“You must remember this,” the songwriter said, but is it ever that simple? Same for all the admonitions: never to forget. Really, never? Lewis Hyde is back, the wisdom-writer and provocateur, to wonder if we’ve missed the point about memory and forgetting. They’re not opposites, after all, but powers of mind that work in combination, around Civil War history or a failed marriage. Peace of mind comes when people remember the past so carefully they can forget about it. “Unforgotten,” often as not, describes wounds, unpaid bills, grievances crying out to be squared, then let go. “Getting past the past,” Lewis Hyde says, begins with Truth: knowing what happened. Then Justice, meaning right punishment—reparations, if possible. Then Apology, and Forgiveness.

A Brewer, Maine, monument to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Union officer in the Civil War and a governor of Maine).

Irish Alzheimer’s, in the old joke, is ascribed to people who can’t remember anything but their grudges. It’s a sort of kernel of Lewis Hyde’s new and ecstatic survey of our ancient fascination with memory and forgetting. The new book from this prized writer is A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past. Memory and Forgetting are a fluid pair, it turns out, twin capacities, not opposites, and usually not a contradiction. [The aphorism that leads Lewis Hyde’s long list is this: “Every act of memory is an act of forgetting.”] The issue between the two is when to let go. Some parts of our past—individual and communal—need to be remembered so they can be forgotten. Others need to be forgotten so they can reappear, unbidden, whole and possibly healed. This bears on the scars of childhood trauma and on what to do with all those statues of Confederate generals standing tall across the American South. Lewis Hyde composed this book from years of notes, as a thought experiment. He wanted to nominate places where forgetting is better than remembering.

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Lewis Hyde

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