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Palamedes' "Writing Lesson": On Writing, Narrative, and Erasure
Classical and Modern Literature
  • Thomas E Jenkins, Trinity University
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In this essay, I shall consider some striking parallels between legends of writing as manipulated by both Jacques Derrida and Euripides; more specifically, I shall investigate how each author dissects a narrative-or narratives-of writing's invention in order later to construct writing as an inherently unstable semiotic system. In each instance, a seemingly straightforward "myth" of writing is re-narrated in a dark and sardonic vein, one that downplays the technical aspects of writing and highlights instead the hermeneutical ambiguities encoded within this new technology. The Greek myth of Palamedes (as re-narrated by Euripides) hinges on the invention and eventual misapprehension of the written sign; the story of Levi-Strauss among the Nambikwara (as re-narrated by Derrida) performs exactly the same function, though the tale features an intrepid anthropologist in place of an intrepid Greek warrior. In their separate investigations of writing, both re-tellers focus on the term pharmakon as the embodiment of the paradox that lies at the heart of the narrative: that the discovery of writing is at the same time the discovery of erasure, including the possible erasure of its own discoverer.
Citation Information
Jenkins, Thomas E. “Palamedes’ ‘Writing Lesson’: On Narrative, Writing, and Erasure.” Classical and Modern Literature 25 (2005): 29-53.