Palimpsests: Being Haunted by the Ghost of a Ghost

In just over the past week the word “palimpsest” has come up in my life in three different contexts. This seems to be a sign from the Universe (with a capital “U”).

A palimpsest is an old animal skin, such as parchment, which has been written on, then scraped over so that new text may be added. It is a document with attempted erasure, but which still has underlying traces of its past stories.

And so: I am being haunted by the ghost of a ghost.

The word’s repeated appearances have gotten me thinking about palimpsests of the world, outside of literature. I heard a great example of a “cultural” palimpsest in my first recent encounter: when an adult uses a cutesy word from their family or their childhood, such as “jammies”, that could be considered a palimpsest. People may do this and create verbal palimpsests without even realizing it.

Another example I heard was New York City. It was in my second encounter, and it floored me. I have a certain romantic obsession with New York – the lights, the people, the art – and the more I thought of it, the more I realized how perfectly the comparison works.

Initially I had thought of Rome as a city-palimpsest. But Rome has been built over itself in layers, creating a situation in which the further you dig down the more you find. That’s more of a messy manuscript than a carefully kept recycled story board.

But New York… New York is constantly in flux, keeping up with the times, modernizing, destroying to create and create and grow and grow. It maintains its status as a shiny beacon of the world by being just that: shiny and always new. Undoubtedly some ghosts have been created there in the process, but not buried alive like in Rome.

No, these urban ghosts linger; ready to draw you in with a whisper and ask you to join them in the city, even if it means that someday you will be just another layer in the palimpsest of time.

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