What kind of person writes a book in a made-up language, then peppers it with utterly nonsensical illustrations and dares you to find meaning in it? Luigi Serafini, that’s who. No, he’s not the famous Roman bishop. This Serafini is a renowned author, painter, sculptor, and illustrator. So why would such a renaissance man create a book that’s overtly impossible to understand?
His reason for doing this is a noble one. The Codex Seraphinianus is an attempt to capture a feeling most of us lost in childhood—the feeling of being unable to comprehend something you know others around you understand just fine. That’s a fascinating idea. How many other artists have tried to create that exact sensation? None immediately come to mind.
Since the book’s first publication in 1981, the writing in the Codex Seraphinianus has stumped linguists and code breakers alike. Is it a real language? Probably not. Is it modeled after something we use today? Maybe. A left-to-right, top-to-bottom style is found in many—if not most—modern languages. But the Codex Seraphinianus doesn’t appear to be translatable, or even comprehensible. The writing appears highly repetitive, with identical “words” appearing multiple times in the same paragraph. If it’s fiction, it’s probably not very good.
Serafini himself has claimed that the book is an example of “free writing,” which is a kind of automatic writing favored by those with religious fervor, hallucinations, by psychics, or those who just need to clear the jumble of thoughts from their own head. Think you might want to try your hand at translating? This Facebook page has the entire book cataloged in pictures.
Perhaps more intriguing than the non-language itself is the vibrant and confounding art found in the Codex Seraphinianus. Clearly inspired by earthbound flora and fauna, Serafini’s illustrations conjure thoughts of films like “Fantastic Planet” or maybe even “Heavy Metal.” So what’s he getting at when he draws something like this? If Serafin’s intention is to capture the childlike puzzlement of not being able to understand language, shouldn’t the illustrations be that much more accessible? Well, don’t hold your breath—they aren’t.
Some have speculated that the Codex Seraphinianus is a book about aliens—that is to say, it depicts language and visuals more appropriate to a planet not our own. Others think it might have been written for the benefit of space aliens who are trying to figure out Earthlings. Could be; maybe when these prophesied aliens arrive, they can translate the text for us too. Of course, they shouldn’t have to. The author of the “Codex Seraphinianus” is still alive. Shouldn’t he be explaining what the hell he was trying to say with his own book? Maybe. But if he hasn’t by now, chances are we’ve got all the information we’re ever going to get.