Remembering and Forgetting

Remembering and Forgetting
Remembering and Forgetting 1999
Remembering Me, September 19 1999, London

Not long ago, Katy got in touch. And I was remembering that she taught me one of the most important lessons that I have ever learned.

At the time we were the best of friends but lost touch around about 20 years ago after I moved to London for a while. We both had the requisite complement of parents at the time, and she took my cat and the contents of my pantry when I left.

Which is around about the time this photo I don’t remember being taken, was taken. (I apologise for the quality – it was a State of the Art camera at the time!)

Anyway, after her father died, she thanked me for helping her feel like a normal person. As if nothing had happened. As I discovered myself later, a lot of people don’t know what to say or do when confronted with someone else’s troubles, so they just disappear because that is easier for them.

Katy found me through an old letter and good old Mr Google. It was amazing, and lilo (according to the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows n. a friendship that can lie dormant for years only to pick right back up instantly, as if no time had passed since you last saw each other.)

And at the time, I was (and still am) reading Lewis Hyde’s A Primer for Forgetting. It’s been fascinating and difficult, partly because it’s a collection of snippets of research and memory, and partly because he’s an academic and writes like it.

But to an extent, it lines up with my thoughts on forward and backwards thinking and choice, so it’s been a lot to consider.

Remember and Forget

So Hyde, examining the roots and meaning of language, explains that in Old English/High German, to remember is to fix your awareness on something and to forget is to let it go. No matter the reason behind it, every single case of forgetting is just a matter of not holding onto something.

Memory and Forgetting

However, the Ancient Greek notion of memory is more along the lines of truth while forgetting is to hide the truth. Though more correctly, truth is that which is not forgotten. Which means those who don’t forget, are blessed (or cursed) to see the things the rest of us cannot.

Memory and forgetfulness, are two sides of the same coin. Like light and dark. Or male and female. Or noise and quiet.

The Goddess Mnemosyne

And this is a little funny, because Mnemosyne, one of the Titans and the original Greek goddess of memory (and mother of the Muses) was also the one who gave souls the drink of forgetfulness so they wouldn’t remember their past lives when they reincarnated.

And she and the Muses have a particular way of manipulating memory and forgetfulness to inspire and preserve the virtues.

And we all use memory and imagination to create the realities we live in.

Manipulating Memory

Sometimes, the lack of a specific memory is used to manipulate others, particularly for a con – remember me? We went to school/rehab/whatever together. Or I knew your brother’s cousin’s son.

Mnemonic Thinking

Like Mnemonic thinking, where you construct a “memory palace” to store knowledge you don’t want to forget. You chose a location, and shove a bunch of triggers in there to cue the facts. You can see this in action in Dreamcatcher, or Sherlock Holmes (S3: E3 His Last Vow).

Rhetorica ad Herennium describes the method, and uses the example of a defence lawyer constructing an image of the murder scene, making particular note of all the evidence to be remembered; the victim ill in bed, the defendant holding a cup, some pills and rams testicles to bring to mind the victim, inheritance and witnesses.

Death and Memory

Hyde wonders whether the dead haunt us, or we them? And why?

Is it a choice? He cites the case of people leaving Lincoln pennies face-up on John Wilkes Booth’s grave, and face down outside Ford’s Theatre.

And that some religions give you a map or talisman to help you find your way from death, through judgement, and back to life again.

Birth and Memory

There are also some other schools of thoughts that suggest a foetus learns everything during gestation, then forgets it as they are born and spends the rest of their life trying to recover those memories.

Forgetting and Not Forgetting

The Furies are (were) also Titans – in a convoluted roundabout mythic way, they are Mnemosyne’s sisters. In their original formulation, they’re goddesses of not forgetting. Of vengeance.

Following a courtroom drama with the Olympian gods, trying Orestes for killing his mother, Athena convinces them to take up the role of protectors of justice instead.

Not forgetting, implies an action is required – nursing a grievance so you can take vengeance. But it is possible to forget to prevent action being taken. Like when you’ve been a naughty child and your parents say you can forget about that trip to the fair. Or you swear not to take some kind of action, settling for whinging a lot instead.

Or sometimes, particularly in cases of dementia or other kinds of mental agitation, a mindless action, such as sweeping, folding laundry or waiting for a bus that never comes can be soothing enough to prevent action.


So it seems to me, that both remembering and forgetting can be an active choice as well as a passive weakness.

Good or bad, better or worse, you remember what you want to remember.

As a diarist, I do to an extent choose what to record each day. And of course. as I like to imagine I might be the Samural Pepys of my generation, there is an element of editing and curating the actions of the day for future readers.

But some memories stay with me or come back to haunt me, whether I write them down or not.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.