The Joy of Palindromes

After graduating from university, I worked for a while in a night shelter for homeless men, where I met some very interesting people, one of whom called himself Midnight. He was often aggressive and sometimes violent, so I tended to keep my distance. Eventually, though, we discovered a shared interest: palindromes.

“Ah, Midnight!” I would greet him. “I’ve got a good one for you today: level.”

“Ah, good one, good one,” he’d reply. “I’ve got one too: radar!”

And so we went on, not exactly becoming friends but at least finding a reasonably peaceful equilibrium.

I was reminded of Midnight the other day when reading Paul Virilio of all people. In the middle of a discussion about speed and war, he dropped in a great palindrome I’d not come across before: Esope reste ici et se repose – Aesop stays here and rests. Virilio’s point was that “today no one stays at rest, all is in flight and is displaced in a strange inverse transmigration. The habit of returning to our source, of rediscovering our origins, our ‘identity’, suddenly seems an absolute necessity.”

This argument, in turn, reminded me of Great Expectations and the palindromic Pip Pirrip and who went on a palindromic journey away from the marsh country, down by the river, to London and then back again. Unlike many of us today, Pip recovered the habit of returning to source, though he had to shed many prejudices before he could do so.

As Judy Wajcman points out in Pressed for Time, attitudes to time, speed and mobility changed dramatically in the 19th century so that, for Pip before he learned his lesson and for many of us today, “voluntary mobility, like speed, is seen as a social good, while fixity becomes associated with failure, with being left behind.”

As he so often did, Dickens skewered these industrial assumptions, with the palindrome being one of the tools he used to show the joys of being left behind and of returning to where we started.