Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Homer meets Derrida in the tale of Bellerophon, mentioned in the sixth book of the Iliad. At lines 165-6 comes what has been interpreted as Homer's sole reference to writing and thus possibly the earliest mention of writing in any extant Greek text. Not surprisingly to a reader of Derrida, context places the act of writing under a cloud of deception and even murder. Bellerophon, accused of rape by the lascivious wife of his king, is sent to Lycia "bearing a folded tablet inscribed with baleful signs." These 'signs' instruct the Lycian king to murder Bellerophon. I immediately think of Claudius's letter to the English king and Hamlet's substitution of a text that leads Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unwittingly to their deaths. Shakespeare was, knowingly or not, referencing perhaps the oldest writing-related motif in Western literature. The passage also causes me to reconsider Derrida, as it suggests that his 'conspiracy theory' of the systematic devaluation of writing and the privileging of speech in Western thought may have even deeper roots than Plato's Phaedrus. It's interestingly counterintuitive (at least for a writer) to see writing as a technology that makes long-distance deception possible by allowing a messenger to carry a message unknown to himself. Writing thus benefits power by facilitating the objectification of less powerful others as means rather than ends. (The ghost of Michel Foucault bumps into the spirit of Immanuel Kant halfway through that last sentence.) The hapless messenger unknowingly carrying his own death warrant is technologically alienated from his labor, subjected to those who have mastered the technology, and forced to be the unwitting agent of his own death. Baleful signs, indeed. Writing is a dangerous, Kafkaesque business. (Also, the messenger is reduced to a carrier, etymologically a 'metaphor,' a carrier of meaning, a mere figure of speech (or writing)... But this is getting too Derridean, too Derridean altogether.)

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