(Note: Most of my blogging happens over on Tumblr these days, but I wanted to post a recent entry here, since people looking for information about the Codex Seraphinianus tend to find this blog through search engines.)
Lots of renewed interest in the Codex Seraphinianus now that it is being reissued in an “affordable” edition costing a mere $125 (or $75 on Amazon). BoingBoing posted about it, and interest seems to be trickling down to the5 1/2 year old essay over on my mostly defunct book collecting blog, which is seeing a huge spike in traffic just from people searching for more information.
A couple thoughts on the current wave of interest:
1) It’s often stated that Serafini never or rarely talks about the Codex. That isn’t true, it’s just that he hasn’t talked about it the few times that arts and literary publications have interviewed him in English. Part of this is probably to maintain some sense of mystery around the work, but another part is probably an annoyance at being asked for the thousandth time if the script is decipherable. Here’s a transcription of some of what he has said about it in the past.
2) Stop obsessing over whether the script is decipherable. I’ve read varying articles about this – some that marvel in the sheer achievement of inventing a heretofore indecipherable script, and others that downplay its importance, saying that the entire Codex loses all of its significance the moment the script is deciphered. That latter sentiment is so full of shit it makes me want to scream, but it’s emblematic of the overly academic approach to the book that most criticism embraces. What I mean by that is that, on its face, the Codex is a staggeringly intricate work of art. However, whether it is beautiful is of less concern to academics than finding in-roads, and the jarring experience of reading a book in a foriegn script presents the most obvious in-road. Why spend time thinking and writing about what the script “means,” when all that would be rendered moot as soon as we find out what the script means? However, I choose to embrace the work as a whole, rather than focusing on the script as the primary component of interest and downgrading the illustrations to mere support of what’s written. (This subjugation of illustration in general is also full of shit, as is the idea that illustration and fine art are two separate things. In a sense, the Codex could even be interpreted as a defense of illustration, in that all the meaning one is able to glean from the work itself comes from the illustration and NOT the text.) Plus, as I have written elsewhere, there are two key problems with the quest to translate Serafinian script (assuming this quest will start again now that the book is experiencing a new moment of popularity):
a) What language does it translate into? Italian, right? So, unless you’re also learning Italian, you’re still going to be SOL once you figure out the script.
b) Look at any illustration in the book – what would the script say about it? Would it suddenly make these bizarre, nonsensical things make sense, or would it only make you more confused? The whole point of the book is that it doesn’t translate into our world, not just our language. Why do you need everything explained to you in plain English anyway? Would you prefer if the paintings in the Louvre had captions under them telling you exactly what everything is supposed to mean? The only reason you want to decipher the text is that it’s there in the first place, which, again, is probably something Serafini was aware of when he was producing the Codex.
There are obviously elements that suggest that the words can be translated – the same word is used at the beginning of each chapter, suggesting a correlation with something like “Table of Contents.” Serafini also signs his name in Serafinian script, giving an opening to anyone who wants to try to figure out which symblos correspond to which letters in his name. I still don’t think he penned an encyclopedia in Italian and then converted it into his script. I think there are some common symbological correlations between his invented script and Italian, but I’d be shocked if it turned out that there was a one-to-one translation of every word in the Codex.
3) Don’t get your hopes up about the “Decodex” (which is a supplement being advertised as something of a key to the entire book). The Decodex is not new, having been published with the 2006 Italian edition by Rizzoli, and it is just a collection of already-published essays and interviews. I would imagine that for the new edition, it is being translated into English and maybe augmented, but it’s not as if all the secrets will finally be laid bare.
4) Here’s a quick primer on the publication history of the book:
1981: First edition, published in two volumes by FMR in Italy, signed by the author.
1983: American, Dutch, and German editions published concurrently, using (presumably) the original pages from the first printing.
1993: Facsimile edition, published in one volume by FMR with additional illustrations. Issued in French and Spanish editions, signed by the publisher.
2006: New facsimile edition, published by Rizzoli in Italy with a new “introduction” by the author. Also includes the Decodex
2013: New Anniversary edition, published by Rizzoli USA, with redrawn pages and a new edition of the Decodex.
Each edition after the original 1981/1983 printings has degraded image quality, so it will be interesting to see if the new edition can clean it up at all.
5) If you’re interested in Serafini’s other work, my mostly-defunct blog has pictures of all of his major works, including Pulcinellopedia (Piccola),Etimologiario, and Storie Naturali.
Here are some links, in case you don’t want to scroll through the whole shitty blog and just want to go straight to the Serafini info. Just to toot my own horn a little bit, a lot of these (especially the photo galleries) were the first galleries of this work to appear online, and some of them are still the only place online where you can see this stuff.