It is astonishing how ideas often appear in our awareness in curious juxtapositions. While working doggedly and hopelessly on fathoming the mystery of Stonehenge, my mind was sidetracked by an article on The Voynich Manuscript – an enigmatic medieval volume whose script has never been decoded. Like Stonehenge, the notorious manuscript has fascinated and eluded the finest minds for centuries. Written in a language not known to humans, containing images of fantastical plants not to be found on the earth as well as a plethora of baffling astronomical and astrological images, it richly feeds imagination but laughs at the face of reason. There have been theories about the alien origin of the manuscript. Terence McKenna referred to it as “an object from another dimension.” It has been quite firmly established that it was written in a language rather than a code. This explains why the most renowned cryptographers have had no success with it. If it is indeed written in a natural language, the manuscript is the only available written record of it in the whole world. The National Security Agency has published a volume devoted to numerous futile attempts on cracking its code, preceded by an inspiring quote from Roger Bacon: “Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, nor does it remove doubt so that the mind may rest on the intuition of truth, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience… Therefore reasoning does not suffice, but experience does.” It is curious how the manuscript speaks to us as if beyond the rational mind could ever grasp. We experience its magnificence in the same way as we are captivated by the ca 7000- year-old circle of stones on the Salisbury Plain.
The manuscript can be viewed in its entirety on the website of Yale University (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/voynich-manuscript) as well as on its Wikipedia page. Eamon Duffy wrote an interesting article on it for the current issue of The New York Review of Books. I appreciated the author’s fascination with the flamboyant Polish-Lithuanian bookdealer, who discovered the manuscript. If books have personalities, then the quirky manuscript could not have chosen a more original persona as its name-giver. Wilfrid Michael Voynich (known as Wojnicz before he anglicized his name) was born in a noble family and given stellar education in Krakow, Poland. He acquired several doctorate degrees and vast knowledge of several languages. As a plotting revolutionary, he was arrested by Russian authorities and sent to Siberia, from which he managed to escape on a forged passport. He travelled through Mongolia, China, Germany, finally reaching England utterly destitute, having even sold coat and glasses to pay for the passage. It came to pass that in England he utterly reinvented himself into a rogue and brilliantly successful “buyer and seller of rare books.” He managed to acquire numerous books which were coveted by the British Library itself. Among his clients were the most prestigious collectors and institutions, not only the Bristish Library but also the British Museum. He owned a few prestigious shops in London and later in the USA, where he settled.
Last year in January, a Spanish company Siloe bought the rights to make 898 official replicas of the manuscript, which has been locked in the vaults of Yale University since 1969. It was supposed to take 18 months to make the first facsimiles. Will the multiplication of the volume increase the chances of fathoming its mystery? Will the replicas capture a fraction of the original’s mysterious aura? Juan Jose Garcia, director of Silos, said in an interview that “touching the Voynich is an experience. It’s a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe.” Rather than focus on an intellectual solution to the riddle of the manuscript, perhaps we should “try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language,” as Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet.