In 1995, the American writer, political commentator, and essayist Gore Vidal ¹ broke his own declared vow never to write a memoir. Palimpsest – the first of what was to be a two volume work ² – was published to great acclaim and some criticism as befitted a public figure whose intellectual and cultural writings on American history ³ and American life had created enemies as well as supporters.
When writing on the subject of his name he explained that his birth certificate had originally recorded it as Eugene Louis Vidal; this was then changed to Eugene Luther Vidal, Jr.; subsequent to this the name Gore was added at his christening in 1939. Fourteen years later as an adolescent he took the decision to discard the first two names.
This act of self-alteration or indeed erasure links directly to the meaning of palimpsest, our latest favourite word, with its etymological root in Latin from the Greek palimpsēstos, from palin “again” + psēstos “rubbed smooth”. Its use is most commonly found in the study of old manuscripts, scrolls and books; in modern usage it is used in architecture, archaeology and geomorphology.
Perhaps one of the best known palimpsests is that attributed to the Greek mathematician Archimedes. Known as The Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript is a Byzantine prayer book from the thirteenth century assembled using pages from several earlier manuscripts – one of which contained several treatises by Archimedes that were copied in tenth century Constantinople. These were first discovered in 1906 by the Danish Archimedes scholar Johan Ludwig Heiberg.
As the key aspect of such a manuscript is its layer upon layer of writing, for one so acutely aware of self-fashioning and self-actualisation as Gore Vidal, Palimpsest was perfectly judged.
² Point to Point Navigation is the second volume of Gore Vidal’s memoir and was published in 2006.
³ Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series is a heptalogy of historical novels published between 1967 and 2000, chronicling the dawn-to-decadence history of the “American Empire” interweaving the personal stories of two families with the personages and events of U.S. history. Whilst its publisher prefering the politically neutral title of American Chronicles, Vidal preferred the eventual series title. The seven novels can be read in either historical or publication order without losing narrative intelligibility.