The Voynich Manuscript [a.k.a. Beinecke MS 408] pt I: the language of plants where the search for meaning is the meaning
when i was younger, roaming the forests of Oregon hungrily wanting to eat every plant that crossed my path, but also fearful of the unknown, i always wondered how humans first found out what plants were edible or not—whether neanderthal tribes had guinea pigs that were the first to try things. & then once they discovered what plants were edible, how this information was documented so others would know what not to eat & how to prepare the things you could eat. i'm sure these are natural thoughts to have. you could almost argue that this was the initial driving force for the invention of language—for the communication of information relevant to survival. in this day & age most people take both language & our acquired knowledge of food for granted. they are things baked into our DNA, or if not, it's readily accessible on the internet.
i've managed to resist all the Michael Pollan hype thus far, but the other day j was watching one of his Ted Talks & it caught my attention, where he postulates that agriculture was developed by plants to propagate their genes. «what if human consciousness isn't the end-all and be-all of Darwinism?» he asks. «What if we are all just pawns in corn's clever strategy game to rule the Earth?»
it's not a novel idea [which he admits]. Terrence McKenna saying: «Animals are something invented by plants to move seeds around» is the first i remember hearing this idea articulated in so many words, the first time it stuck [& struck home] for me anyway, perhaps because it puts into language a sneaking suspicion i've always had, at least on some subconscious level. this is the role of language, a tool to reveal in words what we already suspect, like a darkroom solution that develops invisible-inked code etched in the vestigial recesses of our brains. with this in mind, i switch from food to my other favorite topic: books. & the mother of all book objects, the so-called Voynich Manuscript.
This is how Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library describes the so-called «Voynich Manuscript», which it houses on its shelves as Beinecke MS 408 [a name i prefer to The Voynich Manuscript as Voynich was merely the self-proclaimed discoverer who tried to exploit it for his own fame & monetary gain]. it has also been called «the world's most mysterious manuscript». when I visited Beinecke last year, i made a half-ass attempt to view MS 408 for myself but alas fat chance for a hack like me with no academic credentials. no matter, they've graciously allowed you to view it online, which is probably better than having someone with white gloves flip pages for you & watch you while you read—further reconfirming my belief that in this day & age there are fewer & fewer reasons to leave home [Rome, just north of Villa Mondragone, which which was home to Beinecke MS 408 for hundreds of years, before Voynich got his grubby hands on it & named it after himself].
Gerry Kennedy & Rob Churchill's book on the subject [The Voynich Manuscript: The Mysterious Code That Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries] gives a good overview & insight into the book for anyone interested. the history of Beinecke MS 408 is as mysterious & veiled as the book itself. i won't bother to go into the hisory & all the various theories & attempts to decode it, except to give my 5 cents here. i could state 5 theories giving rise to Beinecke MS 408: that it's a hoax, that it was a private journal of doodles, that it contains coded secrets, that it's asemic babble—the written equivalent of speaking in tongues—or that it's simply a work of art, but in my mind no substantiated truth about Beinecke MS 408 would change what it intrinsically is, which is a work of art, book object as performance art, an object that has acquired the history of all eyes & hands that have beheld it & made theories about it, tried to decode it, read into it. it's a bit like Piero Manzoni's «Artist's Shit»—the discovery that it was not shit but plaster did nothing to diminish the brilliance [or auction value]. it was the idea behind it, an idea put into a object that was put forth into the world to make people think [even if duped] & acquired the meaning of the sum of all the thinking into it's physical manifestation.
who knows what the original intention of the author was & who cares. rumors abound as to authorship: Francis Bacon, Leonardo Da Vinci, Voynich, John Dee [my gut feeling if i had to pick one]—but what's interesting to me is not who wrote it, but why his or her name is not on it, whether this was intentional or not. maybe they just didn't think to, maybe it was intended to be private, or maybe they deliberately chose not to, or maybe they did, but it was erased. the front & back cover of Beinecke MS 408 is completely blank:
i can't imagine a braver & more brilliant cover for a book, intentional or not. not only does it lack an author but it lacks a title! no indication when you open to the first page either, it just jumps right into the heart of the matter. but then again, there are missing & re-ordered pages, so who's to say. there's no denying that the book is botanical in nature though—when i say it jumps right into it, the first page, & the next 112 after that are encyclopedic looking pages of different plant species.
there are a few lapses, sections with mandala-like astrological charts & then the famous series of nude nymphs in hot-tubs, but it eventually circles back to botany with a hundred or so more pages of pharmaceutical/plant drawings/babel. if it were just for these illustrated pages, you might think the text is placeholder gibberish, FPO, put in for appearance, perhaps even writ in after the fact, but there are also dozens of pages of just text.
there's no denying there was an intent to communicate with this text & statistical analysis has shown the entropy of the language is similar to known languages. Kennedy & Churchill [& plenty of others] go into this & all the various failed attempts at interpretation/translation. but the thing is, how would we know if it ever was decoded? what sort of message are we expecting?
in one convoluted multi-step cipher-decoding scheme, the text on the above page (78R) is translated as follows:
regardless of what Kennedy & Churchill [& James Martin Feely, the lawyer from Rochester responsible for this particular decryption] think, it makes perfect sense to me! but they dismiss it, saying the results were «unintelligible» & «unreadable». but perhaps this was the original author's intent, a form of stream-of-conscious poetry. & perhaps s/he feared persecution for writing such crazy shit & that's why it was encoded. any misunderstanding comes at the reader's end. even if Beinecke MS 408 was deciphered with certainty, nobody would believe it.
one of the leading studies of Beinecke MS 408 was written by Mary D'Imperio [who works for the U.S. National Security Agency of all places]. she had this to say about another attempt [by Leonell Strong] at decoding the manuscript:
again, in my mind, genius! regardless of whether it was the intended meaning or not. but then D'Imperio says «To my mind, at least, this seems a highly unlikely thing for any writer of any age to have said, whether in cipher or not.» maybe some OULIPO poets should be «deciphering» the Beinecke MS 408 instead of government agents worried about whether the document contains secrets that could threaten national security. [for anyone interested in Mary D'Imperio's in-depth take on it [written in 1978] it's posted online here—your tax dollars paid for it, may as well read it!]
& speaking of Terrence McKenna, i just came across this 3-part interview with him where he gives an interesting [if not drug-addled] summary/view of Beinecke MS 408 [if you're too lazy to read a book on the subject]:
after delving into the convoluted history & quack attempts at interpretation, Kennedy & Churchill come to a somewhat sensible conclusion, driven by intuition, taking a holistic look at the manuscript rather than deciphering bits & pieces, respecting the book object for what it is. though they lean more skeptically on the hoax side than i do, though i guess it depends on the meaning of «hoax»—& whether it was intended as a hoax, or whether it has been turned into a hoax by the legions of entrepeneurial geeks who have tried to decode & capitalize on it, claim it as their own. i'd agree with Kennedy & Churchill when they say: «The overriding sense is that the creator of the manuscript had a purpose other than to create something of "beauty", and was driven by a desire to convey meaning.» & also when they say, after arriving at the conclusion that you can draw no conclusions:
then they go on to compare Beinecke MS 408 with Schrödingers Cat, in that it lives in a state of indeterminacy. «With its true meaning still unknown, and with its seemingly unique ability to provide corroborating evidence for almost all of the various hypotheses that have ever been suggested, at a fundamental level the Voynich manuscript fits all the theories that have ever been put forward about it, and at the same time, none of them.» i would go one step further & say to live in a state of indeterminacy is/was it's intent—to «decipher» it would be to kill the cat. & again, even if we did have a reputable interpretation, nobody would accept it, because in the end people believe what they want to believe.
in the Kennedy & Churchill book, they also implore Beinecke Library to allow the book to be carbon-14 dated & in fact, this past February it was, by the same University of Arizona lab that dated the Shroud of Turin [& also the cranium they determined did not belong to Francesco Petrarca [despite being attached to his body in his tomb]] with the result that, with 95% certainty, the vellum on which it was written dates back to between 1404 & 1438, which is 100 years or so earlier than previously suspected [thus Beinecke needs to update their description as Wikipedia already has]. so if it was Francis Bacon [b. 1561] or John Dee [b. 1521] they would've had to author it on 100+ year old paper, which is not inconceivable, but even more far-fetched. unfortunately carbon-dating the ink is near impossible. but again, does it matter? they conclusively dated the Shroud of Turin to 1260—1390 A.D. but that doesn't stop the Vatican from still saying that Jesus was buried in it. they can believe what they want to believe, just as any interpretation of Beinecke MS 408 is valid. this is the beauty of it.
in the end, the search for meaning becomes the meaning. getting back to the thought that seeded this post, of humans being invented by plants to spread their seeds, i declare that Beinecke MS 408 is a sort of transcription of the genetic code of the plants it illustrates, real or not. i can speculate that a nameless author channeled the information from these plants, either by deep introspection, or perhaps even by ingesting them & writing under their influence, & no one can prove otherwise. the «language» Beinecke MS 408 is written in cannot be deciphered because it is not a cipher to begin with—it IS the information—a direct reflection of how the information exists in a chemical or molecular or biological form.