Written by Aira De Los Santos
Through the YouTube channel, Curious Archive, I recently discovered Codex Seraphinianus: a surreal encyclopedia documenting a fictional world loosely inspired by Earth’s plants, animals, scientific discoveries and society. Alongside detailed illustrations of fish resembling watchful human eyes and a life cycle of a tree which ends with the tree walking away, the fascination surrounding the encyclopedia is due to its rareness and expensiveness. If you’re fortunate enough to flick through a physical copy, it can feel like discovering a distant universe. As someone who’s only seen scans online, while I am amazed with its use of imagination, growing up with the internet, I’m desensitized to “weird” imagery. It would be more shocking to those who read it in 1981, when it was first published.
Still, Codex Seraphinianus beautifully conveys the fresh curiosity people get when learning about a topic they know nothing about, way before they are required to apply it academically or in the real world, and imposter syndrome kicks in. The author, Luigi Serafini, said that he wanted the encyclopedia to capture the feeling children get with books they currently lack the literacy skills to understand. This is shown through the text’s asemic script, without meaning, so the reader can interpret the sentences in their own way. Though, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to decipher its language, and though its letters are indecipherable, the page-numbering system is a variation of base 21.
“Sometimes I wish I could experience the world from a child’s perspective again…”
Lately, I have been struggling to find that fresh curiosity children get easily. For context, I’m a first-year cognitive neuroscience student who’s 19. A lot of university-level courses build upon knowledge from high school, so even though I barely learnt about human brain structure before university, I still put pressure on myself to understand stuff like the autonomic nervous system immediately. Biology was one of my weak subjects (it’s neither formulaic like math, or allowed a degree of subjectivity like literary analysis), so I have to work extra hard to absorb what I have learnt. My thought process turns from, ‘Wow that’s interesting!’ to ‘Wait, if I don’t understand this, I might not do well on the test.’ Cue that feeling of dread.
Sometimes my mind also goes to thinking about how privilege impacts my access to higher education. Born into a middle-class intelligent family, I am forever grateful that I grew up being able to afford school and having my parents help me with math problems I was stuck on. I can afford to be demotivated for a while because my parents can financially support me. Students with a poorer family might need to juggle work, full-time study and not have the luxury to switch majors if they’re having an existential crisis. It’s realisations like this that make the world random and cruel, and it’s even worse for women in developing countries who might never get access to proper education. Sometimes, it’s like why are any of us here anyways? Are some people just going to live their life always struggling to meet their basic needs? The issues some people go through are worse than the most awkward situation drawn in Codex Seraphinianus (that’s subjective, but my vote goes to the couple in bed slowly turning into one crocodile).
“It doesn’t have to have meaning for us to find meaning, like life itself…”
So, instead of just enjoying my time at university, I am constantly trying to justify that I made the right choice by asking myself questions. Am I making the most out of this opportunity, or am I slacking off with assessments again? I love my courses, but maybe I was meant to be a journalist instead. Do I even have the work ethic to become a researcher? These textbooks I already bought were expensive…
Preparing for the future and reflecting on your privileges are both good, but sometimes I wish I could experience the world from a child’s perspective again. Their ability to just wonder excitedly about things, not motivated by anxiety, but because there’s so much, they don’t know yet about their surroundings and how society works.
This overthinking also bleeds into what should be a relaxing pastime: creative writing and roleplaying. With one of the worlds I’m currently constructing, I’m obsessing over whether a fantasy alternate retelling of World War II is historically accurate or if the made-up inventions I added fit into a 20th century setting. Meanwhile, when I was a child, I just wrote whatever came to mind. Children are less inclined to make sure their world is logically consistent regardless of how realistic it is, or if their characters seem like they could be actual people.
“Am I making the most out of this opportunity, or am I slacking off with assessments again? These textbooks I already bought were expensive…”
I like how with Codex Seraphinianus, there’s an unspoken rule that the world appears logically consistent. With the text being indecipherable, we only rely on Serafini’s illustrations. Throughout the encyclopedia, the colour palette used is similar. But do the images really have anything that ties them together besides being surreal? I don’t know, but he presents everything like they’re fact, as if the reader should just accept them. Some pages are better left seen rather than described; they’re hard to put into words. This confidence is something I need to learn when writing.
For those looking for a deeper meaning within Codex Seraphinianus, Serafini eventually admitted in a WIRED interview that the encyclopedia “is similar to the Rorschach inkblot test” and readers project what they want to see. The images exist to let you make sense of them with your imagination, even though they’re not supposed to make sense. Without this context, I would have spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand the pictures and the words.
“For us overthinkers, shutting off the need to think through situations is uncomfortable because it’s like losing a sense of control…”
Part of me is disappointed that the mystery was explained away by the creator himself, and now I can’t see the world in the encyclopedia as anything but Serafini randomly mashing things together in his sketches for his own amusement. The other part of me thinks Serafini’s intentions when creating Codex Seraphinianus are fine. It doesn’t have to have meaning for us to find meaning, like life itself. More importantly, you don’t have to have all the answers figured out, and sometimes you have to make peace that there is no definite answer. Serafini is able to balance fantasy and reality not only by incorporating aspects from our world, but also by tapping into the human need to make sense of what we don’t yet understand – no matter our age.
I know I’m not the only young university student worrying about grades and how my future is going to go. For us overthinkers, shutting off the need to think through situations is uncomfortable because it’s like losing a sense of control. It would be hard for me to approach the world like a child. But it would be helpful for us to step back and appreciate the process of learning for the sake of it. Our own world can feel just as confusing as the one in Codex Seraphinianus sometimes, but it’s also just as mesmerizing and such an honour we get to learn aspects of it in university. We even have our own “bizarre” examples, like the blue-ringed octopus, and how the brain processes signals from eyes!
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