On Palimpsests

The idea of a palimpsest has always intrigued me. I'm not sure where I first encountered the term. Certainly it was part of my sense of wonder reading Umberto Eco's Baudolino, all the more so since I read the book in the Italian original with a great deal of effort (my Italian is not so strong). But what I want to notice in these pages is that, in some sense, all writing is palimpsestic (probably not a word!). It is one of the properties of writing that both disturbs and charms me, and I have noticed that many writers seem to either be ignorant of the issue or that they simply don't care, although it preoccupies me immensely. In fact, the problem is present not only for writing, but also for memory itself.

Let us reflect for a few moments on the term itself (while being aware that that sentence is itself indicative of the problem!). A palimpsest, according to the Oxford dictionary, is "a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain". The word combines the sense of "again" (latin palim) and "scrape" (latin psestus). In Baudolino, the narrator is reportedly writing the novel on a pre-existing manuscript by scratching out the words already present and writing in the new words on the intervening lines.

Another writer who plays with ideas such as this is Samuel Delany, to whose Neveryona series I have recently returned. Since Delany called Neveryona, a "child's world of semiotics", it seems hardly surprising that his work should be cited along side that of Eco, another noted semiologian. In Tales of Neveryona, Delany describes a process of copying and inversion of a text, from the original symbols, to a mirror version where the order of symbols are reversed, and then a second reflection that reveals not the original text but an entirely new one inscribed on the backside of the original sheet.

He then presents a lengthy discourse (in the Tale of Old Venn) where the narrator describes having encountered a sea monster while alone on a boat, then describes the experience to a group of listeners, and then recounts the story again the next day. In the original encounter, Old Venn was preoccupied with simply surviving from one moment to the next, but in the first retelling, that is not the sense the audience remarks upon, rather they are fascinated by the fact that Old Venn survived the encounter. That is, clearly she survived in order to tell the story, as opposed to struggling to survive in each instant of the encounter. Delany is making the point that the retelling is very different to the experience itself. Then, when Old Venn tells the story the next day to a new audience, now she has re-ordered the events and restructured the story to make it easier and more effective to "tell", and this again changes the nature of the experience for the second audience. You get the idea.

What Delany is describing is the various ways by which the telling of something is different from the something. And in each retelling, we have something like a palimpsest, where the trace of the earlier is present within the rewriting. Now, why do I say that all writing is a kind of palimpsest? Well, not only does the act of writing involve the kind of transformations Delany describes, but writing itself is never completely divorced from the body of previous writings. A novel is necessarily constructed with both implicit and explicit references to previous novels and other forms of writing (such as books about the writing process). This is why I have trouble with any and all affirmations that a story being told is "truth", or a "true story". The very act of turning events into a story involves the transformations Delany talks about. There is no way to tell a story without doing this. And story-making is rather more the result of the second kind of transformation Delany describes than the first kind, that is, it involves reordering events to support the telling.

The process whereby our day-to-day experiences are transformed into memories also shares similar transformational properties as does that of a retelling. The memory of something is not the something itself, and memories also leave traces when they are overwritten by other memories. And writing does to memory the same kind of retelling. Another of my reasons for finding autobiographical writing to be difficult, since the re-telling generally changes the original. Memory is not some fixed thing, it changes as we access and process its contents. I used to take a set of watercolour paints with me when I traveled, and painted things rather than photographing them, aware as I was how photographs "fix" memory in sometimes pernicious ways.

As a result of these reflections and the awareness they bring, I do not consider writing to be, ever, a "thing-in-itself". A fictional novel exists inside a set of conventions that direct readers to think about the experience of reading in particular ways. These differ from the ways of oral storytellers but share a common bond nonetheless. And although it is expected of me by many readers, I have a hard time "keeping within the lines", that is, respecting the conventions. I always want to break outside of them. Of course, much of modern literary writing, from Woolf to Joyce through Pynchon and Calvino and many others, does exactly that. But many readers are uncomfortable with the process of readings texts that break with these conventions.

And "the writing that effaces other writing while leaving traces" might also be a fitting description of the process of revision, or at least for certain aspects of the latter. Technically, it is perhaps clear that the notion of a palimpsest is not meant to describe revision, but one can see the lineage between the two. And this brings me back to my own writing practice, and the point of this posting. Originally, when I started writing, I was writing what one calls "first drafts", that is, laying out the initial material, the plot, and broad strokes of the characters, setting, and so forth. Now, of course, because I did a lot of first drafts, most of the writing I have to do is revising. I have learned that I need at least one "first draft" project to balance out the different calls upon my time, since there is a kind of rush associated with the production of a first draft that is very different from the careful and highly iterative work of revision.

What I have learned to do, as a compromise between "writing between the lines" and "breaking free from the rules", is to embed a kind of play of "writings about" within my novels. Hence, for example, my science fiction is couched in historical terms - it is interspersed with remarks by historians commenting on the events as they unfold. Interestingly, my readers like this too. It seems the discomfort that comes with breaking free completely from the rules is absent when one does this kind of commenting-upon within the context of the fiction. It is another way of working with palimpsest in its metaphorical sense. As long as the nesting level (ie. text about text that is about, etc.) is kept to a minimum, the practice works. I won't promise that I will always work within the lines in this way, but I will do my best to keep disruptions to a minimum.

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