Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juli 2006

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text
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Rewriting, Overwriting - The Palimpsest Effect in Contemporary Fiction

Carmen Musat (Department of Theory of Literature, University of Bucharest)


Rewriting is not at all a new textual practice, since one can find many literary works that retell old stories in Renaissance and French Classicism, not to mention the 18th and the 19th centuries. Imitatio auctorum is, in fact, an antique intertextual practice.

Yet, rewriting in contemporary fiction means con-fusion of both texts and meanings and puts forth the problem of representation and identity.

My intervention will concentrate on characters in contemporary palimpsest fiction, that I consider double-coded signs. Sometimes, there is no need to retell a whole story, it suffices to mention only a few simple names that bear the "burden" of a well-known story. When it comes to fictional characters, proper names function like abbreviations of different stories. If an author chooses a name like Ulysses for his character this is not an innocent choice, since such a name carries with it, within the actual narrative, the echoes of its former fictional context(s).

If we look back into the history of literature, there have always been narratives that bring together characters coming from different previous stories, that intersect for a short while within a text and the reader has to identify for each one its origin, its destiny or, to cut it short, its story.

Then there is the problem of who is reading such a text and how is he/she reading it. Should we say therefore that reading re-enacts a never-ending dialogue between different texts and different readers, a dialogue that takes place within the limits of a narrative?

These are only few starting points for a typology of rewritings and for an analysis of what may be called "the burden of culture" within contemporary fiction (contemporary meaning postmodernist and post-postmodernist narrative).


The Palimpsest Effect

If we agree that literature comes from literature and that there is an "intertextual unconscious"(1) that precedes and enfolds each and every literary work, then it will be easy to assert that almost all literature has, in a certain way, an intertextual essence. So, why bother to talk about such an obvious trait? And moreover, what does it mean to use the term "palimpsest fiction" and, even more, "contemporary palimpsest fiction"?

What I have in mind when using such a term established by Gerard Genette in his seminal book, Palimpsestes. La literature au second degré (Seuil, 1982), is that there is a category of fiction which exists only as a response/ rewriting/ retelling etc. of a former narrative, be it an autonomous work signed by some other author, or a multi-layered structure realized like a "text within a text within a text", conceived by the author himself in order to enhance the depth of his own writing - the mise en abîme. A paradigmatic novel of both re-writing and over-writing is Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which, although it is not a rewriting of a particular novel, it is nevertheless a re-writing of a specific species - the picaresque novel. And it is a good example of over-writing since the second volume is, in fact, not only a continuation and an annotation of the first one, but it contains also lots of stories that function as internal mirrors for the main character, who discovers eventually that he is a fictitious being. Other relevant examples for this kind of narrative is Paul Auster’s Oracle Night - where there is a "chain of authors" and a "chain of characters" produced by these "authors", all of them involved in novel writing (Sidney Orr, Nick Bowen, Lemuel Flagg - a blind British lieutenant, hero of Oracle Night) and Calvino’s If On a Winter Night a Traveler, that could also be very good examples.

Indeed, rewriting is not at all a new textual practice, since one can find many literary works that retell old stories, in Renaissance and in French Classicism(2), not to mention the 18th and the 19th centuries, with so many attempts to rewrite antique pastorals and idylls. Imitatio auctorum is a very old intertextual practice - as a matter of fact, even Virgil’s Ennead takes as a model the Homeric poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Yet, rewriting in contemporary fiction means con-fusion of both texts and meanings and puts forth the problem of representation and identity. Nevertheless, postmodern fiction plays intently with multiple readings and requires a competent reader, one who knows the way the intertextual unconscious functions and, even more, one who has read lots of texts and is able to recognize the explicit or implicit hints, the direct connections and transformations throughout the narrative. I may even say that a palimpsest is a transparent discourse, a sort of "a porous membrane through which all the invisible forces of the world (read "previous text" - my note C. M) could pass - a nexus of airborne electrical charges transmitted by the thoughts and feelings of others (id est of other characters, coming into the text from a previous one - my note C.M)" - I quoted from Auster’s Oracle Night(3).

We should note another important feature of a palimpsest literary work: its double use of language, performative and constative at the same time. Being a literary work, it refers to an imaginary reality therefore it uses words in a performative way, bringing about the world (with characters and things) it names. Yet, since the literary work is a palimpsest - take, for instance, Michel Tournier’s Friday or The Pacific Languages, which rewrites Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe - we may say that it makes also a constative use of words: it names a certain state of affairs, that the reader is familiar with because he read (or at least he must have read) Robinson Crusoe before. Such texts not only bring imaginary characters to life, "doing things with words", but they also point to a certain context, or to a certain story within which the character previously evolved.


The Problem of Identity

The problem of identity is definitely linked to that of the proper names - the "bookish" proper names bear with them the principal details of the story they come from. "Bookish" proper names relate to their bearers outside the story they belong to (see, for example, Robinson or Don Quixote, or Ulysses, Daphnis and Chloe and so on and so forth). Therefore, such names are associated with a whole range of descriptions.

Such proper names are both descriptive (they function as labels) and story-generating. So we can ask whether proper names have sense (in Frege’s view), and I tend to say that "bookish" proper names do have sense, whenever they bear a story with them - and the story is an extension of our knowledge. Therefore, I maintain that in this particular case, senses determine reference - it is enough to name a character with the name Quixote, and the reference of that new character would be construed by the sense of the proper name (that is "the wandering knight", the one who fought the windmills and so on and so forth). In palimpsest narratives, proper names have senses and these senses determine references. Nevertheless such an option has some very important consequences for the narrative and its main elements:


Here comes the Reader

A rewriting (or, in Genette’s terms, a hypertext) implies a certain type of reader: one who is able to recover the "threads" of previous stories woven into the hypertext. Without such knowledge, it would be quite impossible to construe meanings of the actual literary work. And even more, such a reader should be able to recognize "l’espace littéraire" from which such a character comes.

The idea of a text as a web/ an intersection of previous stories and identities that one confronts and recognizes, the problem of the attitude toward such a palimpsest narrative and the implication that such an attitude includes a literary/ cultural competence - these are essential elements to what I intend to call pan-fictionalism (or pan-narrative).

The "new" character and the "new" story occur against a background situation that provides not only a setting for the re-writing, but also a definite reference. A knowledgeable reader understands that the author is using narrative in a special way, creating - or, better say, re-creating - new-old characters by means of permanent dialogue between the two (at least two, since there can be even more stories or variants involved). When Baudrillard talks about "the end of the story", the only possible/ conceivable end of the story is that of an absolutely new or innocent story. This indeed has come to an end. As for storytelling, it will never end as long as there will be life, the old stories are being told and retold, more multi-layered, multi-vocal and multi-textual. If there is "a sense of an ending" (to quote another classic, Frank Kermode) in fictional narration, it is only in the indifference toward originality of theme/plot/subject. The reader knows that there is something outside the present text that "fills" the gaps and offers the keys to understanding. It takes a real reader and a real reading context in order to perform the palimpsest effect and to gather the meaning of the text and its complex connections. As Riffaterre puts it, "The text functions something like a neurosis: as the matrix is repressed, the displacement produces variants although the text, just as suppressed symptoms break out somewhere else in the body" (Semiotics of Poetry 1978, p.19). In other words, what seems to be the most controversial aspect of a text (its apparent loss of meaning, its broken unity) turns out to be its very force: the intertextual dialogue between disparate texts, the repetitive signals and the allusions that point to it. This absent part of a text, which is, in fact, the "intertext," acting like a spider’s web on the reader, urges him to see the non-apparent "figure in the carpet", the story that is never directly told, but only suggested or carried on within the present text. And although the reader cannot cut or add whatever he wants in the written text, he has to make connections between the present text and lots of other previous texts or stories that form the intertextual aura of what we read. The reader is, eventually, a traveler inside the stories web.

© Carmen Musat (Department of Theory of Literature, University of Bucharest)


(1) See Michael Riffaterre, The Intertextual Unconscious, in Critical Inquiry 13, no. 2 (Winter 1987), pp. 371-385.

(2) In Orlando furioso, Ariosto retold, in a parodic way, the story of one of the most popular heroes of European medieval literature, Roland, well known from Le Chanson du Roland. As for the French Classic authors – Corneille and Racine – they strived to retell stories told before by antique myths and antique authors.

(3) Faber & Faber, 2004, p. 190


CRITTENDEN, Charles (1991): Unreality. The Metaphysics of Fictional Objects, London: Cornell University Press

KRIPKE, Saul (1972, 1996): Naming and Necessity, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford UK & Cambridge USA

PAVEL, Toma (1989), Fictional Worlds, Cambridge, Harvard University Press

RIFFATERRE, Michael (1987), The Intertextual Unconscious, in Critical Inquiry, 13 no. 2 (Winter 1987), pp. 371-385

RORTY, Richard (1982): Consequences of Pragmatism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

SEARLE, J.R (1978): Speech Acts, London: Cambridge University Press

STRAWSON, P.F. (1959): Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics, London: Methuen

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text

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Carmen Musat (Department of Theory of Literature, University of Bucharest): Rewriting, Overwriting - The Palimpsest Effect in Contemporary Fiction
. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/09_6/musat16.htm

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