Quaker Universalist Voice

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Memory and Forgetting

A Book Review of Lewis Hyde, A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past(2019)

Lewis Hyde, A Primer fior Forgetting: Getting Past the Past (2019) offers no answers to an enigma.  We never get past the past. Memory is important and lasting, even if there is the universal experience of evolving and distorting memories over time.   What the author tentatively contributes is the potential beneficial role of forgetting at a personal level and a political community level.  Forgetting adds to the human complexity in dealing with memory.  In the absence of any better solution for bad memories, it is worth assessing any merit in forgetting.

This book is a collection of short, free-association reflections.  It is organized in four very loose notebook categories of myth, self, nation, and creation. For serious workers on issues of reparations for slavery, Japanese internment, denied immigration entry to Jews, and Hispanic asylum seekers, this is a book for meditation and reflection for nuanced thinking about apology and compensation, the management of memories, and the freedom benefits of forgetting.

The book is unclearly titled.  It is more accurately titled: “A Primer for Selective Remembering and Selective Forgetting, Without Clear Criteria, but Recognizing the Diffuse Complexity of Mind and Emotion”.  The answer hinted at among the book’s short reflections is that we cannot get past the past, but that the understanding and practice of forgetting is part of the process of retaining evolving memory.

The section on the nation addresses the U.S. government treatment of native peoples, the civil rights movement, and the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission process in South Africa as examples of the complexity of memory and forgetting.  Political public initiatives toward apology and reparations in these areas are rough and wrinkled.

Quakers: There is no reference to Quakers in the book. Quakers, like all humans, are vulnerable to forgetting as a means of avoidance of difficult issues.  Quaker slaveholding is a current example of a complex mix of remembering and forgetting.  There are others.


  • Can forgetting be a useful tool along with remembering for healthy individual lives and community lives?
  • Is forgetting and remembering different at the personal and political levels in essential ways?
  • What can Quakers contribute to understanding the beneficial roles of remembering and forgetting?


Lewis Hyde, A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past (2019)

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