Writtenness January 12, 2016

Near the end of her book on The Heavenly Book Motif, Leslie Baynes notes the “negative attitude about writing that Plato’s Socrates expresses in the Phaedrus” is absent from early Christianity. For early Christians, “Words are ephemeral and disappear as soon as they are spoken, but writing remains. Under ideal circumstances, writing is permanent, and surely heavenly writing is stored under ideal circumstances. Writing is considered a worthy form in which to store the most portentous information conceivable: lists of the names of those who will inherit eternal blessing as the citizens of God’s heavenly community, the deeds on which those judgments are based, the laws by which a community should live its life, and even the pre-ordained history of the world. Especially when inscribed on a tablet, writing is fixed and unalterable. If that writing comes from heaven, by definition all of the authority of God backs it up” (206). 

With Derrida in the background, she draws the insight that for the early Christians writing was often quite literally a matter of life and death for them. When in the company of these texts, Platonic phonocentrism has to eat its words. For these Jewish and Christian authors (and presumably their readers as well), it is not the case that ‘what writing itself, in its nonphonetic moment, betrays, is life.’ For them, writing is not ‘[the] end, [the] finitude, [the] paralysis’ of ‘history as the spirit’s relationship with itself.’ Rather, writing transforms death into life. It is real and true and trustworthy, and so much so that the root of all presence, the creator God, unlike Plato’s Thamus the king, values the exteriority of writing, not least for its pharmaceutical properties in re mneme. Writing, the concretization of absence, is held dear by Presence” (206).

Browse Our Archives