Reading · Teaching

Every Story is a Palimpsest

Spring semester classes started today for those who have a Tuesday/Thursday schedule. This semester I am teaching classical and medieval mythology and postmodern novels—quite a spread in time, if not culture. Ovid’s Metamorphoses takes up a little over half of the myth class, and the postmodern author I’m teaching is Italo Calvino, so there’s overlap in Italy, albeit 2000 years apart.

I often take some time to impress upon the myth students how valuable it will be to have learned these stories. I show them how the same motifs and characters keep getting reused through the centuries, how some of the stories even inform our language, as in the case of the myth of Narcissus giving us ‘narcissicism’ and the Hercules myth leaving the metaphor of a ‘Herculean effort.’

Today as I was teasing that idea out, we discussed the need for some familiarity in our stories. No one wants to read the same thing over and over, but no one wants everything about a story to feel new either.  So even stories that are set in wildly inventive places use character types and plot lines that we’re familiar with. We need a foothold or an entry point. If it’s all new—new setting, new character types, new plot elements, new structure—we can’t make sense of it. We say it’s too weird. It’s stupid, or that most damning of student responses: it’s boring.

But if you give us something familiar—a reluctant hero, say—in a new context—let’s say the futuristic world of the Matrix movies—then there’s enough for us to follow along with.

This strikes me as a Cosmic Truth related to “It’s all connected.” And it’s one I think is most succinctly captured by Alberto Manguel in his recent book, Packing My Library.  He writes, “Every story is a palimpsest…” (80). And he’s absolutely right.

A palimpsest in its strictest sense is a piece of paper or vellum that has had something written on it that has been erased, so something new can be written over it. In the Middle Ages it was very common, because vellum was so expensive to produce, that scribes would scrape off the top layer of skin and with it the original text, so they could use it again. In later times, you can imagine erasing from paper and getting the same effect. What matters here is that some of the old text remains, kind of a ghost in the background, still visible under the new text.

Manguel’s use of it is metaphoric, of course, but no less vivid. Every story we tell has ghosts of other stories behind it. Sometimes that ghost is the plot, like a new rendering of the King Arthur tales or the Trojan War or a biblical story. Sometimes it’s a character type, like Neo’s reluctant hero archetype in the Matrix example. Sometimes it’s structural, like the frame narrative structure (of stories within stories) of the Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales or Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

As I begin another semester with three new groups of students, watching them pick through the pages of the past, introducing them to characters they already know but didn’t realize how old they were, I think this might be my favorite part of the term. It’s a type scene too, of course—the Hero on the Frontier: where you stop and take stock and think about what’s about to happen, planning the best approach and reveling in the anticipation.

When I get older and my filters drop, I’ll probably start saying the things I always think: ”Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” Turn the page. Read this story again. You already know it, but now we’ll look closer, go deeper.  Let’s just hope I stop before getting to the part where we close the wall up with our English dead.

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