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Friedman’s Universal Key
This is a piece I wrote back in 2023, but didn’t manage to get published before the war broke out and put all our projects on hold. In compliance with the 2025 Disinformation Law of the International Internet Court, I hereby attest that I have run the text through a Court-approved truth-portal, which gave it the score of “84% True”. Article 2.3 of the Law thus prohibits citation of this text as an authoritative source in online and print media, yet permits it, as with any text scoring above 70%, as a source of informal authority in the context of oral discussion at social events that have been officially registered (and recorded — friends, always remember to hit “record” when you’re setting out for your big night; you don’t want any subsequent disputes before the Court about what went down). Young people, still hormonally charged up for such pursuits, or at least those of you young people currently living in a Free Zone, are especially encouraged to discuss this material, and even to claim it as your own, in the awkward silent stretches of a first date. (Trust me, the shy hopeful beauty across the table from you will love it, and might even agree to a “consent upload” before the evening is through — score!) Otherwise, if you do try to cite it in a more formal setting, and you subsequently receive a hefty fine by SMS from the Court (with that dreaded Vanuatu phone number!), by the present statement I am absolved of all legal responsibility. —JEHS, Perth Amboy Resettlement District (formerly New Jersey), March 2026
Michał Habdank-Wojnicz, a Polish noble of the august old Abdank szlachta, was born in 1865 in a region of the Russian Empire that is today part of Lithuania. Yes, every life is a blend of moral valences and purposes, but on the whole we may say that our man came into this world to make trouble. He did have the good sense of completing a course of studies in pharmacy at Moscow State University, just before being arrested in 1887 as a member of the radical underground movement “Proletariat” and sent to the Buryat village of Tunka, near lake Baikal in Southern Siberia, to serve a long sentence as a penal colonist.
In the village he was given work as a pharmacist, and seems to have taken advantage of his circumstances, which other less resilient men would have resented, to learn what he could of the traditional Mongol-Turkic pharmakon. This knowledge would soon come in handy when, after a new set of documents had been forged and his watchers had let their vigilance slip, the revolutionary druggist absconded across the Mongolian border, embedded himself with a group of nomads migrating eastward across the Gobi Desert, and wrapped his head with an improvised turban, perhaps styling himself after an imagined Sarmatian ancestor from the vast steppe, as had been the fashion for some time among the Polish aristocracy. When the fugitive fell ill, he sought out from among the desert landscape’s sparse succulents the plants that would make him well again. He crossed eventually into China and made it all the way to Shanghai, and from there boarded a ship to Hamburg. Hat der Pan Habdank selbst Dank gehabt? one wonders about the man’s inward experience of his great good fortune thus far.
From Germany our man betook himself to London, penniless, and fell in with a cell of exiled Russian and Polish revolutionary men, and of upper-class Englishwomen under their spell and willing to pony up financial support both for the men’s far-away cause and for their day-to-day domestic sustenance. Habdank-Wojnicz too was soon able to attract the solicitude of one Ethel Lilian Boole (1864-1960), with whom he lived in common-law marriage from 1895. Ethel was the daughter of the self-taught mathematician George Boole (1815-1864), best known for the algebraic treatment of probability that bears his name and that is laid out in his masterwork, The Laws of Thought of 1854 (on her mother’s side she was an Everest, her name eternally enshrined in Himalayan stone). George’s daughter was herself an author, whose 1897 novel The Gadfly was published in numerous editions and languages, was quickly translated into Russian, Polish, and Yiddish, and would enjoy several afterlives in Soviet cinema, opera, and ballet.
Ethel’s husband, now restyled as Wilfrid Voynich, had no similar talent as an author. But he did prove successful in his newly adopted métier as a dealer of rare books, and to have made enough money at this trade largely to cure him of his earlier radical sympathies. From a cluttered shop in London’s Soho, he quickly developed a reputation throughout the continent, and made several bulk acquisitions of valuable texts, with a particular strength in old Bibles and illuminated manuscripts. His most significant acquisition came in 1912, when he traveled to the Villa Mondragone to purchase a library of works that had been hidden away at the time of the suppression of the Jesuit order in 1759. Voynich remained silent until the end of his life about the precise circumstances of this transaction, but we know that he came away with a vast collection of precious old books of natural philosophy, dating from the first century or so after the order’s formation. Undoubtedly the most famous of these is the book that would come to be known, for lack of any other decipherable title, as the “Voynich Manuscript”.
This is a work treating of botanical, pharmaceutical, astrological, and balneological matters, written on calf vellum in northern Italy in the early fifteenth century. The manuscript is first known to have been in the possession of the Czech collector and alchemist Jiří Bareš (1585-1662), from whom it passed in 1665, via the physician Jan Marek Marci (1595-1668), to the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in Rome. This treasure is currently held in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection of Yale University Library (MS 408), which has, to the great benefit of researchers, digitized the work and made high-resolution scans available online.
The Voynich Manuscript has long been held to have been written either in an unknown natural language or in an uncrackable cipher. As if this were not mysterious enough, until now none of the dozens of botanical illustrations in the work have been successfully identified with any known species of plant. It is not surprising therefore that many scholars have taken the manuscript for a fraud, perhaps perpetrated by Voynich himself, who for his part long insisted it was an encrypted treatise of the medieval Oxford alchemist Roger Bacon (1220-1292). Evidence from carbon-14 dating and chemical analysis have in more recent years shown that the work is indeed as old as Voynich claimed, but beyond this not much more has been resolved.
The manuscript, naturally, has attracted countless unstable personalities over the past century, keen to reflect on its mysteries and to share with the world their ungrounded speculations. I do not count myself among these people, though I admit in such matters we remain always to some extent unknown to ourselves. But there is one Voynich scholar whose motivations remain, for all we are able to learn of him, consistently mysterious and fascinating. His name is William F. Friedman.
Wolf Friedman was born in the Bessarabian city of Chișinău in 1891. His family escaped the rising pogroms there and arrived in Pittsburgh when Wolf, soon Anglicized to William, was still an infant. He studied genetics at Cornell University, although it is for his work in cryptography that he would be best remembered. His retraining seems to have been a matter of circumstance rather than late-blooming interest in a new field. In the Journal of Agricultural Science of March, 1912, we find a short notice by a recent Cornell graduate entitled “The Lunar Cycle’s Influence on Wheat Crops” (23/1, pp. 27-29). Here the young Friedman argues for the several benefits of crop-rearing harmonized to the waxing and waning of our great natural satellite. This work is imbued with the optimistic spirit that informs many of the era’s recommendations for the eugenic improvement of our food sources, and may even be seen as an American anticipation of the theory of biological inheritance that would come to dominate in the USSR some decades later. Like Trofim Lysenko’s proposal for a “proletarian genetics” that succeeds in the raising of vernalized wheat across the tundra, once the vestiges of bourgeois biology are purged from Soviet science and the acquisition of new traits by organisms is reconceived at least in part as a matter of political will, so too did Friedman expect that the entrepreneurial American spirit might make itself felt even in the phylogenetics of a common grain.
This is also the spirit that animated George Fabyan (1867-1936), the wealthy scion of an industrialist family, who somehow also served as a representative of the Japanese government in the negotiations at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that in 1905 issued in the peace treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War. In 1916 Fabyan founded Riverbank Laboratories in the suburbs of Chicago, with the sole stated purpose of pursuing research into his own singular preoccupations. Among these, notably, were the theory that Francis Bacon (1561-1626, a distant relation of Roger’s) was the true author of the works of Shakespeare —which Fabyan believed could be proven by cryptographic analysis of the texts—, and the idea that wheat crops could be much improved by attention to the influence on their rhythms of growth of different phases of the lunar cycle. I have not been able to locate any treatment of night-wheat in the works of Francis Bacon, though in truth Fabyan’s general conception of the advancement of learning was Baconian through and through. Riverbank seems to have had its initial inception when the eccentric financier sought to hire the physicist and acoustician Wallace Clement Sabine (1868-1919) to build for him an acoustic levitating machine that he believed had been described —in enciphered form, of course— by Lord Verulam himself. We are halfway, here, between New Atlantis and Boston Dynamics — truly, esoteric Elizabethan obscurantism, and public-private R&D initiatives in the service of American power, never seemed so close.
While still at Cornell Friedman had developed such a reputation for his research on night-wheat, that when Colonel Fabyan (an honorary title) wrote to entice him to come to Riverbank, he flattered the young scientist by calling him “the father of wheat,” and promised that if Friedman were to join him in Illinois he would help to find him a wife. While Fabyan initially employed Friedman as a geneticist, and only later —as the cryptographic branch of Riverbank’s research expanded significantly beyond Elizabethan literary studies when the US government turned to its experts to help them develop a sophisticated system of ciphers for intelligence operations in World War I— did Friedman begin to present himself as a cryptographer and eventually to focus his energies on the Voynich Manuscript.
With the rapid rise of official interest in cryptography at the brink of the First World War, a surprising cross-fertility emerged between the work of humanistically minded manuscript scholars, such as the great medievalist and Chaucer scholar John Matthews Manly (1865-1940), on the one hand, and quantitative cryptographers such as Friedman was learning to be on the other. Friedman was a US Army colonel and the first head of the Army’s Signals Intelligence Service, and his work for Fabyan represents an early and vivid instance of the hybridity between the military and the private computing industry that would prove so central to American power across the later twentieth century. Fabyan also came through on his promise to assist Friedman in finding a wife: Elizebeth Friedman, née Smith (1892-1980), was a Shakespeare scholar who would later work, depending on which sources you consult, for the FBI, the US Treasury, the Army, the Navy, and the International Monetary Fund. With early encouragement from Voynich himself, the couple would spend several decades using some of the mid-century’s most powerful computers to crunch the manuscript's strings of symbols into meaningful patterns.
Some regularities were indeed discerned, though virtually all remain disputed. The manuscript’s “word entropy” seems to indicate a natural language written in cipher. The frequency of repetition of symbols also suggests that the language is not written in an alphabet, with signs standing for sounds, but rather ideographically, like Chinese. The Friedmans themselves would eventually conclude that Voynichese is in fact an artificial rather than a natural language, somewhat akin to those proposed by early modern thinkers such as John Wilkins (1614-1672), with his “philosophical language”, and G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716), with his so-called “universal character”. In a co-written 1959 article in the Philological Quarterly, purportedly on “Acrostics, Anagrams, and Chaucer”, the couple adds a playful footnote, in all caps, declaring:
I PUT NO TRUST IN ANAGRAMMATIC ACROSTIC CYPHERS, FOR THEY ARE OF LITTLE REAL VALUE —A WASTE— AND MAY PROVE NOTHING. — FINIS.
Eleven years later, after the colonel’s death, the editor of the same journal published a follow-up note, divulging that the earlier footnote was itself an anagram, whose solution contained the answer to a lifetime of Voynich research:
THE VOYNICH MSS WAS AN EARLY ATTEMPT TO CONSTRUCT AN ARTIFICIAL OR UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE OF THE A PRIORI TYPE — FRIEDMAN.
Nor does this appear to be the first time Friedman brought a playful and tricksterish approach to scholarship, nor the first time, from a certain hidebound perspective, he sought to undermine scholarship’s norms. As nearly as can be determined, the author identified as “Cora J. Jensen, Department of Ciphers, Riverbank Laboratories, Geneva, Ill.”, in a 1920 article in The Florists’ Review entitled “‘Saying It’ in Cipher”, seems to be none other than the pseudonymous William Friedman himself. Here the author explores the idea that floral arrangements might be an ideal vehicle for the transmission of encrypted information. You can, it is argued, “Say It with Flowers” — no matter what “it” is. The semiological philosophy promoted here seems to be that with sufficient prior agreement between the parties to an instance of communication, anything in this world can be made to say anything at all. Knowing how to make the world speak in this way, and how to understand it when it does, is the real ambition of military intelligence. Think of all the silent talking that might go on at, say, the funeral of some assassinated big man, as his underlings come and place their significant wreaths, and everyone watches and seeks to maneuver his own faction into the vacuum of power — which nature, as Bacon might say, abhors. Think of all that might be projected to the spy agencies of the world in the potted ficuses serving as backdrop to the televised negotiation of a nuclear-arms treaty.
It occurs to me now that you might think I am making all of this up. The whole story seems so unlikely as to be more at home in the pages of an Umberto Eco novel than in the real world (Eco was himself an admirer of the Voynich Manuscript and an occasional Voynich sleuth). And so I rush to note that everything I have written [or at least 84% of it —JEHS, 2026] can easily be verified through other sources. Then again, if you are like most readers, it is to the Internet that you will turn to find these sources: to that great engine underlain by Boolean algebra, built up by American military-industrial power, and eventually polluted almost to the point of unusability by disinformation. But I assure you, whether you are reading this in print or online, I am telling the truth. [Mostly.] This is not, anyhow, like that time I tried to convince you that Immanuel Kant secretly circumnavigated Eurasia in the 1770s, and got the core ideas for his critical philosophy from the Indigenous people of Sumatra. That was a farce, done for the yuks, or the attention, I don’t know; this is real history [plus a few mountweazels, thrown in to keep you pretenders honest].
Authorship of the 1957 special issue in the “Biblioteka” series of the Soviet magazine Огонёк (“Spark”), entitled Наш друг Этэль Лилиан Войнич (“Our Friend Ethel Lilian Voynich”), is commonly attributed to the literary scholar Evgeniia Taratuta (1912-2005). On the face of it Taratuta’s volume appears as a sort of homage to Wilfrid Voynich’s distinguished widow, to whom we have already been introduced.
Ethel Voynich had been living in New York ever since her husband relocated his book business there in 1920. Taratuta, as nearly as we can reconstruct, sent a copy of this work to Anna Margaret Nill (1894-1961), who had been Wilfrid’s assistant during his life, and who remained Ethel’s long-time personal companion after she was widowed in 1930. This copy, currently held in the Yale Beinecke Library along with the Manuscript itself, contains a handwritten dedication from the author to Nill, reading:
с глубоким уважением и самыми лучшими пожеланиями
22 ноября 1957
with deep admiration and best wishes
22 November, 1957
In his much-discussed 2021 series for the BBC, Can’t Get You Out of My Head (with due credit to the divine Kylie Minogue), the documentarian Adam Curtis includes a scene of an impromptu visit, in 1959, of representatives of the Bolshoï Ballet to the elderly Ethel Voynich in Manhattan. There is much that is off about Curtis’s version of the story. For one thing, the segment on Ethel begins with a scene of her in an apartment that is said to be “New York City, 1961”. But she had already died in 1960, and in any case the relation of this footage to the subsequent footage of the Bolshoï’s delegation, which would have been two years earlier, is left unexplained (we know with certainty that the Bolshoï did indeed perform a goodwill tour in the United States in 1959).
More peculiar is Curtis’s presumption that it is only upon meeting these Soviet dancers that Ethel Voynich learned how influential her early novel had been in fomenting the Bolshevik Revolution. She is represented as a clueless old lady who effectively had done nothing, read nothing, learned nothing, since she relocated to the US in 1920 and left her revolutionary youth behind her. But surely she had already been informed of the 1928 Russian translation of The Gadfly, under the title Овод, or of the 1955 film version, for which none other than Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the score. Surely, if the special issue of Огонёк was delivered to her in 1957, and seems to indicate a longstanding relationship of its author, Taratuta, not just to Ethel Voynich but even to her German-born, attention-shy assistant, she could not have been all that surprised by the attention she received from the Soviets two years later.
Curtis has a lot of material to cover —to say the least!— and his primary concern is evidently neither with precise chronology, nor indeed with Ethel’s connection to Wilfrid or to the whole strange history of the undeciphered manuscript. His documentary aims to show, by pastiche of images rather than by argument, that we are living in exceptionally confusing times. For him little is as it appears, as a ubiquitous but hidden force he repeatedly and insistently calls “power” is constantly shaping our lives in ways we scarcely detect and consistently misunderstand. Our new global information economy, Curtis thinks, is at once the source of the disinformation that pervades our environment like a waste product. His interest in Ethel, while dutifully mentioning her later-life identity as a Voynich, is primarily an interest in her life as a Boole, and in the irony of her descent from the man who effectively worked out the mathematics behind the technology that would give rise to our current emerging system of global algorithmic authoritarianism.
I am not a conspiracy theorist (as every conspiracy theorist has, admittedly, said of himself), but in spite of my now years-long effort to survey the Voynich universe and its sundry actors, I cannot help but feel that there is a principle of unity behind their various efforts that we have not yet been able fully to discern. For one thing, I think it is likely that the role of the Voynich Manuscript in the history of Cold War intelligence efforts has not been fully uncovered. I think, also, that it is quite likely that by the 1950s both Ethel Voynich and the Friedmans were more deeply implicated in good old-fashioned cat-and-mouse espionage than has yet come to light. I suspect, even, for reasons I will spell out in later installments of my work on Voynich, both fictional and non-, that Ethel’s late-life contacts with members of the Soviet cultural elite were not only monitored, but indeed to some extent orchestrated, by William Friedman himself, who had certainly not lost interest in the Voynich Manuscript ever since he first used it to train up his cryptographic skills at Riverbank in the years following World War I.
Only in our present century, in 2014, did the National Security Agency declassify the great majority of Friedman’s works. The Agency boasts that this collection is “composed of over 52,000 pages in more than 7,600 documents, including some sound recordings and photographs.” The bulk of the material “dates from 1930–1955 and represents Mr. Friedman’s work at the Signals Intelligence Service, the Signal Security Agency, the Armed Forces Security Agency, and NSA.” A 1955 book entitled The Cryptologist Looks at Shakespeare, co-written with Elizebeth, shows that in this same period William Friedman remains preoccupied almost to the point of obsession with the question of a possible role for Francis Bacon in the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays — a role that is to be determined, so Friedman believed, in the cryptanalysis both of Bacon’s obviously encrypted works, but also of his works that appear —but only appear— to be written in plain English.
Nor is it easy to escape the conclusion, in studying the whole body of Friedman’s post-war contributions to cryptography, that he remains committed to the “floral” theory of ciphers that he had already begun to propose, only apparently in jest, in the early 1920s, according to which encryption is not so much a matter of using secret symbols to encode information, as it is to come to possess the powerful key by which, as we put it earlier, anything may be said to stand for anything. This would indeed be a secret weapon, knowledge of which would indeed be power, as Bacon already understood in his day. Let the pert ficus mean war, and the drooping one peace, or vice versa. Let x mean y, for any possible x and y.
Given the endurance of this vision, it is hard not to think that Friedman also held onto his early view of the Voynich Manuscript as some kind of clavis for understanding the scientific-political conjuncture that shaped the modern world. It is likewise hard to believe that Friedman had entirely given up on the idea that Voynich’s widow —the inheritor of the manuscript and, along with Anna Nill, the person who, if anyone, knew whatever it was Wilfrid Voynich declined to disclose to the world about his manuscript’s origins and nature— had some secrets worth learning, and also worth keeping from the Soviets. I suspect that Friedman continued throughout his life to see the Voynich Manuscript as a sort of universal key, which would teach us not only this or that trivium about mineral-bath cures in the Renaissance, but would serve, if deciphered, as a sort of cryptographic doomsday weapon and as a final realization of the full potential expressed in the Baconian dictum, Scientia est potentia.
I suspect, moreover, that Friedman belongs to that large camp of Voynich scholars for whom the botanical illustrations in the manuscript are not mere decorative additions, but are so to speak the clavis to the clavis. In 1920 Friedman worried that the labor involved in “floral arrangements” remained “so costly that the embodiment of cipher images in them would be well-nigh prohibitively expensive.” But what sort of floral arrangements was he talking about, exactly? And what sort of breakthroughs did he imagine might bring their cost down? I suspect Friedman spent the rest of his life seeking an answer to these questions, even as I confess I don’t fully understand what they mean.
Clearly, as we used to delight in saying in the concluding sentences of the chapters of our largely pseudonymous work of historiographical metafiction: more research is needed.
In early 2022 I published, here on Substack, a translation of the first three manuscript pages of the Voynich Manuscript, from my friend and erstwhile collaborator Justine-Hélène Le Goff (who also, I only learned recently, happens to be my counterpart in any nearby possible world in which I happen to have turned out to be female and Breton).
Don’t forget to listen to me and Celeste Marcus talking about Ralph Waldo Emerson, for the Liberties Podcast.
Finally, my piece on psychotropic drugs, and their potential use as a tool of inquiry into the ultimate nature of reality, has appeared in WIRED Magazine. It’s too soon to say whether this piece will help me in my project of conscious reputational self-destruction, about which anyhow I’ve confessed to having mixed feelings. It seems so far to function as a sort of Rorschach test, with different people reading wildly different things into it: for some, I am posing as an enfant terrible, I am a preening peacock, I am spinning out of control; for others, the piece is “a work of rare, jolting honesty”, “profound and shattering”, etc. I can say already, judging from the early signals arriving from my people in the publishing world, that it is probably going to be expanded into a book — a sort of hybrid philosophical reflexion-cum-memoir of mental health struggles, substance abuse, redemption, and so on. It may end up making me a handsome pile of money, or rather, an even handsomer pile than the one I’ve already received for the original article. As usual, more anon.
And really finally, be sure to read this profile of my friend Agnes Callard in the New Yorker, by the great Rachel Aviv. Agnes is herself a living breathing Rorschach test, I gather, with droves of volunteers freely sharing the results of their own test-taking. For a few years now I have been reading the philosopher Kate Manne’s work with alternating admiration and frustration. As she talks up her perfect marriage and the joys of child-rearing, as she analyzes pop-culture Oscar-bait garbage I never would have heard of otherwise, as she unwittingly revives the spirit of the immortal Cathy to complain of the oppressive expectations of diet culture, I have often found myself thinking: “Middle class… Middle class… OMG, this is so middle class!” (In the lower-lower-middle class environment in which I grew up, Cathy was herself aspirational — as long as my mother inhabited a world where eating too much chocolate or getting runs in your stockings were the principal matters weighing on her mind, rather than, say, dealing with property liens from the county or cleaning up the dead turkeys from the neighbor’s farm that our Irish setter, Rose, had massacred in the night, she was able to feel that she had “made it”.) I thus nearly short-circuited when I read recently that this is exactly the thought that Manne herself had as she was reading Agnes’s profile! There is an important lesson here, I think, for all of us middle-class intellectuals, trapped in this paradoxical situation of having to appear to transcend our class habitus in order for our commitments, concerning for example the universal scope of justice, to have any real purchase, even though we almost never succeed in doing so. What a ridiculous way to spend a life! Agnes, whatever else you might say about her, seems to be one of the few people able to inhabit this contradiction, and to thrive in it. I see my own place in the middle class as vastly more precarious than that of either Manne or Callard (I gather that in terms of their academic careers, both are “to the manor born”, and for both of them the rank of “Professor” carries on the family’s nobiliary title) [Agnes has written to me with a correction: neither of her parents is or was a university professor. Her mother is a biomedical researcher and her father a lawyer trained in Hungary who changed fields once he arrived in the United States. Sorry Agnes! —March 25 2023]; I feel I could easily slip back, at any point, into a life of untouchable rural knackery and never-ending “trouble with the county”. The truth is I am by now probably a life member of la gauche caviar, even if the milieu that shaped me is sooner la droite Taco Bell. In lucid moments it seems to me my anxiety is not, or not only, the result of an objectively precarious status, but also something I have to hold onto, in spite of what is now my rather secure tenure in the middle class, in order for what I say to have any real force in the world. This is all both very embarrassing and immensely worthy of study.
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