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, Lewis Hyde asks: What if forgetfulness were seen not as something to fear, but rather as a blessing?
... idiosyncratic and brilliant ... To live in time is to live in a realm of forgetfulness — and that, Hyde argues, is a good thing. If we remembered all of the thoughts we think and the experiences we have, we’d live in chaos ... It’s an experiment in thought because it subverts our tendency to associate memory with discipline and intelligence, forgetfulness with distraction and infirmity ... Over the years, Hyde has collected samples — from poems and philosophical treatises and psychological studies and art exhibits — that speak to forgetting, and he shapes his intentionally scattershot book around these selections and his brief responses to them ... Does he contradict himself? Very well then he contradicts himself. After all, contradicting oneself comes from forgetting oneself, and forgetting oneself can lead to new life ... Hyde makes us forget what we thought we knew about forgetfulness — and, in doing so, he makes us know forgetfulness for the first time.
Lewis Hyde’s A Primer for Forgetting is like this: koans, digressions, clipped asides, a history of forgetting that forgets to be a book and is instead islands of text, a breezy archipelago ... Primer is by no means light. It’s a beautiful book that leaves most of the work to you. But that work doesn’t feel like work, it’s not a puzzle to be solved. It’s less Cy Twombly, more James Turrell ... The most beautiful passages here reflect on Hyde’s mother in the last years of her life battling dementia. As she forgets, you might say that we see dementia defeat her. But lovingly Hyde questions our assumption that dementia 'defeats' ... Hyde, at 74, has penned a poignant goodbye to language, accomplishment, memory, and pride; he guides us to the end of information, which is gratitude for the amusing pastime of learning then a surrender to nothing.
Lewis Hyde’s new book is so counterintuitive, so bracingly clear and fresh, that reading it is like leaping into a cold lake on a hot hike. It shocks the mind. It flushes all kinds of monotony and mental fatigue right out of your system. I have filled a notebook with things from this book I am determined to remember, which is quite a paradox, given that it’s a book about forgetting ... A Primer for Forgetting constantly weaves and unweaves its own realizations. It is less argument than art ... Early in this wondrous book [Hyde] quotes a letter from the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who is writing partly in praise of the attentive oblivion necessary for any great creative accomplishment (she is reading Charles Darwin) and partly in praise of the Oblivion that the right attention enables: 'What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.' That would be an apt description of this entire book. I can’t tell you how many times I put it down to stare out the window. I can think of no higher praise.