Strange Manuscripts

voynichWhere I discussed the concept of post literacy (described by Wikipedia as a stage ‘wherein multimedia technology has advanced to the point where literacy, the ability to read written words, is no longer necessary’) before (after which John Connell wrote a nice reply on his blog, followed by some insightful comments), I have grown more interested in asemic writing in combination with visual communication. Wikipedia gives a very nice definition and characterization of asemic writing, where it states for instance that the interpretation or meaning giving to asemic writing lies not within the writing (containing no semantic content) but with (-in) the viewer, in which respect it can be compared with abstract art: ‘with the non specificity of asemic writing there comes a vacuum of meaning which is left for the reader to fill in and interpret. All of this is similar to the way one would deduce meaning from an abstract work of art’.

Two manuscripts, one old and one not quite so old, have been brought to my attention lately (thanks to drabkikker) in which the language and writing has (until now) been undeciphered. The first and oldest one, the Voynich manuscript (named after its discoverer Wilfrid M. Voynich), probably written in the 15th or 16th century, has already been called one of the greatest mysteries in the world (see for instance here) and still puzzles cryptographers all over the world. The Voynich manuscript is also heavily illustrated, amongst others with – as vividly described – ‘tiny naked women frolicking in bathtubs connected by intricate plumbing looking more like anatomical parts than hydraulic contraptions’. Judge for yourself underneath.


Although many theories exist about the origin, history and meaning of the manuscript, some believe it is a hoax and the manuscript contains no meaningful information in any way. But on another level, this might not be the most important ‘message’ the work has to convey. Looked at it as a work of art, it is a beautiful and fascinating work, with a very concise, fair and lovely script as you can see for yourself here, were you can actually download the whole manuscript as a PDF. Its mystery and unclear meaning is in this case what makes it meaningful to the viewer as interpreter, as ‘meaning-searcher’.


A more recent manuscript is the Codex Seraphinianus, an equally amazing book with fantastic absurdist surreal pictures and an also still undeciphered alphabet and language. It depicts an imaginary world and was written and illustrated in 1978 by the Italian artist Luigi Serafini. The codex is a sort of visual encyclopedia, a transcendental experience into a fantastic genius mind. I like the way Serafini seems to have actually stated, according to Wikipedia, that the script of the Codex is asemic, ‘that his own experience in writing it was closely similar to automatic writing, and that what he wanted his alphabet to convey to the ‘reader’ is the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand, although they see that their writing does make sense for grown-ups.’


And still… Although the author claims the script in the codex is asemic and it contains no meaning, the manuscript stays a fascinating enigma for many people. It is exactly the lack of meaning, meaning as or in a void, that triggers the imagination.

Codex Seraphinianus

This vacuum of meaning creates potential: it creates a space for interpretation and functions as a reflection of our search for patterns and meaning. It thus offers a meta level in a way, similar to what abstract art does: it is about the search for meaning, about wanting to discover the secret context and inherent patterns in the structure of the text, like in a way abstract art is a reflection on art itself. Asemic writing can thus be seen as a form of meta-writing, or abstract writing. And this is what makes it so interesting and filled with meaning: its reflection (through means of the interpretational intent of the viewer) on what language is, and on the function of language as a means or medium of communication.

One comment on “Strange Manuscripts

  1. Mark skywalker
    May 22, 2011

    the voynich manuscript is not supposed to have a meaning because its a scientists note book it appears that he or she was studying plant life in the field because nearly all the early pages of the book have drawings of various plants and notes on each of them. Later they show an interest in astrology or they could be maps of a galaxy or galaxies or possibly even star charts. Later on there are drawings of a theory to create life and at the end of the book there are notes on how to use the roots of the plants shown earlier in the book to create different componds.

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