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The 21st Century Palimpsest, or, The Story Within the Story

Posted in About the Library, General News, University Archives, and Visiting the Library

The 21st century palimpsest, or, The story within the story, as represented by contemporary film / novel adaptations – by Samuel T Barber

A half-read book is a half-finished love affair – David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.

Inspired by the Archimedes Palimpsest – an ancient 10th century manuscript that was overwritten around 300 years later by Christian monks – Samuel T Barber focuses on a contemporary re-imagining of what might constitute a text within a text in the 21st century.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999 – Written & Directed by Jim Jarmusch).

Throughout the film, central character Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) faithfully adheres to the ancient samurai code incorporated in Hagakure (also known as The book of the Samurai). Hagakure, a spiritual and practical guide for a warrior, was compiled from commentaries made by the Samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo between 1709 and 1716.

Watchmen (Alan Moore, 1986-1987. Film adaptation, directed by Zack Snyder, 2009).

Tales of the Black Frieghter is a fictional pirate comic book, whose narrative is interwoven throughout the main events of the Watchmen story. Although cut from the theatrical version of Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation, the Director viewed the tale within the tale as being sufficiently important to warrant a full animated treatment. This was subsequently made available as a stand-alone segment in various DVD and Blu-Ray releases of the film.

Cloud Atlas (Novel, David Mitchell, 2004. Film adaptation, directed by The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, 2012).

A true masterpiece of multiple entwined storylines, Mitchell’s novel and its film adaptation reminds us that echoes inexorably abound throughout time. In the words of fabricant rebel Sonmi-451’s revelation:

“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

The character Adam Ewing’s experiences in the Pacific Islands during 1850 are described in his biographical diary The Pacific journal of Adam Ewing. The journal’s events are depicted throughout Mitchell’s century-spanning narrative, and the book itself is discovered and read by another character, the young composer Robert Frobisher, in the 1930s. Frustratingly for Frobisher, he discovers that the journal ends mid-sentence, and asks his lover Rufus Sixsmith to investigate if a complete copy of the work can be obtained. After all, he muses, “A half-read book is a half-finished love affair”.

The Man in the High Castle (Novel, Philip K. Dick, 1963. Amazon television adaptation, 2015-2016)

“A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” – Churchill’s description of Russia in 1939 could perhaps also be applied to Philip K. Dick’s 1963 novel. In Dick’s alternative history of the post-WW2 world, the Axis powers Nazi Germany and Japan have emerged victorious. America is now divided between the Nazi-controlled Eastern United States and the Pacific States of America (administered by Japan). In the middle lie the Rocky Mountain States, which act as a neutral central buffer.

man in the high castle map
Image credit: Amazon

The self-proclaimed ‘Man in the high castle’ – author Hawthorne Abendsen – has published a book entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which is widely-read in all but the Eastern United States, where it remains banned by the Nazi authorities. Abendsen’s novel within the novel effectively constitutes an alternate alternative history, in which the Allies won the War.

In addition to the widespread readership of The Grasshopper among Dick’s characters, several also utilize the I ching to predict and advise future actions and decisions. The Man in the High Castle novel climaxes with Abendsen’s revelation that he consulted the I ching when writing The Grasshopper. In a 1974 interview Dick also revealed that his own use of the ancient Chinese divination text “governed the direction of the book” (source).

A text inspiring a text within a text: is this the 21st century palimpsest at work?

Philip K. Dick is the subject of a forthcoming CSUF Pollak Library Special Collections and Archives exhibition and conference, and the second season of The Man in the High Castle airs on Amazon Prime Instant Video later this year.

The author wishes to acknowledge the valuable assistance of Patricia Prestinary (CSU Fullerton University Archivist) in the planning and development of this blog article.

Get involved!

If you enjoyed this Pollak Library blog post, please add your comments here or on our Facebook page. Let us know what your favorite ‘story within the story’ is. Either from the list above, or something completely different! We’d LOVE to hear from you…

Resources and References

Jarmusch, Jim (2000). Ghost Dog : The Way of the Samurai.

DVD available from Pollak Library PN1997.G443 2000

Moore, Alan (1987). Watchmen.

Graphic novel available from Pollak Library PN6728.W3 M66 1987b

Mitchell, David (2004). Cloud Atlas: a novel.

Book available from Pollak Library PR6063.I785 C58 2004

Dick, Philip K. (1962). The Man in the High Castle: a novel.

Book available from Pollak Library PS3554.I3 M36x

MacHovec, Frank J., translator (1971). I ching: The Book of Changes.

Book available from Pollak Library PL2478.D5

Siu, R.G.H. (1974). The Portable Dragon: The Western Man’s Guide to the I ching. [includes an English translation of the text of the I ching]

Book available from Pollak Library BF1770.C5 S57x 1974

Smith, Richard J. (2008). Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World: The Yijing (I ching, or Classic of Changes) and Its Evolution in China.

Book available from Pollak Library PL2464.Z7 S62 2008

The Archimedes Palimpsest website:

All Philip K. Dick works held in Pollak Library Main and Special Collections

The Man in the High Castle TV series on Amazon Prime