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.
When you turn your attention to forgetting, does that mean you are in fact remembering? This question runs through Hyde’s beautiful prose like a bright red thread, or perhaps a string tied around your finger ... Hyde is no Nietzschean; he’s closer to Henry David Thoreau, who relished the sense of losing something instead of pounding his chest to insist that there was never anything to be lost. Thoreau, like Hyde, remembers forgetting, but he is consumed by neither memory nor loss. The last words of A Primer For Forgetting are 'teach me to disappear.' But there they are: words visible on the page—the trace of a lesson.