June 1, 2015


The Galen Palimpsest
I come to every text with the knowledge that it has risen from a culture, and that it overlays many stories. It is a map that lays over other maps, and words overlay other words from the language that influences the author and his or her place in the world.      


In an ancient book of hymns, The Galen Palimpsest, an undertext was discovered to be a 9th century medicinal book, "On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs."  According to a recent NYTimes article, scientists are at work using new technologies on the Galen Palimpsest to reveal was written beneath.  The palimpsest is so exciting because it reveals deep histories.  

The ancient manuscripts were difficult to make and the vellum or parchment were often reused for new texts. The old text was scraped off (scriptio inferior, the "underwriting" or undertext) and the new was inscribed (usually perpendicular to the old text.)   

According to Wikipedia, the word palimpsest: 
derives from the Latin palimpsestus, from the Ancient Greek παλίμψηστος (palímpsestos, "scratched again", "scraped again") originally compounded from ψάω(psao, "to scrape") and πάλιν (palin, "again"), thus meaning "scraped clean and used again". The Ancient Romans wrote (literally scratched on letters) on wax-coated tablets, which were easily re-smoothed and reused; Cicero's use of the term "palimpsest" confirms such a practice.  


I like writing that serves as a palimpsest, even if the paper is new paper or perhaps not paper at all but computer code or audio files online, what I like to find is evidence of the past histories, places, and language from which the new work arises. Some might think of this as spectral traces or shadows that lend depth and dimension.  Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki (July 24, 1886–July 30, 1965) wrote In Praise of Shadows 
We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.
One thing against another -- the shadows, the layers -- makes a texture, a weave, with which it is possible to find read far more than is written.  

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