Codes and Puzzles

When I was a kid I was fascinated by cryptography. I had a book that taught me the scytale, the Playfair and the Vignere table. I knew the difference between a code (word substitution) and a cipher (messing with letters) and between a substitution cipher (“cat” becomes “dbu”) and a transposition cipher (“cat” becomes “atc”). I made up my own ciphers and codes, wrote messages in them, decoded and recoded them, ciphering and deciphering.

The puzzle I present to myself this evening is: why would a kid who was entirely alone, who nobody cared what he said or thought, be interested in codes and ciphers? I have come up with three solutions to this puzzle.

The first solution is that this interest in code masked the opposite desire. I hid my thoughts because I wanted my thoughts to be seen. This solution takes the form of a code: everything in the coded message (a lonely boy studying how to hide his thoughts) masks the opposite meaning. Decoded it means: boy seeking connection wants to know how to get other people to know what is within his heart.

The second solution is that this interest in code was an attempt on my part to substitute for the normal speech situation — one person says something and another person understands it — another speech situation in which the same person codes and decodes. This solution, clearly, takes the form of a substitution cipher. The pieces of the original activity, like an alphabet, remain in their places — a boy writing symbols in a book. But each piece has been replaced by something to hide its meaning. The coded message — a boy writing something in a way a hostile eye can never understand — reveals, by means of substitution the true message — a boy creates something that looks like communication but is actually a self-enclosed activity, to protect him from loss.

The third solution is the easiest — I was writing codes to have a secret to share with an imaginary friend. And this, easily enough corresponds to a transposition cipher — where the components of a normal coded communication — the friendly sender, the friendly receiver, the hostile spy who is unable to understand or perhaps even detect the message from sender to receiver are shuffled to become a sender who is friend and enemy, and an empty space for both receiver and spy.

And yet I find I am not satisfied with any of the solutions to my puzzle. They all miss the mark. What was happening I’m sure was something beyond the reach of code-craft; some sort of practice for understanding what it would mean to be understood, by way of practicing what it would mean to not be.

Good practice for tonight as I pose a puzzle to myself and fail again and again to solve it, generating only more puzzles. Why do I pose puzzles to myself? And why do I ask myself why?


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