We have done this before,
and should know how. Still,
one must learn again and again
— James Sallis, Love, Again, at Forty

I believe that the future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past. If we explore how people have lived in other epochs and cultures, we can draw out lessons for the challenges and opportunities of everyday life.
— Roman Krznaric, The Wonderbox

Today, at the terminus of this evolutionary process, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated to join past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty, and betrayal. We instinctively delight in the telling of countless stories about others, cast as players upon our own inner stage. The best of it is expressed in the creative arts, political theory, and other higher-level activities we have come to call the humanities.
— E. O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence

Take the challenge, Steve Wheeler exhorted on Twitter. I decided to pick up the gauntlet that lay at my feet. #blimage has built momentum over the past week, with many people prompted to blog using one or more images selected by others as a source of inspiration. Learning is the common theme that ties the #blimage room together.

I am looking at the image of a weathered wall. Cement rendering has come away in chunks revealing patches of brickwork. What remains of the darker covering shows signs of age, an industrial past and more recent graffiti. Past and present blur together with a hint of future utility. A word bubbles to the surface of my mind: palimpsest.


Strictly speaking, a palimpsest is a manuscript from which earlier writing has been scraped away or effaced and more recent writing has been added in its place. It is a form of authorised vandalism. This is a notion that I have co-opted before, applying it to my interpretation of other art forms and my understanding of our broader culture. The palimpsest as metaphor.

I can look at the work of the Coen Brothers, for example, and see in their films a form of cinematic palimpsest. Watch Miller’s Crossing, and lurking beneath the surface is the fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Coppola’s The Godfather and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista. Watch their The Big Lebowski, and Raymond Chandler’s fiction is shouting for attention as filtered through Altman’s interpretation of The Long Goodbye. James M. Cain nudges and winks at the viewer from the depths of The Man Who Wasn’t There, distilled through decades of film noir tradition.

Wander the streets of London or Paris, on the other hand, and you will encounter palimpsests in bricks and mortar. Ancient and modern edifices and structures jostle for attention. In some cases the old is either incorporated into the new, or takes on a more modern role in both our physical and psychic geographies. They are revitalised, repurposed. Power stations and rail terminals are transformed into exhibition spaces for art, factories become people’s homes, wharves and warehouses are converted into restaurants.

Sometimes it is the history associated with the edifice that serves as the palimpsest. To gaze upon the Notre Dame Cathedral is to behold both the technical mastery and artistic capability of medieval masons and craftsman. But it is also an opportunity to look upon one of the centrepieces of the Age of Reason; a building that was claimed for liberty, equality and fraternity, secularised and given over to the post-Enlightenment populace. However temporarily, this ceased to be a cathedral of Catholic worship and was transformed into a Temple of Reason. The streets that surround the cathedral still bear testament to the actions of the crowd during this period.

Increasingly, we are seeing other symbols of the past peeking through. Construction in our major cities is unearthing archaeological wonders that reveal much about our ancestors, their culture, work activities and feeding preferences. Technology has given us insight into what the area around Stonehenge may have once looked like and where its ancient visitors came from. Regeneration has peeled away layers of paint and whitewash accumulated over the years to reveal the shops signs and advertisements of yesteryear. Artwork hidden behind masterpieces painted by the likes of Picasso and van Gogh have been detected and analysed. Telescopes launched into deep space are allowing us literally to look back in time.

But what of us? People living in the here and now? What hidden wonders hide behind our carapaces? To what extent have we allowed years of habit, narrowly focused attention and repetitive practice to cover us in layer upon layer of grimy rendering? How far have we allowed expertise and specialism to overshadow our innate polymathic tendencies? Have our inner workings, our capacity for continuous learning, our impetus to curiosity, become silted up? Could we too benefit from a sandblasting? A descaling? Something that would expose our interior scaffolding?

We are all walking palimpsests. Memories of things past are held within. Sometimes our most beneficial lessons come from revisiting what came before. We need to find ways to give full licence to our curiosity again. To look once more at the world with the wonder of a child. To experience the joy of flow.

Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.
— Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching

The memory is littered with bits and pieces of images, like a rubbish dump.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

There are clues in my past that may make sense only when I’ve seen them more than once.
— Scott Berkun, The Ghost of My Father

3 thoughts on “Palimpsest

  1. Pingback: Palimpsest | Socially Build

  2. One of the things lost in our move to digital everything is these sorts of background, hidden stories are no longer possible, or if possible, no longer natural. I love buying used books in part because there’s often a second story, a story of the previous owner of the book and what pages that marked or notes they left.

    I’m very interested in your Neo-Generalist book as my career has been defined centrally by being a generalist, or at least by pursuing a wide set of interests and skills as an intentional path.

    I wrote about the problems of specialization, and categorization here: – there’s a great Alan Watts drawing in the post that I think you’ll like.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Scott. I like both the image and your own post. The notion of dodging labels is something that I believe in strongly. On matters both generalist and bibliophilic, you might find Stephen Jay Gould’s The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox an interesting read. Not only does he seek to bridge the arbitrary divide between the arts and the sciences, but he explores his love of ancient books and the notes of the scholars he finds within them. Fascinating read.

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