The idea of the lethal text is a fascinating one, which recurs in all kinds of narratives. In recent times it has become a motif in the genres of science fiction and supernatural horror, or any other type of story-telling which draws on the gothic. Aleph [the Website of Aleph (Defunct)] describes it like this: ‘Quite simply, the lethal text is a text that, when read, renders the reader incapable of reading. It destroys the reader’s mind, inducing 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.’
As for what such a text might say, it is impossible to know – or at least, to know and be capable of telling. Aleph speculates that a lethal text might consist of a logical paradox, but then questions whether a paradox could destroy a human mind, as opposed to a computer. He (or she) argues that the mind can deflect paradox by simply ceasing to think about it.
The human mind has a kind of protective shield against paradoxes: it gets confused and gives up, instead of attempting to resolve them. It 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.
Aleph therefore concludes that a lethal text is not possible: ‘the mind is not a computer.’ Nevertheless, Aleph argues, some writers have come close to articulating a lethal text, citing Derrida, whose 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.’
So it seems we can only find lethal texts in fiction. An alien message is picked up which destroys the mind of anyone intelligent enough to understand it (Piers Anthony, Macroscope; lethal text is transmitted via a computer virus, and is most threatening to hackers, whose neural pathways are most vulnerable to it (Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Pat Cadigan’s Synners). The motif is used more than once in short stories by Arthur C Clarke (The Ultimate Melody and The Mysterious Card), and according to Aleph ‘appears, in a somewhat different form, in the Star Trek episode Is There No Truth in Beauty? (1968). The conflicting narratives which destroy the mind of the super-computer HAL in Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey constitute a lethal text. What might remain a science-fiction cliché takes on something of the archetypal power of a mytheme if one can also find ancient examples. The Sirens’ song in the Odyssey is proposed as an example by Aleph. It might be objected that the sirens’ song does not destroy the minds of those who hear it – it merely constitutes a temptation impossible to resist. It lures sailors to their deaths – but does not itself destroy them. The end result is the same: no one alive has ever heard their song, and so the song, like a lethal text, remains mysterious. Only Odysseus is smart enough to have himself tied to the mast of his ship, thus surviving to tell the tale. Perhaps more convincingly, Aleph notes that in the Bible, ‘God’s face is treated as if it was a lethal text (Exodus 19:21 & 33:20.)’
Aleph then throws out a seductive question: ‘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?’
I have come to think that there are some things it’s not possible to believe, unless you’ve arrived at them independently; worked them out for yourself, or stumbled across them.
“Only those who’ve seen the lethal text know what it says… but they are in no position to share their knowledge.” Is there such a thing? Information which can be known but not communicated? A mental construct which can be built within the individual mind, but not transferred as a whole to another mind?
Societies certainly act as if there were. The subconscious fear of lethal text is so pronounced that a large part of common discourse is devoted to shoring up the culture’s defenses against it. Each culture therefore produces sets of information which its members actually can’t see, even when presented with them: which can’t be communicated by word of mouth, only discovered separately and independently. All lethal text must be hidden, but the subconscious fear of it means it can be hidden in the open.
An extreme example of this is contained in the legend that natives of the South American continent could not see the approaching ships of Cortez. While impossible to prove, it has a degree of plausibility. Electro-magnetic resonance imaging of the brain has confirmed to us, within the last few years, that vision is 50% memory: when one looks at something, the flow of information from the memory-centres in the brain is as great as that from the optic nerves. But if we don’t recognise something, is it possible that we would not see it? This leads to a paradox: you would only be able to see things you’d seen before. The act of seeing, then, remains a mystery.
If the lethal text destroys the sanity of its reader, and is impossible to transmit from one individual to another, then how can we prove its existence?
Logically, we cannot – and yet, it might be possible to divine the presence and the whereabouts of these texts, should they exist. Although the contents of the text cannot be communicated, the existence of the text perhaps can. Those who have seen the text might at least be able to warn others about it, in the same way as dead fish can warn you about the water in a river, or a dead canary the quality of the air in a mine. Find the point from which those with ruined minds are staggering away… and stay clear of it.
There might be other reasons, too, for wanting to locate a lethal text. For instance, if such a text existed then one could safely assume that somewhere in the world, someone would be trying to find ways to make a weapon out of it. Lethal text could also be deployed in the interests of national security, by embedding it in documents which must never be disclosed to the public.
The human mind is not a machine, asserts Aleph, so how can it be destroyed by a text? It will protect itself against paradox by simply ceasing to run the programme. The idea of the lethal text consisting of an insoluble paradox therefore remains conjecture, plausible though it initially sounds.
However, precisely because the human mind is not a machine, it is not uniform. In any population there will be some who do not have this survival mechanism, who ‘think too much’ or are born with ‘a vivid imagination’ – who cannot stop running the programme, who never master doublethink, who can imagine it otherwise, and cannot help it.
According to the theory of the lethal text, such minds will be destroyed by their contact with the text. As a result, while the existence of such texts would be known because of witnesses to the destruction of its readers, the content of any such texts would remain unknown.
And if lethal text is a synonym for truth, what then?