As I came away from the recent Voynich 100 Conference at the Villa Mondragone in Frascati, Italy, I found myself thinking of some old problems in new ways. Probably most useful to organizing my thoughts was my interview by Lisa Jackson and Bob Aschmann , the Sunday after the conference. Being asked some old and new questions, so soon after meeting and discussing everything Voynich under the sun, allowed me to organize my thoughts in some new and different ways. It was a sort of Voynich-therapy session.
One question was why the Voynich has not been solved. I mean, in extremely simple terms, one might say, “Because it is really, really, hard”. But the question is, what makes it different than other hard problems? Why have the usual tools of scholarship been unable to crack this one? Or, unable to define it at the very least, if one accepts that reading it is not the paramount problem? I mean, we don’t even know what it is. Well, there are those who will tell you they do know what it is, and what it is not, of course, usually adding the “unusual” disclaimer before the suggestion. But really, no one is satisfied, or this would be over. So why don’t we at least know what it is, with certainty?
In the interview, my answer to the question “why?”was, “because I believe the Voynich resides outside of existing scholarship”.
Scholarship does not experiment, it does not imagine. It only compares, contrasts, and catalogs. In almost all cases, this works, because almost all of the world, and all of the knowledge within it, exists somewhere in known scholarship. But perhaps, not in the case of the Voynich- and this would then explain the loss of scholarship to explain it. “What the Voynich really is” is not in there, and so, scholarship cannot solve it. It certainly has not, and perhaps will not, ever.
I’ve often wondered why mainstream scholars have rejected various concepts I have proposed, and rejected some seemingly (to me) reasonable, common sense proposals of others. I could not understand why optics and fantasy were lumped in with aliens and crop circles. And then, at the same time, those same scholars have accepted some other, seemingly (to me) bizarre concepts… which I will not relate, here. But I could not equate the two seemingly disparate judgments. Now, I think I have a clue as to why. I think my inability to understand this effect, this “disconnect” as I see it, was in my looking at all the ideas suggested for the Voynich, all the theories, on a sliding, empirical scale of “normal” to “bizarre”, while at the same time, failing to see one important, divisive, distinction: Ideas accepted by scholars and scholarship, no matter how outrageous, are assembled from examples from existing scholarship; rejected ideas always exist outside of accepted scholarship. And “outside of scholarship” to a dedicated scholar, simply means it cannot be. Without a category or existing example to compare it to, scholarship believes an idea to be impossible.
Well, I can compare to various concepts within scholarship, but not to existing examples, and certainly as a whole, my ideas do not fit in any existing category. I suspect optics, for instance, and it is rightly pointed out there is no other 1610-1620 optical manuscript, or even a place for one. I see old vellum use, post C14, and I’m told the scholarship does not allow it, as such a situation is rare, or unknown. There is not yet a category for works on old vellum, and when examples are found, scholarship tends to digest them as errors, or unimportant anomalies. “Purple Cows”, so to speak. And when I see a manuscript created as an artifact of scientific, utopian, fiction, as a sort of “living Book M”… it is correctly pointed out I can’t find another actual work to compare it to. Again, there is no category for such a document, as no such work is known to exist; they are only described in fiction. And when I show other works which were created to look like older texts, such as the Chittenden manuscript, it is pointed out, accurately, that they exist in their own category, which my specific case does not fit. And of course, scholarship will not create a category for what I suspect the Voynich is, “An Artifact Born of Scientific Utopian Literature”, until it is proven. I understand that. And therefore it is a vicious circle, a “Catch 22”, for my theories and proposals.
I made a PowerPoint slide for the very end of my Voynich 100 presentation, which I erased the morning of the Conference. I have since been sorry I removed it. At the time I wanted to limit my presentation to three basic concepts. The erased slide was presenting a fourth, although a simple one, and entitled, “The Antikythera Mechanism of Manuscripts?” The Antikythera Mechanism is a Greek device, a highly complex, geared mechanical astronomical computer, now dated to the first century BCE. Before it was found, it was not known that the Greeks, or any culture for that matter, would be remotely capable of building such a thing in its time… and actually, incapable for at least another 1800 years. The entire scholarship of the Greeks, of science and proto-science, and of astronomy, and gear mechanics, did not have a category for such a device. When found, it existed outside of known scholarship.
It has occurred to me, that if the Antikythera Mechanism were dropped into the lap of existing scholarship like a hot potato, without the shipwreck it was found on, scholarship would have failed to properly identify it. We would have been told that it was probably a highly advanced 19th century device. This, because there was no category, when found, for a first century BCE, complex, geared mechanical astronomical computer. In fact, scholarship created that category only grudgingly, as many at the time of its discovery believed the device must have fallen on the BCE wreck much later. And I will point out that the Antikythera mechanism is the only device in the very category made for it. It is stunningly, brazenly, truly: one of a kind.
It may be pointed out that the shipwreck, on which the Antikythera Mechanism was found, does in fact date the device. And this means that existing scholarship, in the form of marine archeology, has worked in that respect. And further, it might be suggested that there is an analogy between the shipwreck and the Voynich C14 dating… and claim, again, that scholarship, with the acceptance and knowledge of carbon dating and dendrochronology, has worked in our case. But I might counter that both the errors I, and others, have found in the assumptions of “use of old vellum practices”, do easily allow that that the Voynich could have been made on old vellum, that the current provenance and ink tests on the Voynich do not disallow this, and lastly, that to ignore the striking resemblance of many Voynich cylinders to early microscopes, is, in effect, ignoring the scholarship of early microscopes, and failing to use it as a comparison.
And ‘round and ‘round we go, again. I can find, within existing scholarship, exceptions to the arguments against my theory. But without a category to place the Voynich in, as I envision it, or actual examples of what I propose it is, those exceptions will not be allowed by scholarship.
So what is there to do, as I pursue this? Of course I will continue to use known scholarship for research. Although I feel it has not managed to give an answer, nor accepted mine, so far, I do hope that I may find some other such artifact as I suspect the Voynich to be, mis-categorized, or not as yet categorized. Perhaps there is some book, object, or device, or description of same, which also sprang from the same influences I suspect influenced the creation of the Voynich. And if so, maybe it will turn out it is not alone in its own box, as the Antikythera Mechanism certainly is. But meanwhile, while looking for that example, or waiting and hoping for a translation which puts the question to rest, I will look at the Voynich in the category I have created for it. Perhaps my new category will never be accepted, and no other examples ever be found, and perhaps the Voynich will never be proven to be what I suspect it is. And it may very well not be that thing, of course. But I still am not satisfied with anything on the list of proposals that existing scholarship will accept, or has proposed, so I must continue to look elsewhere.