Mind as palimpsest

I’m on to De Quincey’s third essay in my collection, “Suspiria de Profundis,” or “Sighs From the Depths.” This is such a rich essay that I find myself wanting to write a blog post about many sections from it — isn’t it a delight to find a good book that inspires many blog posts? I think of these books as “bloggable” ones, ones that will keep a regular poster going for quite a while.

Anyway, there’s a short section about halfway through called “The Palimpsest” that I found particularly fascinating; it spends five pages or so explaining what a palimpsest is — a manuscript written on multiple times and nearly erased after each use but leaving a trace of the previous text that is still readable. In his example, a Greek tragedy is written and then scraped away, a legend about a Christian monk replaces it, and a romance about knights replaces that. De Quincey gives no indication where he is going with the topic until he has explained it thoroughly, at which point he makes it all clear:

What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, O reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished.

What a wonderful metaphor, is it not? The idea is that nothing we have experienced is lost; it’s simply been covered over by something else and by something else again. But traces remain:

Yes, reader, countless are the mysterious handwritings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain; and, like the annual leaves of aboriginal forests, or the undissolving snows on the Himalaya, or a light falling upon light, the endless strata have covered up each other in forgetfulness.

The more I read the more I realized how Proustian this whole metaphor is, but instead of involuntary memory — when a sensory experience triggers a memory of a long-forgotten moment — as the mechanism that reveals the forgotten layers in our minds, for De Quincey, it’s approaching death, severe illness, or opium that brings the memory back:

[Memories] are not dead but sleeping. In the illustration imagined by myself, from the case of some individual palimpsest, the Grecian tragedy had seemed to be displaced, but was not displaced, by the monkish legend; and the monkish legend had seemed to be displaced, but was not displaced, by the knightly romance. In some potent convulsion of the system, all wheels back into its earliest elementary stage.

Perhaps De Quincey’s conception of memory allows for a more active role than Proust’s does — one can take opium to induce these memories, if one wishes. For Proust, involuntary memory simply happens, outside our control.

De Quincey also begins to found Freudian:

But the deep tragedies of infancy, as when the child’s hands were unlinked for ever from his mother’s neck, or his lips for ever from his sister’s kisses, these remain lurking below all, and these lurk to the last. Alchemy there is none of passion or disease that can scorch away these immortal impresses.

So the partially erased layers of the palimpsest are the unconscious, waiting for its chance to emerge — to be read. But this implies there is little more we can do but “read” the layers; they cannot be fully wiped away.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

5 responses to “Mind as palimpsest

  1. Right, I’m definitely sold on De Quincey now. 🙂 And speaking of palimpsests, have you read ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco? I seem to remember that it is subtitled ‘a palimpsest’ although I can’t for the life of me remember why. All I remember is that it was a wonderful historical novel and that I should read it again some day, when I was old enough and wise enough to properly understand it.


  2. Edd


    What I have to say has very little to say about your post other than I found it extremely moving from a personal perspective. Wouldn’t it be magnificent if ones mind continued as you say in a “palimpsest state?” It is hard not to squeeze out tears when one realizes that the heart of the soul will soon be devoid of memories with an increasing disease no one is unable to stop.


  3. I have read The Name of the Rose, Victoria, and I’m waiting for the right moment when I’m old enough and wise enough to properly understand it 🙂 I did enjoy it, actually, but got lost in some of the details … and I don’t remember the palimpsest idea either.

    Edd, thank you so much for commenting; you are right indeed that it would be magnificent to keep one’s mind in a palimpsest state.


  4. I’m having memory troubles. I know I read your post and I thought I commented. But I guess I didn’t. You’ve got me wanting to read this book. I even looked for it last night at the used bookstore but had no luck. It’s on the list now though so eventually I will run across a copy.


  5. Stefanie — I hope you can find it; I’d love to hear your thoughts. The book is very strange, I think, stranger than I can capture in my posts — but strange in a good way.


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