If memory serves, there is a character in one of Robert Graves’ “Claudius” novels who is imprisoned with only a single wax tablet. Day in and day out, he fills the tablet with writing, then wipes it clean and begins anew. Written text, for him, exists only in the virtual instant of inscription itself, with inscription becoming not an act of preservation, but rather an anticipation of imminent erasure.
I was reminded of Graves’ wax tablet recently when my hard drive died on the last day of a month-long interview trip, and a data recovery company last week pronounced the drive unsalvageable. While all most of my completed projects were saved in other formats, I did lose several months (and hundreds of single-spaced pages) of daily notes, together with countless other odds and ends.
Rather than Graves’ wax tablet, however, I prefer to compare this unhappy situation to Freud’s model of the mystic writing pad—in which he compares human consciousness to a children’s toy in which one writes with a stylus on a plastic sheet placed on a wax tablet. Each time the plastic sheet is lifted up, the text written on it is wiped clean, though traces of the writing nevertheless remain, nearly invisible, on the wax tablet itself. The nearly invisible palimpsest that is left behind on the wax tablet, Freud suggests, is represents the way in which the unconscious preserves and assimilates sensory impressions that do not leave a discernible trace at the level of conscious memory.
Last week was also Yuanxiao jie, the end of the Lunar New Year period. Traditionally a time for cleansing and renewal, the yuanxiao jie lantern festival is celebrated with paper lanterns decorated with illustrations that, traditionally, are made visible by the very candle flame that constantly threatens to consume them. (Now these traditional lanterns increasingly take the form of garish battery-driven plastic devices that whir and screech and blink on and off, but no matter).
It is, then, with these twin images of wax tablets and candle-illuminated lanterns, that I begin again my daily notes, and also resurrect this long-dormant virtual writing pad.