Palimpsestic Time

I learned a great new term today.

I had the opportunity this morning to hear from Northeastern postdoctoral fellow Moya Bailey, who brought up the concept of Palimpsestic Time.

Used largely in the seventh to fifteenth centuries, a palimpsest is a manuscript page “from which the text has been either scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused, for another document.”

In her prose work Palimpsest, early 20th century poet H.D. adopt the term to apply to history.

As scholar Margaret M. Dunn explains in her excellent article on the “Altered Patterns and New Endings” of the works of H.D. and Gertrude Stein:

H.D. had long been fascinated with the idea of the palimpsest, literally a parchment on which earlier writing is partially visible underneath present writing. As a symbol for recurring patterns of human experience, the palimpsest is an image that occurs frequently throughout her work. 

Recurring patterns of human experience.

History isn’t as neatly linear as we might be inclined to make it. We build on the past, but never fully erase it. It’s truth and legacy are always there, bleeding through and affecting the present.

We wipe clean the palimpsest, attempting to reset past norms of gender, race, class, sexuality, identity…

But the palimpsest is a rough tool; the marks of the past always linger. The slate is not so easy to wipe clean.


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