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[Readings]

On Forgetting

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From Synthesizing Gravity, a collection of essays, which will be published this month by Grove Press.

It is easy to be sentimental about memory because of its powers to intensify. If something is remembered, it has been selected by the mind out of an almost infinite pool of things that might have been remembered but weren’t. The thing remembered thus becomes important simply because it has been remembered. How interesting is that? Who’s to say that the unremembered silver fruit knife situated just behind the remembered peach wouldn’t have been the better thing to have retained? This of course feels like a very unnatural argument; memories are important to us because we cannot control them—exactly because we cannot choose to remember the fruit knife instead of the peach. Memories seem to us like messages from a past whose author isn’t quite the self we know. They have a position similar to dreams in the sense that they are visited upon us. They enjoy the respect and special lighting accorded the mysterious.

I suppose I have no quarrel with this, although I do think that people can get very stuck in detail if their memories are too accurate; and, alternately, they can live in an adolescent, misty, supercharged half-realm if their memories are inaccurate but nonetheless intense, memories that have so ambered with repeated rememberings that they have become simplified, enlarged, and stylized (usually in the directions of Good or Evil).

But why am I talking about memory when I want to talk about forgetting? I have always had a memory defined by forgetting. It is hard to say, in my case, what is the cheese and what are the holes: I believe that forgetting may be the cheese, in which there are occasional, suspended chambers of remembering.

If one has always tended to forget, it’s not at all bad. In my case, I have been able to stand an incredibly routine daily life because each day I’m not entirely aware that I have done it all before. People with my sort of memory are good in positions requiring constant freshness in the face of what others might find unbearable repetition, the security guard’s rounds, perhaps, or the toll collector’s transactions. I should say here that lacking memory does not make one stupid; it could be argued that it makes one free. Of course this freedom can be frightening; one can be too untethered.

The great Borges respected forgetting and called it the dark side of the coin of memory. But I’m thinking now that he didn’t go far enough. If on one side of the coin is memory, and on the other is forgetting, the coin’s name can’t be memory any more than the nickel’s name can be buffalo. Long ago there must have been a single name for this strange amalgam of memory and forgetting. It would have been silvery and velvety at once—quite impossible for modern tongues.


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April 2020