Palimpsesting

Reading and Writing Lives in H. D.'s 'Murex: War and Postwar London (circa A. D. 1916–1926)'

in Critical Survey

On the title page of her first prose work, Palimpsest (1926), H. D. defines a palimpsest as ‘a parchment from which one writing has been erased to make room for another’.1 Palimpsests were created from the seventh to fifteenth centuries primarily in the scriptoriums of the great monastic institutions such as Bobbio, Luxeuil, Fleury, Corbie and St Gall.2 Such recycling of vellum arose due to a combination of factors: the scarcity and expense of writing material; the physical deterioration of existing manuscripts from which reusable vellum was then sourced; and the changing historical and cultural factors which rendered some texts obsolete either because the language in which they were written could no longer be read, or because their content was no longer valued. Palimpsests were created by a process of layering whereby the existing text was erased using various chemical methods, and the new text was written over the old one. But the most peculiar and interesting fact about palimpsests is omitted from H. D.’s definition. Palimpsests are of such interest to subsequent generations because although the first writing on the vellum seemed to have been eradicated after treatment, it was often imperfectly erased. Its ghostly trace then reappeared in the following centuries as the iron in the remaining ink reacted with the oxygen in the air producing a reddish brown oxide. This process has been encouraged by the use of chemical reagents and ultraviolet light in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and by more advanced imaging technologies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. A palimpsest is thus a surface phenomenon where, in an illusion of layered depth, otherwise unrelated texts are involved and entangled, intricately interwoven, interrupting and inhabiting each other.

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