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The Web site of aleph · Index
The lethal text
Writing under erasure
Mesopotamian myth
The Gilgamesh legend
The nam-shub of Enki
The Tower of Babel story
The song of the Sirens
Plato's metaphor of the cave
"man's insanity is heaven's sense"
The Ultimate Melody
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Snow Crash

Once upon a time The Web site of aleph by Michael Chorost existed, but has since ceased. These texts represent a small measure of its content. Image from the short story ARI-L by Caza.

deoxy > philosophos

The lethal text

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 their knowledge.

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? (1968).

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.)