The notion of the palimpsest has a sort of fame, outside its technical sense, as a minor tool in the armoury of criticism and theory. At its most basic it’s a writing surface that can be cleansed for reuse. Intrinsic in its theoretical meaning is reference to the imperfect scouring of parchment in the early Medieval period for reinscription. Although the method they used erased previous texts by the light of their own time, it left them capable of retrieval by later more sophisticated chemical processes in the more powerful light of the 19th Century, so that future ages found multiple texts all present on a single parchment, waiting to be revealed, nothing lost.
Thomas De Quincey was the first to use the palimpsest as analogy, so bringing it into the world of theory:
What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest O reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have a fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished.
I have a bit of an unexamined prejudice against the palimpsest in modern criticism. I don’t think I’ve seen it add anything to the areas it’s deployed, and seems to me to be one of those tropes that satisfies some sort of rhetorical urge rather than always illuminating its subject.
This isn’t the case with De Quincey’s use of it though. He was one of the first significant explorers of the subconscious, also a word for which he has the earliest citations:
1834 T. De Quincey Cæsars in Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. June 972 (note) The Emperor Hadrian had already taken a solitary step in the improvement of human nature; and not..without some sub-conscious influence received directly or indirectly from Christianity.
1848 T. De Quincey Wks. A. Pope in N. Brit. Rev. Aug. 326 How much grander and more faithful to that great theme [sc. Christianity] were the subconscious perceptions of his heart than the explicit commentaries of his understanding.
The first describes a motive influence of which you’re not aware, operating via a connection not open to your perception. The second describes a conflict, the subconscious not only works against the explicit statement, but is also said to contain a truth not apparent in the main commentary. There is some slight suggestion of that in the first example, but the second is far stronger. The subconscious describes layers of influence and memory that are imperceptible to the subject but can be seen in an analysis of the external behaviour. The palimpsest is a metaphorical description of the process by which it works.
The palimpsest appears in conclusion to the first part of Suspiria de Profundis. De Quincey uses the analogy to explain how the childhood loss of his elder sister formed “the ally and natural coefficient” and morbid content of his earliest experiments with opium at Oxford.
It characterised the awful and sublime psychic landscape into which he fell.
De Quincey goes on to describe how his mother nearly drowned, and as she did so saw, in the conventional phrase, her life flash before her.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, every act, every design of her past life, lived again, arraying themselves not as succession, but as parts of a coexistence.
It is this lucid coexistence of the past that the palimpsest is used to imply. I would be interested to know the recorded history of the concept of the ‘Life Review’ as De Quincey seems to introduce it as something new, though supported by ‘other parties in the same circumstances’.
The analogy of the palimpsest, then, although morbid with connotations of death and resurrection, is one of retrieval and remembrance. But on the periphery of motifs of inscription there are other darker types, of overwriting without first cleansing, of madness, grief and incoherence, and instead of discovery and retrieval, blindness and loss.
The spirit of De Quincey partly animates the London sections of The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen. Lucian has learned the secrets of mystical Avallaunius in a Roman amphitheatre on the Hill of Dreams in Wales. He moves to London enabled, as Machen was, by a small inheritance, and starts furiously to write in an attempt to convey the intense revelation of Romance that is inside him.
He was astonished that morning at his own fortune and facility ; he succeeded in covering a page of rule paper wholly to his satisfaction, and the sentences, when he read them out, appeared to suggest a weird elusive chanting, exquisite but almost perceptible, like the echo of plainsong reverberated from the vault of a monastic church.
Lucian becomes desolate, beset by isolation and grotesque fancies. With the aid of a mysterious drug he descends deeper and deeper into fantasies and mysteries, all the time writing pages and pages of his revelation, before being totally consumed by his own inner fire. He is found dead by his landlady:
‘Come in Joe,’ she said. ‘It’s jut as I thought it would be: “Death by misadventure” ;’ and she held up a little empty bottle of dark blue glass that was standing on a desk. ‘He would take it, and I always knew he would take a drop too much one of these days.’
‘What’s all those papers that he’s got there?’
‘Didn’t I tell you? It was crool to see him. He’d got it into ‘is ‘ead he could write a book ; he’s been at it for the last six months. Look ‘ere.’
She spread the neat pile of a manuscript broadcast over the desk, and took a sheet at haphazard. It was all covered with illegible hopeless scribblings ; only here and there it was possible to recognise a word.
‘Why, nobody could read it, if they wanted to.’
‘It’s all like that. He thought it was beautiful. I used to ‘ear him jabbering to himself about it, dreadful nonsense he used to talk.’
‘Nobody could read it, if they wanted to.’ It is the terror of writers. A fear that the things you desire to express are in their expression incoherent to the outside world. That only those who have shared the inner experience that produced this expression will be able to understand it. In its most extreme form it denies the possibility of ever communicating truly that which you wish to communicate.
Is it possible to apprehend anything of Lucian’s burning mystical intent from his writing, other than the formal way it conveys intense passion? Can it be said to contain any of that which he experienced in his fevered opiate reveries?
Rabelais is present throughout The Hill of Dreams as a mystical figure different from the usual connotations of Rabelaisian. He introduces Pantagruel in a typical gnostic fashion, contrasting the grotesque exterior with the divine interior, inaccessible other than through mysticism:
Just such another thing was Socrates. For to have eyed his outside, and esteemed of him by his exterior appearance, you would not have given the peel of an onion for him, so deformed he was in body, and ridiculous in his gesture. He had a sharp pointed nose, with the look of a bull, and countenance of a fool: he was in his carriage simple, boorish in his apparel, in fortune poor, unhappy in his wives, unfit for all offices in the commonwealth, always laughing, tippling, and merrily carousing to everyone, with continual gibes and jeers, the better by those means to conceal his divine knowledge. Now, opening this box you would have found within it a heavenly and inestimable drug, a more than human understanding, an admirable virtue, matchless learning, invincible courage, unimitable sobriety, certain contentment of mind, perfect assurance, and an incredible misregard of all that for which men commonly do so much watch, run, sail, fight, travel, toil and turmoil themselves.
This isn’t the same as ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover,’ (which would not be very gnostic) but that you can judge the internal worth of something to the extent that it appears repellent, disgusting, or characterised by impoverishment or, in extreme versions of gnosticism which see all flesh as evil, depravity.
Rabelais also uses the example of a bone with its marrow, and gaudily decorated medicine boxes. You can also find it commonly represented by the walnut, with its wrinkled outside shell, and treasure inside. It’s connected with the logic by which mystical sects would flay the flesh, or indulge in the most extreme sin, to convey incorruptible and divine grace, to belie this fallen, corporal world, and to oppose what is apparent and thus capable of misrepresentation with that which is internal, divine and true. It is against the seeming, the smiling, or the coherent, plausible argument. It’s also linked with the mystical and strange theories of satire and laughter.
But what can be understood or communicated where the writing is illegible? What marrow is there? What kernel? Lucian himself has experienced revelation:
To Lucian, entranced in the garden of Avallaunius, it seemed very strange that he had once been so ignorant of all the exquisite meanings of life. Now, beneath the violet sky, looking through the brilliant trellis of vines, he saw the picture; before, he had gazed in sad astonishment at the squalid rag which was wrapped about it.
Of the transcendent experiences and revelations that we experience along with Lucian his written testimony leaves only the squalid rag and none of the glory. There is no treasure inside.
Rabelais features glancingly in Gabriel Josipovici’s incantatory möbius strip of grief Everything Passes.
Rabelais, he says, is the first writer of the age of print. Just as Luther was the last writer of the manuscript age. Of course, he says, without print Luther would have remained a simple heretical monk. Print, he says, scooping up the froth in his cup, made Luther the power he became, but essentially he was a preacher, not a writer. He knew his audience and wrote for it. Rabelais, though, he says, sucking his spoon, understood what this new miracle of print meant for the writer. It meant you had gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You know longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing. Rabelais, he says, raged at this and laughed at it and relished it, all at the same time.
Here again is the disconnect between intention and apprehension, this time a disconnect introduced by mechanical reproduction, which Walter Benjamin described in terms of aura. Taking this approach would suggest Lucian’s document is all aura, it is in effect a sacred item.*
I don’t want to go down that path here. This (this thing that I am writing) is not about print, or about its digital form (which re-introduces notions of decay and illegibility in a different way). It is about the dream note written down in the night that is incomprehensible in the morning:
I had woken up in the night, he says, filled with such dread I hope never to feel like that again. But when I awoke in the morning all that had passed. Instead I was filled with a kind of euphoria, a sense of wellbeing and excitement such as I had never felt. It seemed to fill every part of my body, from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. I couldn’t wait to sit down at the desk. It felt as though at least I would be able to say it all. Say everything. Everything. Such joy.
— I was at my desk, he says to Georg. Bent over the sheets of white paper. A neat stack of them. Such whiteness. Such paper. [Lol doge] I was writing fast, without pause, setting down on the white paper what he had been waiting all those years to come out. Everything would be said. I knew that. Everything. I couldn’t write fast enough. All in the right order. It was coming out in the right order. I knew it was the right order. I just knew. It flowed out of me. I couldn’t stop.
— I don’t know how long I remained, bent over the page, he says. But it was a long time. A long time. I wondered if I would be able to hold out. If my fingers would be able to stand it. But of course they did. I did. Till it was done.
— I stopped, he says. I closed my eyes. I was exhausted. Triumphant but exhausted. As if I had finally done what I had been put in the world to do.
— I bent my shoulders, he says to George, who nods and strokes his moustache. I bent my shoulders and let my arms hang down. I stayed like that for a long time. A long long time. And then I opened my eyes and began to look over what I had written.
— The page was black, he says. It was black with marks. Thick with them. Nothing was legible. And the page underneath was white. With traces of writing from where I had pressed on the page above. And the traces gradually disappeared as I turned one page after the other, until there was nothing but whiteness. Pure whiteness. Page after page.
— I hadn’t turned the page, he says. Not once. All the time I was writing. I hadn’t turned the page.
As with Lucian, everything is revealed but remains concealed. Everything is retained, but that retention has made it illegible, a madness. It is a deranged version of De Quincey’s coexistence. There is no record of the internal revelation, the experience and euphoria of creation, other than these black, inarticulate wounds, and the fading impressions on the white sheets beneath. Everything is present, everything is lost.
Everything passes. The good and the bad. The joy and the sorrow. Everything passes.
In the book this dreamlike episode is at the centre of a depiction of failed love. When you lose someone with whom you have been intimate, they are totally present in you – the smell of their hair (’That smell, her smell’), the feel of them next to you in bed, their smile, are vivid in all your senses. That vivid presence continually reinforces the actual physical absence. The grief is inarticulate and painful, and uselessly iterative on the same page without ever turning on from it. After the euphoria, there is only loss and total isolation.
During World War II, in a freezing hotel in Canada as documented in his novel Self-Condemned, a blind Wyndham Lewis continues to write his stamina-defeating novels and criticism:
… he would write thousands of pages in longhand, with painstaking care and infinite courage, on a hard board resting on his lap, which had a wire stretched across it to keep the lines straight. He would carry on until his pen dropped off the right edge of the page, then move the wire down the width of three fingers and begin the next line. He wrote about thirty tiny, widely-spaced words on each page, so they would not run together; and his late manuscripts resemble the holograph of Finnegans Wake: a few wavering words scratched across a large sheet. If the pen ran out of ink, Lewis would not know it and would continue to engrave invisible words on the blank page – until someone realized what was happening. He would drop the pages on the floor in a deep pile, which would be arranged, typed and read back to him by Froanna and Agnes.
The Enemy – Jeffrey Meyers
Unlike the first two examples, there isn’t any apparent mystical intensity or euphoria. It’s a methodical process. Mole-like. And you assume the result is a gradual fading of the ink over the haphazardly discarded pages, so that the person reading back to him – his wife or assistant – eventually has to say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t make out any more’, like the process of becoming blind itself.
He must start all over, picking up the mental and imaginative thread from where he left off, undertaking the maieutic process of bringing out something that’s locked in darkness inside – had found expression and light, but never appeared in the material world – and painstakingly inscribe it once again.
Unlike the palimpsest, with its images of retrieval from the abyss and resurrection from the dead (which brings its own horror of course) these are motifs of loss. Lost sight, lost mind, lost love. Loss, but not because of erasure or oblivion, which might bring a sort of peace. It has been inscribed, it was available, but it is gone, and no chemical process or science, or hypothesised future process, can retrieve it. Lewis is instructive – there is no sight at all.
Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished
That is De Quincey’s view of the palimpsest. But these are extinguishings. The very act of continuing to create extinguishes that which has gone before. There is a sense that ‘it might as well have never been’. There is no guessing at meaning. The only thing that bears any testimony is the original experience as lived, as felt, and that, at least in the first two examples, expires with the expression of it. The only thing to do, if possible, is go back, and start – painfully, inadequately, mole-like – again, inscribing black marks on the clean white page.
Lewis describes the pristine state of his blindness towards the end of Self-Condemned:
René’s brain was silent too. All that entered it resembling a thought was a painful feeling that he was alone, that he had been removed from life and shut into a white solitude. The white interne was a mechanism. He could not understand the nurses. They had not learned how to speak. Wherever he looked he saw a round spot of light, but soft, as if it belonged wherever it happened to appear. The interne was watching him. He came over, and fixed white spectacles upon his nose. The eyeholes were circles of white muslin … Now that the visual turbulence had been cut off, and sight reduced to a white circle, an all-over muting of the consciousness ensued. Even such stimulus as white-coasted interne removed, the mind began to dream of white rivers which led nowhere, which developed laterally, until they ended in a limitless white expanse. The constant sense of loneliness ended, in the white silence, as a necessary ingredient of the white silence, which was all that was desired — the negation of the visual; and an aural blank which had more quality than white, was not such a negation, and was as soothing as a caress. But at last consciousness ebbed quietly away, and René lay in a dreamless sleep, alone in this place dedicated to silence, totally removed from life.
The blank page is death, inscribing is life, a surging, euphoric experience of insight, but the end point is a blackened and incoherent page or a gradual fading out of words back to whiteness. These alternative motifs of inscription describe a world where subconscious is not chemically limpid, as in de Quincey’s description. In fact it is without the subconscious altogether, and the notions of submerged levels, perspective or chiaroscuro. Everything is surface. It is a scorched, botched and unilluminated repository of inarticulate pain, loss and desire. Blank sheets of ignorance and isolation are waiting to be scratched or scarred by new experiences, rendered incommunicable as soon as they are communicated, with madness and delusion masquerading as reason and insight, over and over again, until we die. And death itself, rather than a Life Review, is a squall of black noise or bleached annihilation.
The notion of the subconscious usefully captures the different gradations of experience and memory. It accommodates the complexities of thought and experience in a way that allows for their articulation and exploration. The crude nightmares of inscription described here brutalise us, and damage those capabilities. The subconscious is removed from being part of us and becomes once again the playground of malignant gods and malicious demons.