A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past

A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past

by Lewis Hyde


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“One of our true superstars of nonfiction” (David Foster Wallace), Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, offers a playful and inspiring defense of forgetfulness by exploring the healing effect it can have on the human psyche.

We live in a culture that prizes memory—how much we can store, the quality of what’s preserved, how we might better document and retain the moments of our life while fighting off the nightmare of losing all that we have experienced. But what if forgetfulness were seen not as something to fear—be it in the form of illness or simple absentmindedness—but rather as a blessing, a balm, a path to peace and rebirth?

A Primer for Forgetting is a remarkable experiment in scholarship, autobiography, and social criticism by the author of the classics The Gift and Trickster Makes This World. It forges a new vision of forgetfulness by assembling fragments of art and writing from the ancient world to the modern, weighing the potential boons forgetfulness might offer the present moment as a creative and political force. It also turns inward, using the author’s own life and memory as a canvas upon which to extol the virtues of a concept too long taken as an evil.

Drawing material from Hesiod to Jorge Luis Borges to Elizabeth Bishop to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from myths and legends to very real and recent traumas both personal and historical, A Primer for Forgetting is a unique and remarkable synthesis that only Lewis Hyde could have produced.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374237219
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/18/2019
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 50,020
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Lewis Hyde is the author of Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art and The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, as well as a book of poems, This Error Is the Sign of Love.

Read an Excerpt




The Liquefaction of Time

The Aphorisms

Every act of memory is an act of forgetting. The tree of memory set its roots in blood. To secure an ideal, surround it with a moat of forgetfulness. To study the self is to forget the self. In forgetting lies the liquefaction of time. The Furies bloat the present with the undigested past. "Memory and oblivion, we call that imagination." We dream in order to forget.

TO THE READER. "Whoever wants really to get to know a new idea does well to take it up with all possible love, to avert the eye quickly from, even to forget, everything about it that is objectionable or false. We should give the author of a book the greatest possible head start and, as if at a race, virtually yearn with a pounding heart for him to reach his goal. By doing this, we penetrate into the heart of the new idea, into its motive center: and this is what it means to get to know it. Later, reason may set its limits, but at the start that overestimation, that occasional unhinging of the critical pendulum, is the device needed to entice the soul of the matter into the open," says Nietzsche.

MIRACULOUS. Replying to a question about the effort he put into composing with chance operations, John Cage said, "It's an attempt to open our minds to possibilities other than the ones we remember, and the ones we already know we like. Something has to be done to get us free of our memories and choices."

Or he once said, "This is ... why it is so difficult to listen to music we are familiar with; memory has acted to keep us aware of what will happen next, and so it is almost impossible to remain alive in the presence of a well-known masterpiece. Now and then it happens, and when it does, it partakes of the miraculous."

In a nod to his long interest in Buddhist teachings, Cage once released an audio disc titled The Ten Thousand Things, that phrase being the formula by which the old dharma texts refer to the whole of existence, to the fullness of what is, as in the teaching of the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Dogen: "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to become one with the ten thousand things."

Note the sequence: First comes study, then forgetting. There is a path to be taken, a practice of self-forgetfulness.

THE TWIN GODDESS. Every act of memory is also an act of forgetting. In Hesiod's Theogony, Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, is not simply Memory, for even as she helps humankind to remember the golden age, she helps them to forget the Age of Iron they now must occupy. Bardic song was meant to induce those twin states: "For though a man have sorrow and grief ..., yet, when a singer, the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all."

Both memory and forgetting are here dedicated to the preservation of ideals. What drops into oblivion under the bardic spell is the fatigue, wretchedness, and anxiety of the present moment, its unrefined particularity, and what rises into consciousness is knowledge of the better world that lies hidden beyond this one.

I MANUMIT. I HIDE. Let us imagine forgetting by way of two etymologies. The roots of the English "forget" go back to Old High German, where the for- prefix indicates abstaining from or neglecting and the Germanic *getan means "to hold" or "to grasp." To remember is to latch on to something, to hold it in mind; to forget is to let it slip from consciousness, to drop it. All things grasped by mistake (a wrong impression, a hidden wasp) or by nature slippery (the eels of the mind) or overworked and confined (mind slaves, caged birds) or useless mental furniture (old phone numbers, hobbyhorses) or worn-out attitudes (self-importance, resentment) ..., in every case to forget is to stop holding on, to open the hand of thought.

Greek terms present a different set of images, not letting go, but erasing, covering up, or hiding (the trail washed away by rain, the love letter thrown in the fire, the buried scat, the wound scabbed over, the gravestone obscured by vines). Forgetfulness in Greek is lethe, in turn related to letho, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (I escape notice, I am hidden), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *leh2- (to hide). The privative or negative form of this word, a-lethe or aletheia, is the Greek word usually translated as "truth," the truth then being a thing uncovered or taken out of hiding. In terms of mental life, all that is available to the mind is aletheia; what is not available is for some reason covered, concealed, hidden.


Down valley a smoke haze Three days heat, after five days rain Pitch glows on the fir-cones Across rocks and meadows Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup Looking down for miles Through high still air.

— Gary Snyder

IN THE DESERT. Paul Bowles says that as soon as you arrive in the Sahara you notice the stillness, the "incredible, absolute silence," especially if "you leave the gate of the fort or the town behind, pass the camels lying outside, go up into the dunes, or out onto the hard, stony plain and stand awhile, alone. Presently, you will either shiver and hurry back inside the walls, or you will go on standing there and let something very peculiar happen to you, something that everyone who lives there has undergone and which the French call le baptê me de la solitude. It is a unique sensation, and it has nothing to do with loneliness, for loneliness presupposes memory. Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating."

A STORY OUT OF PLATO'S REPUBLIC. A soldier by the name of Er was killed in battle. Days later, as his body lay on the funeral pyre, he came back to life and told of all he had seen in the Land of the Dead.

When his soul had arrived in the otherworld he was told to watch and listen so that he might return as a messenger to the living. He then witnessed the punishing of the wicked and the rewarding of the just. And he saw how all these souls convened to be born again, sometimes after having journeyed in the underworld for a thousand years.

He saw how all were given a chance to choose their lot in life and how they did so according to their wisdom or their foolishness. Their lots having been chosen, and the Fates having spun the threads of each one's irreversible destiny, they proceeded together in dry and stifling heat across the desert of Lethe. In the evening, they camped by the River of Forgetfulness, whose water no vessel can contain. Great thirst drove them to drink this water — those without wisdom drinking especially deeply. As each man drank, he forgot everything.

Then they slept. During the night, an earthquake came, and thunder, and all were swept up to their next life like a showering of stars.

At the River of Forgetfulness, Er himself was forbidden to drink. He slept, and when he opened his eyes, he found himself lying on the funeral pyre, the sun rising.

"A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT REMINDING YOU ..." The myth of Er fits neatly with Plato's theory of knowledge, in which the unborn soul, following "in the train of a god," comes to know the "absolute realities," the ideal forms such as beauty, goodness, justice, equality. This knowledge is lost at birth, however, the soul having met "with some mischance," become "burdened with a load of forgetfulness," and fallen to earth.

Born into this life, those who seek to recover their lost wisdom need to find a teacher whose task is not to directly teach ideals but rather to remind the student of what the soul already knows. "What we call learning is really just recollection," says Socrates in the Phaedo. It's anamnesis, or un-forgetting, the dis-covering of things hidden in the mind.

Just as when I see a guitar in a shop window and suddenly remember a dream that I forgot when I woke up, so too the student is directed to the particulars of this world that they might trigger recollection of the previously known noble ideals. "At last, in a flash, understanding of each blazes up, and the mind ... is flooded with light."

TO SECURE AN IDEAL, surround it with a moat of forgetfulness.

AMERICAN EPISTEMOLOGY. An early chapter of Herman Melville's Confidence-Man describes an encounter between a man wearing mourning clothes (the con man himself) and a country merchant. When the man in mourning introduces himself as an old acquaintance, the merchant protests: he has no recollection of their ever meeting.

"I see you have a faithless memory," says the con man. "But trust in the faithfulness of mine."

"Well, to tell the truth, in some things my memory ain't of the very best," replies the puzzled merchant.

"I see, I see; quite erased from the tablet," says the con man. "About six years back, did it happen to you to receive any injury on the head? Surprising effects have arisen from such a cause. Not alone unconsciousness ..., but likewise — strange to add — oblivion, entire and incurable."

He himself, the con man says, was once kicked by a horse and couldn't remember a thing about it, relying on friends to tell him what happened. "You see, sir, the mind is ductile, very much so: but images, ductilely received into it, need a certain time to harden and bake in their impressions. ... We are but clay, sir, potter's clay."

Drawn in, the merchant confesses that, yes, he once suffered a brain fever and lost his mind for quite some time.

"There now, you see, I was not wholly mistaken. That brain fever accounts for it all," replies the man in mourning. How sad that the merchant has forgotten their friendship! And, by the way, would he mind loaning "a brother" a shilling?

* * *

The whole of The Confidence-Man is a Platonic dialogue for a fallen age. Every episode hangs on the question, should we or shouldn't we have confidence in the story being told? How are we to know the truth? In the case at hand, the con man's key move is the erasure of memory; that allows him to detach his claim of old acquaintanceship from the world of empirical knowledge whereupon its veracity becomes a matter of faith. Having accepted the con man's suggestion — yes, there was brain-fever forgetfulness — the merchant is left with little to go on but the story at hand. And the con man is an artful storyteller. In another country and another time, he could have been a great novelist, but he is on the Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century and he's given himself over to toying with the locals.

Having severed the merchant's ties to his own recollections, the con man moves in close. "I want a friend in whom I may confide," he says, and begins to unfold the sad story of his recent grief. Before too long the country merchant finds himself moved beyond the solicited shilling: "As the story went on, he drew from his wallet a bank note, but after a while, at some still more unhappy revelation, changed it for another, probably of a somewhat larger amount."

In Melville's America, it's not light flooding the mind that's the mark of true belief; it's money changing hands.

TO SECURE A LIE, surround it with a moat of forgetfulness.

"THE PRECIPITATE" of a sixteen-year exploration, thoughts written down "as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject" while at other times "a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another," says Wittgenstein of his Philosophical Investigations.

"Writer is weary unto death of making up stories," writes David Markson on the opening page of This Is Not a Novel, adding, more than a hundred pages later, "Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage."

CIRCLES. Dinner at the round mahogany table that Mother and Father bought in London fifty years ago. Father has read a book about the erosion of ocean beaches on the East Coast. Mother says, "That book never mentions the hurricane of '38." She was nineteen that year and in college at Mount Holyoke. "I don't know how I knew it," she says, "but I knew there was an eye to the storm, and so I made my way to Safford Hall." Two minutes later she says, "That book never mentions the hurricane of '38. I don't know how I knew it, but I knew there was an eye to the storm, and so I made my way to Safford Hall." Later she says, "That book never mentions the hurricane of '38. I don't know how I knew it, but I knew there was an eye to the storm, and so I made my way to Safford Hall."

"You're going in circles," Father says. They say the CAT scan showed some atrophy of her frontal lobes, but the old material is still there. She is very much her old self. Her verbal tics and defenses remain. "Well, now, Mrs. Pettibone," she says to herself, staring into the refrigerator before dinner. "We'll cope." "We'll get along." She is the shell of her old self, calcified language and no organism alive enough to lay down new layers.

Would it be possible to live in such a way as to never acquire habits of mind? When my short-term memory goes, I don't want to be penned up in the wickerwork of my rote responses. If I start being my old self, no heroic measures, please.

SPEECHLESS. In Chinese myth, Old Lady Mêng sits at the exit from the underworld serving the Broth of Oblivion so that all reincarnated souls come to life having forgotten the spirit world, their former incarnations, and even their speech (although legend has it that occasionally a miracle child is born talking, having avoided Lady Mêng's broth).

REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE. Says Jorge Luis Borges, "I should say I am greedy for death, that I want to stop waking up every morning, finding: Well, here I am, I have to go back to Borges.

"There's a word in Spanish. ... Instead of saying 'to wake up,' you say recordarse, that is, to record yourself, to remember yourself. ... Every morning I get that feeling because I am more or less nonexistent. Then when I wake up, I always feel I'm being let down. Because, well, here I am. Here's the same old stupid game going on. I have to be somebody. I have to be exactly that somebody."

AGAINST INSOMNIA. In an essay in the journal Nature, Graeme Mitchison and Francis Crick (one of the men who discovered the shape of DNA) once argued, "We dream in order to forget." Each of our days is so filled with particularity, we are so swamped with sensory detail, that the mind needs some sort of filtering mechanism to sort out the trivial and retain the essential. Dreaming, Crick argues, serves this function. In fact, without some such process we would all be like the monstrous title character of Borges's short story "Funes, the Memorious," who is unable to forget even the smallest details of his day, so that a tree at 3:06 p.m. with the light just so on its leaves stays with him as wholly distinct from the same tree two minutes later shaded by a cloud. Funes "was ... almost incapable of general, platonic ideas," Borges's narrator remarks, for "to think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract." It is required of us to forget many particular trees before we can know Tree itself. The ancients broadened the stroke, saying that it is required of us to forget entire worlds — the Age of Iron, these eons of hearsay — before we can recall to mind eternal things.

STATE-TRANSITION AMNESIA. The old mythmakers often puzzled over how a person might either preserve memory or induce forgetfulness when moving from one state of being to another, focusing usually on the transition between life and death (entering the underworld / emerging from the womb) but also on crossing the boundaries between different eras (the golden age / the Age of Iron), places (home/away), moods (rage/equanimity), and levels of consciousness (waking/sleep).

The ancients also showed an interest in the amnesic effects of various drugs and thus of the line between sobriety and intoxication. (In Homer, we hear of nepenthe easing men's "pains and irritations, making them forget their troubles," and of the home-forgetting power of the lotus plant; or in China, think of the Broth of Oblivion Old Lady Mêng serves to the child about to be born.)


Excerpted from "A Primer for Forgetting"
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Copyright © 2019 Lewis Hyde.
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