Over the years I have occasionally come across mention of the VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT, which has just been published by Yale at 35$. It has been dated to the 15th century and is a vellum scroll containing what appear to be words, written in an unknown but elegant script, together with illustrations that are recognisable, as plants, insects, geometrical shapes, buildings and most famously, naked women bathing together. The text has been as scientifically analysed as possible and is said to possess many of the characteristics of written language, for example in respect of the frequency of recurrence of certain word-forms. The manuscript has been intensively, almost compulsively studied by cryptologists, linguists, mathematicians and specialists in forms of magic/ religion/ philosophy and hocus-pocus, all without result. Its earliest known possessor declared it to be the work of the medieval magus, Roger Bacon, but of this there is no other evidence.
I confess to finding its mystery interesting, and have even taken a look at it – you can find a pdf version online- in the vague hope that I might instantly recognise the language as one of my childhood linguistic codes of speaking backwards or infiltrating ordinary words with those of “All things bright and beautiful” used in strict order. This discovery would a) reveal the eminent scholars as idiots and b) me as a genius. Sadly this is not the case. Those who look at it however, will not easily forget it, because it appears so friendly, so to speak, so open to interpretation, so encouraging to the reader, while remaining utterly incomprehensible, like the humanoid child who emerges from the alien spaceship smiling affably and speaking a language which remains utterly beyond interpretation.
I have sometimes suspected that my liking for this mystery sheds a dubious light on my liking for the Bible, which some have seen as an utterance of God that defies human minds, unless one possesses the key to its interpretation. Can it be that my persistent and obsessive attempts to decode the scriptures arise from a conviction that no wholly persuasive interpretation has ever been made? That the Bible is an even more alluring mystery than the Voynich MS because it pretends to be accessible, written in human languages that can be translated, while being cunningly designed to baffle us? No, I don’t think so, because I see the Bible as a collection of great literature, which like all great literature demands to be interpreted and re-interpreted by every generation and ultimately by every reader, so that every honest reading adds something valuable to its meanings. Of course, there is no final interpretation of the Bible any more than there is a final intepretation of King Lear or The Magic Flute. They avoid finality because they are alive.
No, it’s not my interpretation of the Bible that reminds me of the Voynich MS. But I remain convinced that its incomprehensibility is linked to something more fundamental in my life. And that phrase turns out to be my clue. Yes, it’s my life, the fundamental fact of my life in this universe, that’s like the Voynich MS. It’s as if the events of my life, all of them, the people who have shared them, the space/time in which they have happened and all the multitudinous existences of which I have been aware, all of it, although my culture tells me I can understand it, is written in a script composed of galaxies and particles, in a language of universal energy, expressing a truth which is forever beyond me.
And yet, like the manuscript, it seems friendly, inviting my engagement with it, my cooperation in creating new interpretations, my appreciation of its endless wonders, my love for all the other characters in its unending story. Some will feel that I am exaggerating human ignorance but when I listen to Brian Cox telling us that our best cosmology accounts for maybe 5% of universal matter, or when I ask how my wife has been good to me for 50 years, I am sure of at least my ignorance, as I walk (happily) in worlds I do not know.
Yes, it’s better than Dan Brown.