Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Palimpsest, and Other Funny English Words

Happy Summer!

You know, besides that fact that it's 95 degrees outside and the power is currently out.

This summer has been more busy than relaxing, and while I'm happy about that, I'm also aching for a rest. Which just isn't coming. I don't mind being holed up in the cool basement, but my family hates it, so we go out a lot. But I keep an open mind, and it works out because last night we took a ride up in the canyons and it was raining. Raining! I was so happy I thought I was going to cry.


Have you ever heard the ridiculous word palimpsest? If you've studied English, perhaps, but it's weird. It sounds weird. It's not a word you'd insert into everyday conversation. But it's also a word that I love. If you look it up on Google, you'll get the following definition:

A manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.

The analogy of this type of writing surfaced during feminist studies, which simply meant that women used their own analogies to describe their thoughts, emotions, and circumstances because during the nineteenth century they couldn't come out with a basic truth and have it be acknowledged. In other words, they wrote fluff while the men wrote academics.


While I don't necessarily want to focus on feminism today, I do want to talk about the idea that palimpsest exists in most fiction I've read. For example, I recently finished Rogue by Julie Kagawa, a YA book where a dragon can shift into human form and is on the run from two organizations that want her dead (this is the second book in the series). The battle between dragons and humans? Not new. It's an analogy for other wars. That between countries, between blacks and whites, between Natives and non-Natives. It doesn't take a genius to connect this fictional story to an obvious truth; the need for humans to get along with each other and try to see from another's perspective. Kagawa, one of my favorite authors, has always had a way of doing this in her books. There is a constant struggle between two "classes" of humans (Fey and human, vampire and human, or dragon and human), and it is the protagonist's job to bring some kind of peace and cooperation between the two. (You can read my review of Rogue here on Goodreads)

Another word that makes no sense (which also starts with a p, coincidence?) is pathos. I'd heard this word before, but only because my husband wrote it down above a sketch for a sculpture he wanted to do. "What is pathos?" I asked him.

"Pathos is pity," he said. "Or maybe empathy." He wasn't saying the definition had changed, just the way he was thinking about it. So I googled that too:

A quality that evokes pity or sadness.

Interestingly enough, pathos plays an important part in palimpsest. Emotion is key to all artwork. If a book doesn't reach out and grab your heart, it hasn't done its job. If a painting or sculpture doesn't relate to you, or if a piece of music doesn't make you tear up, then there is something missing in that piece for you. I'm not saying everyone should like the same music. But if a piece of work is created and it touches no one, then what is the meaning of its existence? Writers use pathos to bring us into the story.


For example, in Homebody by Orson Scott Card, the protagonist Don Lark has already suffered the loss of his baby daughter. How can you not feel for him? Even though he's not a real person, you know it's a real possibility for someone to be in his position. So you feel for him. Experience pathos. Without it, the story would have been boring and pointless. (You can read my review of Homebody here on Goodreads)

The other word you often see associated with pathos is ethos. Okay, I know I'm getting boring, but ethos is a great word that I think should be injected into our vocabulary. Don't you love google? They say ethos is:

The characteristic spirit of culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations. 

English students use this word a lot. They talk about the ethos of an essay or the ethos a piece of writing is trying to convey. Again, this is simply involving an emotion - or a spirit, to be more correct - into the writing that will make it interesting to readers, or to get them emotionally involved.

Den of Geek

Hmm...should we be done with trivial words for the day? Sounds good. What I wanted to do with these words is talk about the importance of putting real human feeling and emotion into writing. That can go for the movies and TV, for why your favorite TV show is your favorite TV show. I like to watch The Flash on the WB, and much of that has to do with how well they incorporated emotion into their first season. I know it's cheesy, but it holds my attention. I also went to see Spiderman: Homecoming last week, and was drawn in for the same reason. My new favorite Spiderman movie, and the reasons why are that the writing, the directing, and all the other work behind it weave together for an emotional ride that had me on the edge of my seat. I won't tell you where I almost cried, because that would be a spoiler, but trust me, it's good.

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to be a better person, that makes me want to show my love for my husband and kids every day so they know I love them no matter what. Understanding others is how peace comes, how I can put away my anger about something I didn't understand before. Being observant, and bringing those experiences I see to light is what changes people. And, hopefully, that writing, that artwork, is motivation enough for us to become better people, and to change the world, one small act at a time.