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.”
Forgetting is a shape-shifter here. It can be oblivion or the amnesty that followed a civil war in Athens in 400 BCE. Or the forgiveness of the brother of a Ku Klux Klan victim, though the memory of the crime remains vivid. It can be the destruction of statues of overthrown tyrants, or the nostalgia that mingles memory and imagination in Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. He cites Freud’s observation that in analysis, “something is ‘remembered’ which never could have been ‘forgotten’ because it was never at any time noticed, never was conscious.”
He makes the point that Proust’s “famous moments of involuntary memory carry their redemptive force only because they have been at first forgotten.”
He never defines forgetting, perhaps because it’s impossible, like taking a scenic tour of a black hole. Instead he is out to provoke cerebral excitement with a volume comprising four notebooks: Myth, Self, Nation, and Creation. Each notebook is preceded by aphorisms that are stimulating, annoying, incomprehensible, or whatever, in the manner of Zen koans. As it happens, there’s a lot of Zen in this book, Zen being the default mysticism of intellectuals, taking refuge as it does behind its unchallengeable rejection of the logical and metaphysical in favor of an infinite ordinary.
“To study the self is to forget the self.”
“We dream in order to forget.”
“The ashes do not remember the firewood.”
“The Unforgotten, destroyer of nations.”
“The Atlantic is a Lethean stream.”
“Liquefy the fixed idea.”
“We drink light.”
At its best, this book is a sort of intellectual pillow fight you have with yourself. Or with Hyde, or with his myriad sources, ancient and modern: Plato, Borges, Dōgen with his maddeningly opaque Zen transparency; Coleridge, Emerson, E. M. Forster, Hemingway, Gide, Boethius, Montaigne, Eliot, Homer, Duchamp, Aeschylus, Lorca, Twain, Freud, Wittgenstein, Nabokov, Virgil, John Cage, Hesiod, Thoreau, and Aristotle, on and on.
Born in 1945, Hyde is a poet, cultural critic, and scholar with no doctorate; a citizen of the world of grants, trusteeships, foundations, and fellowships, including a MacArthur. He may be best known for a book called The Gift, which analyzes the arts in terms of gift economies, as opposed to market economies. He directed Harvard’s creative writing program. He has been praised by the hippest of latter-day novelists—David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood.
His most powerful argument for the necessity of forgetting states that total memory makes abstraction impossible. His text is “Funes the Memorious,” a short story by Borges. After Funes is thrown from a horse, he acquires total and perfect memory:
He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negore the night before the Quebracho uprising.
Borges points out that Funes could not think, however. “To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details.”
And so Hyde’s point seems to be that memory is a virtue only when limited by forgetting. And forgetting is a virtue only when accompanied by memory. The happy ending therefore is the knowledge you already had when you began this book—that we will always have both.
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