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release date 23 november 2021

This week, in my teaching at the National Art School, I’m lecturing and assigning a project on drawing and the palimpsest.

In 1845, English writer Thomas De Quincey wondered “What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, oh reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet, in reality, not one has been extinguished…

… I mention a case communicated to me by a lady… still living, though now of unusually great age; and I may mention that amongst her faults never was numbered any levity of principle, or carelessness of the most scrupulous veracity…

… She had completed her ninth year, when, playing by the side of a solitary brook, she fell into one of its deepest pools. Eventually, but after what lapse of time nobody ever knew, she was saved from death by a farmer, who, riding in some distant lane, had seen her rise to the surface; but not until she had descended within the abyss of death, and looked into its secrets, as far, perhaps, as ever human eye can have looked that had permission to return.

At a certain stage of this descent, a blow seemed to strike her, phosphoric radiance sprang forth from her eyeballs; and immediately a mighty theatre expanded within her brain. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, every act, every design of her past life, lived again, arraying themselves not in succession, but as parts of a coexistence.

…Such a light fell upon the whole path of her life backwards into the shades of infancy, … poured celestial vision upon her brain, so that her consciousness became omnipresent at one moment to every feature in the infinite review.

A pall, deep as oblivion, had been thrown by life over every trace of these experiences; and yet suddenly, at a silent command, at the signal of a blazing rocket sent up from the brain, the pall draws up, and the whole depths of the theatre are exposed.”

paraphrased from “The Palimpsest of the Human Brain” Thomas De Quincey 1845