Brushes with Culture

This is a space where I can reflect on the many fascinating things that I experience. Some of the things I brush with are Culture with a capital C. Others are just intriguing moments. Sometimes I am brushing with these moments in a hurry. This is a chance to relive those moments in tranquility. These are the stories I tell myself in those quieter moments.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

At last, a Palimpsest

I remember a friend attempting to explain to me what a palimpsest was, at a time when I was secretly convinced that it had something to do with palindromes.

Let me clear that up immediately:

Palimpsest: a manuscript (usually written on papyrus or parchment) on which more than one text has been written with the earlier writing incompletely erased and still visible.

Palindrome: a word, phrase, verse, or sentence that reads the same backward or forward. For example: ABBA, a plan, a canal, Panama!

Both interesting words, you'll agree, but not that interchangeable.

Now I have occasion to think of something as a palimpsest and I realise that I have finally moved the word from the scary place that I keep terms I don't really have control over (for instance, "Hermeneutics" was there for a very long time, but then I realised it's what I do, so I got over that one too...) to somewhere more useful. Palimpsest now sits resplendent in my active vocabulary.

The occasion of my linguistic triumph over terminology was when I used it of Brighton: I was trying to explain that even though I wanted to leave London for an exciting smaller town and Brighton is the obvious place given that I have a bundle of dear friends down there, the city is too much a palimpsest, with memories overlaying each other like partly obscured stories. From city centre lampposts to the seats outside pubs, to the corners that follow each other in a winding tale from arts blocks and to the library on campus, to the Angel that faces the sea at Boundary Beach regardless of sun and rain - it's a tablet that's been written on too many times for the lightness I now need. When I need richness, I'll know where to turn.

Brighton, palimpsest of the south...

However, I did get 'punter' and 'pundit' muddled up the other day when talking to the Arch Materialist, so just because I know the difference between words doesn't guarantee that I'll pull out the right one in a crisis. A crisis? Well, we went to hear a creationist talk so that we could roundly condemn his piffle. It was very interesting. The logic was special to someone who believes that the Bible is a text handed down in its entirety by God and not open to interpretation. How very different from Talmudic hermeneutical examination of the Torah, or even the argumentation of more prescriptive traditions, such as this branch of Catholicism which tells us that:

Usage has restricted the meaning of hermeneutics to the science of Biblical exegesis, that is, to the collection of rules which govern the right interpretation of Sacred Scripture.

At least that is to acknowledge the risk of wrong interpretation; surely a nod to some cognitive and cultural processing, even if the goal is a notional consensus.

So, here is a man (Vance Nelson) who argues that a fossil can only be interpreted from the present, since we cannot know exactly what it was in the past, but that a book carries its incontrovertible meaning forward through time unhampered. Even I spotted the inconsistencies with that one. And he was talking about fossils because his mission was to show that time on Earth extends only a few thousand years. So mad it's cool to hear it - once. Now shut him up.

As I write this I realise that hermeneutics has also suffered for its similarity to another word. Hermetic. Tupperware is hermetically sealed (I believe...) and some texts are similarly resistant to being exposed to the air. But that is where this conflation ends.


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