Bureaucracy: Codex Seraphinianus

Serafini, Luigi, Italo Calvino, Yves Hersant, and Geneviève Lambert. Codex Seraphinianus. Milano: Franco Mario Ricci, 1993. Print.

About

It has been categorized as one of the strangest books ever published. A nonsensical art book with a surrealist vision. Grotesque, yet disturbingly beautiful, it commands a mix of wonder, awe and frustration. Originally published in two volumes by the Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci in 1981, Codex Seraphinianus is an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world, conceived and created by artist and designer Luigi Serafini (1949-) between 1976 and 1978. The copy of the Codex acquired by UNT is a facsimile reprint of the original, published as part of a 1993 single-volume edition.  It is labeled copy #2159 of 5000, comprises 250 hand-made pages, and is bound in Ricci’s trademark black silk with gold gilt lettering on the cover and spine. Reissued in both the US and Italy, the book has gained wide recognition for its use of asemic (or non-semantic) writing and its depiction of bizarre and fantastical flora, fauna, anatomies, technologies, fashions and architectures.

In an interview with Wired magazine in 2013, Serafini said he wanted to “convey to the reader…the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand.” Although there have been many attempts to translate the Codex, it has thus far resisted efforts to decipher its language and meaning. Jeff Stanley’s recent M.A. thesis examined the Codex using computer-assisted decipherment, and his conclusions support Serafini’s statements that the “language” is artistic, not linguistic. Following statements made in the book itself, some have speculated that Codex—created in the late 1970s when coding and decoding messages had become important across numerous academic fields, including genetics, computer science and literary criticism—represents a creative vision at the precipice of the Information Age (Davies). Today, as communication and information technologies multiply, the allure of Serafini’s work continues to grow. Decades after its initial publication, opinions remain divided over the asemic language of the Codex: is it a code meant to be deciphered, a meaningless jumble of signs, or perhaps entirely visual, meant to be “read” as a sequence of images?

The continued fascination with the Codex may stem from its combination of a rigid structure borrowed from the encyclopedia and illustrations that defy conventional classifications. The book is organized like many nineteenth and twentieth-century encyclopedias: there are eleven separate sections that, in spite of the impossibility of reading the texts, have evident topical coherence. The first section illustrates various types of flora, from eccentric flowers to trees that uproot themselves, migrate, and split in half to reveal an avocado-like structure. The second section transitions into fauna, depicting a bestiary of more ‘real world’ animals as well as one of fantastical creatures that appear to be made up of human body parts. From here the book moves through sections vaguely resembling physics, chemistry, meteorology, anthropology, biology, architecture, and so on. Although the Codex employs the organizational principles of an encyclopedia, its fantastical illustrations encourage imaginative play that actively confounds the systemization of knowledge characteristic of the genre.  

A common theme in the illustrations is the idea of layers: as layers are peeled back from different creatures, new beings come into view. There is an image of a hippopotamus in which a human is pulling back the skin from its backside to reveal another, smaller hippopotamus beneath, emerging from the first’s skin. There are multiple images that show how the bureaucratic systems that seek to hold our inner animals in check fail as animals break forth from human bodies or humans turn into animals. In later sections, another related theme emerges: the integration of human and machine. A soldier is revealed to have an arm that ends with a gun instead of a hand. A writer’s arm ends with a fountain pen nib. These images suggest the bureaucratic drive for efficiency changes the very makeup of the human being. Perhaps most disturbing—and most relevant to the topic of bureaucracy—is the illustration in which surgeons are taking human skins and stretching them onto skeletons. The surgery table is held up not by legs, but by piles and piles of books, perhaps suggesting that the modern push towards homogeneity is built upon centuries of tradition. Other skeletons, awaiting their skins, watch the progress of the procedure. In the next illustration, the skeletons—now clothed with skin stitched together on their side—are examining themselves in the mirror. Clothing identical to the surgeons’ clothing sits next to them as they prepare to put on the uniform of the institution and, presumably, continue the process of making others just like them. Later on, there is an image in which a man is seen literally being fed words, with the ink dribbling onto the bib he wears around his neck. The sequence suggests that not only must physical appearance be made homogenous, so must words and thoughts.

Even though we cannot read the text of the Codex, these illustrations convey the idea that the knowledge system of the book aims to force us into a mold: people, animals and things must be classified and categorized, and the outcome is the homogenization of life. The surreal, uncanny elements of the illustrations get at the heart of the book’s larger message: to the artist Serafini, this drive to normalize society and make all human beings alike is horrifying, grotesque, perverse. The book thus dissents from the current condition of modern life with its divisive structures and drive to sameness.

Although the Codex Seraphinianus paints the image of an imaginary world in which there are creatures walking around that look like a pair of human legs and animals spring forth from people like Artemis came forth from the head of Zeus, the world of the Codex has a realistic quality as well—one that underscores its powerful critical rhetoric. As Peter Swirski wrote, “Literature simply cannot but constantly refer to, and otherwise depend on, real world structures. In a clear sense no work of literature—including what may probably be the least reality-dependent literary work of our time, Luigi Serafini's Codex Seraphinianus—could be understood if it did not correspond in some way to the actual world” (19). By embedding surreal images and asemic text in the form of a reference book, the Codex Seraphinianus resists the bureaucratic implementation of cultural norms; its language without sense both gestures to and undercuts the technologies of description we use to codify the world and ourselves.

Find Codex Seraphinianus in the UNT Libraries Catalog.