The Palimpsest

“Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book” (89).

Winterson describes the body as a palimpsest, a manuscript so worked over that the original text gets erased or covered to make way for new texts. This might connect to how Winterson tells the story. The narrator has a new story being written with Louise, but the “old text” of past relationships still appears both in the narrator’s recollection, but also their repeated patterns. These repeated patterns might relate to the visible traces of past writing on the manuscript that this the body, the remnants of the same tale. These visible traces of the narrator’s experience cause repeated patterns, they enter into a second relationship with a married woman when they begin their affair with Louise, but they had promised not to make that mistake after Bathsheba. But the old text shines through, and the narrator falls into old habits. The writing changes, in the narrator’s case, the writing on the body changes the most with their relationships. The palimpsest can also contain drawings, “I will find a map as likely as any treasure hunt. I will explore you and mine you and you will redraw me according to your will” (pg 20). So, the new writing on the narrator’s body and their experience with Louise covers and writes over their experience with Jacquelin or Frank or Inge. Additionally, the concept of the body as a palimpsest, rather than a simple book or poem, is important. While in many ways, this seems like a minute difference, it is a critical one. In normal books or essays, you never see the draft, you only see the finished product. But the body is a palimpsest, the old text that came before might fade, or might be scrubbed away, but traces remain. Your past experiences don’t go away. This connects to Sedgwick’s idea of survival. We survive into our experience, not through or past it. The affects are lifelong, even if we gain new experiences. Considering the body as palimpsest, where your life and experience is written on your body, in your skin can help us understand identity. Winterson gives the narrator very few defining characteristics, the narrator has no gender, we don’t know their age, and their occupation is vague. What we as readers do know, is the narrator’s experience. The moments that are written on their body. This provides a different way of defining and describing our identities. They encompass more than our gender, our age, who we love or don’t love, or what our jobs are. Our identities are greatly shaped by our experiences, how we heal from them or grow because of them. We can use this idea to further our understanding of identity and how to write and explain it. While words used to describe identity: sexual or gender orientation, age, nationality, and others are useful, experience can provide deeper insight into our identities and how they blend with our lives.

3 thoughts on “The Palimpsest”

  1. In class we talked about the two quotes that call back to the title most strongly (20,89) but you expanded that discussion in such a beautiful way. In your reading, we aren’t waiting for these little crumbs, like the redrawing of the map or the mention of the title, for insight into what is written on the body. Instead we have held the complete text the entire time. As you said, we also don’t have much information about the narrator apart from their most defining, powerful memories; we only see what had a lasting effect. This perspective recasts the novel from experiences and memories chosen carefully for presentation to a deeply personal, and sometimes even explicit, reading of the narrator’s body. This reminded me of one of our poems for this week, “Diving into the Wreck”, “I am having to do this not like Cousteau with his assiduous team aboard the sun-flooded schooner but here alone” (8-12). While we are choosing to pick up the novel and read the narrator’s body, they live in it. We as readers are the greatly prepared team with an outside perspective who can only watch as the narrator drowns in their understanding of their own self.

  2. I really enjoyed this interpretation of the text, especially how you point out the importance of the palimpsest as “Written on the Body” rather than a normal book or poem. Your point about Sedgwick’s idea of surviving through (survival as a way of life, not necessarily a means to an end) is good, but I think you could dive more into how that relates to the queer experience specifically, not just general life experiences. The story is queer, even if we’re not able to use specific labels, and it’s because the story is inherently queer that the idea of the palimpsest is so deeply satisfying. Again, I think you made a great point, I’m just trying to think of how to push it a little further.

  3. I really like this idea: the narrator’s poetry books about Louise’s anatomy come to mind as a type of “writing over the body” (in creating poetry that traces in and out of the body) that erases or goes over what was there before. The narrator says that they would “drown themselves in Louise,” and in anatomizing her they de-sexualize her and re-sexualize her over and over again, remembering and recalling the same chunks of their history and reinterpreting them through different lenses.

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