Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cipher Manuscripts

Zanoni.  It's one of those novels you might hear about if you read the sorts of stuff I tend to read.  In some circles it is quite notorious.  Of course, those are some very small circles.  More like dots, really.  This novel is obscure in a way that others aspire to be forgotten.  But it's worth looking at, as far as I am concerned, as a nice bit of inspiration on how some fairly pervasive modern occult myths got started.

Zanoni is based upon the premise that a secret cipher manuscript is decoded and the novel is what comes from that deciphered cipher manuscript.  Essentially the novel is the product of some fairly astute occult code breaking.  No, it's not exactly rip-roaring.  You want that, go check out Zane Grey.  Loads of rip-roaring, almost nothing else.  Stripped to the bone and loaded for bear.  Fun stuff.  As for Zanoni, it's a quieter, more subdued and philosophical kind of story, like if a turn of the century Mason had been tasked with re-writing Twilight with a purple felt-tip marker on the walls of a tuberculosis ward in London during the WWII Blitz while he smoked second-rate hashish.  Oh, and instead of 'vampire' he had to use 'immortal,' etc.

"It is a romance, and it is not a romance. It is a truth for those who can comprehend it, and an extravagance for those who cannot." --From Zanoni

It is a romance, and it is not a romance.  It features a love story between an immortal who surrenders his immortality to die with his loyal and devoted mortal wife.  You know the story; 'He gave it all up in order to settle down and die with his loving wife.'  Drivel.  Absolute crap.  But, if you manage to overlook the many and copious failings of the plot, premise or story in general, there is one interesting thing to take away from having survived actually reading the novel.

But first, lest you think that I indulge in turgid, purple prose of the worst hyperbole in my description of the steaming pile of Victoriana which Bulwer-Lytton left on the floor for us all, hark, feast your eyes upon the following immaculate contortions of the English language:

At last there arrived the manuscripts, with a brief note from my deceased friend, reminding me of my imprudent promise.

With mournful interest, and yet with eager impatience, I opened the packet and trimmed my lamp. Conceive my dismay when I found the whole written in an unintelligible cipher. I present the reader with a specimen:
(Several strange characters.)
and so on for nine hundred and forty mortal pages in foolscap. I could scarcely believe my eyes: in fact, I began to think the lamp burned singularly blue; and sundry misgivings as to the unhallowed nature of the characters I had so unwittingly opened upon, coupled with the strange hints and mystical language of the old gentleman, crept through my disordered imagination. Certainly, to say no worse of it, the whole thing looked UNCANNY! I was about, precipitately, to hurry the papers into my desk, with a pious determination to have nothing more to do with them, when my eye fell upon a book, neatly bound in blue morocco, and which, in my eagerness, I had hitherto overlooked. I opened this volume with great precaution, not knowing what might jump out, and—guess my delight—found that it contained a key or dictionary to the hieroglyphics. Not to weary the reader with an account of my labours, I am contented with saying that at last I imagined myself capable of construing the characters, and set to work in good earnest. Still it was no easy task, and two years elapsed before I had made much progress. I then, by way of experiment on the public, obtained the insertion of a few desultory chapters, in a periodical with which, for a few months, I had the honour to be connected. They appeared to excite more curiosity than I had presumed to anticipate; and I renewed, with better heart, my laborious undertaking. But now a new misfortune befell me: I found, as I proceeded, that the author had made two copies of his work, one much more elaborate and detailed than the other; I had stumbled upon the earlier copy, and had my whole task to remodel, and the chapters I had written to retranslate. I may say then, that, exclusive of intervals devoted to more pressing occupations, my unlucky promise cost me the toil of several years before I could bring it to adequate fulfilment. The task was the more difficult, since the style in the original is written in a kind of rhythmical prose, as if the author desired that in some degree his work should be regarded as one of poetical conception and design. To this it was not possible to do justice, and in the attempt I have doubtless very often need of the reader's indulgent consideration. My natural respect for the old gentleman's vagaries, with a muse of equivocal character, must be my only excuse whenever the language, without luxuriating into verse, borrows flowers scarcely natural to prose. Truth compels me also to confess, that, with all my pains, I am by no means sure that I have invariably given the true meaning of the cipher; nay, that here and there either a gap in the narrative, or the sudden assumption of a new cipher, to which no key was afforded, has obliged me to resort to interpolations of my own, no doubt easily discernible, but which, I flatter myself, are not inharmonious to the general design. This confession leads me to the sentence with which I shall conclude: If, reader, in this book there be anything that pleases you, it is certainly mine; but whenever you come to something you dislike,—lay the blame upon the old gentleman!
That is from the introduction.  Yeah.  The introduction.  I've read a ton of old stuff, things that would give you gray hairs, quite a bit of it obtuse nonense peddled by pseudo-scholars who really ought to have known better, but through it all, this one novel really and truly just never has sat right with me, not ever.  The whole daft notion that an immortal somehow has to devolve, degenerate and abandon a higher level of spiritual development in order to show their loyalty to a lesser being that they are sleeping with strikes me as akin to an ancient Greek poem about giving up godhood to shag goats out back.  At least the old Greek poem might rhyme or maybe it's a limmerick.  A dirty limmerick.  Yeah.  That'd be tons more fun than this overly saccharine codswallop.

But it does have one thing worth noting.  Yep.  It does have that going for it.  You see the underlying premise of Zanoni is that the entire novel was acquired through decoding and decrypting a cipher.  Yeah, I know that I have already said that up above, before the big, boring quote.  But this is where it gets interesting.  You see, the story that Bulwer-Lytton passed on to the reading public about his mysterious cipher manuscript that revealed various and sundry arcane secrets with a direct connection to the Rosicrucians and their rituals, and the ongoing practice of these same rites surviving on into today...well, that is -- in a nutshell, so to speak -- the very same claim made by one Mr. Mathers.  You know him as one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  The Golden Dawn was founded on the rituals decoded from a cipher manuscript found under mysterious (some would say credulity-straining) circumstances.  The story surrounding the Golden Dawn's cipher manuscript is, in all due fairness to Bulwer-Lytton, much more interesting.  In some respects Mathers was a superior writer.  But that's an opinion, of course.

If you dig back into the histories of the various real-world (so-called) Orders and Lodges of magic, a great majority of them seem to be founded on spurious old cipher manuscripts that may or may not be forgeries or perhaps were ghostwritten by Zanoni for some under-the-table cash to support his laudanum addiction. 

So what?  Well, here's where it starts to get interesting for me.  This whole notion of spurious cipher manuscripts serving as the seeds of magical Orders is just too good to let pass.  So, in Riskail, to steal a page or two from Zanoni (possibly as an act of revenge for having actually read the thing), the various sorcerers in the cafes and salons are sometimes caught-up in an ecstatic frenzy, or they lapse into a trance and begin to recite, dictate, or transcribe freehand the contents of various received texts.  Literally, they psychically download the contents of entire books spontaneously, automatically (literally), and these books are all in strange ciphers, hieroglyphs, codes, anagrams and other forms of intellectual/literary-puzzles that must be decoded in order to figure out what the hell they are actually saying.  The sorcerers offer up their works into the Public Domain as works of art.  These manuscripts float around in the various libraries, collections and archives for years, decades, even longer, until someday some person, a bored scholar most likely, finds the received text, deciphers the thing and realizes that they have the core rituals, rules, doctrines and lore of a whole new magical Order in their hot little hands.  So these bibliophilic (they really, really love books) scholars get some trusted associates together, show them a few of the pages that they have deciphered and if all goes well, they start a conspiracy, recruit a few actors with money, blackmail some librarian in order to use their collection as a resource, add a poet or two to the mix --just so long as they mind their manners and don't get uppity or anything.  In no time the Chartreuse Assembly of the Melt-in-in-Your-Mouth Armchair has arisen from the depths of the disreputable leavings of the irrational maunderings of insane sorcerers -- but all Orders are supposedly inherently Rational.  And so they are.  But their roots are in the Irrational.  It's a nice sort of symmetry all in all.  And I owe it all to Bulwer-Lytton's Zanoni for the idea.  Thanks dude.  33fnord69(Shibboleth).  Go team.

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