Introduction – Cryptotexts


Part of "Cryptotexts": a special section.

I thought that maybe there was nothing there. ... I was looking at my book. I thought "Maybe there's nothing in my book."

~ David Mamet, The Cryptogram, 1995

You know, Q, meaning exists without symbol, symbol without language, and language without writing. But only "cryptotexts," like the Voynich, give us a sort of "blank language," that is, writing without language.

~ David Goldsmith, In conversation with Q.M., 2010

Trying, as it does, to capture the language and thought processes of an innocent, David Mamet's quietly-appreciated play The Cryptogram has a good deal in common with the early chapters of Henry James' "What Maisie Knew" and the Benjy section of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. More circumscribed in terms of genre, the play also evokes dada, epic, and absurd theatre in an important way:

Like the stage works of Tristan Tzara, Bertolt Brecht, and Eugène Ionesco, Mamet's Cryptogram confirms audiences can, when given the chance, make sense of performance narratives that contain foreign, "defamiliarizing," and/or otherwise exotic dialogue.

Of course, even plays as conventional as Shakespeare's -- in the ears of the unready, the uninitiated, and the uninterested -- can fail to signify like MacBeth's and Faulkner's "idot tales." But these other, more intentionally idiosyncratic plays (Antonin Artaud's Jet of Blood,1 for example), films (the work of David Lynch), and prose narratives (the early chapters of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or, in a more sustained way, Finnegans Wake) serve as especially effective, and daresay universal, audience alienators.

Under the spell of this alienation, audiences generally experience one of two responses.

Many, if not most, audience members find themselves focused on, and indeed unable to get past, the fact that the customary meaning-making appendages have been amputated (by whatever agent, for whatever reason, by whatever means). More entitled consumers than interested critics, these individuals believe the performance event and/or literary artifact owes them expository clarity. And while this is a perfectly legitimate response, especially when some form of mercantile exchange has initiated the artist-audience transfer, other watcher-readers thrive on aesthetic chaos.

Those so enlightened recognize one another as initiates in the same elite cabal and use the second great law of the arts2 as a watchword:

Exposition and artistic expression run in parallel lines and never, ever intersect.

The raw, "horseflesh" differences between criticism and artistic expression are simply too extreme.

Critical, expository texts state the un(der)articulated obvious and (attempt to) create positive spaces that clarify ambiguities. Conversely, acts of artistic expression subvert the "self-evident" and "obvious," negotiate with grand negative spaces, and create wildernesses in which unrestricted thought can grow. Thriving on constructive absence, the relative "greatness" of narratives, lyrics, and visual expressions lies in their ability to serve as critical playgrounds. And the opposite, of course, is true of expository works. Even "creative non-fiction," for all its dialecticism, operates on expressive lyricism rather than by generating any sustained aesthetic negative space.

This divide helps explain why there have been so few supremely gifted artist-critics in Western history. In the literary arts, perhaps only John Dryden, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot qualify. Certainly, many writers, poets, and playwrights have laid works on both lines, and some have even tried to create crossover works. But only a handful of writers stand as equally influential artists and critics and hardly any "novel of ideas" serves as anything but a didactic bore.3

Moreover, when writers -- and all artists, for that matter -- tend toward didacticism, they tyrannize their audiences: defining hermeneutic standards like a Calvinist father and setting the terms of legitimacy like an oppressive institution. Artists serve their audiences best by liberating them, by abandoning them in endless, unfinalizable outbacks of bafflement and rapturous mystery.

In short, criticism composes us like The Thinker while the greatest forms of art leave us wet and agog like Saint Theresa's transverberation.

When called upon to clarify Ulysses, Joyce neatly, and somewhat cynically, summarized these ideas in a famous quip:

If I gave it all up immediately, I'd lose my immortality. I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.4

Peerless audience liberator-alienators, high-carat literary artifacts purged of any expositional-alloy, eternal enigma-puzzles -- the "cryptotexts" with which this special section concerns itself can be read as embodiments of, and perhaps even radical extensions of, Joyce's comment.

Separated by at least four, and possibly five, centuries, the Voynich manuscript -- a.k.a, the Beinecke Library's "MS 408" -- and Luigi Serafini's Codex Seraphinianus (1981)5 are wholly defamiliarizing and almost completely subjective, both in terms of expression and interpretation. 21st century texts like Tim Ely's Tables of Aries (2006) and Michael Jacobson's The Giant's Fence (2006) -- both of whom contributed to this special section -- continue the tradition of amputating customary meaning-making appendages for constructive creative purposes. Absolutely "artistic," these texts offer virtually nothing in the way of exposition and make the plays, films, and novels referenced supra watch like Michael Bay movies and read like Dan Brown bestsellers. defines these entropic textual spaces as "cryptotexts," and such literary artifacts exist one step beyond merely "difficult" narratives such as Lynch's Inland Empire and Mark Z. Danielewski's ergodic House of Leaves. As expressed and received, cryptotexts are fully subjective argots and patios that orbit a sphere beyond that of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

Therefore, while many cryptotext authors use terms like "story" and "narrative" to describe their work,6 modern cryptotexts, as well as our contemporary critical approaches to those of the past, exhibit the acute influence of 20th century lyrical expression that stretches from The Cantos to the contemporary, solipsistic memoir. (The fact that most of these latter canards are heavily and [in]famously fictionalized -- true novels that dare not speak the name, as Roland Barthes labeled all [auto]biographies7 -- merely intensifies their subjective essence.)

Both narrative and lyrical, cryptotexts can be read as comprehensive in their interests and modes of expression, as both monastic narrative manuscripts and cipherless codes, as both William Blake-like "illuminations" and John Nash-like fantasies.

Comfortably settled as entitled consumers, some readers reject the infinite subjectivity of cryptotexts and find themselves unsatisfied with the level of abstraction these forms offer. Often enough, these readers feel the need to "translate" them into an objective, semantic tongue, and various master WWII code-breakers and computer programmers8 have tried to decipher both the Voynich and the Codex in this way. However, these texts, like their cryptotext siblings, remain persistently "unbroken" (if they were ever meant to be otherwise).

Playing with this translation instinct, Kane Faucher's essay -- which features a generous sampling of images from the Codex -- uses a charming, Tristram Shandy-esque narrator to participate in Serafini's world in a pseudo-ironic way. Professing over and over again that the Codex can be translated, this narrator makes a few half-hearted attempts to do so but ultimately proves the limits of his thesis and concludes that the text is an instance of 1970s conceptual art. Taking a significantly different approach, Peter Schwenger -- whose essay presents a selection of additional images from the Codex -- offers Faucher's narrator, and all would-be cryptographers, a gentle corrective and encourages readers to embrace the text's lack of exposition and objective language and find other ways of making meaning of it.

Those who follow Schwenger's lead know the Codex has more value in abstraction than it ever could in translation, that it, like all cryptotexts, can enrich both our minds and expand our critical paradigms more effectively as an open semantic form.

Word-filled, language-less texts; collections of empty signs -- the work of Serafini, Jacobson, Ely, and others may potentially and eternally remain undecipherable in an objective sense. But as such, they offer textual culture something unique: words and text abstracted from the weight of functional representation, semantics, and the other duties language routinely performs. In this way, cryptotexts can be read as a form of "blank language" and literary abstraction that, like many of the other literary forms explores, puts a great deal of tension on the graphic/text binary and challenges readers to reevaluate their relationship to, and conception of, each.

Finally, if it's true immortality we seek -- and not the petty fancy of a few of centuries -- cryptotexts reveal Joyce's plan to be too clever by half.

Published in 1922, Ulysses has kept us busy arguing for almost a century now. But tied as it is to the fashions of language and the rigidity of semantic voice, the novel is ultimately destined to sink with the whims of acclaim and find itself erased by whatever "great vowel shifts" loom on the horizon. From Joyce's perspective, Ulysses is also built on a grand intentional fallacy, and like a self-obsessed martinet, the novel limits us to serving its enigmas and playing its parlor games. Finnegans Wake is, perhaps, more likely to grant Joyce his immortality (excepting, perhaps, the pesky lucidity of the first part of book two). And while it's not a true cryptotext, the Wake does approach the the work of Serafini, Jacobson, and Ely by lending itself to a multitude of coordinate readings by a multitude of readers.

Nevertheless, even if Joyce has successfully positioned either of these texts to keep readers arguing for centuries, cryptotexts like the Voynich manuscript and the Codex Seraphinius are positioned to achieve the same for millennia or, at least, for as long as their plastic identities remain intact (whether materially or digitally). Their open semantics ensure them an infinite number of coordinate readings, by an infinite number of readers, along an infinite timeline.

And while I know men of genius make no mistakes -- their errors are volitional, the portals of discovery -- the Voynich, in fact, already has a four- to five-hundred-year-old record of generating discussion. For Joyce to compete with that, we'll just have to wait and see how much cultural dust has accumulated on Ulysses when the year 2322 rolls around.

... yes I say yes we will Yes.

Editor's Note

This cryptotexts special section was the brainchild of board member David Goldsmith: "Brother Agonistes," hubris-driven singer of songs.

Further Reading & Resources

  1. "Category:Uncracked codes and ciphers," Wikipedia, 11 July 2010. ciphers (14 December 2010).
  2. "Category:Undeciphered writing systems," Wikipedia, 2 October 2010. _writing_systems (14 December 2010).
  3. Elonka Dunin, "Elonka's Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers," 8 August 2010. (14 December 2010).
  4. Nick Pelling, Cipher Mysteries, n.d. (14 December 2010).
  5. "Voynich Manuscript," n.d. (14 December 2010)
  6. "Voynich Manuscript|Cipher Manuscript," n.d. (14 December 2010).
  1. Wikipedia provides an extensive overview of Jet of Blood ("Jet of Blood," 28 June 2010. [23 December 2010]), and those interested can watch a few key scenes from the play on YouTube: "Ignite's Jet of Blood" (9 February 2007. [23 December 2010]) and "Jet of Blood" (17 June 2009. [23 December 2010]). The Jet of Blood script can be read, in its entirety, at Google Books: (23 December 2010) in A Theatre Anthology: Plays and Documents (Ed. David Willinger and Charles Gattnig. UP of America, 1990).
  2. In legacy issue 1.2, I suggest the first great law of the arts is "Today's avant-garde inevitably becomes tomorrow's institution" ("Issue 1.2 Introduction," 1.2 [June 2010]. [January 01, 2011]).
  3. Example "novels of ideas" might include Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1838), Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point (1928), and the work of Ayn Rand. I'm less inclined to include texts like Candide (1759) or the novels of Stendhal, Hermann Hesse, and Albert Camus in this list because while they're philosophically-driven, they also avoid the pure, expository didacticism that characterizes these other texts. The same could be said of "political" texts like Henry James' The Princess Casamassima and most of George Orwell's oeuvre.
  4. Frequently quoted and rarely cited, Wikiquote (17 December 2010. [1 January 2011]) attributes this quote to Richard Ellmann's celebrated biography James Joyce (Oxford UP, 1959; revised edition, 1982). In the biography, Ellmann attributes the quote to a 1956 interview Joyce gave Jacques Benoîst-Méchin (cf. 521 and 791n104 in the 1982 edition) but doesn't provide further citation or publication information. As such, it's likely Ellmann found the interview while conducting research. The National Library of Ireland, the British Library and, in the US, SUNY Buffalo, Cornell U, Yale U, and U of Texas at Austin all have significant Joyce collections, and Ellmann thanks each in his introduction.
  5. Developing this special section, I tried to reach out to Luigi Serafini for comment and, possibly, for an interview. I sent my message, in Italian and English, to [email protected]: an address I found on the web ( [5 January 2011]) and that, until recently, was embedded in the code of his provocatively blank website ( [5 January 2011]). Unsurprisingly, the email was neither returned undeliverable nor replied to. Like Joyce, Serafini is likely aware that he and his text have a good chance of achieving immortality as long as the latter remains mysterious and radically subjective.
  6. Michael Jacobson, for example, in the opening pages of The Giant's Fence (Barbarian Interior, 2006), describes his text as "an asemic visual narrative" that "expresses the electricity and dynamics of life, through a calligraphic collision of language at the crossroads of visual poetry and experimental fiction" (3). Giant's can be read, in its entirety, at Google Books ( [6 January 2011]) and purchased at ("The Giant's Fence," 20 October 2010. [6 January 2011]).
  7. "Any biography is a novel which dares not speak its name" (Tel Quel 47 [1971]. Rpt. as "Interview with Tel Quel" in The Tel Quel Reader [Ed. Patrick ffrench and Roland-François Lack. Routledge, 1998], 249). See The Tel Quel Reader, 269n1 for more information on the interview.
  8. See, for example, Jeffrey Christopher Stanley's "To Read Images Not Words: Computer-Aided Analysis of the Handwriting in the Codex Seraphinianus" (M.A. thesis, North Carolina State U, 2010). Admittedly, Stanley does not attempt to translate the Codex into a semantic language per se. Instead, his thesis identifies "recurring sequences of tokens" in the Codex and proposes "a classification of [its] tokens into types," which, Stanley suggests, are "two main sub-problems in decipherment" ("Abstract"). While not attempting to convert the Codex into a linguistic form, then, the intent of his study nevertheless remains making meaning of the Codex via hard-nosed decipherment. A PDF version of this thesis can be downloaded here: (8 January 2011), and's thanks are due Michael Jacobson' Post-Literate (R)Evolution (6 January 2011. [8 January 2011]) for bringing this thesis to the editors' attention.

Citation: Melton, Quimby. 7 December 2012. "Introduction – Cryptotexts." (accessed [PST / -7:00]).

Updated: December 7, 2012 at 10:12 pm (PST / -7:00)

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