Wanted: _Codex Seraphinianus_

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Ranjit Bhatnagar

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Jul 23, 1990, 11:31:22 PM7/23/90
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Since I can't afford a new copy ($85), I'd like to buy a used
copy, in good co
ndition, of
Codex Seraphinianus
Luigi Serafini
Abbeville Press
ISBN 0-89659-428-9
I don't know the publication date; I'd guess around 1983.

A couple of years ago these things were being remaindered for
about $40 or so, so that's the price range I'm looking for.
(Lower would be nice.) It's not clear whether it's back in
print or not. I called Abbeville and couldn't talk to anyone
who knew.

If you know of a source of unused copies at the remainder
price, please let me know. I can probably find buyers for
three to five new or healthy used copies under $40.

-- ranjit
"Trespassers w" ran...@grad1.cis.upenn.edu mailrus!eecae!netnews!grad1!...
A makeshift escutcheon, esoterically emblazoned:
EVERYONE IS AT LEAST THREE FRENCHMEN

Ranjit Bhatnagar

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Aug 1, 1990, 9:08:01 PM8/1/90
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In some article or other I wrote:

>I'd like to buy a used

>copy, in good condition, of


> Codex Seraphinianus
> Luigi Serafini
> Abbeville Press
> ISBN 0-89659-428-9
>I don't know the publication date; I'd guess around 1983.

So would a heck of a lot of other people, so if any of you are still
hiding in the woodwork, come on out and earn a fast thirty-five bucks.
The following people are interested, and, though I have found a copy
(thanks, SW!), I wouldn't mind buying a few more for friends (I want
first dibs!):

ku...@happy.crhc.uiuc.edu
ncr...@bbn.com
sequent!r...@uunet.uu.net

I've also been asked what the heck the C.S. is, but rather than describe
it myself, I'll let Douglas Hofstadter and Italo Calvino do the talking.

---

(From {\em Metamagical Themas} by Douglas Hofstadter, p.229.
Metamagical Themas, Copyright 1985 by Basic Books, Inc. ISBN 0-465-04540-5.)

Codex Seraphinianus is ... a highly idiosyncratic magnum
opus by an Italian architect indulging his sense of fancy to the hilt.
it consists of two volumes in a completely invented language
(including the numbering system, which is itself rather esoteric),
penned entirely by the author, accompanied by thousands of beautifully
drawn color pictures of the most fantastic scenes, machines, beasts,
feasts, and so on. It purports to be a vast encyclopedia of a
hypothetical land somewhat like the earth, with many creatures
resembling people to various degrees, but many creatures of unheard-of
bizarreness promenading throughout the countryside. Serafini has
sections on physics, chemistry, mineralogy (including many drawings of
elaborate gems), geography, botany, zoology, sociology, linguistics,
technology, architecture, sports (of all sorts), clothing, and so on.
The pictures have their own internal logic, but to our eyes they are
filled with utter non sequiturs.

A typical example depicts an automobile chassis covered with some
huge piece of what appears to be melting gum in the shape of a small
mountain range. All over the gum are small insects, and the wheels of
the ``car'' appear to have melted as well. The explanation is all
there for anyone to read, if only they can decipher Serafinian.
Unfortunately, no one knows that language. Fortunately, on another
page there is one picture of a scholar standing by what is apparently
a Rosetta Stone. Unfortunately, the only language on it, besides
Serafinian itself, is an unknown kind of hieroglyphics. Thus the
stone is of no help unless you already know Serafinian. Oh well...
Many of the pictures are grotesque and disturbing, but others are
extremely beautiful and visionary. The inventiveness that it took to
come up with all these conceptions of a hypothetical land is
staggering.

Some people with whom I have shared this book find it frightening
or disturbing in some way. It seems to them to glorify entropy,
chaos, and incomprehensibility. There is very little to fasten onto;
everything shifts, shimmers, slips. Yet the book has a kind of
unearthly beauty and logic to it, qualities pleasing to a different
class of people: people who are more at ease with free-wheeling
fantasy and, in some sense, craziness. I see some parallels between
musical composition and this kind of invention. Both are abstract,
both create a mood, both rely largely on style to convey content.

---


ORBIS PICTUS
An Essay on the Codex Seraphinianus
By Italo Calvino
Copyright Italo Calvino

In the beginning there was language. In the universe that Luigi
Serafini describes, I believe the written word came first: that
flowing script penned with such precision, which we come so close to
understanding but which nevertheless eludes our grasp.

The anguish triggered by this Other Universe derives less from its
unfamiliarity than from its unnerving resemblance to our own world .
So too with the writing, which is believable enough to belong to some
alien but not unfeasible linguistic zone. On reflection, one realizes
that the peculiarity of Serafini's language is not just in its
alphabet, but in its syntax as well. The universe evoked by this
language, as illustrated in the encyclopedia's plates, almost always
contains things that we recognize; it's their relation to one another,
the bizarre juxtaposition of these things, which strike us as strange.
(I say ``almost always'' because there are also unrecognizable forms
which serve a very important function, as I'll try to explain later
on). The crucial point is this: if Serafini's language has the power
to bring life to this world whose syntax is so alien to us, then
beneath the mystery of its indecipherable surface it must contain an
even deeper mystery that concerns the internal logic of language and
thought.

In this fantasy world images assume many layers of meaning and the
confusion of the visual components creates monsters: Serafini's
universe is teratological. But even teratology has its own logic, the
thread of which seems to surface and disappear like the meanings of
these words so diligently written with the tip of my pen.

Like Ovid of the ``Metamorphosis,'' Serafini believes in the
continuity and permeability of all areas of existence. The anatomical
and mechanical exchange morphologies: instead of hands, a human arm
will end in a hammer or a pair of pincers; legs are supported by
wheels, not feet. The human and vegetal complete each other. Take
the plate on the cultivation of the human body. We see trees growing
from a head, grass sprouting from the palm of a hand, and carnations
bursting from an ear. The vegetal world unites with everyday objects
to produce plants with scissor leaves and matchstick fruit. The
zoological joins with the mineral, and we have partially petrified
dogs an horses. Fantasy and technology are united, as are primitive
and urban, written words and living organisms.

Just as certain animals assume the form of other species who share
their habitat, so too human beings become contaminated by the objects
around them. The passage from one form to another is graphically
described in one of Serafini's most successful visual inventions: the
image of the mating couple whose bodies gradually merge and become
transformed into a large reptile. My other favorite images are the
chair-tree, the school of fish whose partially surfaced forms look
like giant movie-star eyes on the water, and all the figures that
contain a rainbow theme.

There are three images at the heart of Serafini's visionary
ecstasy: the skeleton, the egg, and the rainbow. The skeleton is the
only core of reality that remains in this world of interchangeable
forms. We see skeletons waiting to be clothed in flesh; when the
process is complete, they gaze in bewilderment at their filled-out
bodies. Another plate conjures up a city of skeletons, with
television antennas made of bones and a skeleton waiter serving a
plate of bone soup.

The egg is the original element, and it appears with and without
its shell. Raw eggs drop from a tube and become autonomous moving
objects that creep along the ground, climb a tree, and then fall down
again, assuming the appearance of fried eggs.

The rainbow has a central place in Serafini's cosmology. As a
solid bridge, it can support an entire city; but it's a city that
changes color and substance with the rainbow itself. From the rainbow
come tiny, multi-colored creatures of strange shapes, which might very
well be the vital force of this universe, the generative corpuscles in
the unrelenting process of metamorphosis.

Other plates depict a helicopter-like object which is used to draw
rainbows in the sky---not only in the classic semicircle shape but
also in the form of a knot, a spiral, a zigzag, a curlicue. Those
same multi-colored corpuscles hang on thin threads from the fuselage
of this apparatus. Are they mechanical specks or iridescent dust
suspended in air? Or are they a kind of bait used to catch colors?
These are the only indefinable forms we come across in Serafini's
cosmography.

Similar forms of luminous bodies (photons?) swarm from lights or
appear as micro-organisms carefully catalogued in the beginning of the
sections on botany and zoology. Perhaps they are graphic symbols and
in fact constitute yet another alphabet, even more archaic and
mysterious. Perhaps everything that Serafini shows us is a form of
writing, and only the code varies. In this writing-universe, roots
that seem almost identical are given different names, because each one
is a separate sign. Plants twist their stems like lines penned on a
piece of paper. They dive back into the earth only to sprout out
again or to blossom underground.

Serafini's fantastic plant life is an extension of the imaginary
botanical world of Edward Lear's ``Nonsense Botany'' and Leo Lionni's
``Botanica Parallela.'' In his greenhouse we discover the cloud
plant that waters its own flower, and the spider web flower that
catches insects. Trees uproot themselves and jump in the sea, using
their roots like a boat's propeller.

Serafini's animal life is always nightmarish. Its evolution is
ruled by metaphors (the sausage-like snake, the viper-shoelace tied on
a sneaker), metonymy (the bird that is actually a pen with a bird's
head), and the condensation of images (the pigeon in the form of an
egg). After the zoological monsters we come to the anthropomorphic
ones, perhaps some failed experiment along the path to humanization.
The great anthropologist Leroi-Gourhan explained that the process of
humanization began in the feet. Serafini's illustrations depict
perfectly-evolved feet and legs, but instead of leading to a torso
they finish in the form of an umbrella, a ball of yarn, or a bright
star. In one of the book's most mysterious images, these
star-creatures are shown standing alone in boats that drift down a
river, passing beneath the huge arch of a bridge.

The sections on physics, chemistry, and mineralogy are the most
relaxing, because their images are more abstract. But the nightmare
returns in the engineering and technology pages. Monstrous
aberrations are no less disturbing in machines than in man. When we
come to the social sciences (which include ethnography, history,
sports, linguistics, gastronomy, and urban studies), we must bear in
mind that by now men and objects are inextricably linked in an
anatomical continuity. There's even the perfect machine that
satisfies all of man's needs, and which turns itself into a coffin at
the time of death.

Ethnography is no less horrifying than the other fields. Among
the various types of primitive species catalogued here we find the
garbage=dwellers, the rodent-skin wearers, and, most dramatic of all,
the man-road, dressed in asphalt with a white line down the middle.

The anguish at the core of Serafini's imagination probably reaches
its peak in the study of gastronomy. Yet, even here we detect his
special brand of humor, especially with such inventions as the toothed
plate that pre-chews food so it can be sipped through a straw, and the
kitchen faucet that delivers an endless supply of fresh fish.

It seems to me that for Serafini linguistics is the most poetic of
fields, the true ``gaia scienza'' (especially the written word; the
spoken word remains a source of anxiety, and we see it as black mush
oozing from lips, or as dark squiggles being fished from a gaping
mouth). The written word is a living thing (blood spurts when you
prick it with a pin), and it enjoys an autonomy that lets it fly off
the paper on little balloons or parachutes. Some words have to be
sewn down to make them stay. And when writing is examined under a
microscope, the fine lines assume another meaning: one letter is a
highway, another is a stream quivering with fish, and another is
bursting with crowds of people.

In the end, as we see in the final image of the Codex, the destiny
of every written work is to disintegrate into dust, while all that
remains of the writing hand is its broken skeleton. Lines of words
break off the page and crumble to the ground. But from the piles of
dust tiny rainbow-colored forms emerge and begin to leap above the
debris. The vital force of all the alphabets and metamorphoses
resumes its life cycle.

{\em Translation: Theodora Lurie}


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