I’m guessing that this is a new word for many of us. It literally refers to a manuscript page where the manuscript has been scraped or washed off so it can be reused for another document. Parchment was expensive, and before that, the Ancient Greeks used wax-coated tablets that could be smoothed and reused.
The Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, a Greek manuscript of the Bible from the 5th century, is a palimpsest.
Palimpsest also refers to artwork where the surface of one painting has been painted over – you know, the Rembrandt covered by the work of someone inferior, and you bought it for $10 in a garage sale, and an X-Ray reveals the treasure beneath. What I like to imagine is a work, either written or painted, where we can see the secret peeking out. The “final product” contains both layers, playing off against each other. I’m guessing that some artists do this, or a version of this perhaps painted on one level, without knowing the word “palimpsest.”
Below is “Trees,” a piece Kim made by creating levels involving a dirty scrap of paper she found on a sidewalk, the jacket of an old book, some birch bark, and paint. The photo below does not do it justice, but it appears that the background is emerging from beneath the surface, as in a palimpsest.
Some writers are aware that what they write is a kind of palimpsest, with other writing making noise in the background. I hear Robert Benchley in my work, along with David Sedaris, Billy Collins and Garrison Keillor – my writing, at best, a B+ version of theirs – on a good day. Whatever! My point is that language that we read or hear is often pressing out through our own use of language. (Not to be confused, of course, with plagiarism.)
I’d like to take it a step further. Aren’t many of us walking palimpsests, with hidden layers, laid down on us in the past, peeking out through the surface? How could we not be? Didn’t get enough love from Mommy? It’s showing through. Bullied in elementary school? Praised extravagantly for your work ethic? Ridiculed by family for being clumsy? Had an easy path because of wealth or good looks? At this point you might want to think about your friends or family members – or even yourself – in terms of what old story is peeking through the person’s surface. Kim recently questioned me about some of my behavior, and we reached a conclusion about the not-quite-hidden old manuscript on which my present self is painted/written. Peeking out beneath my surface is the sense of distance I experienced with my parents, anxiety when I witnessed family arguments, along with praise for being clever and, in a limited way, non-conformist. It’s all there – and more.
So, with the holiday season approaching and family gatherings to look forward to, you might want to sit around analyzing the voices whispering behind family and friends when you scrape away some of the surface.