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
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 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 includingOf 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 Thothcame
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
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.
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
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"
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 (-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
voicessaid 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
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.
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
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
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,
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 signper 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
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" ().
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. "Nowlet's see you poison our wells!")
And remember Plato's
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,
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 pharmakosor 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.