The word ‘palimpsest’ is not usually found in an eleven-year’s vocabulary, even a word-loving kid, as I was. I learnt it only because my family were living in England My mother had, with the idea of keeping her children occupied and also engaged with the history around us, got us brass-rubbing. Armed with heelball from the cobbler’s and Macklin’s Memorial Brasses, we descended upon the medieval churches of Britain. “St Giles,” I would say from the front seat of the car, Macklin in hand, “has a chrysom, an eccles, and a palimpsest. And it’s only 12 miles off our route.”
Translation? Chrysom is a baby who died in the month after it was baptised. Eccles is a cleric, ecclesiastic (I much preferred medieval ladies, with their elaborate headgear and long dresses). Palimpsest comes from the Green palimp, to re-use, recycle. The flat brass of the memorial has been turned over, and another memorial incised on the undorned reverse.
The term also applies to book history. For reasons of biblioclasm or mere thrift, the text of a book has been partially erased, with another text written on top of it. A modern example might be considered to be A Humument, justified by art. The practice is ancient, dating from when books were painstakingly inked onto parchment, prepared blank leather. It lasts longer than paper, but can be scraped clean, recycled, the original erased.
In my teens, I held an actual palimpsest book in my hand, the size of my palm. A family friend asked my father to translate its 16th-century French. The book was made of pages cut from a manuscript, probably a medieval bible, scraped clean and sewn together. Undeneath the pages of spidery handwriting could be seen traces of letters, the large coloured colophons, their bright pigment harder to erase. What had been written on top turned out to be an alchemical text: ”of no great importance,” said my father.
I think of these objects, the recycled brasses, and the books written on vellum, erased, then reused. What have we lost through these practices? One very famous example is the Archimedes Palimpsest. It is ostensibly a thirteenth century prayer book, in manuscript, but underneath the pious exhortations are erased texts, vital to the history of mathematics, of which no trace otherwise exists: Archimedes’ The Method and Stomachion. These texts were disseminated through the libraries of the ancient world. In the course of history the only surviving manuscript fell into the hands of a scribe who could not read the language in which it was written. Unaware he had a treasure of science, he painstakingly scraped the parchment and washed it for reuse. Not very well: the erasure was incomplete. Between the lines could be read, faintly, the ancient Greek, Archimedes’ mathematical diagrams. Using photography taken in various lights (X-ray, ultraviolet), and digital processing, Archimedes’ work can be retrieved and read.As an adult, I did work experience in the Rare Books section of a library. The first day was eventful–the third book I touched proved to have been owned by Gothic author and collector Horace Walpole: it bore his bookplate, with the name latinized as Horatius Walpole. The library knew that they owned several books from Walpole’s library, but not this one. It was a direct link to The Castle of Otranto, an influential if very bad book, and its writer. That this physical link existed was due to the books in the Rare Book room being created for durability, to survive centuries: their paper was made from linen rags, which remains as white and firm now as when they were inked. Mass-market publishing, with wood-pulp paper, grows yellow and flakes within decades. It is a reflection of my mortaility, and my own words’ mortality, that my first publications are foxing, yellowing, beginning the decay process inescapable also in my own human body.
What I am leading to is this reflection: that the form in which words are preserved is crucial to an eternal battle between knowledge and the forces of entropy. Some of the most ancient words written are the most enduring: from clay tablets inscribed in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, we know the name and work of the oldest named poet: Enheduanna, a princess and priestess. From another clay tablet we know the name of the oldest chemist: Tapputi-Bellatekallim, a Babylonian perfumier whose recipe shows that she understood and experimented with the process of distillation. I wrote a story about her: “Alchemy”. Other writers have proved less durable, with only special circumstances preserving the birchbark, papyrus and linen on which they wrote. We have traces of Sappho, but many other ancient writers are only names to us. It applies to more recent names, even the famous: not all of Shakespeare’s plays have survived.
Paper is one of the least durable forms on which words are written, vulnerable to flames, and with wood pulp paper, inevitable decay unless specially preserved. Its frailty was famously noted by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, drawing upon a familiar image of totalitarianism–book-burning. Indeed, the destroying of alternate, dissenting views and voices is made easier if their form is easily combustible, unlike clay tablets.
I am not Enheduanna: 3000 years later I doubt my name and words will survive. I exist among a continual babble of authors, competing for success, for immortality. I wrote on paper to begin with, but increasingly in electronic form. Writing for the net, for Twitter and Facebook, is like diving amongst krill, for the words and voices are in a constant state of flux. As such they constitute electronic ephemera. Who will collect Facebook entries for future biographies, or text messages? And how durable are the books downloaded into the e-book readers of the world? I think of how the product Kindle recalls the word Kindling…and imagine smouldering e-readers, their plastic melting in flame.
We know Enheduanna and Tapputi, because of the durability of the clay tablet, buried, the lost language deciphered, even after the collapse of their Mesopotamian civilisations. The Archimedes Palimpsest has tested the limits of science, like a species returned from the brink of extinction. But if the collapse of our civilisation happens, as seems increasingly likely with our wanton squandering of resources, the ignorance and ioconoclasm justified by religions of various kinds, how decipherable or retrievable are the word stored on a computer? If we descend into a
new Dark Age, who will sift through the innards of a computer and rescue our words? Rescue the words on disc and datakey now turned into palimpsest tribal jewellery, perhaps?
Nobody, not even kindly alien beings from distant systems, I fear.