Saturday, February 15, 2014


“What are you doing, Brother Palimpsest?  Do you have permission to be doing that?”  He had just entered the Scriptorium where the monks copied sacred texts onto parchment.  But he had expected an empty room that he could sweep.  

Brother Palimpsest was feverishly scrubbing at a parchment with milk and oat bran, trying to erase the carefully inked script from the parchment.  Most of it was already gone.  “I just want to get the rest of this page off.”  

The parchment had been whole, the standard size for a folded “gather”, but Brother Palimpsest had cut it down the fold and was scrubbing off one side while the other, already cleaned, lay beside him.  He would fold it again to quarto size if he did the accepted thing.  Brother Curiosity picked up the cleaned rectangle of stiff skin and held it up to the light.  The old lettering barely showed.  “Why, this is about Saint Valentine, the martyr we celebrated yesterday!  It tells how he married Christian couples in defiance of the emperor and how he was challenged to perform a miracle on a blind child and did indeed restore her sight!”

“I know all that, but it’s mythical!  Saint Valentine is a myth!  He is not spiritual!  He is of the flesh, not the spirit!  I am expunging him for criminal deceit!”  But Brother Palimpsest protested too much.  Brother Curiosity was easily able to see that the real culprit was someone loved too well and not prepared to return the favor.  He smiled and withdrew.  He had an idea who was loved and why it was important to keep that secret.


The first palimpsests, Roman, were evidently like slates except that they had a coating of wax thick enough to mark with a stylus.  To erase them one either scraped or melted the wax.  I had to look up palimpsest, which I’ve always confused with template, a pattern that things are fitted against, when I should have been thinking about pentimento, a painting on a surface that was painted over or scraped down in order to use again with a more recent painting.  Modern technology allows the retrieval of both pentimento and palimpsest in art and literature by xray, ultraviolet, and other technical means.  Many valuable documents of the earliest writing have been recovered by searching for palimpsests.  

The whole idea has become so useful that it can refer to the hidden foundation footprint of an earlier building or even a whole town, the telltale imprint of some earlier constraint to growth, the child-formation that is sought in psychoanalysis, and even the subtext of dialogue in a play or cultural assumptions that have been only partly discarded.  Of course, much of the story in any institution, but often specifically religious constructs, is simply palimpsest, one of the most notorious being the lurking Lupercalia or primeval festival of cleansing left over from the even earlier Februa (for whom the month was named).  The Festival of the Wolf  (Lupus) in its earliest days involved young men running naked through the streets, striking people, while young women who wished to become pregnant presented themselves with outstretched hands to be struck in order to increase fertility.  The tradition of Courtly Love, which became so strong that it rivaled the teaching of the church, seized St. Valentine’s story for it’s own uses.

I was prompted to look up “palimsest” in the first place because of the following announcement on a listserv:
March 15, 2014. Memory, Palimpsests, and American Indian Literature: ASAIL and ASLE Co-Sponsored Panel at 2015 MLA Convention, 8–11 January, 2015, Vancouver, BC. We invite paper proposals that consider the role of palimpsests in American Indian literature on environmental degradation, colonial erasure, and resistance. How might reading changing environments and sacred places, sites of memory, as palimpsests expose histories modified and hidden by colonial discourse and practices? In what ways can literary representation, in invoking the idea of a palimpsest, help negotiate and resist environmental injustice.
It’s a bit forced in terms of the word, but post-colonial thought is dominated by the idea of something just under the surface that is hidden, even suppressed on purpose.  This is evident in our movies, pop books, and TV series, like one of my favs, “Alias,” (streams on Netflix) in which the basic premise is that a genius of the stature of Leonardo da Vinci  has hidden himself in a series of folios with invisible writing and puzzle images.  The idea that Native American culture (putting aside that it’s not one culture but many) is a palimpsest for some present thought is a highly provocative one.

But it presents another puzzle because Native American literature was oral.  Many a recorded version, even the conscientious ones, can overlook or drop out elements.  When Piegan Institute was listening to old recordings of Blackfeet elders in order to transcribe them, they realized that the wives of the men were present, watching, and occasionally calling out advice to their husbands in Blackfeet.  Since the original interviewers didn’t speak Blackfeet, those women felt free to be frank.  The contemporary translators began to giggle.  The men were paid by the story, so the women would call,  “Tell another story!  We need the money!”  The men would protest, “That’s all I can remember!”

I’ve been in communication with Daniel Herman, a professor of history at Eastern Washington College, who speaks in this YouTube video:  The occasion is the awarding of the Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award for his book, described as follows:
Rim Country Exodus is part of a new movement in Western history emphasizing survival rather than disappearance. Just as important, this is one of the first in-depth studies of the West that examines race as it was lived. Race was formulated, Herman argues, not only through colonial and scientific discourses, but also through day-to-day interactions between Indians, agents, and settlers.

In short, Herman found a set of oral testimonies made to justify recognition of certain tribes in the SW and they offered to him a palimpsest of history, a hidden but valid understanding of things not normally accessible, like the friendships and cooperations of the actual people.  It is the world as it is seen by the insiders and participants, rather than the scribbling anthros or  inspired romantics looking for a version of courtly love.  

It’s fascinating to listen to Doctor Herman, who has a wandering mind that only gradually reveals the main channel of his thought.  This means he is less self-important, less committed to seeing only one thing, and more open to others, like the woman he invites to contribute on the video after his formal interview.  Of course, lack of pomposity always means an increase in vulnerability, which means that the “understory” appears in glimpses, little things like how native peoples and subjugated people such as slaves, are able to “educate” (i.e. manipulate) their captors.  As Fritz Perls and Tim Barrus remark, in a dominant/submissive relationship, the underdog always wins in the end.  This is a key to survival.

An earlier recipient of this award was Paul Rosier, though the book that won the prize was not “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912 to 1954,” which used the pentimento contained in letters and records of the BIA and Tribal Council.  Others are beginning to consult the newly translated materials of the early Catholic missionaries that were conscientiously sent back to Rome.  The Hudson’s Bay traders’ records are equally packed with forgotten and merely ignored material.  I'm finding that my cousins, examining the journals of my homesteading grandmother, see only records of buying buttons or planting seeds.  They have not yet learned to look for the palimpsest.

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