Photo courtesy of Lou
I recently came across a reference to an "architectural palimpsest", and was fascinated, not only because the term is so interesting and apt but because the way it was used could apply to so many different ideas. What a mental find! My mind went crazy with the different possibilities for a few days. What about the marks that pictures make in the places where they used to be on the walls? What about the dry spot on the ground where a car was parked during the rain?
Historically, palimpsests are parchments made of animal hide which have been scraped "clean" again so that new works can be written on them. Generally, a ghost of the original(s) remain behind the new writing, leaving traces of what once was. Sometimes, the deliberately destroyed work (parchment being more valuable than writings, at times) is the only remaining copy of an old document, and many otherwise lost works have been recovered this way.
So an architectural palimpsest is the ghostly remains of other buildings or parts of buildings that are still apparent on existing buildings. And, it turns out, there are tons of other kinds of extended uses of the term. The art and philosophy worlds are, of course chockablock with them. Archeologists extend the idea of architectural palimpsest into their own study of layered structures, to mean "accumulated iterations of a design or a site, whether in literal layers of archaeological remains, or by the figurative accumulation and reinforcement of design ideas over time." It is a good word for structures or traces which have obviously morphed over time but which defy specific dating.
The term is also used by forensic scientists to describe how objects at a site are layered on top of one another, showing the order of events. That in itself is fascinating. Forensic science can be incredibly dull, but in its basic form - the study of the laying-out of objects to see what happened to make them fall that way - it reeks not only of Sherlock Holmes, but of Miss Haversham, that perfect example of creepy time-stoppage.
In more theoretical discourse, palimpsests appear in relation to psychology, culture, and even mythology. Baudriard, that inimical but required author we had to slog through in graduate school, discusses the way modern culture is simply a layered miasma of images of images of images - a totally mediated experience - until we no longer know where or what the original once was. Myths and rituals get worked over by time and human creativity until the originals show through only in glimmers; fairy tales gain and lose characters, nastiness, and motif depending on the era in which we live. Our whole existence could be seen as a long progression of palimpsestic reality, where the old cultures, the old ways, are stripped away but continue to shine through in the ways we do things: our superstitions, our celebrations.
Photo courtesy of Lou
Historians are, in fact, beginning to use the word more and more, not only to describe revisionist histories and how they never work, but to describe history as a whole, in the way people experience time. We all, in fact, wake up every morning with the memory of yesterday all ready-scraped for us to write the new day on. Our whole experience of the world could be said to be like a palimpsest. I could go on and on - it is a lovely metaphor.
And what about technology? My friend Gwyan is interested in virtual ruins, the remains of old websites that linger around the internet, out-of-date and unused. They are archeological artifacts, echos of earlier information which have not yet faded. To some extent hypertext itself is a bit like a renewable palimpsest...or hard drives! Now that's what I call a palimpsest. And, in a cyberpunk future of endlessly re-used technological junk, can't you see old circuitry being re-fitted and re-programmed for new uses by junk-diving scavengers? Talk about re-use. You never know, I might be talking about reality for us all, in the future. The gods we know now and in the known past could be replaced by scraped-over versions at any time.
Sometimes, I get a fleeting glimpse of an idea, and long to make it real. I wonder, in fiction writing, if it might be worth literally creating a type of palimpsest for world-building. What if a writer wrote stories about other stories about other stories, and then used that as a jumping-off point for the real story? Wouldn't the end result be deeply enriched? Wouldn't that writer's built world then take on the patina of a real, true place with actual thickness, rather than that of a stage set or a newly-built suburb? This does happen, to some extent, with fan fiction and with writers who write about the same world throughout their lives. But I'd like to try it as a really disciplined experiment, a rigorous exercise, a buildup of reality for the history of my world.
Ah, well, maybe in that other lifetime I keep saying I'll live. If only we could write over ourselves and live many, many times, with the old self showing through...oh, sorry, I forgot: they do that in India, don't they?