Imaginary Worlds

Imagination time over. 🙂 Well, not really…but into some other people’s fantasy worlds. I’m sort of immersing myself in this stuff at the moment.

I wrote earlier this week about the Codex Seraphinianus, the book written in the 70s by artist, architect and industrial designer Luigi Serafini. The book is written in an imaginary language, full of fantastical drawings of a strange natural history, a logic defining these drawings that is like the logic I spoke of before: intuitive, frightening and strange. The first section is botanical, there is a section on Physics which is largely abstract, all accompanied by his lovely, indeciperable writing system. I’m a little obsessed with this book…not a little actually. I love the concept, I love using the system of writing and classification and logic and encyclopedias to detail an absurd, nonsensical world. I love the interjection of dreams into logical systems and of intuition muddying the waters of science. I love poetry in the framework of grids, breaking down those grids. I think this book is a celebration of the imagination, and I think it’s wonderful.

Here’s the original link, for those of you who missed it:

And some images from the book as well:

page from codex seraphinianus

page from codex seraphinianus

page from codex seraphinianus

page from codex seraphinianus

It reminds me of the wonderful comics of Jim Woodring, the author of the fantastic comic 3Frank”…a true visionary who tells silent-film narratives, slapstick comedy of the Charlie Chaplin variety, violent and strange and dreamlike, in a fantastical world, with complete innocence, charm, and an inevitably unfolding yet completely bizarre, logic. He’s one of my favorite artists of all time, and if you don’t know him, you should check his work out immediately.

It looks like this:

So, anyway, this week I found the work that I think the Codex Seraphinianus is based on, a 15th century work called the Voynich manuscript.

Holy crap.

Please read this link for really well-written, detailed information:

But basically, this is a manuscript written in the 15th century (possibly northern Italy, Renaissance) an unknown author in an unbreakable code or an unknown, possibly imaginary, language, that is a sort of natural history, made up of chimeras and fantasy. The botanical drawings are detailed but don’t match up to any known plants, or else are a bizarre combination of different plants, the roots from one grafted to the leaves of another. The astrological section corresponds to no known map of the universe, is filled with circular mandala like drawings, and the drawings are unimaginably beautiful . There’s a cosmological section too, and one that appears to be pharmaceutical. There’s a biological section consisting pretty much of uninterrupted script interspersed with figures, mostly showing small naked women, some wearing crowns, bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes, some of them strongly reminiscent of body organs. (I KNOW, right?) Alchemical? Possibly. There’s even some speculation that the book is a hoax (except that it’s been reliably carbon dated), that basically if no one can extract any meaning from this book, it might be because there is none there, that the book was created, like Luigi Serafini’s, as an elaborate excercise in meaningless beauty.

How I love this idea.

This book has been enigmatic and utterly gorgeous, and if it popped up in a Dan Brown book, (an ancient, mysterious volume written in an unbreakable code, lost to history and then found by an antiquarian bookseller in a crumbling Jesuit college…just, YUM) you would probably dismiss it as unbelievable…but it’s TRUE. This is a real thing. Isn’t the world incredible?

voynichese Alternative Voynich Manuscript Wikipedia page...

I’m obsessed and reading everything I can about it at the moment. Kind of wanting to make a book of my own.

It reminds me too of this story by Jorge Luis Borges, called “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius“, from a collection of short-stories called “The Garden of Forking Paths” (which is a doozy itself and highly readable and recommended) about a mysterious book describing an imaginary world. He must have been influence by tales of the Voynich manuscript; but the story is fantastic and bizarre in a way that I love. A synopsis from Wikipedia:

“In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlön, a fabled world or region with its own physical and metaphysical laws in which the epics and legends of Uqbar literature are set. In the course of the story, the narrator encounters increasingly substantive artifacts of Tlön; by the end of the story, Earth is becoming Tlön.

The story unfolds as a first-person narrative by a fictive version of Borges himself. Events and facts are revealed roughly in the order that the narrator becomes aware of them, or becomes aware of their relevance. The bulk of the story is from the point of view of 1940, the year the story was written and published. A postscript is from the point of view of the same narrator, anachronistically writing in 1947. The timing of events in Borges’s first-person story is approximately from 1935 to 1947; the plot concerns events going back as far as the early 17th century and culminating in 1947.

In the story, Uqbar initially appears to be an obscure region of Iraq or of Asia Minor. In casual conversation with Borges, Bioy Casares recalls that a heresiarch (leader of a heretical sect) in Uqbar had declared that “mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.” Borges, impressed with the “memorable” sentence, asks for its source. Bioy Casares refers him to an encyclopedia article on Uqbar in the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, described as “a literal if inadequate reprint of the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1902.”[1] It emerges that Uqbar is mentioned only in the closing pages of a single volume of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, and that the pages describing Uqbar appear in some copies of the work, but not in others.

Borges, the narrator, is led through a bibliographical maze attempting to verify the reality or unreality of Uqbar. He is particularly drawn to a statement in the encyclopedia article that “…the literature of Uqbar… never referred to reality, but to the two imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön.”

A brief and naturalistic aside about Borges’s father’s friend Herbert Ashe leads to the story of Borges inheriting a much more substantial related artifact (one of several increasingly substantial and surprising artifacts that are to appear in the course of the story): the apparent eleventh volume of an encyclopedia devoted to Tlön. The volume has, in two places, “a blue oval stamp with the inscription: Orbis Tertius.”[3]

At this point, the story of Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius expands beyond the circle of Borges and his immediate friends and acquaintances, as scholars such as Ezequiel Martínez Estrada discuss whether this volume could have been written in isolation or whether it necessarily implies the existence of a complete encyclopedia about Tlön. The proposal emerges to attempt to reconstruct the entire history, culture, and even languages of that world.

This leads to an extended discussion of the languages, the philosophy and, in particular, the epistemology of Tlön, which forms the central focus of the story. Appropriately, the people of the imaginary Tlön — a fictional construct within a fictional story — hold an extreme form of Berkeleian idealism, denying the reality of the world. Their world is understood “not as a concurrence of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts.”[4] One of the imagined languages of Tlön lacks nouns. Its central units are “impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs.” Borges lists a Tlönic equivalent of “The moon rose above the water”: hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, meaning literally “Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned”. (Andrew Hurley, one of Borges’s translators, wrote a fiction in which he says that the words “axaxaxas mlö” “can only be pronounced as the author’s cruel, mocking laughter”.[5]) In another language of Tlön, “the basic unit is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective,” which, in combinations of two or more, are noun-forming: “moon” becomes “round airy-light on dark” or “pale-orange-of-the-sky.”[4]

In a world where there are no nouns — or where nouns are composites of other parts of speech, created and discarded according to a whim — and no things, most of Western philosophy becomes impossible. Without nouns about which to state propositions, there can be no a priori deductive reasoning from first principles. Without history, there can be no teleology (showing a divine purpose playing itself out in the world). If there can be no such thing as observing the same object at different times,[4] there is no possibility of a posteriori inductive reasoning (generalizing from experience). Ontology — the philosophy of what it means to be — is an alien concept. Tlön is a world of Berkeleian idealism with one critical omission: it lacks the omnipresent, perceiving deity on whom Berkeley relied as a point of view demanding an internally consistent world. This infinitely mutable world is tempting to a playful intellect, and its “transparent tigers and … towers of blood”[4] appeal to baser minds, but a Tlönic world view requires denying most of what would normally be considered common sense reality.

In the anachronistic postscript, the narrator and the world have learned, through the emergence of a letter, that Uqbar and Tlön are invented places, the work of a “benevolent secret society”[6] conceived in the early 17th century, and numbering Berkeley among its members. (Although the society is part of Borges’s fiction, Berkeley and other named members are real historical figures.) The narrator learns that as the society’s work began, it became clear that a single generation wasn’t sufficient to articulate the entire country of Uqbar. Each master therefore agreed to elect a disciple who would carry on his work and also perpetuate this hereditary arrangement. However, there was no further trace of this society until, two centuries later, one of its disciples was the fictional Ezra Buckley. Buckley was an eccentric Memphis, Tennessee millionaire who scoffed at the modest scale of the sect’s undertaking. He proposed instead the invention of a planet, Tlön, with certain provisos: that the project be kept secret, that an encyclopedia of the imaginary planet of Tlön be written, and that the whole scheme “have no truck with that impostor Jesus Christ”[6] (and therefore none with Berkeley’s God). The date of Buckley’s involvement is 1824. In the early 1940s — still in the future at the time Borges wrote the story — the Tlönic project has ceased to be a secret, and is beginning to disseminate its own universe. Beginning “about 1942”, in what at first appears a magical turn, objects from Tlön begin to appear in the real world. While we are later led to see them as forgeries, they still must be the projects of a secret science and technology. Once the full, forty-volume First Encyclopaedia of Tlön is found in Memphis, the idea of Tlön begins unstoppably to take over and eradicate the existing cultures of the real world.

(As an aside, the eleventh volume of this full encyclopedia is not quite the same as the earlier, isolated eleventh volume: it lacks such “improbable features” as “the multiplying of the hrönir.” “It is probable,” writes Borges, “that these erasures were in keeping with the plan of projecting a world which would not be too incompatible with the real world.”[7] Material reality may be subject to reshaping by ideas, but apparently it is not entirely without resistance).

“Orbis Tertius” is the provisional name of a revision—a more detailed edition—of the forty-volume encyclopedia, being created by the “benevolent secret society” in one of the languages of Tlön.

While the fictional Borges and his academic colleagues pursue their interesting speculations about the epistemology, language, and literature of Tlön, the rest of the world gradually learns about the project and begins to adopt the Tlönic culture, an extreme case of ideas affecting reality. In the epilogue set in 1947, Earth is in the process of becoming Tlön. The fictional Borges is appalled by this turn of events, an element in the story that critics Emir RodrĂ­guez Monegaland Alastair Reid[8] argue is to be read as a metaphor for the totalitarianism already sweeping across Europe at the time of the story’s writing. Their remark seems only a small extrapolation from a passage toward the end of the story:

Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order — dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too is ordered.”[9]

As the story ends, Borges is focused on an obsession of his own: a translation of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial into Spanish. Arguably it is no more important than Tlön, but it is at least of this world.”


The world feels mundane and banal some days. It’s worth remembering that it’s not. I don’t really know what art is for, in the end…Some days, if you read the news, it feels like a hoax and an exercise in gluttonous materialism. But in my heart, I think art is about this: about imagination, about stories, about logic, about dreams. About making the world feel larger and vaster, about getting you in touch with a reality that bubbles under the surface of your conscious mind. Of waking up a sense of the strange, the impenetrable, and the mysterious. Much like religion I guess, or science…only with no rules. 🙂


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