The term palimpsest is loaded with conflicted notions. The word refers to ancient manuscripts where the old text was scraped away to make room for new text. Despite the act of the erasure, the old text is still visible, even many years after its erasure. Disappearance on one hand, and reuse on the other, the notion of conflict is inherent in the very nature of the palimpsest.
Marc Augé noted this trait in his comparison of “never fully erased” places and “never fully completed” nonplaces (Augé, 2000: 79). Andreas Huyssen noted conflict in his study of the built environment, using the World Trade Center site in New York as an example of an erased building that still marks the landscape (Huyssen, 2003: 6-7).
In comics, the palimpsest can appear in studies of contrast. A strip from Ben Katchor’s Cheap Novelties stands out for its portrayal of the spatial palimpsest as he shows the impacts of the past on the landscape of the present.
In this sample, a leak in Julius Knipl’s roof propels him to look past the dropped ceiling installed in his office. There, he finds “an untouched part” of the office, consisting of old ceiling fans, “distinctive mouldings,” and glass light fixtures, all intact and all frozen in time.
Visually, the scene is compelling as the objects are focused on in their historical context. Instead of zooming in on the objects in their individual stasis, Katchor brings them to life. The ceiling fan turns on a hot day, a “long dead eye” gazes at the moulding, and the old lights illuminate a “turn of the century night.” These artifacts embody the palimpsest. They have been “erased” by the new dropped ceilings, but persist. Further, judging by the narrative, they come to life for the viewer. We learn, towards the end of the strip, that the ceilings are on their way out, part of a restoration movement. In the end, however, Knipl decides to keep history under wraps, choosing “to preserve the past, undisturbed, by keeping his dropped ceiling in place.”
The ardent preservationist might take issue with this decision. If the artifacts contained above the ceiling have such meaning, why keep them hidden. The notion of the palimpsest may come into play to provide a provisional answer. The dropped ceilings were installed for the sake of utility, erasing the “text” of the past while simultaneously preserving it.
Removing the dropped ceilings might make the past visible, but to what ends? Opening up the artifacts of the past makes them volatile to change again. The trends of the future might dictate removing the old fixtures, either to conform to new styles, energy efficiency standards, and a host of other elements left to the reader’s imagination.
If space is seen as a palimpsest, it means it is in flux… at least until it is erased completely (my next post will tackle this outcome). In Knipl’s eyes, then, true preservation involves stasis to a point. It is notable that the last panel shows the exterior of his office with the hidden treasures just slightly visible through his office window.
Augé, M. (2000) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Trans. John Howe (New York: Verso)
Huyssen, A. (2003) Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (California: Stanford University Press)
Katchor, B. (2006: 142) “Excerpts from Cheap Novelties.” In Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories. Ed. Ivan Brunetti. (Connecticut: Yale University Press)