Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Palimpsests As Metaphor

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.

Photo link

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?


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if this is what you're thinking of but Catherynne M. Valente has characters tell stories within stories within stories in The Orphan's Tales, vol. 1: In the Night Garden. It got confusing if I put it down and didn't read it for a few days. I also had a recurring urge to make a timeline to see where everyone fit. I very much enjoyed it though.

Bryan said...

This reminds me of the "Book of All Hours" by Hal Duncan. Split up into two books, Vellum and Ink, his characters are echoes of mythic figures, who are themselves echoes of a sort of Platonic "Form" of the character. Interesting stuff.

Love the blog, by the way. I've already bought a couple of the books you've recommended.


Heather McDougal said...

That's interesting, and reminds me of both the Amber series by Roger Zelazny and some of the Gnostic doctrines, where there are echoes of divinity all over the place, and the smallest actions of the gods or the semi-divinities (it's all very hard to keep track of) have creative repercussions in the world. And the Neo-Platonics, who overlapped with them, ran along a similar vein...

spacedlaw said...

In many ways, the used ribbons of a typewriter are also a palimpsest, keeping track of all the letters and stories that have been written and overwritten with its ink.
Used that is a short story once, an author who had been pressed for words going to visit the typewriter graveyard to recover the ribbons.

Heather McDougal said...

What a great idea, the typewriter graveyard! The image captures something about old technologies. Someday there will be a steampunk equivalent about the 1940s, with trolley cars and typewriters and private eyes.

Apropos of nothing, I keep meaning to mention The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Great alternate history book whose characters all keep getting reincarnated. It's really interesting to read, and he's done his research thoroughly.

Anonymous said...

The greatest architectural palimpsest I have ever seen is in Split. Diocletian's palace walls still standing, his basement having been used as a medieval dumping ground. Gothic towers rising from Roman ruins, and best of all, his church and burial crypt where he once took delight in torturing those pesky Christians, now a Christian church and reliquary...next door to a Prada store. The mind boggles.

Ali said...

Thanks for all of this great info - I too have just dicovered the term architectural palimpsest and find it so facintating - layers of secrets slightly revealing themselves.

Leslie Love Stone said...

Great post, Heather! I am an artist currently working on a palimpsest project and found your blog while doing a little research for my piece. Love the concept of people as palimpsests--the metaphor doesn't even need reincarnation to work as the things we've done, thought, experienced show through and affect who we are today. When people talk about reinventing themselves, aren't they just "scraping again"?

Tasos said...

Can i ask a question? If the palimpsest has such a wide meaning how can we tell when something is NOT a palimpsest? I think we can define architectural palimpsest as a sum of layers over TIME. But is that the only criteria? I am trying to understand what exactly an architectural palimpsest is and when this characteristic. thank you! :)

Bryan Eccleshall said...

Nice article. I've linked to it from my blog, where I talk about some photographs I took in the Paris Arcades that do the same thing.

Find it here: http://translationasmethodology.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/architecture-as-palimpsest-palimsest-as.html