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Urban Phrenology

Everything we do and say is layered with meaning. We stand, not alone, but on who and what has gone before. I can see farther because I look out from the shoulders of giants.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Palimpsest

I had lunch yesterday with Bob Roebuck. He teaches history at the college.

We reviewed your suggestions for the sesquicentennial series, the growing pool of ideas from readers like you that will keep me busy for years. During the discussion, Bob used a word I hadn’t known (one of oh so many): “Palimpsest–παλιν + ψαω = (palin ‘again’ + psao ‘I scrape’),” he said. I enjoyed its unwieldy string of consonants in the middle and wanted to know more.

Before the age of paper (Remember? The stuff that was supposed to disappear in the Age of Computers?), medieval scribes wrote important documents on parchment, a durable material made from animal hide, usually sheepskin. Because letters took so long to send on a journey so precarious, correspondence was written on these skins, folded over and sealed with wax. Their cost made parchment sheets too valuable to use just once, however, so scribes laboriously scraped off each message and reused them for a second or third or fourth time. But the residual ink lingered on throughout the process, so that today we can read multiple messages that had built up on (and into) the surface of a former farm animal.

Analogies with life abound. Last week’s column about The Obelisk is a case in point.

A one-hundred-fifty-year-old choice to erect a windmill and watering tank served purely utilitarian purposes for the first years of its life. And those objects might have disappeared with the advent of municipal water. Someone unknown to us made another choice: to give the mill frame a more abstract purpose, whose nobility was confirmed with the second courthouse and ratified by the third.

And when the second Fennimore county government center burned (was burned, some say), it too left a residual footprint: the basement of the 1889 courthouse morphed into secure parking, while the first floor became a plaza with flagpoles, inscriptions and other paraphernalia of civil religion.

Later that day, at home, I brewed a pot of Earl Grey and looked at my own home–painful at times because so many well-intentioned projects remain undone. Yet there it was, in the slant light of afternoon: a subtle shape in the wall where I’d closed a pointless door; sheetrocked, taped and painted to match, but lingering still like the small scar on my left eyebrow when I fell down the stairs at the age of ten.

So, “Agincourt as Palimpsest” will be my watchwords. How does this place tell the story of our habitation here, no matter how humble or slight our presence may have seemed? I’ll leave the last few words on that score to the Persian poet-mathematician Omar Khayyám:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


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