©Copyright Robert Joseph Harris, 2014
What if there was an advanced technology that allowed us to edit our life? You know, go back and change some things we said, or did, or even choose a different body; to rewrite our entire story, as it were. We could make changes in our life from the color of our skin, to the jobs and mates we chose, and to the things we enjoy doing in our leisure.
There is only one problem; the moment your desired changes are effectuated real life would begin again re-building the authentic you in multiple layers from life’s experiences, as before, just like an artist painting over his previously painted canvas.
There is a word that specifically describes this “layering over old layers” concept: palimpsest (Greek for: “again” + “erase”).
It was a new word to me. I discovered it in the most unlikely place a few days ago while I was reading about the history of Baltimore City architecture, of necessity, to avoid boredom from being trapped in the room of necessity. This strange word stuck in my head after my business was done. The next morning I ran into palimpsest two more times. This made three times this strange word had jumped out at me trying to get my attention in less than 24 hours; surely this was some kind of omen, or it was trying to send me a message. Maybe it was just lonely?
The New York Times book review hailed the coming of the new darling of contemporary literature, 35-year old Ben Lerner from Brooklyn, using the word “palimpsest” to describe Lerner’s multi-layered new style (i.e., “layering”) that gave new insights into age-old questions about meaning in art and life. He apparently accomplished this feat by combining his skills as poet, essayist and novelist to create a new form of literature. A fellow poet was quoted from a social media chat with her brother, a novelist, saying that she was worried that contemporary novels were becoming books just written to be movie-ready, and the world desperately “needed more Ben Lerner” [sentence paraphrased]. Silly me; I thought the world needed more cowbells, according to SNL’s literary genius Will Ferrell.
I became curious and looked for reviews of Lerner’s work from Europe as well and found the same adoring accolades for this genius writer’s two novels, poems and essays. This review was from Paris, and you know it, the review built their praise around the same 17th century sturdy word, palimpsest. Did all literary critics get the same email dress code for covering Lerner’s second book?
I wouldn’t be surprised if some agent isn’t pitching Lerner right now to register a copyrighted branding phrase that uses this word with his name in a headline, something like:
Read Ben Lerner, Palimpsest of the Future. Order now!
Ben, are you going to take the hint, and the money, and write a book about this word while it’s hot? I hope not because I plan to answer this word’s call for attention and use it prominently in my newly completed novel: The Meaning of Life is a Good Tamale, a story that revolves around a tamale feast honoring the world’s first portable meal as it was prepared from a 10,000 year old recipe used at the dawn of civilization.
So I checked you out Ben and I liked your writing very much, in spite of the bloated and band-wagon reviews full of superlatives, which actually hid “Ben, the writer,” underneath critics’ self-important words. I read some of your essays and poems, and your interviews, with you own words (I assume).
I am drawn to your deep exploration of the growing friction between the tangible and the intangible, and the new meanings that glimmer from the hot touch points of these two competing realities as they collide head on like two galaxies drawn into one another.
I believe that every aspect of reality is a palimpsest putting down layer upon layer, going back 4 billion of years. Palimpsests for humans have changed very slowly within a single lifetime, until now. Gentle advice to the gentle readers of this post:
Read what writers and artists, like Lerner, say and do; they will be the first to glimpse the new palimpsest of life as a fundamentally new concept of reality dawns on us that reconciles the tangible with the intangible.