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Palimpsest

“I sat down by my fire and examined my treasure. The first part of it—the great bulk of it—was parchment, and yellow with age. I scanned a leaf particularly and saw that it was a palimpsest.” A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, p. 7

While I was in Sweden, this was one of the books that accompanied me. The edition I have belonged to my grandfather, the fifteenth printing of the Washington Square Press Edition, issued in September 1967, about six months before I was born. It sold for a whopping 45 cents.

Palimpsest is one of those words that is beautiful and rare. I don’t have the kinds of conversations, in general, in which it can be used as anything but a species of showing off. It echoes with impermanence, with the implacable rush of the present over against a dim past made dimmer on purpose. The same document means different things in different generations and eventually so little in itself that it is simply something to be recycled.

The book in question is not strictly a palimpsest, but there are notes in the margins, passages marked, traces of thoughts from a present time that is not my present. I catch glimpses of how my grandfather’s mind worked.

I’ve been thinking about him more than usual lately because of a writing exercise I did with my dear and lovely partners in crime. The object of the exercise was to grasp the image of a place we didn’t want to go as children. We did our free writing and then determined to make something more finished out of the material. I wrote about hospitals.

When I was three, going on four, my grandfather had a heart attack and died. The doctors revived him several minutes later, but he could no longer speak clearly or walk. Eventually, he recovered enough to progress from wheelchair to walker, but then he began to get old faster than he got better. He died for good when I was nine or ten. I remember the cold and frightening feeling of sitting in the hospital after his attack, not knowing what was going on, ignored by the grown-ups. Further back, before the heart attack, I remember playing hide and seek with him in the apartment he shared with Grandma Marian. I remember laughter, but no quality of his mind, no shape of his character because I was so unformed when he lost his form.

But now I know that he was fascinated by the use of the vernacular in literature. He had absolutely no use for the established church or hereditary systems of power. He had an ear for the tasty one-liner, like “This was the report; but probably the facts would have modified it” (p. 49).

In some places, we marked the same passages. I know that I come from a long line of Republicans, to whom I am a terrible disgrace, so I expect that if I were to talk politics with my grandfather it would not be a triumph of agreement. Yet we both liked this passage:

“You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office-holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags—that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it. I was from Connecticut, whose Constitution declares ‘that all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and that they have at all times an undeniable and indefeasible right to alter their form of government in such a manner as they may think expedient’” (p. 86-87).

I’m pretty sure we would have some different reasons drawn from our experiences of the governments of our time for marking it out from the rest of the text.

Finally, there are some traces of his own life in his markings. In one place, he notes that one of Twain’s drawn-out scenes of the difficulty of getting directions is “my grandfather’s old saw.”

Most poignantly, he marked this passage:

“Now I didn’t know I was drawing a prize [in marrying Sandy}, yet that was what I did draw. Within the twelvemonth I became her worshiper; and ours was the dearest and perfectest comradeship that ever was. People talk about beautiful friendships between two persons of the same sex. What is the best of that sort, as compared with the friendship of man and wife, where the best impulses and highest ideals of both are the same? There is no place for comparison between the two friendships; the one is earthly, the other divine” (p. 325).

Grandma Marian was my grandfather’s second wife, and he married her after my aunt and my father were adults. It was a great love story, beginning with him as her Prince Charming and ending with her careful and tender care of him as he became increasingly ill and frail.

Palimpsest.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
happy_potterer
Aug. 4th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
Palimpsest is one of those words I come across every few years and wonder what it means but don't ever look up. So today I did. A great word for a great object. And thanks for this thoughtful post. It makes me want to meet your grandfather and read A Connecticut Yankee (long overdue anyway for this Connecticut Yankee).
jan_can_too
Aug. 8th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
The good news is that it is possible to read the book. I would recommend it because everyone gets satirized from the narrator on. And it's an entertaining story with long quotes from Mallory, so what's not to like?

The bad news: meeting Grandpa not really an option. I'd enjoy talking with him myself.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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