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Apothecary: Saint John's
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 ). 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
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
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
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.sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold! a white horse! He who
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 (-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
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
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
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 Minorhe 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
. And why not? Because the Jerusalem
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" ().
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
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 theRevelation 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
: it hides the fact that the Inner Sanctum is an empty Temple
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.
Robert M Price
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