December 19, 2008

Codes, and literature

Reading John B’s post on Number Stations yesterday got me thinking about the tangentially related subject of literary codes. I’m not thinking specifically of narratological theories of the codification of narrative, of the kind associated primarily with Roland Barthes, but of the ways literary texts have been put to use as second-level codes.

I remembered reading about the wartime use as a code of this beautiful poem by Verlaine:
Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.
(Various translations here.)

To me, Verlaine is the greatest modern practitioner of the chanson form, which combines simplicity of form and matter in a way that attains the most perfect expression of melancholy moods. Another beautiful example of the form is his perhaps equally famous poem Il pleure dans mon coeur.

It seems that the Allies transmitted the first part of the first stanza of the poem to the Resistance to warn of the imminent Normandy Landings. The operation would take place immediately after the transmission of the second part of the stanza. Strange that the phrase ‘blessent mon cœur’ (wound my heart) was wrongly reproduced as ‘bercent mon cœur’ (rock/soothe my heart)…

Another famous example of a wartime poem code is this one, composed specifically for that purpose, by Leo Marks:
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours
And yours.
This also is a very beautiful poem, I think.

Literary texts have been used variously for transmission of what I’m calling secondary coded messages (no doubt there is a better term). Not codes written into the text by some steganographical operation, such as those (supposedly) put into books like the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna, or the Gargantua by Rabelais, or the Bible by…er, God. Rather, the use of literary texts as the base material to which a previously agreed-upon cipher is applied. There was an example of this in the recent movie The Baader-Meinhof Complex, in which the eponymous members of the Red Army Faction transmitted coded messages to each other in their jail cells using an edition of Moby-Dick as their base text.

This method is much more likely to be effective within closed communities that have their own markers of inclusion and literary shibboleths. Perhaps, because of the wider range of texts to which we have access today – paradoxically – there are fewer markers of this type available to us than there were for the literary communities of past times. For the members of the international Republic of Letters during the Renaissance, the boundaries of the common cultural property were more clearly demarcated; and the personal or familiar letter, being pretty much the only private communication technology available, could be used as a mechanism for the transmission of coded information.

I remember reading that the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives recommended, somewhere in one of his epistolographical works, that the ‘familiar’ letter should be used to transmit secret information intended only for a particular reader. This should be done by encoding in the text allusions to myth, to history, to proverbs, and quotations from the classical authors whose meaning will not be noticed by a secondary reader (the letter was never exactly a private mode of communication – especially if you were writing it with a eye on a future print publication), but will be easily decoded by the intended recipient.

This sort of erudite game-playing is right on the boundary between the use of literary texts as the raw material for ciphers, and the more usual kind of decoding we are always doing to texts when we read them as educated members of a common culture.


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I have a book that I bouth somw years ago,I like a lot the poem is so romantic and is very cool.I think that I will write some thing similar when I take mas vacations.