To coincide with Rizzoli's recent reprint of the Codex Seraphinianus, I have decided to share Christian Bök's short article on Serafini's book from the 2001 compendium Lost Classics. (Should you wish to jump there now, his piece starts below the third picture.)
The Codex, for those not familiar, is a mesmerizing encyclopedia of an imaginary world. The world (or universe) it documents might seem wholly random at first, but as you begin exploring, you'll notice certain reoccurring images and motifs: eggs, rainbows, balloons, roller skates... But making your own sense out of what you see is part of the fun, so I won't continue on in this vein. All I'll say is that the Codex is a wholly singular work that I highly recommend. (If forced to describe the images it contains, I might say that some of them are vaguely reminiscent of Roland Topor's designs and animation for Fantastic Planet.)
About a week after the Codex arrived I sat down to look through it again, and before I picked it up, I noticed something moving on the cover. Or thought I did. After a second I reasoned that it was just a brief illusion, one of those tricks Peripheral Vision likes to play on The Mind. But then my eyes focused directly on the cover, and I realized it wasn't an illusion at all―something was indeed moving! And there, crawling very slowly across the top of the book, was a ladybug. Not the most astonishing visitor to have on a temperate November afternoon, no, but an eerie one if you're familiar with the newest edition of the Codex:
To compound the mystery, no other ladybugs had been found in the house before, and no others have been found since. Bemused and somewhat incredulous, I called my friend in from the next room to share in the uncanny humor (and also to bear witness!). We sat and watched the insect crawl around for a while, but it was no more interesting than any other ladybug, magical or not. It didn't crawl into the cover of the book and turn into a drawing right before our eyes, nor (unfortunately) did anything else inexplicable happen. In fact, I had mostly forgotten about our small visitor until a few days ago when I read the following at the end of the Codex:
This edition of the Codex Seraphinianus, thirty-two years after the first edition published in 1981, has been enriched by yet another original preface by the author. As for the new cover, the first ladybug moved (graphically) one afternoon in March this year in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (Alpes-Maritimes). The movement of all the others was confirmed by real ladybugs (betes a bon Dieu) one month later in Saint-Adrien (Quebec).
The only other time anything like this occurred was years ago when I was sitting in my room, and a bug scurried across my rug and under a book―Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil. I quickly lifted the book off the floor to look for the insect hiding beneath it, but there was nothing there. I flipped it over expecting to see something clinging to the back cover, but again there was nothing. After a few moments, I realized how simple the explanation was, and I was a bit embarrassed for not realizing it sooner: the bug had simply gone inside the book, returning to the rotting flowers from whence it came. Had it been any other volume (save The Metamorphosis), I would have concluded that the insect was hiding in the carpet, but this was Les Fleurs du Mal by the author who wrote the lines:
There shall the spider weave his webs
And there the viper breed his spawn.
(And that was chosen at random!)
Clearly the pages were an enviable nest for any bug, and perhaps they contained a secret portal to a world where gigantic bugs wantonly kill tiny humans for their sport.
In the afterward to the Codex, Luigi Serafini writes, "The combining of a text and an image, we all know, generates a semblance of meaning, even if we understand neither the one nor the other. Do you remember how, when we were children, we'd leaf through picture books and, pretending we could read before the children older than us, fantasize about the images we saw there? Who knows, I thought to myself, perhaps unintelligible and alien writing could make us all free to once again experience those hazy childhood sensations." This, for me, is how the Codex can make one feel the palpability of such secret portals, or what Christian Bök refers to as the potential for making one feel the threat of waking up suddenly in an alternate dimension. If we allow ourselves to settle into the book enough, the part of us that interprets encyclopedias and reference materials seems unable to fully come to terms with the idea that such a detailed compilation of information, written in faux-language, was created purely out of fancy. In other words, the Codex is poetry in the medium of anti-poetry, which can create dissonance. What exactly, we unconsciously ask, am I looking at? Where precisely is this world that's being documented? Am I perhaps already living in it?
by Christian Bök
The Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini is an other-worldly encyclopedia―and incunabulum, bequeathed to us by some monk from a fantastic monastery in an alternate dimension.
Steve McCaffery, the avant-garde poet, introduced me to this marvellous catalogue years ago during one of my visits to his private library. This book enthralled me more than any of the other illuminated manuscripts in his collection. The cover of the black folio depicted a mattress, upon which two lovers, embracing, fused slowly together, until they formed a crocodile, crawling off the bed. I opened the book to discover a florilegium of pastel images, all of them captioned by an alien genre of cursive writing―meticulous arabesques, vaguely reminiscent of Sinhalese alphabets. I saw numerous diagrams depicting a variety of surreal objects in cartoonish landscapes: eyeball eggshells hatching into eyeglasses; serpent shoelaces latching onto ankleflesh―even an automobile melting into a white sticky gum, covered with houseflies. I had never before seen such a wilfully quixotic picture-book―and I spent hours thereafter, poring over the colourful menagerie of mutant animals and hybrid devices.
The Codex is a work of natural history, more bizarre than any treatise by Linnaeus or Alembert, since the Codex functions as a pataphysical extravagance, describing an arcane system of imaginary knowledge (not unlike a genre of science fiction, which shows science itself to be a fiction). The Codex summarizes the secret wisdom of a mythic empire: its alchemy, its zoology, its physics, its poetics. The book depicts an eerie world of oneiric madness: yarn-balls walking on two legs through sunny gardens; umbrellas walking on two legs through rainy streets. A pedestrian, seemingly acephalic, steps onto a leopardskin rug, only to explode into the form of a jaguar. A man, whose head is a weathervane, turns his gaze to follow a leaf blown away upon an autumn breeze. A skywriting helicopter spraypaints the clouds with a knotted rainbow. A crystal galleon sits upon a tradewind generated by its own bellows. A reader of such a lavish volume quickly embarks upon a tour of exotic wonders and poetic marvels.
The Codex calls to mind the enigma of the Voynich Manuscript―a treatise attributed to the medieval sorcerer Roger Bacon, who appears to have drawn pictures not only of unknown flora and bizarre fauna, but of amoebic bacilli and stellar nebulae―phenomena depicted by him long before the invention of magnifiers and telescopes (and to this day, not even the most renowned cryptographers with the most advanced supercomputers have deciphered this ciphertext).
Like the Voynich Manuscript, the Codex invites cryptanalysis. The signs used in the nonsensical calligraphy do demonstrate a statistical recurrence, whose patterns evoke a sense of grammatical rationalism. The book provides an image of a Rosetta Stone that might aid in translation, yet the accompanying, hieroglyphic text is itself untranslatable. The book implies that language itself acts as a wanton entity, its graffiti engraved everywhere throughout a protean reality (be it in the twists and turns of a root or in the cracks of a wall)―and under magnification, the cursive writing on the page reveals itself to be a current full of fish or a highway full of cars. The letters of the text float away on little dirigibles or float down on little parachutes.
Douglas R. Hofstadter (in his Metamagical Themas) has remarked that the unearthliness of this book instills unease, if not terror, in many of his friends who peruse it, since the book appears to suggest that our quotidian existence may dissolve at any moment into something monstrous. The Codex calls to mind the story by Borges about the fictional cosmology of Tlön―an unreal domain that steadily replaces the actual cosmos, as more and more people, reading about the universe of Tlön, forfeit their memories of the Real: "Already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty―not even that it is false." The Codex aspires to convince us that its psychedelic dreamscapes are far more substantive than our own environment, and I often feel, when I flip through the book, that I risk looking up to find myself teleported to the twilight zone of Dementia Five―unable to return.
I have looked everywhere for a copy of this rare book, but I have never found it in stock at any antiquarian booksellers in town, and I think that, among my friends in the avant-garde community, no other literary treasure has grown to become so coveted a possession.