I read the TLS most weeks, so it's no surprise to me that it publishes readable articles by experts on subjects of significance and interest. But one of the articles in last week's issue (10th April 2013) has attracted an unusual amount of attention on the Web, and has come as close as a piece in a scholarly weekly is ever likely to come to "going viral".
Rather than repeat or summarise a complex and entertainingly-written piece, I invite you to read it yourself. You'll be away for some time, so I will now go and make a cup of tea. Meanwhile, here's a (genuine) picture.
Welcome back. A curious case, no? You do encounter such people if you work in a university. I'd say barely a week goes by without the unsolicited gift of a work of "independent scholarship" arriving in the library, or an emailed invitation to purchase some self-proclaimed (and self-published) work of overlooked genius. Nearly all of these, of course, are perfectly genuine, although many are clearly the product of an unquiet mind with a weakness for conspiracies. But it got me thinking about some other some unresolved cases of, uh, enigmatic origins that keep the private scholars and alternative theorists busy.
One such is the Voynich Manuscript. If you have never come across this intriguing object before, and have a taste for cryptographic mysteries or truly weird pictures, then this may be of interest. Again, rather than rehearse a story that others have told better, here is a link to a recent article that may or may not shed some light on this curious case. Time for another pictorial interlude.
Welcome back again. I think the most telling paragraph in that article is this:
Kircher was not up to the task, and neither was Friedman, who never published anything on the Voynich save a footnote to a paper on Chaucer that he and his wife wrote for Philological Quarterly. The footnote was anagrammed (in the tradition of Galileo’s repudiation of Ptolemy), with its solution provided in a sealed envelope for later disclosure, when Friedman believed he would have solved the cypher. The anagram, which reaches the limit of Friedman’s sense of humor, reads, “I put no trust in anagrammatic acrostic cyphers, for they are of little real value—a waste—and may prove nothing.—Finis.” Readers wrote in possible solutions, some delightfully reprinted in an editor’s note (“To arrive at a solution of the Voynich Manuscript, try these general tactics: a song, a punt, a prayer. William F. Friedman.” Or “This is a trap, not a trot. Actually I can see no apt way of unraveling the rare Voynich Manuscript. For me, defeat is grim.”) Friedman never managed to solve the Voynich, and after his death, the editor of Philological Quarterly opened the envelope bearing the solution to the anagram: “The Voynich Manuscript was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the A-Priori type.—Friedman.” A synthetic language, rather than a cryptogram, was his best guess.
What I find telling is how brilliantly apposite the attempts to solve the anagram are. Yet completely wrong. Even in a case where there is a known cipher, addressing a known problem, in a known language, you simply step into a bewildering hall of mirrors with no exit. That way, surely, madness lies.
Talking of Hamlet, all this clue-hunting and code-breaking reminds me of the eternal hunt for secret messages concealed in Shakespeare, clues to the "real" identity of the author of the plays. One of the best demonstrations of the futility of such quests is the astonishing fact that the words "To be or not to be: that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" are -- outrageously -- an anagram of "in one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero Hamlet queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten ..."
As the man says, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Especially if that idiot has been faking the evidence all along.