Thursday, October 10, 2013

Codex Seraphinianus: new edition of weird book by Luigi Serafini out in October.:

If you manage to lay your hands on a copy of Codex Seraphinianus and flip through its almost 400 pages of lavish illustration and handwritten commentary, the only words you will have any chance of understanding—depending on what sort of shape your Latin is in—are those on the title page. This is because the entire text of the book is written in an invented language, and alphabet, which nobody has ever been able to decipher.

And quite a few people have tried: the Codex has had a cult following since its original publication in Italy in 1981, and is often referred to as the world’s weirdest book. The book, which is the work of the Italian architect and designer Luigi Serafini (who is still with us, but has remained inflexibly committed to not explaining a damn thing about it), will be republished in a new edition by the art publisher Rizzoli later this month. It’s not the sort of thing that easily lends itself to classification, but probably the most accurate way to describe it would be as an encyclopedia of an invented alien civilization. It contains hundreds of carefully organized illustrations of plants, animals, people, machines, dwellings, cities, agricultural procedures, clothing, sexual practices, rituals, and so on.

It’s a lavish miscellany of weird specificity; because of its combination of absurdity and inscrutable precision, reading it is a feverish experience—although “reading” is exactly the wrong word, because that is an activity the book doesn’t permit. Rather, you simply look at it; you look at its diagrams of copulating couples gradually fusing together into crocodiles, at its drawings of egg-helmeted doctors rolling the flesh-pelts from supine bodies and trussing them up on hooks while detached skeletons observe, at its colorful bestiaries of impossible creatures (fish with brooms for tails, little snakes that double as shoelaces). And then you look at the accompanying text, with its lines and lines of beautiful and completely indecipherable script. And the experience is one of a book that makes perfect sense—that lays out an entire world in extensive empirical detail—but (crucially) not to you, because you don’t have the experience or the linguistic tools to understand it.