Is it possible to fall in love with a word? I came upon palimpsest for the first time back in college. I was writing my senior paper—on the act of writing as a way to concretize love and to make it eternal—and was stunned by a passage I read in Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body:
Who taught you to write blood on my back? Who taught you to use your hands as branding irons? You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark. The pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message into my skin, tap meaning into my body. …Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places, the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille.
A palimpsest in literal terms is a manuscript or piece of writing that has been erased to make room for more writing. Yet traces of the previous writings still remain. In Winterson's exquisite story, the narrator gets to know her lover’s body by exploring its every physicality, by mapping it out, and by engraving herself into her lover’s body and vice versa. The hand and the fingers are the direct tools for reading and writing the human body. The two lovers form a unique union this way by breaking through the barriers of skin and flesh and human physicality in general. They respect the body because it enables the human soul to become visual, to hold mass “like braille.” The palimpsest imagery shows a surface written on excessively and compulsively over and over, changed, edited, reworked; the two lovers superscribe themselves onto each other’s body. Thus they essentially become one in two separate bodies, for they have kept within their own body, and at the same time, have left a piece of themselves within the other.
This passage makes so much sense to me, when I think about all of the souls and lovers who've crossed my path, whose skin I've marked and whose mark in turn has etched its way onto my skin. A mark I've tried to wash away, and yet the traces still remain. In unpoetic terms, we might call that baggage or experience. But let's be poetic and call it palimpsest. As long as I have this physical body, I'm a manuscript still being written, still being reworked and edited. And I have hands to read my lover's skin, to write my own story on his back. It's the masterpiece we're after, the piece we'll leave behind. In writing. When the body washes away.