A palimpsest is “a parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another; a manuscript in which later writing has been superimposed on earlier (effaced) writing.” In other words, a palimpsest is a “multi-layered record.” In the Middle Ages, these parchments were created from vellum, which was then recycled due to scarcity. Chemical agents were used in the recycling process to erase the existing text; the new text was subsequently superimposed onto the clean sheet. With time however the traces of old writing reappeared, leading to the creation of a palimpsest. Palimpsests are there therefore the product of a layering of texts over a period of time.
In his 1845 essay titled ‘The Palimpsest’, Thomas De Quincey refers to the structure as an “involuted” phenomenon where otherwise unrelated texts are interwoven, competing with, and infiltrating each other. As Dillon notes, this idea, along with the coupling of the word with a definite article for the first time, transformed the palimpsest into a figurative entity, investing with metaphorical value that extended beyond its status as a palaeographic object. The nature of the palimpsest is two-fold; it preserves the distinctness of individual texts, while exposing the contamination of one by the other. Therefore, even though the process of layering which creates a palimpsest was born out of a need to erase and destroy previous texts, the re-emergence of those destroyed texts renders a structure that privileges heterogeneity and diversity.
Although the palimpsest does not seek to illuminate the relation between a text and its context, there is a constructive relation that could be drawn between the concept of the palimpsest and that of intertextuality. Kristeva describes the text as a “permutation of texts, an intertextuality,” and by doing so gestures to the idea that “in the space of a given text, several utterances, taken from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another.” Differently put, a text is not merely comprised of other texts, but of ‘utterances’, a product of “the productive violence of the involvement, entanglement, interruption and inhibition of disciplines [and texts] in and on each other.” This notion of a “productive violence” mirrors both, the destructive and the accommodative nature of the palimpsest.
Dillon develops Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality as an interpenetration of utterances or as a “mosaic” of texts by elaborating on her constructions of the pheno-text and the geno-text. She cites Christopher M. Johnson’s summary of Kristeva’s concepts: “The pheno-text is the surface phenomenon of a text present before us, whereas the geno-text is the operation which engenders the pheno-text, is the cause of its genesis.” These concepts provide an interesting analogue to the palimpsest as the layers of writing that were destroyed form the geno-text, and the most recent writing is the pheno-text. Johnson asserts that the pheno-text must bear traces of the geno-text, “the virtual entities which have not been realized in its place, but which could have been.” These traces or utterances of the geno-text that invade the pheno-text are reminders of the destructive nature of the palimpsest. On a more productive note however, the pheno-text, an otherwise singular text, is interrupted by the palimpsestuous multiplicity of the geno-text, engendering a proliferation of meaning, each forming a distinct layer or plane on the wider structure of the vellum.
The multiplicity that emerges from the palimpsest, through the intersection of pheno-text and geno-text, produces a sense of ambivalence, as the pheno-text is never as sure or fixed as it wants to be, and the geno-text causes constant slippage. The text is thus constructed around several ‘nodes’ of meaning, but lacks any fundamental or definite ‘core’. Roland Barthes’s description of the slippery nature of an “ideal textuality” matches that of the palimpsest:
In this ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable [...] the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language.
This multifarious and diverse vision projected by the palimpsest, despite being the product of an attempt of destruction and erasure, demands a revision of conceptual systems based on the notions of fixity, linearity, centre and hierarchy. It impels us to replace these systems with new foundations that privilege the conceptions of “multi-linearity, nodes, links and networks.”
Palimpsests also tend to have visual manifestations. The city of Angkor in Cambodia, for instance is an archaeological palimpsest, the result of “the cumulative remains of multiple past processes [civilizations].” Archaeological palimpsests arise from the reusing and recycling of monuments over time due to changing ideologies. The Angkor Wat was built during the Khmer empire in the early 12th century AD, as a temple devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu. Towards the end of the same century however, Buddhism gained prominence and Angkor became a centre for Buddhist worship. The new monuments that were erected featured Buddha, and had strong Buddhist influences, while some of the old ones were subtly converted to Buddhist shrines, with retained strong Hindu influences.
The Angkor Wat is therefore an example of what archaeologists refer to as ‘cumulative palimpsests’. “A cumulative palimpsest is one in which the successive episodes of deposition, or layers of activity, remain superimposed one upon the other without loss of evidence, but are so re-worked and mixed together that it is difficult or impossible to separate them out into their original constituents.” In other words, instead of providing a narrative of origin or evolution, these palimpsests trace the inscriptions and erasures of different cultures, which in turn compete and struggle with each other. These ideas point to Foucault’s assertion that what genealogy finds “at the beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origins; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.” Therefore, while the cumulative archaeological palimpsest, on the surface tries to present a multi-temporal and utopian intermingling of cultures, an attempt at unravelling the palimpsest reveals its violent and disruptive impulses.
The internet, in its obsession with being current, projects itself as a virtual palimpsest. Like webpages, the parchments of vellum constantly get refreshed to reflect current trends, practices and preoccupations. Though many elements of structure and content remain unchanged, there is still an emphasis that the internet places on immediacy, or on the current. The old pages that are written over can consequently, at best, be archived. Webpages are also loaded with hypertext or hyperlinks which ascribe a sense of multi-linearity, characteristic of the palimpsest, to our viewing experience. On a single webpage, it is not uncommon to find several hyperlinks contesting with each other, much like the texts on a parchment of vellum. Furthermore, the constant slippages which are produced as the viewer navigates these hyperlinks resemble the ambivalence engendered by the palimpsest.
The palimpsest is also often likened to the human brain and to memory. Freud’s mystic writing pad is metaphor for the palimpsest and for the functioning of memory. The mystic writing pad for Freud consists of a wax layer which lies beneath a sheet of wax paper, and a transparent celluloid sheet. When the celluloid sheet is written on, traces of the writing appear on the wax paper, but when the paper is detached from the wax layer, the traces disappear, leaving the writing pad blank. The traces of writing are nonetheless persevered in the wax layer. The writing pad therefore performs the dual function of the palimpsest; it accepts new information on one end, and it produces permanent traces of memory on the other. Thomas de Quincey also writes about the human brain in a similar vein:
What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? [...] Everlasting layers of ideas, images and feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished. [...] They are not dead but sleeping [...] there is none of passion or disease that can scorch away these immortal impulses.
In comparing the palimpsest with human memory, De Quincey emphasizes its propensity to preserve over its intention to destroy. The palimpsest is therefore presents a utopian possibility of eternal preservation.
Sarah Dillon asserts that this “fantasy” of the palimpsest of the mind results in a “spectralization of the self” which inevitably leads to a “spectralization of temporality”. She further notes that the palimpsest represents what Derrida describes as a “non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present”: The present that the palimpsest projects, is constructed by the unintended presence of texts from the past and the possibility of the inscription of future texts. Therefore, the palimpsest “evidences the spectrality of any present moment which already contains with it (elements of) ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’.”
The emergence of the disunified, spectralized subject mirrors the unruly and fractious nature of the palimpsest, which eventually leads to a descent into the utopian realm of the carnival. The carnival due to its propensity to plunge certainty into ambivalence relies on the mask, which enables fluid identities. It is however important to recognize that just as the carnival must always give way for order, and all masks are eventually discarded, the palimpsest, due to its inherent unruly nature, will also make way for a structure that privileges an ordered heterogeneity. Although this new structure could be perceived of as a favourable departure from the chaos rendered by the palimpsest, it would certainly lack the charm of its predecessor, which through its fluidity, endorses the reveries of the carnival and its lack of order.
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Dillon, Sarah. “Reinscribing De Quincey’s Palimpsest: The Significance of the Palimpsest in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Studies.” Textual Practice 19.3 (Fall 2005): 243-263
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