Most of us regard forgetting as something bad. We lose our house keys or don’t remember to mark the birthday of a loved one. Perhaps most upsetting of all, we worry about forgetting our very selves should we experience dementia. While many acts of forgetting are truly bad, in his latest book, A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, Lewis Hyde spends almost three hundred fifty pages exploring its benefits.
He points out that, at the most basic level, our very ability to think is built on forgetting. Hyde quotes the narrator of Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “Funes, the Memorious,”: “to think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract.” Hyde explains that in order for us to understand a concept or idea, we must forget the particular things related to it. We cannot understand the general term, “tree,” until we look past the unique characteristics of specific species. Not all trees produce edible fruit. Some trees lose their leaves at certain times of the year while others remain green year round. In order to understand what a tree is, Hyde says, rather than thinking of a spruce or an oak, we must let go of the characteristics of those particular trees. We must forget, momentarily, certain data points.
Hyde does more than merely talk about forgetfulness, though. He weaves it into the style of his writing. A Primer for Forgetting is a book of four parts titled: Myth, Self, Nation, and Creation. The parts do not explicitly build on one another even though they appear in sequence. Furthermore, each part is composed of brief reflections rarely over a page in length. There are few segues linking these short essays. They appear one after the other as if the previous reflection did not exist. It’s almost as if Hyde has forgotten what a book is.
It’s almost as if Hyde has forgotten what a book is.
After writing a handful of books Hyde says he grew tired of composing long conceptual arcs that span hundreds of pages and scrupulously prove one central point. He wanted to do something different. He gathered quotes and insights from other people and set them within his own reflections. All of the reflections orbit around the idea of forgetfulness, but they do not prove a particular point or build toward a surprising reveal.
Instead of being a farmer who specializes in growing one particular crop, Hyde acts as a benevolent thief who walks around the countryside pilfering a few specimens from each field and brings this seemingly random collection to the city square. He spreads a blanket on the ground and lays the fruits and vegetables out in a row. Villagers gather around him and Hyde points out the provenance of each piece and introduces it with an anecdote. Very carefully, he leaves out any kind of overarching narrative thread.
There are progressions within his narrative, though they often play with free association. In the Creation section, four short essays are loosely linked together, beginning with a joke on the art of forgetting, followed by a story about a man who creates gibberish mnemonics which cause him to forget what he was trying to remember. The sequence seems random, yet together they hint at how forgetting is key to creation. In one essay Hyde reflects that Marcel Duchamp had to forget about the practical purpose of a urinal in order to claim that his work Fountain (a readymade urinal) was a work of art.
Very carefully, he leaves out any kind of overarching narrative thread.
A less random progression, but one that still lacks explicit links, is Hyde’s reflection on what must be in place for a nation to overcome an atrocity. The part of the book titled Nation, comprises a seemingly unrelated jumble of pieces about the myth of a Danish king; a reflection on a nineteenth century philologist; Hyde’s childhood vacation in Minnesota; and a massacre of Indigenous Americans by the U.S. Cavalry under command of Colonel John Chivington. Hyde masterfully uses these mini-essays to show that, for a nation to experience true peace, its members must have a clear understanding of truth and justice, apologize for injustices committed, formally ask for forgiveness, and provide reparations for all that was lost. Only after all this is done can a nation heal from its wounds.
In other words, there is no benefit to forgetting when harms perpetrated in the past are not acknowledged and, as far as possible, made right. A nation must remember in order to forget. Until this is done, we cannot expect those who have been injured to participate in “nation” as if nothing had been done to them. They will hold within their bodies the trauma of injustice and pass it down to the next generation.
The lack of literary structure to Hyde’s book accomplishes something profound. It opens space for the reader to create their own connections between the essays. It allows us to wonder why Hyde placed accounts next to one another. However a reader may interact with A Primer for Forgetting, Hyde’s purposeful turn away from traditional narrative structure invites us to more fully participate in creating meaning from what they read.
The lack of literary structure allows the reader to create their own connections.
A Primer for Forgetting should be read as a work of art, reminding us that artists must forgo previous forms and boundaries in order to produce something new. To create, they must forget. Hyde has not merely explained the benefits of forgetting. In his Primer, Hyde has shown them.