Nuggets From Lewis Hyde's Call
Posted by Pavi Mehta on Jun 30, 2019
Myth, imagination, art, the public domain, tricksters and the gifts of forgetting are just a few of the topics that interest acclaimed poet, writer and cultural thinker Lewis Hyde. Hyde has been writing for more than three decades, with high-profile awards along the way, including a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1991. David Foster Wallace called him “one of our true superstars of nonfiction.” Hyde’s fans — among them Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem — routinely use words like "transformative" and "life-altering" to describe his books, which they’ve been known to pass hand to hand like spiritual texts. In continuous publication since 1983, his book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World has been praised as the most subtle, influential study of reciprocity since the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s 1924 essay of the same name. His latest book, A Primer for Forgetting just came out a couple weeks ago, and provided a focal point for his Awakin Call.
The audio recording of the call is available here.
A few gems from the conversation:
On what sparked a Primer for Forgetting:
Memory is the faculty of mind by which we know we are creatures who live in time. And time itself is one of the great mysteries. As mysterious as gravity.
I used to teach a seminar on cultural memory, and I remember one of the books on oral cultures mentioned that the liveliness of an oral culture is partially due to the fact that it can forget things that it no longer needs. This struck me as a contrary notion, that forgetfulness can be useful if you want to be lively. It stirred my contrary spirit.
On St Augustine and Time:
In the Confessions, St Augustine has a chapter on memory and a chapter on eternity. In the memory chapter he is trying to understand what time is and finds it very confusing because it doesn't seem to exist. [The past is already gone, the future hasn't arrived yet, and the present is so fleeting.]
Then he ends up thinking maybe these are states of mind. And the path between them is the thing that we call memory in the mind -- it is a mental state. And then he says maybe time is the experience of having two or three of these mental states simultaneously in your head. And he calls this distension. When we are experiencing time in the mind the mind is stretched it's in two places at once. He finds that uncomfortable. he doesn't like the experience of being distended mentally. There is some kind of salvation available if you can give up this distension. So for St. Augustine salvation requires forgetting about the past and the future...It's an almost Buddhist point. There's a Dharma teacher in Cambridge who makes a distinction between simple time [eg you went to the library yesterday], and psychological time, when you begin to live in the future, or the past in your own head. [eg brooding and being upset over something that happened in fourth grade.] Notice the degree to which psychological time takes you out of present time. The present time is the cutting edge of Dharma.
The Etymology of Forgetting
Our English word forgetting comes out of old German and the prefix for- means neglecting or abstaining for something. The Germanic *getan means "to hold" or "to grasp." So to forget is to stop holding on. To forget something is to open the hand of thought. To stop grasping. The river Lethe comes from the Greek word for forgetting -- lethe. The actual Indo-European root for that word has to do with hiding something. The opposite of this in the Greek is a-lethe or aletheia that gets translated in Greek as truth. So the truth is that which has been taken out of hiding.
Where does Hyde find the miraculous?
I'm sitting in my study and right outside my study window is a big oak leaf hydrangea. It's June and the Oak leaf hydrangea is in flower. The bees have come, so there are these black and yellow honey bees burying themselves into the Oak leaf hydrangea, and that's the moment I would point to. It's happening right now.
For those interested, here is a fascinating excerpt from The Primer for Forgetting that will give you a glimpse of the range, depth, originality, heart and intelligence in Hyde's work.