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Saint John's Apothecary:

Differance, Textuality, and the Advent of Meaning


Anyone who has studied the Apocalypse of John, the Book of Revelation, may have deemed it odd that the book is ostensibly a revelation and yet it speaks in cryptical ciphers. It is the least understandable book in the biblical canon. What, pray tell, is revealed in it? Perhaps, as I will suggest, something about language and texts in general is revealed. Perhaps the Apocalypse precisely in the denseness of its code is the paradigm case of textuality. And this is disclosed through a deconstructive reading of the Apocalypse paralleling Derrida's exegesis of the Phaedrus in "Plato's Pharmacy."

John of Patmos did intend to reveal something, namely, the second advent of Christ, the soon coming of the end of the age, the final Parousia ("presence") of one called the Word of God. Why doesn't he say this plainly? All the strange figures of speech may have been a code to confuse the wrong readers should the book ever come into the hands of the authorities.

Another reason many readers have trouble making sense of the text is that they are simply not prepared to recognize what it is trying to tell us: that Christ will return soon, in the writer's own life time. That he didn't return is so obvious, so much taken for granted, like the very air we breath, that the promise that he would come soon remains invisible. It simply doesn't occur to the pious reader that John might have meant that. And now that fact, the long delay of the Parousia of the Word of God, must be factored into any reading of the book, though originally, of course, it was not a factor at all. But it cannot be ignored. The delay must cast a new light on the text.

So the Apocalypse is a tissue of riddles and ciphers, promising an ultimate appearing of revelation, when we shall see face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). I suggest that here we have in a nutshell an allegory of reading not only for the Bible in its entirety, but for all writing, all textuality whatsoever.

Every text is a page of code, of mute signifiers. This is clear to children who have not yet learned to read, or to adults looking at a page written in a language unknown to them. When we do learn to read the characters on the page, we are learning cryptography, how to crack the code before us. How to decipher the ciphers.

And all the while we are reading, decoding, deciphering, we are anticipating the meaning we will find, the truth promised us at the end of the process. We are waiting for the glorious appearing of some word of truth that will lighten our darkness and illumine our understanding. This is so whether you are reading the Upanishads or the instruction book for a new appliance.

But often that longing is disappointed, as full understanding does not dawn, as full recognition is  delayed because either we cannot quite work out the cipher, or the language is open to many meanings, and we do not know where the truth lies. Text is cipher, and the promised Parousia of meaning always eludes us, makes us wait and wait.

Why does writing delay and defer and obstruct meaning? Jacques Derrida addresses these issues in a number of works including Of Grammatology. I want to focus, though, on his essay "Plato's Pharmacy" (in the collection Dissemination), where he deconstructs Plato's argument in his Phaedrus dialogue.  There Plato, speaking through his ventriloquist dummy Socrates, tells a tale of the origin of writing. Here, in brief, it is.

Once upon a time, says Socrates, the messenger god Thoth came before the throne of his master Amon, king of gods and mortals. Thoth has a breakthrough, a great invention, to announce. But perhaps learning a lesson from the terrible fate of Prometheus, he decides to check with the boss before going public with it.

His invention is writing. He says it will function as a pharmakon, a medicine, to make up for the infirm memory of human beings. If they write down what is important, they will not need to worry: should they later forget it, they can look it up.

But Amon is not so sure it is a good idea. This drug, this pharmakon, of writing, he replies, is not so much a medicine as it is a ­poison­. It will but further erode the power of memory. People will take less care to remember precisely because they know they can always look up where they wrote it.

Worse yet, writing will steal the words from the author, wrest them from his control. A speaker may make himself understood, since he can repeat, rephrase, reinforce a point with a gesture or an inflection. A written transcription allows for none of these. Thus if I read a transcript of a speech I was not present to hear, I stand a much greater chance of misunderstanding it.

The speaker is the father of the word, and the spoken word is like the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal: it stays close to home and obeys its father's behests, working under his watchful eye. The written word, the written text, on the other hand, is like the younger son who strays far from home, escaping the supervision of his father, that is, of its writer. With writing, there is more of a danger that meaning will get lost, will be harder to find, will be deferred. One may take longer finding the center of the maze. Worse yet, one may never get there and instead imagine that some cul-de-sac ­is­ the center! Derrida says that Plato is perfectly correct about writing. What Plato failed to realize, though, was that speech is no better! The same ambiguity he feared in writing already exists in speech, since it is inherent in language as such.

The kind of comparison Plato makes between writing and speech would really only make sense if he were instead comparing language on the one hand, whether written or spoken, and telepathy on the other. Only im­mediate, un­mediated, awareness of the speaker's intent without the obscuring medium of language could prevent misunderstanding--or could it?

Do I even understand what I am saying? Really? Freud would have little difficulty in showing that I am at best a poor listener to my own internal speech, to the clues of my subconscious.

The problem with language is that it is a forest path with many winding branches, and it is easy to get lost. Thus the ciphers and puzzles of every written text, even those that on the surface seem easier to understand than the Book of Revelation. Language leadeth astray. At least it leads us a merry chase, the meaning an ever-receding will-o'-the-wisp.

Derrida noted that Plato had to employ writing even to make his complaint against it. And that even his apparently clear polemic against it is inevitably vitiated by the very ambiguity he seeks to exorcize. The best proof of his complaint is the drift of meaning in his own essay, the fact, for instance, that the very same word pharmakon can mean both "poison" and "remedy."

A related word, pharmakos, can mean either "poisoner" or "scapegoat." And Derrida says Plato is making a scapegoat of writing, making it bear the curse of the ambiguity of language so that you will banish writing and then go on blithely relying on spoken language, forgetting that it is heir to the same infirmities.

Certainly he does not mean to admit this, but the words he uses speak for themselves. They are there to be read and for us to decipher, whatever he may have meant by them. The text speaks for itself.  No authority, not even the author, can be allowed to control the meaning of the text. Such is the nature of a text.

I am startled to find some of the very same moves being made in the text of the Apocalypse. John, like Plato, means to denigrate writing--even though to do it he must write! He means to exalt speech, the living Word of God who appears at the climax to banish the forces of textual chaos.

    Then I saw heaven opened, and behold! a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war... and he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself... and the name by which he is called is the Word of God... From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (19:11-15).

When the Living Word appears at the finale, it is as if he has come as the spoken word incarnate to banish the evil of written textuality itself. He appears in order to defeat and bring to an end the very Book in which he appears!

John pretends that his Apocalypse is simply a transcription of what certain heavenly voices said to him, or what he saw with his own eyes. In other words, his text, he wants us to believe, is the thinnest of tissues. His unveiling (which is what "revelation" means) is itself a veil, but a transparent one--he says, or rather writes.

But he gives away the game with all his literary allusions to Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. It is obvious his text is a composite literary hash heavily dependent on earlier prophetic books, and by no means simply a showing forth of "heaven and its wonders and hell." It is a written text from first to last. Even if it is based on dreams or hallucinations he actually experienced, they have arisen from his subconscious clothed in the rags of remembered scripture texts.

It is the living, i.e., the spoken word that appears to wreak judgment, and yet his designation as the Word is "inscribed." Inscription is inescapable as the linguistic matrix from which speech proceeds, the matrix of meaning from which it emerges.

In the first three chapters he has the Son of God dictate letters to the churches of Asia Minor, and he pretends merely to take dictation. Yet even this spoken word, if such it be, is beset with ambiguity. Each letter ends with the appeal, "Let him who has an ear hear what the Spirit says to the churches." They end just like the equivocal parables of Jesus. In other words, they are ciphers essentially no different from the apocalyptic symbols later in the book. Are spoken words of God so clear? Remember the equivocal utterances of the oracle of Delphi!

At the very end of the book he warns in the sternest terms that no reader must venture to produce his own expurgated or interpolated edition of the Apocalypse:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (22:18-19)

This is what regularly happened to these books of visions--take a look at Mark 13 and see what has been made of it in Luke 21 and Matthew 24! This is what John wanted to avoid. Don't take any thing away from the book!

John knows that once he sets his pen aside and sends copies of the book to the seven churches of Asia Minor he cannot control what will be made of it. He cannot be sure what people will take him to have meant. If only he might have seen what Hal Lindsey and Charles Manson have made of it!

He intends that the prophetic word, frozen for transit into written text, will upon arrival melt again into living speech, since it is to be read aloud (cf. "the one who hears the prophecy of this book"), but he cannot even be sure people will not rewrite it in the meantime. So he strives to forestall the inevitable by means of this warning. Hands off, or it's the burning lake for you! He fears the latent potency of the pharmakon, the potent drug of writing, of textuality, of language.

And, again like Plato, he cannot decide whether the pharmakon is a poison or a remedy! Strikingly, the very thing he warns the would-be bowdlerizer not to do in chapter 22 he himself had done in chapter 10: "And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down'."

In other words, he thought better of a particular prophecy and struck it out of the final copy. That's textuality for you! John had become a hostile reader of his own text and censored it. What is a poison in chapter 22 had previously been a remedy, fixing the text in chapter 10.

John expects the Parousia of the Word of God to happen soon. But for now he must grudgingly rely upon codes, as in chapter 13 when he "tells" or ­thinks­ he tells the identity of the Great Beast with the cipher 666. Again, if he had only suspected the mischief this piece of text would cause!

There have been a thousand guesses as to who was intended by that particular cipher. And yet we need not look beyond the number itself. The written numeral 666 is not a reference to the Antichrist; by definition it is the Antichrist! If the Christ is the living word, that is, the spoken word, then the Antichrist is the opposite of the spoken word, namely the written sign per se.

So then, John grudgingly admits he is, we are, dependent on written signs now, but soon, he promises, true meaning will no more be impeded, detoured, delayed, re-routed by textuality.

The New Jerusalem will descend and there will be no temple in it, as there was in the earthly Jerusalem. And why not? Because the old temple was a token, a reminder, of God's presence in his absence. But at the end of the world, the end of the word, there will be no need for reminders: God will simply be there, his Presence immediately dwelling amid human beings. Hence no temple. And hence, also, no writing. It is in this same context that John drives out of the New Jerusalem a ragged crew of undesirables including the pharmakoi. "Outside are the dogs and pharmakoi and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves deeds of falsehood" (22:15).

Who are the pharmakoi? Virtually without exception, Bible translations render the word "sorcerers," but, remember, it also means "poisoners" and "scapegoats." (No doubt the word has all these meanings because in ancient cities when plague broke out, they would seize the local apothecary, already a dubious character who sold medicines, magic potions, and poisons, like the druggist in Romeo and Juliet, and drive him from the town, blaming him for the sickness and hoping thus to dispel it. "Now let's see you poison our wells!")

And remember Plato's Phaedrus with its Egyptian myth of the origin of writing. It is Thoth who invents writing. Thoth is a sorcerer and the dispenser of the medicine or poison of writing, a pharmakos in both senses.  Just as Plato would have banished the poets from his ideal Republic, John is driving the dangerous magic of writing from the New Jerusalem as one drives a pharmakos or scapegoat from the city. He might have sent speech packing, too, since the two are accomplices in mischief.

But he is right: as long as God is not fully Present, any sacred writing or speech about God is but a token both of God's presence and of his absence. It is present, such as it is, but it is not God. It holds the place of the absent God. The Bible is a book mark, a book that is a mark, a sign for God, not the real thing.

Thus the written text of the Bible and the mute charade of speaking of the unspeakable God are medicine: they are a fix to get the reader by without the Living Water of the divine Presence. And yet that medicine is in the same moment a poison, the poison of idolatry. John drives the pharmakoi from the heavenly city arm in arm with the idolaters. The poison of the Bible's language is that it tempts the reader to make the stammering speech about God into God. The word "God" on the biblical page is the God that comes to be worshipped.

The text which pretends to reveal, whether that of the Revelation of Saint John or any other, is itself a veil. It is like the veil that hung before the Holy of Holies in Herod's Temple: it hides the fact that the Inner Sanctum is an empty chamber. The curtain allows the illusion that some Transcendental Signified awaits within. But in fact the veil itself is all that occupies the Holy of Holies. The text itself is the only thing revealed. It is a fabulous vista painted on a veil, not a transparent veil through which one sees a distant panorama.

CopyrightŠ2004 by Robert M Price
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