Quite simply, the lethal text is a text that, when read, renders
the reader incapable of reading. It destroys the reader's mind.
It induces a crippling insanity. Only those who have read a lethal
text know what it says...but they are in no position to share
What does the lethal text say? By definition, no one can know
and remain capable of telling it. But perhaps it is a logical
paradox. The human mind has a kind of protective shield against
paradoxes: it gets confused and gives up, instead of attempting
to resolve them. They can stop "running the program"
set up by a paradox. But the lethal text somehow penetrates this
shield, presenting a paradox the mind cannot stop trying to resolve.
Which is why the lethal text is (probably) not possible: the mind
is not a computer. The mind can deflect paradox by ceasing to
think about it.
Derrida has probably come closer than anyone else to articulating
a lethal text. His texts use language to describe language's limitations.
A paradox! But Derrida cannot truly complete the paradox; he can
only point to it in a metaphorical way. For example, he borrows
Heidegger's technique of writing under erasure.
But his texts can at best destroy themselves, whereas the lethal
text destroys the reader.
Are readers' minds truly destroyed? Or are they elevated to a
higher plane, like the escapees of Plato's cave,
so that man's insanity is heaven's sense?
Lethal texts appear in a number of science-fiction novels. In
Piers Anthony's Macroscope
(1968), an alien message is picked up which destroys the mind
of anyone intelligent enough to understand it. In Neal Stephenson's
more recent Snow Crash
(1994), the lethal text is transmitted via a computer virus, and
is most threatening to hackers, whose neural pathways are most
vulnerable to it. Pat Cadigan's Synners (1991) uses almost exactly
the same plot device. It is also present in Arthur C. Clarke's
short story The Ultimate Melody (1956)
and The Mysterious Card. It appears in a somewhat different form
in the Star Trek episode Is There No Truth in Beauty?
The lethal text appears, of course, in the Sirens' song
of the Odyssey. It also plays a role in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the
Bible, God's face is treated as if it was a lethal text (Exodus 19:21 & 33:20.)