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ARTICLES THE CASE OF THE POISONOUS BOOK: MASS LITERACY AS THREAT IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITISH FICTION PATRICK BRANTLINGER Indiana University In the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the list of unusual murder weapons — venomous snakes, lethal blow-darts, and the like — is long, but a poisonous book is not among them (compare, however, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose). At the same time, there is nothing mysterious about the idea that a book might poison its readers. Supposedly obscene, heretical, or seditious writing has often — no doubt from the beginning of civilization — been held to poison the minds of its readers. In the discourse of censorship, the metaphor of toxicity is just as familiar as those of contagion and decadence. Indeed, the notion that certain books may be poisonous to the mental health of their readers is so familiar that poison warnings are apt to be overlooked except for really striking examples. In Britain in the late 1880s, to take just one prominent instance, the debate around Henry Vizetelly's trial for publishing English translations of La Terre and other Zola novels is well-spiced with poison metaphors. So one MP condemned the "poisonous stuff" and, as antidote, recommended fostering a "healthy' national literature, while another asserted that the "poison" of Zolaism "was destroying the whole national life" in France and would do the same to England (qtd. in Becker 366, 355). Here it isn't a matter of an individual reader but of entire nations of readers threatened with poisonous literature. More mysterious than the idea that certain texts like La Terre may be poisonous is the idea that all writing — and hence, all textuality — may be poisonous. This is the gist of "Plato's Pharmacy" in Jacques Derrida's deconstructionist and therefore perhaps Victorian Review 20.2 (Winter 1994) 118Victorian Review poisonous book Dissemination (65-94).* Derrida points out that, in Phaedrus, Socrates uses "pharmakon" as a metaphor for writing in general. This is, of course, the word from which "pharmacy" comes; in ancient Greek pharmakon also carries a double meaning, like the English word "drug." It can mean medicine or remedy on the one hand, and poison on the other. Derrida continues: "Socrates compares the written texts Phaedrus has brought along to a drug" (70). This pharmakon, this "medicine . . . which acts as both remedy and poison," "with all its ambivalence" (70), becomes central to the dialogue, and also to Socrates' conception of all writing. Socrates recounts an Egyptian myth about the origin of writing, according to which the clever god Theuth, who along with writing also "invented numbers and calculation, geometry and astronomy," presented each of these inventions to Ammon, the king of Thebes (75). When he got to writing, Theuth offered it as a "recipe" — a "pharmakon," Socrates says — that "will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories" (75). "But," says King Ammon, writing can't preserve memory; instead, it will deaden it by taking its place. Writing can't enter the realm of true presence — for Plato, the realm of ideal forms — but is forever mere second-hand representation. Writing for Plato, Derrida shows, signals the death of speech and of presence, just as Theuth the clever god and inventor of writing turns out also to be the god of death. So while Socrates thinks that writing may be in some sense medicinal — perhaps useful as a reminder, though no substitute for memory — it is also simultaneously a poison. Hence, no matter whether wise or foolish, beautiful or ugly, all books are inherently poisonous. Derrida has only to add that all forms of communication are forms of writing — that there is "nothing outside the text" — to suggest how culture as such, in its entirety, may be toxic, or anyway simultaneously poisonous and medicinal, enervating as much as life-enhancing. But it is neither the idea that some texts are poisonous, nor the idea that all texts are poisonous, that constitutes the specific "Case of the Poisonous Book" that I investigate here. The mystery consists instead of a structural pattern in a wide range of eighteenth and nineteenthcentury books — especially novels — which either contain poisonous books as stories-within-stories, or else proclaim, through...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 117-133
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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