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Codex Seraphinianus: A Fantastic Manual on How to Avoid Reason


In its stimulating illegibility, the Seraphinianus Code renews the way we read books and the world around us.

In the vast history of books, those written without the purpose of being read deserve their own separate chapter. As contradictory as this may seem in relation to the nature of books as cultural objects, there have been people who designed complex systems with different paths that lead us inevitably to the road of illegibility.

With an open and playful outlook, artist Luigi Serafini wrote the Codex Seraphinianus in the 1980s, published by the respected Italian editor Franco Maria Ricci.

Serafini managed to break away from these and other precedents, and it could be argued that he created —and simultaneously canceled— a literary and editorial genre. The author populated his book with illustrations of things and words that, out of habit, we think describe what we see on the page, but when we try to read them, the feat proves impossible. The author invented those figures exclusively for this book; the words do not correspond to any existing alphabet because in reality, they have no meaning, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, they are “arbitrary” lines that our sense of rationality tries to, unsuccessfully, force into order.

This “nonsensery” was precisely what the author thrived on: to give our mind a break from the constant obligation of assigning a meaning to everything. According to a statement he made, his illegible symbols are there to evoke the first time when, as children, we came into contact with a book, and only understood (and not entirely) its drawings, ignoring its letters and words.

In terms of the content, the work is overflowed with symbols. The page numbers, for example, are based on the number 21 (3 times 7). On the other hand, the themes (11 in total) are categorized by Flora, Fauna, Machines, Cuisine, Architecture and History, as well as others that share this dreamy and surreal treatment, as if those disciplines had accidentally the same names as those in our reality but, these exist in a completely foreign and unexplored one —and again it seems inevitable to think of Borges’ world of impossible languages and objects in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, or in Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa, a continent made entirely of imagination and fantasy.

The Codex Seraphinianus confronts the unknown, a virgin territory and its chaotic jungle of creatures and invented symbols that are undergoing constant and ungraspable metamorphosis. In sum, this is a book that radically changes the way we approach books and, thus, the way we read our own reality and understand the world. It is a fantastic tribute to this realm that, through aesthetics and playfulness, widely overcomes reason.


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