Another Green World: The Codex Seraphinianus


listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go


WHEN CONSIDERING THE CANON of inventive, intelligent works of fantasy it’s probably fair to say that if Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it. Imaginary worlds are as old as the human imagination itself, and will be with us for as long as imagination lasts despite their currently rather devalued reputation as staples of bad science fiction and fantasy. Conveyor-belt proliferation aside, “We all love a mysterious country,” as the dandy Nebuchadnezzar reminds us in David Britton’s Lord Horror. Nebuchadnezzar’s words are a quote from M. John Harrison’s Egnaro, a story that acts as a study of the condition and effect of imagined worlds. (And in Harrison’s story the quote comes from Lucas, a character based on David Britton. How’s that for a circular reference?) Most invented worlds, however, serve only as the backdrop for a narrative, whatever mythologies or ersatz histories might be created to substantiate their existence. The Codex Seraphinianus is unique in placing its invented world centre-stage and, even more uniquely, purporting to be a product of that world itself. Its creation seems the inevitable result of a trend of fantasy writing that delights in invention purely for its own sake, particularly invention that goes to great lengths to seem authentic or authoritative, academic even. The great precursor here is Borges’ story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius which relates the invention of a Britannica-style encyclopedia describing with the greatest detail and authority a completely fictional world. Typically for Borges (as for Harrison), the story is also a commentary upon this kind of invention, as well as upon the effect it can have in our “real” world. To Borges and Harrison reality is more mutable than people like to think. Luigi Serafini takes the whole game a very difficult step further, by creating a complete work that describes his own fictional world in detail, with numerous colour illustrations and the whole written in a completely invented language and alphabet. I’ve never seen a comment by Borges that refers to the Codex but I’m sure he would have been delighted by it.

The Codex was first drawn to my attention not by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadaluppi’s excellent Dictionary of Imaginary Places (1980) (where it would be excluded anyway, since it doesn’t concern a place located on the Earth) but in Metamagical Themas (1985), a book of essays by computer scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter. Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction with Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (1979). Metamagical Themas collects his writing Scientific American from the early 1980s when he took over the Mathematical Games column previously written by Martin Gardner (Hofstadter’s title is an anagram of Gardner’s). Although Hofstadter’s books tend to focus on scientific and mathematical subjects, like many of the best scientists he’s fascinated by the point at which logic grows fractal and meaning devolves into subjectivity. An essay entitled Stuff and Nonsense discusses the nonsense tradition from Ben Johnson through to Samuel Beckett and John Lennon. Towards the end of the piece he describes the Codex:

Codex Seraphinianus is a much more elaborate work. In fact, it 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 colour 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 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.

Subsequent research on my part revealed that, although the estimable Manguel makes no mention of the Codex in his Dictionary of Imaginary Places, he was in fact (perhaps inevitably…) present at the book’s public discovery, an event he describes in A History of Reading:

One summer afternoon in 1978, a voluminous parcel arrived in the offices of the publisher Franco Maria Ricci in Milan, where I was working as a foreign language editor. When we opened it we saw that it contained, instead of a manuscript, a large collection of illustrated pages depicting a number of strange objects and detailed but bizarre operations, each captioned in a script none of the editors recognized. The accompanying letter explained that the author, Luigi Serafini, had created an encyclopedia of an imaginary world along the lines of a medieval scientific compendium: each page precisely depicted a specific entry, and the annotations, in a nonsensical alphabet which Serafini had also invented during two long years in a small apartment in Rome, were meant to explain the illustrations’ intricacies. Ricci, to his credit, published the work in two luxurious volumes with a delighted introduction by Italo Calvino; they are one of the most curious examples of an illustrated book I know. Made entirely of invented words and pictures, the Codex Seraphinianus must be read without the help of a common language, through signs for which there are no meanings except those furnished by a willing and inventive reader.

To Ricci’s further credit, the book is still essentially in print, albeit at a price most people would find prohibitive. Ricci specialises in prestige editions printed on quality paper and materials; whether a book of 400 pages is worth 250+ Euros is a matter for the individual purchaser. A second-hand copy of the 1983 US edition is currently available via Amazon for anyone with a spare $1000.

As Hofstadter says, the mind is indeed staggered when considering the labour that went into the creation of this work, particularly for something that, in its wilful hermeticism, subscribes to the Brian Eno recipe for originality: do something that’s so time-consuming or difficult that no one else would ever bother. If this makes it sound like a slightly more involved equivalent of those Guinness Record-competing constructions made of toothpicks, then the comparison is unfair. The Taj Mahal in matchsticks operates on something like the chimps-with-typewriters principle: any number of people, given enough time, application and boxes of Swan Vesta could do as much. The Codex Seraphinianus is more special than this. It may be a folly but, like all the best follies, it achieves its own aesthetic apotheosis through accumulation of detail, sheer inventiveness and the ultimate conviction of its own worth; like all the best follies it is also unique. It might even be argued that the Codex Seraphinianus is one of the purest works of fantasy, one that affects no compromise with supporting narrative or histrionic drama but aims straight for the gold.

If Borges’ story sparked the creation of the book (and it’s a good bet that this was the case), Serafini’s pictures, in style and content, seem to owe much to the cartoons and drawings of another master of baroque European fantasy, Roland Topor. Topor was an equally polymathic figure—cartoonist, writer, film maker—who still seems better known in his native France than elsewhere. He’s perhaps best known for his 1964 novel Le Locataire Chimérique, which was brilliantly filmed by Roman Polanski in 1976 as The Tenant. He also collaborated with René Laloux for the animated feature La Planète Sauvage and can be seen portraying an appropriately unhinged Renfield in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). Topor and Serafini share a certain naïve draughtsmanship which nonetheless is in the service of an enthusiastic and deliberately Surrealist (in the original sense of the term) level of invention. Topor’s bizarrely costumed characters created for the apocalyptic Ligeti opera Le Grande Macabre could have stepped directly from the pages of the Codex; the worlds of La Planète Sauvage, their inhabitants and creatures, buildings and habits, could conceivably occupy the same solar system as Serafini’s, although Serafini’s imagination lacks Topor’s viciousness.

The Codex Seraphinianus remains a gauntlet thrown down to anyone considering the creation of an imaginary place. Like Finnegans Wake, it probably signifies a dead end, or at least the farthest point anyone would wish to take such an endeavour while remaining sane; even Henry Darger’s monumental Story of the Vivian Girls is written in English! Those of us who might wish to see more works like it are bound to be frustrated for some time yet. The best we can hope for is a paperback reprint from an enterprising publisher, something to popularise it a little more. Four hundred full-colour pages in an unknown language with no story–any takers?

• John Coulthart, 2002. Slightly revised, 2006. First published on the Fantastic Metropolis site.