Forgetting


Z19.1 Mnemosyne I am at work on a book “in favor of forgetting.” I hope to post a full description of the project soon, but for now here are a few examples of the kinds of material that interests me.

“We study the self to forget the self,” wrote Zen master Dogen, “and when we forget the self the world becomes magical.” As we become familiar with our habits of mind, Dogen implies, their power to filter perception diminishes. A similar insight applies to creativity in the arts and sciences. Marcel Duchamp admired Francis Picabia because he “had the gift of total forgetting which enabled him to launch into new paintings without being influenced by the memory of preceding ones.” “What one seems to want in art,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, is “a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” She was thinking of the young Charles Darwin, how his “heroic observations” appeared to be followed by “a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phase” in which he slides “giddily off into the unknown.”

Forgetting can appear as a political ideal as well. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceeded in a way that replicated the sequence of Dogen’s aphorism: study first, then forget; uncover the truth, then let go. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once explained, the Commission chose the path of restorative, rather than retributive, justice, and at its end—after attention has been paid—restorative justice offers amnesty, judicial forgetfulness.

Such modern valuations of forgetfulness have ancient antecedents. In western mythology, Mnemosyne, the Mother of the Muses, is not simply Memory for even as she helps humankind to recall the Golden Age she helps them to forget the Age of Iron they now must occupy. "For though a man have sorrow and grief…," wrote Hesiod, "yet, when a singer…chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all.”

Drawing from myth, from politics, and personal psychology and creativity, A Primer for Forgetting will be a layered inquiry into the virtures of memory’s often ignored twin. Stay tuned!