Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Primer for Forgetting

Getting Past the Past

Lewis Hyde

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




The Liquefaction of Time


Every act of memory is an act of forgetting.

The tree of memory set its roots in blood.

To secure an ideal, surround it with a moat of forgetfulness.

To study the self is to forget the self.

In forgetting lies the liquefaction of time.

The Furies bloat the present with the undigested past.

“Memory and oblivion, we call that imagination.”

We dream in order to forget.

TO THE READER. “Whoever wants really to get to know a new idea does well to take it up with all possible love, to avert the eye quickly from, even to forget, everything about it that is objectionable or false. We should give the author of a book the greatest possible head start and, as if at a race, virtually yearn with a pounding heart for him to reach his goal. By doing this, we penetrate into the heart of the new idea, into its motive center: and this is what it means to get to know it. Later, reason may set its limits, but at the start that overestimation, that occasional unhinging of the critical pendulum, is the device needed to entice the soul of the matter into the open,” says Nietzsche.

MIRACULOUS. Replying to a question about the effort he put into composing with chance operations, John Cage said, “It’s an attempt to open our minds to possibilities other than the ones we remember, and the ones we already know we like. Something has to be done to get us free of our memories and choices.”

Or he once said, “This is … why it is so difficult to listen to music we are familiar with; memory has acted to keep us aware of what will happen next, and so it is almost impossible to remain alive in the presence of a well-known masterpiece. Now and then it happens, and when it does, it partakes of the miraculous.”

In a nod to his long interest in Buddhist teachings, Cage once released an audio disc titled The Ten Thousand Things, that phrase being the formula by which the old dharma texts refer to the whole of existence, to the fullness of what is, as in the teaching of the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Dogen: “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to become one with the ten thousand things.”

Note the sequence: First comes study, then forgetting. There is a path to be taken, a practice of self-forgetfulness.

THE TWIN GODDESS. Every act of memory is also an act of forgetting. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, is not simply Memory, for even as she helps humankind to remember the golden age, she helps them to forget the Age of Iron they now must occupy. Bardic song was meant to induce those twin states: “For though a man have sorrow and grief…, yet, when a singer, the servant of the Muses, 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.”

Both memory and forgetting are here dedicated to the preservation of ideals. What drops into oblivion under the bardic spell is the fatigue, wretchedness, and anxiety of the present moment, its unrefined particularity, and what rises into consciousness is knowledge of the better world that lies hidden beyond this one.

I MANUMIT. I HIDE. Let us imagine forgetting by way of two etymologies. The roots of the English “forget” go back to Old High German, where the for- prefix indicates abstaining from or neglecting and the Germanic *getan means “to hold” or “to grasp.” To remember is to latch on to something, to hold it in mind; to forget is to let it slip from consciousness, to drop it. All things grasped by mistake (a wrong impression, a hidden wasp) or by nature slippery (the eels of the mind) or overworked and confined (mind slaves, caged birds) or useless mental furniture (old phone numbers, hobbyhorses) or worn-out attitudes (self-importance, resentment)…, in every case to forget is to stop holding on, to open the hand of thought.

Greek terms present a different set of images, not letting go, but erasing, covering up, or hiding (the trail washed away by rain, the love letter thrown in the fire, the buried scat, the wound scabbed over, the gravestone obscured by vines). Forgetfulness in Greek is lethe, in turn related to letho, ???? (I escape notice, I am hidden), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *leh2- (to hide). The privative or negative form of this word, a-lethe or aletheia, is the Greek word usually translated as “truth,” the truth then being a thing uncovered or taken out of hiding. In terms of mental life, all that is available to the mind is aletheia; what is not available is for some reason covered, concealed, hidden.


Down valley a smoke haze

Three days heat, after five days rain

Pitch glows on the fir-cones

Across rocks and meadows

Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read

A few friends, but they are in cities.

Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup

Looking down for miles

Through high still air.


IN THE DESERT. Paul Bowles says that as soon as you arrive in the Sahara you notice the stillness, the “incredible, absolute silence,” especially if “you leave the gate of the fort or the town behind, pass the camels lying outside, go up into the dunes, or out onto the hard, stony plain and stand awhile, alone. Presently, you will either shiver and hurry back inside the walls, or you will go on standing there and let something very peculiar happen to you, something that everyone who lives there has undergone and which the French call le baptême de la solitude. It is a unique sensation, and it has nothing to do with loneliness, for loneliness presupposes memory. Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating.”

A STORY OUT OF PLATO’S REPUBLIC. A soldier by the name of Er was killed in battle. Days later, as his body lay on the funeral pyre, he came back to life and told of all he had seen in the Land of the Dead.

When his soul had arrived in the otherworld he was told to watch and listen so that he might return as a messenger to the living. He then witnessed the punishing of the wicked and the rewarding of the just. And he saw how all these souls convened to be born again, sometimes after having journeyed in the underworld for a thousand years.

He saw how all were given a chance to choose their lot in life and how they did so according to their wisdom or their foolishness. Their lots having been chosen, and the Fates having spun the threads of each one’s irreversible destiny, they proceeded together in dry and stifling heat across the desert of Lethe. In the evening, they camped by the River of Forgetfulness, whose water no vessel can contain. Great thirst drove them to drink this water—those without wisdom drinking especially deeply. As each man drank, he forgot everything.

Copyright © 2019 by Lewis Hyde