I’m a big fan of words, always have been. I love it when a new word turns up to delight me. Sometimes that word seems peculiarly apt, intended just for me. The word palimpsest is such a one. It describes a manuscript, some part of which has been erased and perhaps written over. It is very pleasing to wonder about whether this fine word was ever in common use; I like to imagine 19th century explorers running around comparing their latest palimpsests.
“Well, Arbuthnot, how do you like this palimpsest of mine, eh? You can just make out some erasures here at the edge of this section.”
“Oh, it’s all right, I suppose, Willoughby, but it’s a pretty poor example. This palimpsest of mine, here, has whole pages of erasure. See this one, it’s been written over, of course, but you can just see the markings below. Now that’s what I call a palimpsest.”
And so on.
The mind of a person with Alzheimer’s disease is a palimpsest. What was once written in memory and in cognition, in all those millions of little brain cells and synaptic connections, is wiped away. Faint remnants of the writing can still be made out from time to time. Keith asks the same questions over and over again because he forgets the answers within seconds of hearing them. Sometimes he vaguely remembers that I might have given him the answer already: the palimpsest reveals itself.
The trick is in how you regard that palimpsest: unearth it with explorer-like joy, noting that the document is in there after all, hidden but intact? I can’t really help being pleased when the even the faintest shred of short-term memory asserts itself. Keith does not feel that way, though. It makes him glum when he kind of remembers that he has forgotten something. He doesn’t want a palimpsest in his brain. He misses the original manuscript, and reminders of its existence are tough for him. It’s better when he does not reflect on what is lost. Don’t look back.
How often must we be told not to look back? The oldest stories give us due warning. Looking back didn’t do much good to Lot’s wife. Orpheus looked back, and see where it got him. So, there is a lesson here: when a shard of memory pierces the fog of Alzheimer’s disease, don’t look back. But the tentacles of “back” reach out of their own accord to enfold you. That imprint of our histories is always there, hidden maybe under the haze of Alzheimer’s disease, but still there. We cannot erase it completely. Faint traces will remain and reach out in their own good time. As long as the palimpsest inhabits us, we will follow Orpheus one day.