Book Reviews - Summer 2019

Myths of Memory

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Our ability to recall is not an undiluted gift

By Henry Allen | June 3, 2019

A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past by Lewis Hyde; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 341 pp., $28

Lewis Hyde’s mind is on tumble dry here, an ornate and earnest chaos.

It’s as if he’d awakened morning after morning to find jottings on his night table, like a pile of leaves. Not quite understanding them, Hyde would hypothesize that they sprang from forgotten truths he might or might not have understood at the time he had thought of them. Now he’d remembered them in the dreams that, on waking, he has forgotten, too.

Are you with me? (I can hear a small cheer from the Proustians in the audience.)

Compiled in notebook form, the jottings are A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past. I suspect that the subtitle may have been contributed by an editor who hoped to boost sales by giving a self-help aegis to the book. But there’s no self-help here, no treatment for Aunt Ida’s absentmindedness, none of the orgy of neuroscience that has replaced psychotherapy as the architecture of popular wisdom. No phobias, no prefrontal cortexes, no Oliver Sacks with his amnesiacs, no studies of Alzheimer’s.

Instead, this book is a jamboree of the humanities, the tone being that of long-ago seminars led by a professor who smiled through his pipe smoke to think he had bewildered you, back when we thought the humanities could explain everything.

Hyde begins by citing oral societies, which keep themselves “in equilibrium … by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.” He thinks of his book as “a test of the proposition that forgetfulness can be more useful than memory or, at the very least, that memory functions best in tandem with forgetting.”

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