, Billy Joel
Image from Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.
“Who were the people who had invented Tlön? The plural is unavoidable, because we have unanimously rejected the idea of a single creator, some transcendental Leibnitz working in modest obscurity.”
— Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
MAN AND WOMAN COPULATE,
TURN INTO ALLIGATOR
Like a Borges story, this is as much about the quest for knowledge as it is about the knowledge itself. It involves books missing from libraries, lost translations, and people not answering letters. But I’m already getting ahead of myself. Let me start by telling you the story of how the Codex Seraphinianus came into my life.
At the beginning of my junior year of college, some friends and I came across an upper-division English class called Eccentric Spaces and Spatialities. No matter how many times we read the course description (sample sentence: “To ask if [Charles] Fort really ‘meant’ to claim that the heavens are chock-full of angels, frogs, and other junk is to miss a broader significance of eyewitness testimony that the sky is falling”), we couldn’t figure out what the class was about. So we all signed up.
Dr. Terry Harpold was a screwy, passionate genius whom I sort of fell in love with. The breadth and intricacy of his thought were offset by a rigorous self-doubt that seemed at first to be affected but was actually in earnest. He once apologized because “my German isn’t what it could be” before quibbling with the English translation of a Freud essay. He seemed to embody everything magical and erudite about the life of the academic postmodernist, which, at that time, was more or less what I wanted to be.
One day Dr. Harpold came to class visibly excited. He said he had found a very rare, delicate, and expensive book just sitting on the shelf at the university library. It was typical, he said, because the few libraries that owned a copy of this rare book didn’t know how valuable it had become, so it got shelved with the general collection and subsequently stolen by the first savvy person who came upon it. Harpold had caught our university library’s grievous error and had had it corrected, but not before pulling faculty privilege and checking it out himself. After admonishing us to make sure our hands were clean, he passed it around. “It” was a book called Codex Seraphinianus, by one Luigi Serafini, published in an extremely limited edition in Italy in 1981. The book was an oversize black hardback. The cover art was a vaguely encyclopedic depiction of a man and a woman engaged in successive stages of copulation, then melding together, and finally becoming a single alligator.
When the book came to me I opened to a random page.
I saw a flattish doughnut, possibly made of liquid, and colored a soft, rich red. While the doughnut’s inner ring (i.e., the perimeter of the doughnut’s hole) was perfectly round, the outer ring was irregularly shaped, and appeared more like an elastic membrane. Ladybugs, the same color as the doughnut but also stippled with their standard black dots, emerged from the outer ring and crawled off in all directions. On closer inspection, it didn’t appear that the ladybugs had pushed through the membranous outer ring; no, it seemed more like they were forming from the doughnut material. Parts of the doughnut’s outer ring appeared scooped out, and these inlets seemed to correspond to the various fully formed ladybugs that had walked away.
Below, in another, smaller illustration that seemed to accompany the above described, nearly twenty red rings of various sizes were strung like beads on the upper branches of a seemingly normal, if nonspecific, tree. The sky was a gauzy patchwork of light blue and white, the clouds skinny and long.
Text accompanied these images—or what looked like text. But the text wasn’t in English, and it wasn’t anything recognizably foreign like, say, Arabic or Sanskrit, though those analogs immediately came to mind. Though impenetrable, a kind of meaning was suggested by the layout of the script on the page. This was reinforced by the visual resonances of the two images and their apparent or implied relationship to one another. The ladybug doughnut, which dominated the whole top half of the page, seemed to be a natural process, a sort of variation on the butterfly chrysalis, though in this case a multitude of creatures was formed in (but also, importantly, of) some protean organic material (perhaps a visual pun on the idea of a “primordial soup”) that collected in shapely rings around tree limbs, at least in the environment under consideration. Toward the bottom of one “paragraph” on the page were four dollops of color, ranging from a whitish beige to the same red as that of the rings. Perhaps the text was explaining how to gauge the rings’ progress in the incubation/gestation cycle. Since the rings on the tree were all final-stage red, and the leaves on the tree were so green, you could surmise that it was spring in the picture, and the rings were getting ready to burst forth with new ladybugs. The world, at this level, was wholly internally consistent—or at least it could be made to “read” that way.
The Codex has many pages filled solely with text; as well, it contains many charts, graphs, and lists. Panning back a bit, we see a book that features all the structural components of an encyclopedia. The ladybug doughnut is one of hundreds of illustrations from the flora and fauna sections of the book (more on this in just a bit), which warrant comparison with Pliny’s Natural History, Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, and taxonomical surveys in general. Later in the book, as Serafini shifts his focus to depictions of objects, customs, cultures, modern landscapes, and scenes from life, the referential matrix likewise shifts from Edward Lear-like surrealist naturalism to a mélange including Hieronymus Bosch, the engravings of the great (also heretical, samizdat) alchemical manuals of European history, some Dada, and ’70s pop art.
Image from Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.
The chances that one might own, via theft or more legal means, one’s own copy of the Codex have increased even since my days as a college junior; the internet has made the word rare a relative term. A few French booksellers sell the Codex on their websites, and though new editions tend to run only a few hundred copies, it does occasionally pop back into print in this or that country. Older editions are consistently available on eBay and Amazon, though never in great quantities and at vastly divergent prices. I’ve seen them sell for upward of a grand, and for as low as one hundred dollars. Eventually I came to own a Codex of my own, via eBay, in an auction that I’d watched sit at just under two hundred dollars for days. With fifteen minutes remaining, somebody bumped it up five dollars. A vicious showdown ensued. Outbid with a minute to go, I waited until there were ten seconds left, then put down a final bid, figuring—rightly—that the auction would end on my bid before dude could refresh his page.
I got my Codex for the relative bargain of two hundred and seventy-five dollars. It’s the 1983 Abbeville Press edition, the only American edition of the book ever printed. “Organized in eminently logical fashion,” the jacket copy tells me, “it describes a system of knowledge that—at least in its structure—mirrors our own: here are botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, engineering, anatomy, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and urban studies, each describing its object with a peculiarly recognizable exactitude.” It continues, in a tone not unlike that of a carnival barker: “Discover for yourself, reader, such wonders as the purple-caged citrus, the spiderweb flower, the parfait protea, and the ladder weed. This is a world inhabited by weird half-sentient flora such as the tadpole tree and the meteor-fruit, by the lacy flying-saucer fish, the wheeled caterpillar-rumped horse, and the metamorphic bicranial rhino. The planet’s sentient species are here as well—races like the Garbage-Dwellers, the Road-Traffic and the Yarn People, and the exotic Rodent-Skin Wearers…. Nor can we forget to mention the Homo-Saurians, whose unusual sexual life-cycle is graphically described.” One presumes the “Homo-Saurians” are the couple-cum-gator on the book’s cover (the illustration also appears inside the book). The jacket copy cheerfully concludes that “merely to name these creatures is to confront the limits of our language.” Well, yeah.
History is littered with inscrutable texts. Some have been deciphered, while others—in terms of origin, content, and purpose—remain mysterious. As a book-object, though, the Codex’s only real precursor is The Voynich Manuscript. Discovered by the Polish book collector Wilfrid M. Voynich in a wooden chest at an Italian Jesuit college in 1912, the heavily illustrated manuscript was worked on by top code-crackers during World War II. They failed. It’s never been deciphered. Theories on its origin and significance abound, including the theory that the manuscript is a fraud perpetrated by Voynich himself, but the most popular and conclusive theory attributes the work to Roger Bacon, the medieval Franciscan friar who, in his Letter Concerning the Marvelous Power of Art and Nature and the Nullity of Magic, noted that “certain persons have achieved concealment by means of letters not then used by their own race or others but arbitrarily invented by themselves.
Image from Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.
GOODBYE FOR NOW!
When I realized that the Codex was going to turn twenty-five years old in 2006, I decided to track Serafini down.
Here is his Wikipedia entry, in full:
Luigi Serafini is an Italian graphic artist famous for his unusual and obscure works such as the Codex Seraphinianus. Born in Rome in 1949, Serafini began his career as an architect before creating the Codex Seraphinianus; he also authored the Pulcinellopedia Piccola. Serafini has also worked with the media of industrial design, film, and theater, and has also written stories for Italian magazines.
Codex Seraphinianus is a clickable link, but I was more interested in contacting him than in secondary sources, so I plugged luigiserafini.com into my browser and, happily, was directed to his website. There’s not much there. A front page that looks like a labyrinth, digital versions of a few of his paintings, a very weird QuickTime movie, a contact address.
I remembered Dr. Harpold saying that Serafini had never spoken about the Codex since its release. I thought that maybe now, twenty-five years later, he might be inclined to break his silence, so I wrote to him and requested an interview.
A few days later he wrote back the following:
Buongiorno (good morning) Mr. Taylor!
thanks for your kind words of appreciation. My english is not as good as yours… it’s rather pidgin (as spoken in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea), but I’m ready to discuss with you about books and/or other topics by using all the idiomatic expressions I learned from Hollywood and pop singers…
A risentirci! (Goodbye for now!)
It was the last I heard from him. For whatever reason, Serafini did not answer any of the questions I sent to him or the follow-up letter I sent asking if he would prefer to be contacted in Italian.
With the author himself apparently out of the picture, I decided to try and get some art-historical context for the book and its elusive author. I wrote to Arthur C. Danto, art critic for the Nation, and described the book to him. He was intrigued and invited me to his apartment. “This is just astounding,” he said when I took the book out of its special protective plastic grocery bag. “I’ve never come across anything like this at all.” Then: ”Boy, you’re gonna be lost for a while.”
Image from Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.
In Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the narrator navigates a standard Borgesian labyrinth of encyclopedia entries and letters in an attempt to learn about the region of Uqbar, a place with uncertain borders thought to be located somewhere between Iraq and Asia Minor. What comes to occupy him instead is a book titled A First Encyclopedia of Tlön, an exhaustive documentation of an apparently imaginary world created by the Uqbaris. “I had in my hands a substantial fragment of the complete history of an unknown planet,” the narrator writes of the volume, “with its architecture and its playing cards, its mythological terrors and the sound of its dialects, its emperors and its oceans, its minerals, its birds, and its fishes, its algebra and its fire, its theological and metaphysical arguments, all clearly stated, coherent, without any apparent dogmatic intention or parodic undertone.”(I rely on the Grove Press, Anthony Kerrigan-edited edition of Borges’s Ficciones.) Save that last part about the parodic undertone, what we have here is a serviceable summary of the Codex Seraphinianus.
Danto, when coaxed to respond to the Codex, tossed out Isidore of Seville, the entire history of scientific illustration, Breton’s futile attempts to introduce a new letter to the French alphabet, the Codex Leonardo (da Vinci, that is), and the writings of Borges and Italo Calvino. Though he was quick to qualify his list with the disclaimer that it was all just off the cuff, free association, really, he turned out to have pretty much hit it on the head.
Over the course of an hour or so, Danto’s awe peaked, then faded. He was ready to discuss the book critically. “If there’s one then there’s two,” he said, meaning that Serafini must have been part of some group or other. He was sure that this sort of monumental work simply hadn’t happened in an artistic vacuum, and that inscribing Serafini in a circle of artists was the best way to proceed. He asked who the original European publisher of the book had been. I didn’t know. He flipped to the copyright page, which, to my embarrassment, it had never even occurred to me to look at. I had been so taken with the book and its air of unknowability that I had forgotten that it was also an object-in-the-world, a product, with legal status and an ISBN. The first thing we noticed was that the copyright was not held by Luigi Serafini but by Franco Maria Ricci.
Ricci, an Italian aristocrat born on December 2, 1937, is a publisher and graphic designer who doesn’t do interviews.1 He began his publishing career in 1963 when he decided to republish the typesetter Giambattista Bodoni’s Manuale tipografico. He said Bodoni’s book made him feel “what a violinist must feel before a Stradivarius or a Guarneri del Gesù” and that he knew he had found what he wanted to do. In 1970 he reprinted Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. Soon afterward, he started publishing the Signs of Man—a series of books that “I decided must be elegant and impeccable in every detail, from the graphics to the paper and printing. As to the subjects, I wanted them to have the feel of discovery. I wasn’t interested in publishing another book on Raphael or Leonardo, on Rembrandt or Velázquez, on Monet or Picasso. I wanted to reveal secret masterpieces, covered with dust in great libraries or in museum storerooms… I wanted to uncover herbals and bestiaries, codices and frescoes, to show great works of art that have been lost or overlooked by time.”
Like so many tangential aspects of this story, the Signs of Man books are surely worth their own feature-length consideration. An ad for Signs of Man that ran in the early issues of Ricci’s magazine, FMR,2 points out that each volume is set in Bodoni type, the paper is handmade and specially produced in seven-hundred-year-old Fabriano mills, the color plates are hand-tipped, each volume is bound in black oriental silk and comes in a collector’s case. Signs of Man featured a volume of Erte with text by Roland Barthes, a collection of tarot decks with text by Italo Calvino, a selection of Lewis Carroll’s photos of children and his letters to them, Morris Hirshfield’s paintings with text by William Saroyan; the list goes on. Tucked among these forays into art history, the only work not a historical resurrection but a contemporary creation, the only work without a book-length essay to accompany it, the only work published in two volumes (for reasons that are unclear to me, later editions were all published in one volume), is Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.
I noticed that another book in the series, The Congress of the World, had text by Borges. The translation was done by Alberto Manguel, coauthor of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places,3 another volume that deserves a close survey it unfortunately won’t get today. I went to Manguel’s A History of Reading where I found the story of how he discovered the Codex. Needless to say, his story is better than mine, and worth quoting in full:
One summer afternoon in 1978, a voluminous parcel arrived in the offices of the publisher Franco Maria Ricci in Milan, where I was working as foreign-language editor. When we opened it we saw that it contained, instead of a manuscript, a large collection of illustrated pages depicting a number of strange objects and detailed but bizarre operations, each captioned in a script none of the editors recognized. The accompanying letter explained that the author, Luigi Serafini, had created an encyclopedia of an imaginary world along the lines of a medieval scientific compendium: each page precisely depicted a specific entry, and the annotations, in a nonsensical alphabet which Serafini had also invented during two long years in a small apartment in Rome, were meant to explain the illustrations’ intricacies. Ricci, to his credit, published the work in two luxurious volumes with a delighted introduction by Italo Calvino; they are one of the most curious examples of an illustrated book I know. Made entirely of invented words and pictures, the Codex Seraphinianus must be read without the help of a common language, through signs for which there are no meanings except those furnished by a willing and inventive reader.
An introduction by Calvino? This thickened the plot considerably.4 My American edition had no introduction, and the description of the Codex in the Signs of Man ad hadn’t mentioned one either. I turned to the libraries. The New York Public Library system didn’t even have an entry for the Codex,and it was billed as “lost” at both NYU and the New School. I thought back to what Dr. Harpold had said about the book’s tendency to disappear from library shelves. Columbia has an edition, but it is kept in the rare-book room and the university doesn’t let nonstudents access its library, anyway. So I turned to the Internet, googled first “Codex + Calvino,” then whatever else I could think of. As near as I could glean, Calvino’s introduction was written in Italian, translated into French but never into English, never republished in any collection of Calvino miscellany or elsewhere, and not available online. I learned only its name (“Orbis Pictus,” another apparent link back to Borges’s story), and found one blogger who had posted a few snatches of the French translation of Calvino’s Italian, but I don’t read French and, anyway, it was really just a few words. Barely worth running through Babelfish.
I remembered that soon after returning the library’s Codex, Dr. Harpold had purchased one of his own. A Francophile par excellence, he surely would have gone for a French edition of the book, I thought, and decided to write to him. Instead of writing back, he sent a reply through another former student to the effect that he was very interested in what I was doing and would gladly talk with me as soon as he finished a number of urgent projects, which were near completion. Since these were mostly the same projects he’d been working on when I was his student, I despaired of hearing from him a second time, and indeed I did not. Association, however, worked once more to my advantage.
After the “Eccentric Spaces and Spatialities” course ended, but before he advised my thesis,5 I had taken another class with Dr. Harpold called (Re-) Reading New Media Fiction, approximately half of which was spent analyzing Shelley Jackson’s hypertext fiction Patchwork Girl. Dr. Harpold even brought Jackson down to the University of Florida to do a reading and sit in on one of our classes.6 I figured it was a sure thing that he had shown her the book during her visit.
I was right. She remembered Dr. Harpold (and still corresponds with him on occasion, as it turns out), and the book, which he had indeed shown to her. “It’s funny,” she said, when I met her at the New School and handed over my copy for her perusal, “I’ve always been a bit suspicious of it. I guess because I love what it’s based on—the old alchemical etchings—and though I understand them no better than I understand this, I admire their earnestness. I love how a thing that looks so fantastical and poetic arises out of quotidian impulses. The Codex just seems so much more self-conscious, and artsy and illustratory. There’s something coy about it.”
Jackson’s point is well taken. The inner flap of my Abbeville edition describes “a flowing and as yet undeciphered script,” which cagily implies something it doesn’t exactly say. The Codex is unique not only in that we know both where and whom it came from but in that its author is still very much alive. It is a puzzle that could be solved at any moment, with a word from the only man who we know knows for sure not just what, but if it means.
“It would become a drastically different book the minute it became completely translated,” Jackson said, “which of course could be part of the plan. He could have conceived this as a sort of embryonic or chrysalitic work that at some point would take a kind of completely different shape. But the way I see it, it’s probably meant to hover on the verge of scrutability, to constantly hold forth the possibility of being read but stay resistant at the same time. It’s important that it bothers you with the feeling that there is some content that you ought to be able to extract from it in a normal discursive kind of way. It’s meant to appeal to the rational or exegetical urge. It wants to be interpreted but it won’t let you, and it’s very interesting the way it teasingly asks to be read and then refuses. You could see this as a really really elaborate inkblot. It’s never going to completely yield to you in the sense of giving you insight into the artist’s intentions, so it kind of reverts you back on yourself and makes you notice what you’re noticing and notice the associations that you make. It’s a kind of springboard for your own creative musings.”
And, to be sure, what could Serafini possibly have written that, when rendered intelligible, would thrill and engage as thoroughly as all this coquettish impenetrability?
Image from Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.
You can go through the book page by page, as I have, but the sensation of discovery never entirely goes away. Also, as with any artistic or literary work, the viewer/reader’s mood and mindset have a substantial—if not constitutive—effect on the reading and interpretation. Isn’t every piece of art a kind of inkblot? Flipping through the book one day, I was struck by a depiction of what appeared to be a burial custom. A motionless, nondescript man in a black suit is lying on a table. In the next illustration, the table is gone and the man is inside a rectangular block of what looks like glass. The bottom half of the page is taken up by an almost pastoral scene. It looks like a public park, but with low walls and squat buildings constructed of the glasslike blocks, each of which contains a person. On a mall of kempt green grass, neat rows of freestanding blocks look like sculptures in a garden. There are trees. People walk alone or in small groups through a large, simple arch (constructed likewise of the transparent, occupied blocks) into what is apparently an outdoor mausoleum of some sort. It made me think of Richard Brautigan’s book In Watermelon Sugar (1968), where the dead are buried in glass coffins lined with foxfire, so that they will shine forever.
Is the connection legitimate, which is to say, intended by Serafini as a direct reference? Probably not. On a different day, would I even have thought of Brautigan? Doubtful.7
It’s also possible that the text means in a way which trumps our ability to understand it, which is not the same as it not meaning at all. “It’s hard for me to imagine someone dedicating themselves to producing page after page of what looks like writing without it being writing, just for that purpose,” Jackson said. Looking over the pages of unillustrated Serafinian script, then and now, I am inclined to agree with her. “It makes me wonder whether there is a private significance to it.”
Late in the book there is an image of a man standing next to something that looks like a Rosetta stone. He is dressed like a laid-back professor, a sport coat and jeans, very ‘70s. He holds a strange pointer up to the stone, which is a bit taller than he is, and broken at the top. You can see into the stone, which is not solid rock but filled with something very red. It reminds me of blood or magma or a tongue. The professor has another pointer in his other hand and its end is jammed into the red stuff. The face of the stone is divided into two columns of text. One side is all Serafinian script, the other appears to be a kind of hieroglyphics. This image is the first illustration in the book’s “chapter” on language—in the following pages, question marks become fishing hooks; words float off the page, tied to punctuation marks that have become colored balloons; swoops of script are magnified exponentially, allowing us to see that what we took to be plain black ink is actually a whole world teeming with microscopic schools of fish, cars rounding a tight curve, Dante-esque pillars of intertwined human bodies (or are they souls?).
But back to the Rosetta stone: it’s an incredibly provocative image because it takes the issue of deciphering or translating, already a foregrounded concern, and throws it in your face. The instinct is to think that this image is the key to the Serafinian code/language, that all you need to do is find the clue and you’ll be set. But that kind of thinking is a logical misstep. The Codex Seraphinianus purports not simply to be about another world but also to be a document from that world. The image is concerned with the translation of the hieroglyphics, not the Serafinian script, which any intended reader of the Codex would already know well. Further complicating things is that the hieroglyphics appear to be crude approximations of a couple hundred amoebic creatures depicted much earlier in the book. Divided into three categories, or genera (fire/electricity, plant/earth, rainbow), these seemed to me to be the most basic forms of life in the Serafinian world. This suggests again the work of the alchemists, who believed everything to be alive in its own way, but the creatures themselves look like something only visible with a microscope. We know from the above-described close-ups of text (and other images in the book) that the Serafinians have microscopes, all sorts of technology, in fact, but it hardly makes sense that their ancient, stone-carving predecessors would have. Perhaps the ancients had other skills, metaphysical ones, which allowed them to see the unseeable and base a pictographic language on it.
“You could keep formulating theories ad infinitum,” Jackson said, “without them resolving into anything, or without them reaching closure, at least, which is frankly the most interesting thing about it.”
Image from Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.
CALVINO THE SPOILER
And that’s where this story would have ended, did end, in fact, until someone finally wrote back to one of my letters.
S. E. Grant, a student of Shelley Jackson’s and a friend of mine, had expressed early interest in my project, so when I’d come across the French fragments of Calvino, I’d sent them to her to translate. The thought was that I could Google the translated fragments and maybe that way find some hitherto unnoticed site where the introduction was available in English. Instead, S.E. befriended Delphine, the blogger who had posted the quotes, and convinced the Parisian to email her the complete text of the French introduction. S.E. did her own original translation of the Calvino for me, and as far as I know it is the first complete rendering of that text into English. Twice translated, first from Italian to French by a translating duo (Yves Hersant and Genevieve Lambert), then from French to English by S. E., the book made me wonder how much of what I’m about to quote can truly be attributed to Calvino. Still, the writing is as luminous and delicate as you’d expect from the author of Invisible Cities, and I believe that S.E. has captured what he meant, as well as as much as possible of what he actually said. “Orbis Pictus” runs about eighteen hundred words in English. Not surprisingly, it is the most elucidative piece of Codex-related writing I have ever come across, and deserves to be published on its own somewhere. But, since I can’t just fiat that into happening, I’d like to quote quite a bit of the beginning:
In the beginning, there was language. In the universe Luigi Serafini inhabits and depicts, I believe that written language preceded the images: beneath the form of a meticulous, agile, and limpid cursive (and strength lies in admitting it is limpid), that we always feel on the point of deciphering them just when each word and each letter escapes us. If the Other Universe communicates anguish to us, it’s less because it differs from ours than because it resembles it: the writing, in the same way, could have developed very similarly to ours in a linguistic forum that is unknown to us, without being altogether unknowable…. Serafini’s language does not distinguish itself only by its alphabet, but also by its syntax: the objects of this universe evoke the language of the artist, such as we see them illustrated in the pages of his encyclopedia, and are almost always identifiable, but their mutual relations appear psychologically disturbed to us by their unexpected relationships and connections…. Here is the conclusive point: endowed with the power to evoke a world in which the syntax of things is subverted, the Serafinian writing must hide, beneath the mystery of its indecipherable surface, a more profound mystery touching on the internal logic of language and thought. The lines that connect the images of this world tangle and cross; the confusion of the visual attributes gives birth to monsters, Serafini’s teratological universe. But the teratology itself implicates a logic which appears to us to, turn by turn, flower and disappear, at the same time giving us the sense that the words are carefully traced back to the point of the quill. Like Ovid, and his Metamorphoses, Serafini believes in the contiguity and permeability of all the domains of being.
If I have one quibble with the Calvino introduction, it is that it perhaps explains too much. To the list of influences and/or references, he adds the Botanica Parallela of Leo Lionni, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Bruno Munari and the entire line of inventors of crazy machines. He too notices the visual resonance of the hieroglyphics on the would-be Rosetta stone with the little creatures he refers to as the “polychromatic corpuscles” from the early part of the book. Maybe “they constitute again another alphabet,” he writes, “more mysterious and more archaic.” And maybe they do, but any readers who read his introduction would have spoiled for themselves the fun of discovering (or not discovering) that fact on their own.
Of course the same charge could potentially be leveled against this essay. Maybe this isn’t so much like a Borges story after all. As the Internet and other technologies continue to forward the process that Paul Virilio correctly—if rather a bit hysterically—refers to as “the pollution of distances,” one notable side effect is the obsolescence of proximity. Forget the years that the European alchemists of old would have spent copying over their heresies, in secret and by hand, and then the subsequent crisis of dissemination. When Delphine decided to send S.E. the Calvino introduction, she didn’t even have to go to a copy shop or buy a stamp. She took digital pictures of the pages of her book and emailed the jpegs clear across the world. It is an instance, I think, of real-life alchemy, which always wanted to be a science more than a religion. Technology bends and exploits those laws of nature it cannot break.
Here’s why I don’t have much guilt about spoiling your potentially “innocent” discovery of the Codex Seraphinianus. First, you could just as easily have been “spoiled” by any of the websites that have posted their favorite Codex images (hell, I sometimes use one for my MySpace profile) or logs of attempts to decipher it. Second, if you want to really see what the Codex is all about, you’ll have to put this magazine down and go find a copy of the book, because all the exegeses in the world have nothing on the book itself. Few things in this world, if any, are discovered by pure, happy accident in a state of unadulterated solitude. Like a big brother offering you a first puff off a joint, if I didn’t turn you on to it, somebody else was probably going to (see also: Joel, Billy: “Sooner or later it comes down to fate / I might as well be the one”).
This brings me back to Calvino, who goes so far as to suggest a narrative framework within which to understand the Codex’s genesis and production. “At the end of the tally (see the last page of the Codex) the destiny of all writing is to decay into dust; only the skeleton of the hand that writes survives. Lines and words detach from the page, breaking away, and here the tiny motes of dust spew forth the colored corpuscles from the rainbow, which then begin to frolic. For the vital principle of all the metamorphoses and all of the alphabets, a new cycle begins.” It is just as reasonable to celebrate Calvino’s introduction as an intentional redoubling of the book’s mystery as it is to chide it for being a would-be master narrative. Though his words have the authority of his name and an aura of truth surrounding them, it is a nonexclusive truth that they emanate. Calvino may be correct, probably is correct, but his correctness does not come at the expense of the correctness of any other potential reading. His authority is that of the sage, not that of the monarch.
I’ll withdraw my quibble with Calvino, then, but I prefer to end on a line not from him but from Borges once more: “The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth, nor even for an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement. They consider metaphysics a branch of fantastic literature.”
1 Most of my information on Ricci comes from a July 2001 interview on the website Designboom.com, during which he tells the interviewer that he’s only doing the interview because he’s curious about the internet.
2 The name of the magazine is Ricci’s initials. In his editor’s introduction to the first issue he wrote, “I wanted anyone who held my magazine in their hands to say, first of all, that it was beautiful. Then, little by little, the reader would discover the texts, both the scholarly and historical ones and those of a literary nature…. It seemed right to call this dream of mine FMR, just as Ferrari gave his name to his car, just as one embroiders a monogram on a piece of precious fabric."
3 A sample entry: “*Yspadden Penkawr*, a castle somewhere in Wales, in the middle of a wide open plain. For unexplained reasons, the closer a traveler comes to it, the farther away the castle appears to be. The main hall of the castle—if reached—is entered via any one of nine doors, each guarded by a watchman with a guard dog. (Anonymous, The Mabinogion, 14th – 15th cen. AD)."
4 If I had bothered to read the Codex’s Wikipedia page, I’d have learned this literally months previously. Sometimes you wind up solving just as much mystery as you make for yourself.
5 A critical treatment of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu," which I had to promise the editors of this publication that I wouldn’t bring up in this essay. Heidi Julavits, upon accepting my pitch: “My only suggestion is to stay away from too much Lovecraft/Cthulhu, since we’ve spent a lot of time on those two already."
6 Confession: After a roundtable discussion featuring Jackson and, of all people, the novelist Sarah Schulman, I cornered Jackson by the crudités and gave her a CD onto which I had burned a copy of my hypertext fiction work: The Ducksauce Anthology. Hopefully it got lost before she could read it, or else God bless Jackson for never having ever spoken of it to me.
7 It is worth mentioning that Manguel’s Dictionary of Imaginary Places has an entry for iDEATH, the imaginary world where Brautigan’s novel is set; this may just be a literary version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon but it seems to me enough to suggest that Serafini could have been aware of Brautigan’s work.
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