Reading on the Fringes: Codex Seraphinianus

On reading the “Codex Seraphinianus” by Luigi Serafini.

Codex Seraphinianus cover 1

If you’d like a bewildering encounter with an alien culture, read the Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini. It’s an encyclopaedia of an imaginary world written in a fully incomprehensible language and illustrated with detailed, coloured drawings that cover all areas of life: flora, fauna, science, manufacturing, alien (humanoid) anatomy, history and ethnography, dining and fashion, and architecture.

As the act of understanding words will be limited, here is a taster of visual delights that await you in the order that you’d encounter them (and including only the ones that can plausibly be put into a few words):

Bird with a second head where a tail would be, flower that rains on itself, flower that grows laddered stalks, flower that grows leaves shaped like scissors, fruit that bleeds, apple growing within an apple, grapes growing on a banana, walnuts growing out of a fennel, matchsticks growing in a beetroot, trees growing inside trees, trees jumping off a cliff and swimming away, trees that grow into the shape of a chair, flowers that blow up to become helium balloons.

Fish with a humanoid face, fish with own fish-bowl over its head, snake without head or tail (a loop), snake as shoelace, bird consisting of a head and a single feather, bird with three heads, chick that hatches out of an egg that is regurgitated by a chick hatching out of an egg that is…, bird with scorpion tail, horse with wheels for hind legs, hippopotamus with wires for a body, rhinoceros whose horn and tail are one continuous flesh-loop.

Skeleton bringing soup containing bones, people with wheels for feet and tools (hammer, pen, pistol) for hands, man with many faces (like a weathervane), people with mushrooms for heads, people being made by dressing a skeleton in skin.

Continents arranged in a circle, people collecting chicken droppings, a fountain where water and alligators spurt out together, letters made out of woolly threads, people eating letters, people wearing various facial mask, cities that turn into rainbows (continuous transition), cities connected by rainbow bridges, cities built inside prisms with their own weather systems, cities in labyrinths, cities on both sides of a ravine, public parks with house-sized pencils protruding from the lake.

(Many of these images can be seen by simply searching for the Codex on Google.)

To be clear, the Codex is a fictional work published in 1981. It was created purposefully as an enigma, a surrealist foray into the imagination, and is accepted and enjoyed as such. Serafini has even said that the language is asemic, or without meaning.

Now compare the Codex with the fifteenth century Voynich Manuscript (discussed last time), which has withstood all attempts at being deciphered. The plants from its pages remain unidentified, the charts look plausible but reveal little, and the bathing women, well, does anyone else see similarities with The Matrix?

The Voynich Manuscript p. 136

The centuries-long gap between the Manuscript’s creation and our interpretation attempts has perhaps swallowed some crucial metadata, such as the intention of the author. Like the Codex, the Manuscript could have been intended as an exhibition of human ingenuity at play. Perhaps we’ll never find out. Perhaps it shouldn’t matter whether we do.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

5 thoughts on “Reading on the Fringes: Codex Seraphinianus”

  1. No, I wasn’t meaning to be sarcastic. I feel that things like the Voynich Manuscript and the Codex are just other forms of art that hold a mirror to our culture. For example; Some authors are fairly obtuse and they seem to have a way of writing that says, “I am much more clever than you and if you don’t understand what I am saying it is probably because you aren’t intelligent enough” So Voynich is saying to all these authors, “You want to be obtuse!! I’ll show you obtuse. Look at this.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see, thank you for the clarification. I was wondering, though—you’ve mentioned this at least twice now about authors who are patronising and this being something that bothers you—do you have any well-established names that you’re willing to share?

      I ask with innocent intent because it’s not something I’ve come across, at least not in a form where I attribute a writer’s style to anything more than their style or their particular form or their purpose.

      If you do mention someone, and I haven’t read them, I’m unlikely to go and search them out for the sole purpose of checking out your theory, but if they are on my reading list or if I have read them, I’ll have/form an opinion.

      Obviously, no pressure to name names.

      Liked by 1 person

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