Saturday, November 24, 2012

Beautiful frauds

Anyone who picks up now a copy of Umberto Eco's 'Foucault's Pendulum' and scurried through it without checking other details, would think it a highbrow satire on Dan Brown's rambling output, until you see the date of publication - 1988.  Conspiracy theories involving grails, lodges, hooded theologians and crumbling crucifixes, templars and temptresses, have always been with us, as have satires on the genre.

It was with that in mind, therefore, that I read about the old coded Voynich manuscript, named after Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who bought it in 1912, and with a proven authorship date of around the early 15th century.  Looking at the pages, scribbles with an unstructured marginalia not unlike the Codex Seraphinianus, it looks like the outpouring of a talented and possibly bored monk looking to pass the time between bell and bath.

The floating question centres around the script - its curved letters and odd constructions do not correspond to any known language, and even if transposed into Roman letters it comes out gobbledygook.

Scholars have poured enormous time into decoding the thing, and in trying to segment and link the portion of drawing and the portion of text, but without much success.  This led one expert to declare the whole thing a fraud - that it is just a nonsense language composed by a knowing scribe, with a view to having ensuing generations waste time in limning each pretty page.

Parts of the book do seem beautiful, in particular those pages that fold out into patters of flowers or stars.

There is a human appetite for fairy and flight, and ancient books with gorgeous patters can hold us in thrall (my own book invents something similar, albeit tailored to a more modern neurosis)

The key lies in the mystery, but there is also something artistic in such a complex fraud as well (if it turns out that way)

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