Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Codebreakers

Of texts and textiles

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Yesterday, if you spend as much time as I do browsing random news articles online, your eye might have been caught by a story with the headline “‘Allah’ is Found on Viking Funeral Clothes.” Similar pieces ran in multiple publications, but I’ll stick with the one in the New York Times, which I think is where I saw it first. Here’s how it begins:

The discovery of Arabic characters that spell “Allah” and “Ali” on Viking funeral costumes in boat graves in Sweden has raised questions about the influence of Islam in Scandinavia. The grave where the costumes were found belonged to a woman dressed in silk burial clothes and was excavated from a field in Gamla Uppsala, north of Stockholm, in the 1970s, but its contents were not cataloged until a few years ago, Annika Larsson, a textile archaeologist at Uppsala University, said on Friday.

Larsson says that she was examining the patterns when she “remembered seeing them in similar Moorish designs in silk ribbons from Spain. I understood it had to be a kind of Arabic character, not Nordic.” The article continues: “Upon closer examination of the band from all angles, she said, she realized she was looking at Kufic script. The words Allah and Ali appeared in the silk found in Boat Grave 36 and in many other graves—and, most intriguing, the word Allah could be seen when reflected in a mirror.” It’s “most intriguing” indeed, particularly because it’s consistent with the hypothesis, which is widely credited, that “the Viking settlements in the Malar Valley of Sweden were, in fact, a western outpost of the Silk Road that stretched through Russia to silk-producing centers east of the Caspian Sea.”

Unfortunately, this particular piece of evidence began to fall apart almost at once. I’d like to say that I felt a flicker of doubt even as I read the article, particularly the part about the pattern being “reflected in a mirror,” but I can’t be entirely sure—like a lot of other readers, I glanced over it briefly and moved on. A few hours later, I saw another story headlined “That Viking Textile Probably Didn’t Actually Have ‘Allah’ On It.” It linked to a very persuasive blog post by Carolyn Priest-Dorman, a textile historian and Viking reenactor who seems perfectly positioned to identify the flaws in Larsson’s argument. As the Times article neglects to mention, Larsson’s reconstruction doesn’t just depend on reflecting the design, but in extending it conjecturally on either side, on the assumption that portions of the original are missing. Priest-Dorman points out that this is unwarranted on the evidence:

This unexplained extrapolation practically doubles the width of the band, and here’s why that’s a problem…If you consult…a photo of Band 6, you can clearly see the continuous metallic weft of the band turning at each selvedge to enter back in the other direction.If Larsson were correct that Band 6 was originally significantly wider, you would not see those turning loops; you’d see a series of discontinuous single passes of brocading weft with cut or broken ends at each edge.

In other words, if the pattern were incomplete, we’d see the breaks, but we don’t. And even if this point were up for debate, you clearly increase the risk of subjective readings when you duplicate, reflect, and otherwise distort the raw “text.”

No one has accused Larsson of intentional fraud, but it appears that the right combination of elements—a source of ambiguous patterns, some erudition, and a certain amount of wishful thinking—resulted in a “solution” to a problem that wasn’t there. If this sounds familiar, it might be because I’ve discussed similar cases on this blog before. One is The Great Cryptogram by Ignatius L. Donnelly, who argued that Francis Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare and left clues to his identity in a code in the plays. An even better parallel is the scholar William Romaine Newbold, who died believing that he had cracked the mysterious Voynich Manuscript. As David Kahn recounts in his masterpiece The Codebreakers, Newbold fell victim to much the same kind of error that Larsson did, except at far greater length and complexity:

Newbold saw microscopic shorthand symbols in the macroscopic characters of the manuscript text and began his decipherment by transliterating them into Roman letters. A secondary text of seventeen different letters resulted. He doubled all but the first and last letters of each section…The resultant quaternary text was then “translated”: Newbold replaced the pairs of letters with a single letter, presumably according to a key, which, however, he never made clear…Finally, Newbold anagrammed the letters of this senary text to produce the alleged plaintext in Latin.

The result, of course, was highly suspect. Anagramming chunks of over a hundred characters at a time, as Newbold did, could result in almost any text you wanted, and the “microscopic shorthand symbols” were nothing but “the breaking up of the thick ink on the rough surface of the vellum into shreds and filaments that Newbold had imagined were individual signs.”

Donnelly and Newbold were working before an era of instantaneous news coverage, but I don’t doubt that they would have received plenty of sympathetic, or at least credulous, attention if they had published their results today—and, in fact, hardly a month goes by without reports of a new “breakthrough” in the Voynich Manuscript. (I’m reminded of the Beale cipher, a similar enigma encoding an alleged hidden treasure that inspired an entire society, the Beale Cypher Association, devoted to solving it. In his book Biggest Secrets, the author William Poundstone examined a copy of the society’s quarterly newsletter, which is available online. It contained no fewer than three proposed solutions.) In the aftermath of the Larsson debacle, a number of observers, including Stephennie Mulder of the University of Texas, raised concerns about how the theory was reported: “It should go without saying that a single scholar’s un-peer-reviewed claim does not truth make.” She’s right. But I think there’s a more specific lesson here. Both Larsson and Newbold started with a vast source of raw material, selected a tiny piece of it, and subjected it to a series of analogous permutations. Larsson doubled the pattern and reflected it in a mirror; Newbold doubled the illusory characters and then anagrammed the result. The first step increased the amount of text that could be “studied,” while the second rearranged it arbitrarily to facilitate additional readings. Each transformation moved further away from the original, which should have been a red flag for any skeptical reader. But when you summarize the process by providing only the first and the last steps, while omitting the intermediate stages, the conclusion looks a lot more impressive. This is exactly what happened with Larsson, and when we turn to Newbold, who announced his findings in 1921, we see how little anything has changed. As Kahn writes in The Codebreakers: “The public at large was fascinated. Sunday supplements had a field day.”

The Voynich Inheritance

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Sooner or later, if you devote any time to poking around odd corners of the unexplained, you’ll encounter the document known as the Voynich Manuscript. It’s a fifteenth-century codex, often called “the world’s most mysterious book,” consisting of roughly two hundred and forty pages of writing in an unknown alphabet, interspersed with many enigmatic illustrations and diagrams. Last year, the Yale University Press issued the first authorized edition of the complete text, leading to a flurry of renewed interest. After a century of failed attempts to decipher it, however, the conversation around it has shifted from the hope of any solution to its status as an emblem of the unknown. Josephine Livingston of The New Yorker writes that the manuscript “encourages us to sit with the concept of truth and to remember that there are ineluctable mysteries at the bottom of things whose meanings we will never know,” while Dustin Illingworth concludes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

We revere the Voynich, I think, only insofar as it eludes us. The purpose of this new edition, then, is not to provide definitive answers. Instead, as the historian Deborah Harkness has it, the book is offered as an invitation “to join us at the heart of the mystery.” Despite its pages of cramped writing and sprawling illustrations, the Voynich is perhaps the ultimate carte blanche—the purest form of philological fantasy, a canvas vast enough to contain dreams, conspiracies, hunches, and prophecies. In the company of such rich human engagement, a solution—if one should exist—is merely incidental. May the mystery live on.

Mentioned only in passing in most recent coverage is the figure in the story who has always fascinated me the most, a scholar named William Romaine Newbold who died believing that he had cracked the code. As David Kahn recounts in his masterpiece The Codebreakers, Newbold was a brilliant linguist and cryptanalyst who served as a philosophy professor and former dean of the graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1919, Newbold stumbled across a few pages of the manuscript, and he immediately set to work on it:

Newbold saw microscopic shorthand symbols in the macroscopic characters of the manuscript text and began his decipherment by transliterating them into Roman letters. A secondary text of seventeen different letters resulted. He doubled all but the first and last letters of each section: the secondary text oritur would become the tertiary text or-ri-it-tu-ur. Any of these groups that contained any letters of the word conmuta, plus q, underwent a special substitution. The resultant quaternary text was then “translated”: Newbold replaced the pairs of letters with a single letter, presumably according to a key, which, however, he never made clear. Newbold regarded some letters of this reduced quinary text as equivalent to one another because of phonetic similarity. When required, therefore, he interchanged d and t, for example, b, f, and p, o and u, and so on. Finally, Newbold anagrammed the letters of this senary text to produce the alleged plaintext in Latin.

Two years later, Newbold announced his results, which were extraordinary. The author of the manuscript, he claimed, was the medieval philosopher Roger Bacon, who stood revealed as the greatest scientist of all time: “Bacon had recognized the Great Nebula in Andromeda as a spiral galaxy, identified biological cells and their nuclei, and come close to seeing the union of the sperm with the ovum. He had therefore to have not merely speculated about but to have actually constructed a microscope and a telescope.” Newbold also offered what seemed like a strong argument in favor of the authenticity of his results, as Kahn recounts:

Newbold’s cryptanalysis of a caption on a sketch that somewhat resembles a pinwheel and that he took to represent the Andromeda nebula reads in part: “In a concave mirror I saw a star in the form of a snail…between the navel of Pegasus, the girdle of Andromeda, and the head of Cassiopeia.” Newbold asserted that his solution could not be subjective because “I did not know at the time [of solution] that any nebula would be found within the region thus defined.”

It was, of course, utter nonsense. One critic pointed out that Newbold’s system of letter pairs, as in or-ri-it-tu-ur, worked in only one direction: it could be deciphered, but there was no possible way that it could be enciphered in the first place. Anagramming chunks of over a hundred characters at a time, as Newbold did, could result in almost any text you wanted. And the “microscopic shorthand symbols” were nothing but “the breaking up of the thick ink on the rough surface of the vellum into shreds and filaments that Newbold had imagined were individual signs.”

On its surface, it’s yet another cautionary tale of misguided obsession, like so many other stories from the fringes of reason. But what sticks with me the most is how inseparable Newbold’s brilliance was from his delusions. As Kahn points out:

How, then, to explain Newbold’s cryptanalyzing information that he said he never knew, such as the position of the spiral nebula? The answer is that he must have known it, though subconsciously. Newbold, a scholar of immense erudition who casually learned the Catalan language and read a thousand pages in it in pursuit of a minor point of the solution, must have swept up that detail in his extensive studies and slipped it into the depths of his brain, where it lay hidden from his active mind until the solution drew it forth. No one ever questioned Newbold’s integrity; he was a victim, [philologist John Matthews] Manly said, “of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconscious.”

This seems reasonable enough, although I’d propose a slightly different explanation: Newbold surely must have checked his solutions before publication, and a plaintext that failed to fit known scientific facts was either revised or quietly dropped. Either way, only a genius could have been so misguided, and Newbold’s case is just an extreme version of a tendency that we find in many forms of scholarship. The impulse that led him to see a nebula that wasn’t there isn’t so different from the pitfalls confronting literary critics, historians, biographers, and other scholars with a mass of material on which to exercise their ingenuity and intuition. As Roger Bacon, the real one, once wrote, one of the greatest stumbling blocks to wisdom is “the hiding of our own ignorance while making a display of our apparent knowledge.” Newbold happened to misread his text in an obvious way, but he wasn’t the first—or the last—scholar to fall victim to the perils of cleverness.

The Shakespeare Code

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

I don’t think I’ll ever be accused of not having enough strange books in my library, but over the weekend, I picked up a battered copy of one of the most curious of them all: the first and only edition of The Great Cryptogram by Ignatius L. Donnelly, which was initially published in 1888. Donnelly isn’t particularly well known these days, but he’s a fascinating—and peculiarly American—character, an ingenious crackpot who draws on European models while remaining indelibly of his own place and time. He came out of nowhere to become, among other things, the lieutenant governor of Minnesota, a congressman, a state senator, and the founder of a failed utopian community, but he’s best remembered for a series of increasingly odd, and influential, literary productions. His book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World shaped much of the prevailing image of Atlantis as a lost empire that served as the basis of all subsequent civilization, and his Ragnarok anticipates Immanuel Velikovsky, among others, in arguing that a comet collided with the earth 12,000 years ago, altering the planet’s climate and leaving its traces in the myths and legends of a global cataclysm.

The Great Cryptogram was his most ambitious and personal project, a massive tome of over nine hundred pages that argues that Francis Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare and left clues to his real identity—in the form of an elaborate code—in the published text of the plays themselves. I first encountered Donnelly’s theory in The Codebreakers by David Kahn, who rightly dismisses it as a pathological misreading, and even at the time, it was roundly mocked. But there’s something weirdly beautiful about it. Donnelly reproduces pages from the First Folio and his own notes in multiple colors, showing how he selected the words that spelled out Bacon’s secret message, and it would be hugely expensive to print it even today. (In the end, it was an enormous flop. According to Kahn, the book’s publisher had to bring in a special printer to make the plates, and later sued Donnelly for the recovery of advance royalties.) Yet the first half of the book, which lays out the biographical “evidence” for the Baconian hypothesis, could be published tomorrow to an enthusiastic reception. And while I don’t think I’ll ever make it through the whole thing, it’s worth asking why so many people are still so eager to believe that Shakespeare’s plays were written by somebody else.

The Great Cryptogram by Ignatius Donnelly

Donnelly’s core argument is a familiar one. Given the linguistic invention, erudition, and worldly knowledge of the plays, it seems impossible that they could have been written by a rural glover’s son. Bacon, a universal scholar with a suitable pedigree, seems like a much better candidate, although conspiracy theorists from Sigmund Freud to Roland Emmerich on down have settled by consensus on the Earl of Oxford. Yet the anti-Stratfordians are obsessed with solving a problem that doesn’t really exist. Shakespeare’s genius, to the extent it can be broken down, rests on three qualities: an unparalleled way with character, a deep intuition and shrewdness about dramatic structure, and a staggering degree of verbal energy and expressiveness. The first two traits have little, if anything, to do with formal education, and the second, in particular, could have emerged only from the daily, unforgiving grind of performance and playmaking—from the experience of a man, in short, who solved narrative problems for a living. And his language required less in the way of rigorous schooling than access to the right books and the determination to use them as tools. Whether or not he actually owned and annotated a copy of John Baret’s Alvearie, it’s exactly the kind of book he could have used, and it would have gone a long way toward providing the raw material he needed.

As for Shakespeare’s intellectual or philosophical depth, it’s difficult to imagine a writer with this set of traits—that is, an inhuman facility with character, situation, and language—operating for any length of time without yielding ideas of commensurate complexity, even if we glimpse them darkly, or as flashes of lightning that illuminate the text on the way to the next confrontation. Shakespeare was a machine for generating the kinds of ideas that emerge precisely from language and dramatic incident, a verbal magician whose spells produce resonances that can take a lifetime to unpack, and he did it consistently for a quarter of a century. (He also grew up as a writer in public: when you read all the plays in order, as I did a decade ago, it becomes obvious how the richness of the late works comes out of the lessons he learned from his early, more conventional efforts.) To put it another way, a talent like Shakespeare’s is so exceptional, so statistically rare, that his eduction or lack thereof seems like a trivial consideration: the world’s universities offer up thousands of excellent scholars each year, and their achievements are commonplace, even boring, compared to what Shakespeare possessed that can’t be taught. Donnelly, the Oxfordians, and the rest spin incredible webs of tortured logic to justify what is really the least interesting, and the most explicable, aspect of the works they admire. There’s no need to look for a cryptogram here; Shakespeare is already our greatest maker of codes.

“To summon back the ghosts of the north…”

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"To summon back the ghosts of the north..."

Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 7. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’m half Chinese and half Finnish, with a touch of Estonian, but for the most part, I’ve studiously avoided engaging my own ethnic background in my work. This isn’t because being multiracial isn’t an important part of my identity—as I’ve noted elsewhere, it may be the most important part of all—and it doesn’t mean it hasn’t influenced my writing in subtle ways. The Icon Thief and its sequels are secretly concerned with the collision between East and West, with Russia as its central crucible, and by focusing my energies on another country with its own legacy of cultural tensions, I’ve managed to deal indirectly with issues that mean a lot to me. (Ilya, who is temperamentally half Scythian and half Khazar, is probably the closest parallel in my fiction of a character confronting the two contrasting pieces of his personality.) But the last thing I want is to be categorized as a particular kind of writer. Authors who write about characters of their own ethnicities have a tendency to be pigeonholed by readers and editors, and not without reason: from a publishing perspective, it allows a writer to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, and this applies as much to literary as to genre fiction. At the same time, it limits the kinds of stories you can tell, and as someone who wants to write about everything, I made the choice long ago to approach these subjects as obliquely as I could.

The big exception is the character of Lasse Karvonen in City of Exiles. I knew from almost the start that the villain in my second novel would be Finnish, and that his background would become as crucial a part of the story as Ilya’s Russian heritage. This was partially for the sake of convenience, since I had a limited amount of time to plan and research this novel: I already knew something about Finland, and sketching in his history and personality would be fairly straightforward. It also made sense from a narrative perspective. I was getting tired of the endless parade of Russians in these books, and Finland’s history, as a tough little nation pressed up against its much larger neighbor, added an extra level of thematic and personal resonance. A Finn working as an assassin for Russian intelligence would inevitably have a complex web of motivations that I could use. And I can’t deny that part of me wanted to talk about the Finns for their own sake. We know Finland mostly for its saunas, its cell phones, and its excellent healthcare system, but really, this is a badass country with more of the East in its blood than any other nation in northern Europe. There’s an otherness to the Finns that hasn’t been fully explored in fiction, and I was looking forward to giving the world the terrifying Finnish bad guy that it deserved.

"After his grandfather died..."

In Chapter 7, we learn more about Karvonen’s history for the first time, and one of the small surprises of writing the novel was how easily this strand of the narrative came together. Normally, I avoid giving backstory, both because I’m philosophically opposed to the practice and because I’m not especially good at it, but here, it just seemed to flow, and Karvonen ended up having a more fully developed background than any other character in the series. This wouldn’t have been true if he had been, say, Swedish. And making him Finnish gave me access to a huge body of underexplored material. The story of Karvonen’s grandfather, for instance, is transparently based on the real figure of Simo Häyhä, nicknamed “White Death” by the Russian army, who racked up more than five hundred confirmed sniper kills during the Winter War—the highest in recorded history. His description of the Battle of Suomussalmi, in which the Finns set up fake triangles of flares to divert Russian supply drops as the snow covered dead and wounded alike, is based on a similar account in David Kahn’s The Codebreakers. And interwoven with it all is Karvonen’s own dark personal history: the multiple suicides in his family and his fascination with fire and torturing animals, both of which are classic signs of psychopathy.

And if you were to ask if I felt conflicted about making my only major Finnish character such an unsympathetic figure, I’d say that I saw it as a compliment. A thriller is only as good as its villain, and Finland gave me the necessary richness of material to turn Karvonen into one of the four or five most memorable players in any of these books. Making him Finnish also freed me to imbue him with what I can only call a certain elegance, an economy of action and gesture, that his culture exemplifies: he’s something of a Merimekko assassin, all clean lines and icy tones. You can see it here, as he plans and carries out a murder in Finsbury Park, where I spent many hours pacing the street, following him in my imagination as he crept across the rooftops, all of which are real houses in London. And the puukko knife that Karvonen carries is identical to one I’ve had for years, a gift from my Finnish relatives, which lives on my desk even as I type these words. I’ve never used it for anything more than opening the mail, but every now and then, I’ll take it out and look at it. It’s an emblem of a culture that remains a part of me, even as much of it feels unknowable, and one of the great satisfactions of writing City of Exiles was a chance to give some of these feelings and traditions a home. And there’s more to Karvonen than meets the eye…

Written by nevalalee

November 22, 2013 at 9:11 am

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