At universities around the world, students are claiming that reading books can unsettle them to the point of becoming depressed, traumatised or even suicidal. Some contend that Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), in which a suicide has taken place, could trigger suicidal thoughts among those disposed to self-harm. Others insist that F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), with its undercurrent of spousal violence, might trigger painful memories of domestic abuse. Even ancient classical texts, students have argued, can be dangerous: at Columbia University in New York, student activists demanded that a warning be attached to Ovid’s Metamorphoses on grounds that its ‘vivid depictions of rape’ might trigger a feeling of insecurity and vulnerability among some undergraduates.
This is probably the first time in history that young readers themselves are demanding protection from the disturbing content of their course texts, yet reading has been seen as a threat to mental health for thousands of years. In accordance with the paternalistic ethos of ancient Greece, Socrates said that most people couldn’t handle written text on their own. He feared that for many – especially the uneducated – reading could trigger confusion and moral disorientation unless the reader was counselled by someone with wisdom. In Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedrus, written in 360 BCE, Socrates warned that reliance on the written word would weaken individuals’ memory, and remove from them the responsibility of remembering. Socrates used the Greek word pharmakon – ‘drug’ – as a metaphor for writing, conveying the paradox that reading could be a cure but most likely a poison. Scaremongers would repeat his warning that the text was analogous to a toxic substance for centuries to come.
Many Greek and Roman thinkers shared Socrates’ concerns. Trigger warnings were issued in the third century BCE by the Greek dramatist Menander, who exclaimed that the very act of reading would have a damaging effect on women. Menander believed that women suffered from strong emotions and weak minds. Therefore he insisted that ‘teaching a woman to read and write’ was as bad as ‘feeding a vile snake on more poison’.
In 65 CE, the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca advised that the ‘reading of many books is a distraction’ that leaves the reader ‘disoriented and weak’. For Seneca the problem was not the content of a specific text but the unpredictable psychological effects of unrestrained reading. ‘Be careful,’ he warned, ‘lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady.’
By the Middle Ages, the potentially harmful effects of text had become a recurrent theme in Christian demonology. According to the late University of Washington free speech expert Haig Bosmajian, author of Burning Books (2006), texts that probed Church doctrine were denounced as poisonous substances with destructive consequences for the body and soul. Unsupervised reading could be heresy, the Church feared, and blasphemous texts, such as the Jewish Talmud, were consigned to the fires or ‘metaphorised into deadly serpents, pestilence, and rot.’
The representation of reading as a medium through which readers become psychologically disoriented and morally contaminated continued to influence Western literary culture through every historical epoch. In 1533, Thomas More, the former Lord High Chancellor of England and fierce opponent of the Protestant Reformation, denounced the publication of texts written by Protestant theologians such as William Tyndale (1494-1536) as ‘deadly poisons’ that threatened to infect readers with ‘contagious pestilence’. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, terms such as ‘moral poison’ or ‘literary poison’ were frequently employed to draw attention to the capacity of a written text to contaminate the body.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/contagion-poison-trigger-books-have-always-been-dangerous