While I was still going to Lit Crit every day, feverish and aching and wishing to be on a boat somewhere despite the excellence of the professor and the camaraderie of the class, we read an essay by some critic that referred to the development of literature as a palimpsest.
Palimpsest is one of those words you feel that you should know; obscure enough to score actual points in Trivial Pursuit, highbrow enough to score imaginary points in conversation with pointy-headed intellectuals. [Feel free to use it with wild abandon in either situation; no need to thank me.] I’ll be the first to admit that despite having heard the word somewhere along the way (it’s the title of a movie, a novel, a memoir, and a few journals, so no surprises there), I didn’t know what it meant, and said so.
My professor patiently explained that a palimpsest is a manuscript, on which the original writing has been erased and re-covered with more writing (or drawings or notations).
“Palimpsest” can also be used to describe other kinds of situations in which successive layers are evident: the city of Rome, for example, is an architectural palimpsest, the Bible is a literary palimpsest, most works of art are also palimpsests.
Most everything I learned in Lit Crit this past semester has already left my mind (which is highly unfortunate, given that I still have the seminar paper to write; but I blame this not only on the fact that we crammed an entire semester into 6 weeks, but also on the fact that I’ve been exposed to more sunshine and fresh air in the week I’ve been home than in the past year, which has surely shocked me into a state of bliss!), but the idea of a palimpsest has stuck with me.
Palimpsest seems like a good metaphor for life: we come into the world a blank manuscript, but by the time we leave, our stories are layer upon layer of writing about the people we’ve known, the places we’ve been, the things we’ve seen and done and felt — they’re all there. Some of that writing is big, loopy, joyful script — periods of intense love, happiness, excitement — and some of it, of course, is tightly cramped and painfully-crafted — times we’ve wept and mourned and struggled.
But here’s the trick about the palimpsest: no matter how much you try to scrub away what’s been written, it’s never really gone. A discerning eye, a bright light, a scratched surface…these are enough to uncover what was written long ago.
And, some of what is written wasn’t crafted by our hands, but rather, existed there before we were aware of them as ghostly shadows, traces of someone else’s story. As Alexandra Fuller writes in her book Leaving Before the Rains Come, “In spite of biblically ancient warnings, we don’t think of our choices – our decision to wake up each morning and be free, or remain in the thrall of some visible or invisible jail, for example – as contaminating or blessing not only ourselves but also our children, their children unto the third and to the fourth generations.” But of course, our decisions to act or remain in place, to speak or stay silent, to acknowledge what’s been done and what’s been left undone, do write on the manuscripts of others. How could they not?
Fuller’s book, by the way, is the follow up to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which is about her childhood in Africa. If you like that sort of thing, I highly recommend both of Fuller’s books (she has others; I just haven’t read them yet).
In the meantime, I also read an article about the idea that there are really only seven basic plots in all of human existence, and every book you read (or movie you see) is a variation on one of them. Here they are in very basic terms; see what you think [and by the way, I am saving you from reading a 728 page book by Christopher Booker, leaving you more time to fish and drink beer; you’re welcome!]:
- Quest: the hero overcomes obstacles on the way to attaining something (or someone) he wants.
- Monster: the hero destroys an evil person or enterprise.
- Tragedy: there’s a villain, and he finally gets what’s coming to him.
- Rebirth: the villain sees the error of his ways, transforms, and lives happily ever after.
- Comedy: two characters are kept apart; their journey towards togetherness is hilarious.
- Journey: the hero undertakes a voyage and returns home having benefitted (emotionally, generally) from the trip.
- Rags to Riches: impoverished beginnings, enriched endings.
Here’s the thing, though: while Booker (and others who’ve had the same idea) might be right about there only being seven basic plots in literature, in life, those plots are never quite as streamlined as all that. Monsters pop up without warning in our journey, we go from rags to riches and back again, villains rarely get what’s coming to them, and our tragedies would often be comedic, if they weren’t so damn sad!
But my hope is that great, big, loopy, joyous handwriting is the dominant theme of your life’s palimpsest — that’s my wish for you, and for me!