Thursday, 11 March 2010

On Writing Materials and Palimpsests

I dug this from the New York Times of 16 February 1879:

We have in our day such ample stores of good paper, pens, and ink, that the imagination does not easily picture forth the harder conditions of early authorship. A dollar will buy all the materials necessary for writing a large book. 
 They were few [writers a thousand years ago] and wrote little, but they were often compelled to use parchment that had already been written over, and perhaps more than once, scraping off the old letters and repolishing the parchment. Thus the golden thoughts of many an old poet and philosopher were wiped out of existence that medieval dullards might find a place of record for their leaden words.
Palimpsest from the 5th/6th century.

I find palimpsests monuments to the words' multiple meanings, to the multiplicity and flux of reality. I find them defiant of canons, of objectivity, of final truths. Palimpsests are a metaphor for the consecutive erasures and inscriptions of meanings. They encapsulate the gaze and the gesture of the erasor and the inscriptor. They encapsulate our gaze as we strive to unravel those past gazes and gestures. Not an easy process. In this unraveling something remains irrevocably lost.

When a cloistered monk or pious father of the Church wished to make blank parchment of manuscript, he either scraped the ink off with a knife, or soaked it with a wet sponge and then rubbed the sheet with pumice stone. The latter process usually left no hope of restoring the original writing.

Lifting the layers of consecutive inscriptions may well leave us with a void. Maybe there is nothing there, once all is deconstructed. "Powerful magnifying glasses are often required". But we are lucky. There are always fragments that survive and calling us to put them together. It is the time of our glory: time to impose our own gaze, our very own meaning.

The perpetrators of palimpsests were accused of purposefully scraping off ancient Greek literature and replacing it with religious writings. This is applying one-size-fits-all to the past, establishing our truths and our canons as universal and timeless truths and canons. Palimpsests are eloquent as they are silent. They contain the history of meaning as they contain the history of vanishing.

Palimpsest from Codex Ephraemi from the National Library in Paris
"The ancients used sometimes a thick, black pigment made chiefly of lamp-black, for ink, and sometimes made it from the settlings of a wine-cask, or from animal blacks, like the sepia of the cuttle-fish."


  1. This is excellent. I especially like your thinking about the palimpsest as a metaphor for words' various meanings and flux of reality.

    I understand that palimpsests arose out of a rarity of writing paper, but I wonder if some other factors were at play; namely, a distrust in the written word, stemming from Socrates and throughout Western thought. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts about this, if you have time.


  2. I agree about the prevalence of the distrust of writing in Western thought. But then why the desire to preserve the written word? Why the incessant copying, the illuminated manuscripts and such? In the case of palimpsests I think that more at play is the changing canons, the prevelance of one "meaning" or one "text" over another.