Palimpsest: Scraped Clean and Ready to Use Again

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

The first time I came across the word Palimpsest was in the first Episode of the third season of The Crown – a fictional take on the British Monarchy. There, Queen Elizabeth II used the word during a speech at the opening of an Exhibition of portraiture curated by the royal art advisor sir, Anthony Blunt  shortly after she discovered that Blunt had been a mole operating from the palace long before she became Queen. He had been number four of the famous cambridge spy-ring – a group of men who were recruited by the soviet union to send thousands of secret British military documents to the Kremlin, during the second world war, while they were members of the British army and M15.

Publicly, Blunt was an esteemed art historian, a professor at the university of London and director of the university’s prestigious university of art. In 1945 he became surveyor of the Kings’ and later Queens’ pictures. 

By the time the Queen discovered that he had been a KGB spy in 1964, Blunt had spent 27 years working as an art advisor for the royals, even giving the Queen personal art history lessons. The Queen knighted him in 1955 for his duties in that role. 

Though Blunt confessed to being a spy for immunity, he kept his role as art advisor in the royal palace, and for many years the Queen was forced to remain silent about Blunt’s treason because exposing him would have been detrimental to the public image of the royal family and have a catastrophic impact on the reputation of British intelligence services. 

In the series she used the word Palimpsest in her speech not only to describe the selection of paintings curated by Blunt but to also to describe the man himself: “I particularly enjoyed the portrait which turned out to have another person lurking beneath the surface….have I described that correctly sir Anthony or am I stumbling around  in the dark as usual….?” she sneered.

“Not another person ma’am, the same person”.  He replied,  “It was not uncommon in the early modern period for an artist to finish a portrait and the patron would take a look and ask for a more flattering version of themselves. And the artist would paint another version over it.

“So not two different people?”

“Two different versions of the same person ma’am”

“Which might as well be two different people, the idealized version of themselves they want to be seen and the less desirable person they really are hidden away…there’s even a word for it…. Palimpsest”

“That generally applies to manuscripts ma’am “pentimento” for paintings”

“Pentimento, well I am sure I speak for everyone when I say that none of us will be able to trust or look at anything in the same way ever again.” she said in conclusion.

Palimpsest is a word derived from the Latin word palimpsestus, which comes from the ancient Greek word, Palimpsestos, a compound word that literally means scraped clean and ready to be used again. Today the word palimpsest is used to describe writing material such as a parchment or tablet used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased. It was a procedure employed before paper was invented/widely available.

As in manuscripts.

I was drawn to the word because it felt like an apt description of the process of writing and rewriting the same story over and over again, as I have done with my manuscript for many years. Today’s version of it is barely recognizable from the first draft I wrote nine years ago. It has gone through a heavy culling process of edits and rewrites, which makes it feel like an entirely different book, each time I read it. 

Sometimes I wonder which version represents my idealized self and which one represents the undesirable self, which is hidden away. Nevertheless, my aim for this piece was to write about the word palimpsest from a more optimistic perspective. As a way to start again.

Everything you say has consequences

I thought about September, a month which represents new beginnings in the Southern Hemisphere. Spring’s light rains calm the dust of winter. Clarity helps new seeds break ground and emerge from the same trees we’ve known since childhood. I was thinking of this moment as another opportunity to rewrite the script and the narratives of our collective lives and draft new ones about the many different ways we can unite, forgive and grow together.

The Coronavirus pandemic laid bare the work we all need to do to lift millions of (African) people out of poverty. To improve public infrastructure, hospitals, roads, power and water supplies; schools, universities including  how  government and business run. It was an opportunity for us to reflect on how we connect, communicate and relate. How all these connections are essential to our well being, quality of life and ultimately our ability to survive. 

The pandemic has touched on every facet of our lives and revealed to all of us what works and what is no longer working in our favour. It was an opportunity for us to adapt, to think differently about how we approach and solve our current problems for future generations.  An opportunity for us all to look for ways in which we can work together for our mutual sustainable growth and development.

Perhaps if there is any lesson to be learned from this scene in the  Monarch’s life it is this: an individual’s feelings and desires must always surrender to the greater good. The Queen’s own desires to meet out personal justice and hurt feelings against Blunt and have him, “stand trial, be put in prison and throw away the key”. Had to be repressed until such a time that exposing his treason would not damage the reputation of the United Kingdom and its territories.  

I am not saying that we should emulate the Queen of England by all means, no. I am saying that there are times which call for far greater levels of maturity from all of us.  Moments like this, which ask us to rise above, scrub ourselves clean so that we are ready to be used again for the greater good. To draft new manuscripts, tell new stories which bring out the best in all of us, not the worst, since we are all familiar with our own private deceits and collective hypocracies.

Whatever action we take should be from this consideration.  After all, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable, when using our forces we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away we must make him believe we are near. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” – Sun Tzu

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