Books have an ability to transport us outside of our lives. They can take us to other times, other countries, places we might never go — from Teddy Roosevelt’s time as the Police Commissioner of New York in the non-fiction work Island of Vice to the book-haunted Barcelona as crafted by Carlos Ruiz Zafón in his novel The Shadow of the Wind. Books are the easiest means of space travel, whether we join Neil deGrasse Tyson in Space Chronicles on a tour of the actual solar system or Frank Herbert to visit the imagined world of Dune.
But even books that transport us to worlds other than our own seem to be clearly from our world. That’s not the case with the legendary work that calls itself Codex Seraphinianus, with the byline of Italian artist and architect Luigi Serafini. The book itself is shrouded in mystery, and the content manages to capture the impossible on the printed page. It’s a book in a language that does not exist about a world that could not exist.
Codex Seraphinianus is indeed real, though most who have heard of it know it more from rumor and second-hand description than actual experience. The original publication in Italy was in 1981, in two volumes; copies now fetch in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $10,000. An American version was published by Random House in one volume in 1983; one of these may set you back some $2,000 to $3,000. Even subsequent paperback copies cost $500 to $700. There’s a good reason that this book is more fable than fact in the minds of those who have come across word of it.
But late last year, that changed, when the author, working with Rizzoli Publishing in New York and Milan, issued a new edition, in a gorgeous, beautifully produced hardcover, with new illustrations, new “text” and even a short “De-Codex” describing the creation of this iconoclastic masterpiece. At $125, it’s a bargain, this book not only about a world that does not exist, could not exist; yes, the Codex Seraphinianus is still clearly from a world beyond human imagination.
The book takes its cues from the most ancient encyclopedias; Pliny’s Nautralis Historia and De Rerum Natura by Lucretius. To accompany his surreal illustrations, Serafini created his own language, for a very specific writerly reason.
In his De-Codex, he tells us:
“The combining of a text and an image, we all know, generates a semblance of meaning, even if we understand neither the one nor the other. Do you remember how, when we were children, we’d leaf through picture books and, pretending we could read before the children older than us, fantasize about the images we saw there? Who knows, I thought to myself, unintelligible and alien writing could make us all free to experience once again those hazy childhood sensations.”
In the months and years that followed, Serafini fell into a trance of automatic writing, straight from the pages of the world of the Surrealist artists. He had to discover the nature of his own work. “One afternoon, Giorgio, a friend from college, came by with several ideas for an evening out. Lost in my thoughts, I told him I couldn’t join him because I was busy working on an encyclopedia. It was an illumination.”
The author tells us in his “De-Codex” that he created the Codex Seraphinianus with colored pencils and India ink, seated at a sawhorse, with a white cat on his shoulders. The outcome was a work of printed art, wrought in surreal anti-prose that explores the core concepts of the nature of communication and information even as it undermines reality.
The new edition of em>Codex Seraphinianus is large — 9 1/2″ by 13 1/2″, 396 pages, weighing more than 5 pounds — and while we’vee told that while nobody has cracked the language, the page numbering system has been deciphered. Rizzoli has printed the book on a heavy paper stock, and the images are nothing less than astonishing.
The intense strangeness of Codex Seraphinianus belies the joyous feel of the artistry. Even the oddest, most unnerving images are rendered with pastel beauty, and a softness that makes them almost endearing. The abundant text confers an authority to the illustrations.
Serafini’s surreal imagination embraces a logic that is just beyond our grasp, and the experience of reading this book is utterly unique. There is – there can be – nothing like it. In De-Codex, Serafini explains this quite handily: “I must confess that the true author of the Codex was the white cat, and not I, even though I have always passed myself off as being the author, whereas I was merely its manual executor.”