"The cleverest people in the world have worked on Voynich for centuries, and it still defiantly resists interpretation"by / January 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Christmas break has given me the chance to settle down with a good book. Just published by Yale University Press, the lavish coffee-table reproduction of Beinecke MS 408 (or the Voynich Manuscript to its friends) is as handsome a new book as you could own.
And this medieval beauty has it all: fold-out sections, delicate illustrations of plants, astrological charts, what look to be alchemical recipes, and—in the so-called “balneological” section—young ladies in a state of undress in pools of green water. But the main thing about it—the thing that makes republishing it so quixotic—is that it is a book you can’t actually read. Nobody can.
It is written in a language and alphabet unknown to human history. If it’s a repository of arcane knowledge, as it seems to be, it’s the sort of repository that you seal into a lead-lined box and drop into the Marianas Trench: not so much a time capsule as an oubliette. The MS is named after Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish rare book dealer who came by it in 1912 after 250-odd years of extremely flaky provenance. Carbon-dating on the vellum puts it at the early 15th century—which nixes the notion that it’s a lost work of the 13th-century alchemist Roger Bacon. We do know, though, that it once passed through the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and that he couldn’t read it either.
Let’s resist the notion that it was made by aliens or angels. Even though it’s a plausible speculation when it was thought to have belonged to the angel-chatting Elizabethan magician John Dee. Even though the unhesitating cursive hand of the scribe suggests that at least he, she or it considered it to make perfect sense. Even though it depicts plants unknown to botany, constellations unknown to astrology, and funny-looking naked women zooming through tubes of a mysterious green liquid. Even though… sorry.
Safer to start by assuming it was made by a human or humans sometime in the early 15th century. But the mind boggles as to why. Is it a cipher? Is it—as recently plausibly argued—a hoax? An attempt at an artificial language? The work of a lunatic or, if you prefer, “outsider artist”? Nobody knows, and probably nobody ever will.
What a thing to have something into which such effort and expense has been poured—which promises to contain deep and important secrets—and whose meaning is completely irrecoverable! I can think of a couple of other instances on my own shelves, not including the odd New Labour pre-election pledge card and a paragraph or two by Judith Butler. Take my copy of poet JH Prynne’s Kazoo Dreamboats: or, On What There Is. This may well have a lot to say about “what there is,” but I can’t make head or tail of it (“don’t flew foregone alterior nail up,” anyone?) apart from getting a sense that atoms are involved.
But the joy of the Voynich Manuscript is that it’s not the reader’s stupidity—as, I ruefully concede, may be the obstacle with the above—that makes it obscure. The cleverest people in the world have worked on Voynich for centuries, and it still defiantly resists interpretation. The idea that it was a cipher was, if not knocked on the head, at least dealt a blow by the eminent cryptologist William F Friedman. He gave up after 40 years and left a posthumous message (in code, of course): “The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type.”
I think all this makes the Voynich rather profound. French theorists of the late 20th century were transfixed by the idea that what made language itself so attractive was not its decipherability, but the opposite: that meaning was perpetually being carried away (différance was the term Derrida gave it). Into that tantalising gap entered desire—and all the theological implications of desire. As Browning put it: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/ Or what’s a heaven for?”
The Onion’s spoof headline for the sinking of the Titanic read: “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg.” And so with the Voynich. You could say: “Spine-Tingling Metaphor Published In Book Form.” Well done Yale University Press.