A Prelude to a Palimpsest

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An example of a palimpsest via thatsmaths.com
archimedes-palimpsest-half
An example of a palimpsest via thatsmaths.com

Back when we were more likely to write a letter on parchment than Gmail, there were people, scribes, who truly knew the inconvenience of writing on parchment—stretched and chemically treated animal skin. It was time-consuming to make, and they weren’t exactly writing in pencil, so when editing or adding new text onto a previously used piece of parchment, it was necessary to strip the ink off the page before adding new material. Often, however, it was still possible to see the remains of the old text through the new. A manuscript in this state is called a palimpsest.

Since manuscripts in the traditional sense are much less common today, humanity has been in the business of creating fewer literal palimpsests, except for maybe back in the 90s when you accidentally taped over part of your kid’s recital when you were trying to record The X-Files. It’s okay. We’ve all been there. (But I promise you that your kid has neither forgiven nor forgotten.)

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The fact is, while palimpsests may not be a literal aspect of recorded media in contemporary society, the existence of popular culture is living evidence that palimpsests abound in a more figurative sense. For instance, turn on your TV. I’ll wait.

On? Great.

So what’s on? The Walking Dead? 10 Things I Hate About You? The X-Files?

All of these are popular, and all are palimpsests.

My goal in writing this column is to explore the palimpsests of popular culture. Specifically, I want to show that while the palimpsests may not be literal, they certainly are literary. One of the most exciting things about popular culture is the way it resembles a living palimpsest. When we watch The Walking Dead, we don’t only indulge in an hour of post-apocalyptic wandering and zombie gore, we are also interacting with the literature that made the show possible: traces of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (author of Frankenstein), H.G. Wells, Karl Marx or Haitian folklore, among other sources, are still visible if we are simply willing to look for them. 10 Things I Hate About You is just one of many examples of our continuing desire to reinforce the relevance of Shakespeare. The X-Files is a pastiche of folklore, mythology, urban legend, oral tradition, spy and crime genres and (in my humble opinion) a very Austen-esque romantic dynamic.

Sure you don't, buddy. 20th Century Fox via thetvmouse.com
Sure you don’t, buddy.
20th Century Fox via thetvmouse.com

In creating new material, we build on what has come before. As much as we try to refresh, to be new, to originate, the past will always rear its head. I don’t mean to suggest that it is impossible to be original (though it might be) or that it’s a bad thing to live in the shadow of the past. In fact, another of my goals in this column is to demonstrate how by interacting with the past, popular culture innovates itself, creates a dialogue with a previous version of humanity and updates itself more often than iTunes.

In a society where it seems television, movies and video games tell the bulk of our stories and serve as the main sources of our entertainment, it is easy to lament books and novels as if they are bygone fallen heroes. Hopefully, however, I will also demonstrate with this column how the increasing number of media platforms, in addition to the continued popularity of traditional literary fiction, suggest that books and literature have never been more relevant. Classic literature has shaped the way humanity tells its stories, whether those stories manifest themselves on-screen or in well-read paperbacks. Its themes, characters and questions are still reflexively evident in contemporary literature and media.

Together, through this column, we will not only begin to revisit and enjoy our favorite shows and movies, but also ask ourselves what else, when watching them, do we unknowingly consume? The truth is out there.

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Roxanne Gentry
Roxanne Gentry is a writer, blogger, and academic-in-training. A student of literature and history, she has—so far—studied at UW-Madison and the University of Edinburgh, and will happily be in some version of school forever. When not writing about reading, she indulges her fondness for television and period dramas and knits very badly.