O’Donovan notes #6e: Is this your talent?

c.1800 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

As some people have a natural aptitude and inclination for mathematics, and even then some will make better mathematicians than others, so too with this sort of work.

For a person hoping to offer an informed opinion about images, including those in Beinecke MS 408, what’s needed are a capacity for clear perception, for empathy, for reasoning, and near-limitless intellectual curiosity.

Character-traits contra-indicated include egotism, greater intellectual inclination to ‘know’ than to understand; inability to distinguish between reason and logic, inability to think through the nature of the problem or even accurately to define what is meant by ‘a problem’ in this discipline.

To avoid upsetting individual Voynicheros, I’m returning to the example of four semi-fictionalised* former students (or trainees, as I like to call them). Their responses, good and poor, were as given.

*semi-fictionalised. I’ve made them all ‘he’ and put them all into the same small group.

Counterparts for these four will be found, again and again, among Voynich theorists both past and present-day. Sadly most come closest in their attitudes to those ranked third or fourth of the four, for reasons explained below.

After being shown that photographic image,* the four give responses in this order:

*see previous post

  1. ‘this looks like the model of a reactor to me’.
  2. ‘I think it could be part of a G/gle maps satellite view’
  3. ‘I think it’s a piece of found-art, but it looks like the bits are electronic’.
  4. “It’s obviously x…” .

Now, even though the fourth person said, “It’s obviously a motherboard”, here’s their ranking after that first question.

++ #1.‘this looks like the model of a reactor to me’.

+ #2. I think it could be part of a G/gle maps satellite view’.

– #3. ‘I think it’s a piece of found-art, but it looks like the bits are electronic’.

– – #4. “It’s obviously a motherboard” .

Some readers might be puzzled by that, thinking the fourth had the ‘right answer’.

Not so. He not only failed to distinguish between an image and any object represented,* but failed even to hear the question, which was not “What is the object shown in this photograph?” but “What do you make of this?” – neither the medium nor the subject matter being specified. Another person might say, ‘It’s a photograph’ and do better.

*see previous post.

The others had heard the question and then, just as that fourth person did, their memories did a faster-than-thought scan of what was already familiar to them and each then told me what his memory had presented to him. So far so good.

That one of them already had ‘motherboard’ in his memory is a minor distinction between these four people, levelled out in a second.

I asked for responses, and what mattered was not only how they responded to the image but – this is important – reacted to each others’ responses. Among the things I considered were each person’s body-language, tone of voice and if, when, and for what reason, their eyes lit up.

Number four’s eye lit up the moment he saw the picture. You could almost hear him thinking, “I know what that is – a motherboard”. While each of other three before him spoke, his body language said “wrong.. irrelevant.. pay no attention. When I speak they’ll know I’m the best.” Not good in a novice/amateur in our field.

The person who spoke first had heard the question and in that answer quite unconsciously showed that he had registered such important things as point-of-view, perspective/depth of field, sensed that it was not just a photo, or a ‘building’ photographed, but that there was about the image something that reflected another sort of scale and human manufacture – he described it as a model.

The second answer, again, told me the speaker had unconsciously registered many of the same factors. They could read these things and process them as aspects of an image even when aware that their memory has sent up no exact match. That’s good.

Perspective or lack of it, and signs of the matter’s being direct or indirect information – these are among the markers which may tell us the general period when an image was formed and whether we should suppose the image is, or isn’t one created contemporary with its current form. (that is – e.g. “is this fifteenth century image of fifteenth-century origin or is there something indicative of intervening influence?”). The first student wasn’t consciously aware of registering those things; at that stage, his perceptions were still way ahead of his conscious thinking.

The reason the first speaker became first-ranked is that when the second person spoke, his eyes brightened again. He was able to re-view the image as if through that second person’s eyes – and could see it as they were seeing it. Good. And then he turned to that second person and said, ‘yeh, I can see that’ without implying that he thought either of them was wrong or right. Very, very good indeed in terms of aptitude.

Generosity of spirit. It’s not just a moral quality. It’s just the right cast of mind for someone who has to be able to appreciate that the way a Chinese Christian of the seventeenth century will envisage Virgin-and-child differs – sometimes in quite subtle ways – from the vision of that type in Russia or Spain. We speak often about “ways of seeing” and they are why we don’t suppose all images of a cat – or, if you like, of crossbowmen – are commutable.

The way the question was framed, the only right answer was a true statement of the result after you weighed the information that was before your eyes with what your memory offered as potential matches, because in most cases more than one possibility will come to mind. Number four didn’t actually address the image -as-image at all; only what his memory proffered.

And “whatever the memory proferred” is all too often the sole foundation for what a Voynich writer calls his/her ‘theory’ and tries to find ornament for, after the fact.

The third trainee’s answer raises a faint doubt, because it may indicate someone who thinks in category-boxes. I mean that because we were supposed to be there about art, that person imagined the answer should come from the ‘art-box’ in his memory. This is another trait pervasive in Voynich writings since 1912. A theorist will begin by presuming or by imagining the work by Roger Bacon, or about alchemy or something else they’re familiar with, and thereafter focus on the ‘English-‘ or the ‘alchemy-box’ for something to match to some detail in some folio of the manuscript. Not a good sign. In that student’s case, though, turning to the mental comfort-zone as response to a first test might reflect some passing nervousness. Only time would tell if it were a set habit.

The consequences of that habit, in Voynich studies, have been disastrous and persistent. It is also why, after more than a hundred years, and despite the enormous range of plant-images found across all media and in every period, within and without Latin Europe, stylised and otherwise, and despite Tiltman’s comments half a century ago, Voynicheros are still behaving like bees endlessly trying to fly through the same closed window, hunting and hunting in nothing but western herbal manuscripts for ‘matches’. The theorist who invents scenarios thinks he knows already the answer he’s allegedly seeking – for a problem he has poorly defined.

The reason number four dropped to the last place is, first, that he didn’t think. He didn’t think about the question, didn’t think about the image and. while each of the others was speaking, his body language expressed egotism combined with indifference. He wasn’t thinking about anything except when he could earn admiration and feel the most important in the group by announcing his ‘right answer’.

So at the end of that first test, he stood very badly on all the things that really matter. Perceptiveness simplistic; not reasonable, nor empathetic and no intellectual curiosity evident. Had he even said, “I think it’s a motherboard, but I don’t know what kind” he might have done a little better. After receiving an objective confirmation.. let me repeat that: after receiving objective confirmation… that the photographed object was indeed a motherboard, there might have been some hope he’d hunt more information about that kind of motherboard. He displayed no active curiosity – not about the image, nor the object photographed, not about what led the others to interpret the image as they had. Not why a motherboard was relevant to the subject. Not even a pause to check if he’d rightly defined the question.

He hadn’t that absolutely essential factor – a driving desire to understand.

Not to crack, not to break, not to solve – to understand.

About a Voynichero’s storyline, there may not be much to understand. The manuscript’s images are far more engaging, if you’re so inclined.

In a recent brief conversation with Darius, I said that in my experience people whose natural talents and training make them good mathematicians or mechanics rarely have an aptitude for this sort of work.

I’m not suggesting that you need an academic degree in art studies to research the drawings in Beinecke MS 408. I’m saying that you shouldn’t suppose that all the necessary tools and information are to be found already within yourself, as if all you need are “two eyes and common sense” – as another of those pesky Voynich memes once had it.

Actually, two of the best trainees I recall were students of law and of accounting, respectively.

The first was English and immediately appreciated our work’s emphasis on evidence-first; he was quite used to having masses of previously-unknown material to read before forming any opinion, and understood perfectly the importance of referring to precedents and a basic rule that any image is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ of whatever has been said about it.

In English law, the aim is not to get the client off but to honour the law. If you learn from the weight and balance of evidence – including the accused’s testimony – that the allegations are true, or indeed false, then you don’t pretend otherwise.

The accountant was very clear-eyed and rational in weighing up one aspect of an image against another, and of one opinion against another. Most admirable, I thought, was that he was meticulous about never confusing contributions made to a topic by one person with anyone else’s. If some other student put to him a question about the views of a third, he’d redirect the enquiry, and where he found cases of intellectual embezzlement I think he’d have called the police if he could. 🙂 Neither ever mentioned the Voynich manuscript to me and may still never have heard of it. MS Beineke 408 isn’t an important topic in the larger scheme of things.

I’ll break here – next post, those notes on how to treat specialists decently and not misuse their opinions .

PS – Seems to me that last week’s Voynich meme ‘everyone’s entitled…’ is being superseded by ‘opinionated.’ 😀

One thought on “O’Donovan notes #6e: Is this your talent?

  1. Perhaps I should have included under ‘fictionalised’ that the image shown those students wasn’t of this particular motherboard. I regret no longer having the original image.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.