Reviewing Lewis Hyde on Forgetting

In Sunday’s Washington Post I published a review of a new book on forgetting by Lewis Hyde. For many years, I was very engaged with memory studies, and my own area of interest was in memory abnormalities. I was focused on diseases of memory, especially as they were understood in 19th century Europe: amnesia, nostalgia, hysteria. I published related essays on these topics in The Ironist’s Cage:Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History (1995) and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past (2011).

Lewis Hyde will be visiting Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts in November. He’s a fascinating thinker — whether you’re interested in neuroscience, politics, the arts, or just in how to make sense of the past. 

How much memory do you want? asks the salesperson at the technology store. Watching the evening news, I see commercials for a pill that will enhance my memory almost as often as I see ads for another pill that will regulate my mood. I wonder if one medication counteracts the other. We live in a culture that seems to prize memory, even as it gives us technological tools to eliminate our need for it. I can ask my phone for most bits of information that I have trouble bringing to mind, and if I forget where I left my phone, my iPad can remind me.

Still, memory remains a subject of reflection and anxiety — not least because as people live longer, more of them are surviving without connections to their past. The destruction of memory caused by Alzheimer’s disease is often experienced as a destruction of the self. It can be terrifying to those who suffer from it and seem like the ultimate cruelty to loved ones who are no longer recognized. In “A Primer for Forgetting,” Lewis Hyde doesn’t ignore the pain of involuntary amnesia, but he is much more interested in the liberating aspects of “getting past the past,” as his subtitle puts it.

His book is organized loosely — it’s made up of four notebooks of aphorisms and reflections on a wide variety of sources that discuss what it means to lose the past. When you turn your attention to forgetting, does that mean you are in fact remembering? This question runs through Hyde’s beautiful prose like a bright red thread, or perhaps a string tied around your finger. He wants readers to acknowledge how sweet it can be to get free of one’s memories — free of the baggage attached to the self. The weight of the past can lock us into repetition; it can also instigate a desire to set the past right, to correct or avenge misdeeds. “The tree of memory set its roots in blood,” Hyde emphasizes, and he asks, “Could there be an art of forgetting that puts an end to bloodshed?”

Hyde’s four notebooks explore Myth, Self, Nation and Creation. He surveys Western traditions and delves into Buddhist teachings that urge us to let go of ego-building in favor of nourishing “serene self-forgetfulness.” Hyde is especially attracted to artists who manage to forget their habits of mind to unleash the freedom of creative thought.

But what of the wounds of the past? Doesn’t the quest for justice insist on remembrance? It is to Hyde’s great credit that he dwells on cases that demand recollection to shake off the chains of past horrors. He remembers the young African American men, Charles Moore and Henry Dee, who in 1964 were brutally tortured by Klansmen before being drowned in the Mississippi River. It wasn’t that hard to find those responsible, but it took more than 40 years for anyone to be brought to justice. Hyde is fascinated by Thomas Moore, brother of the murdered Charles, who for years plotted violent revenge but wound up going back to the scene of the crime and forgiving one of those responsible. Hyde discovers a sense of awe and mystery in the way Thomas “freed himself from servitude to the Unforgettable, and became the agent of his own recollections.” This Thomas Moore didn’t need a utopia. He achieved the freedom that comes with some forgetting and was nourished by the peace that forgiveness brings.

Thomas, who had long suffered from the memories of violent injustice, achieved agency through the “work of forgetting.” For Hyde, there is a lesson here for those who wind up paying for the ways nations construct their bloody myths. Victors manipulate memory to perpetuate injustice, as the United States did when it urged citizens to forget the strife of the Civil War so as to preserve white supremacy. “Violence denied and repressed doesn’t disappear,” Hyde writes, “it repeats.” He wants nothing to do with the “organized forgetting” that perpetuates America’s “foundational violence.” But Thomas’s path to forgiveness gives Hyde hope that the “people saddled with history can work on the past rather than have the past work on [them].”

But tough questions remain. How to tell what deserves remembrance and what will just poison the present? How does one “adaptively mourn” in a way that acknowledges the past without being subsumed by it? These are not questions Hyde can answer definitively, but he raises and examines them from a variety of perspectives. He praises getting free of the past, but he knows that forgetting can be its own horror; he has seen his Alzheimer’s- stricken mother awash in anxiety at not recognizing the man claiming to be her son. Hyde confesses, “Sometimes I think it is hopeless, this quest for beneficent forgetting.”

But this is his quest, and he turns to various traditions of leaving the self behind in pursuit of answers. He admires the composer John Cage’s efforts to hear sounds as if he had never encountered them before, to leave behind his habits of attention. And Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who made forgetting heroic, is always close at hand. For Nietzsche, no great deed is possible without some amnesia. But Hyde is no Nietzschean; he’s closer to Henry David Thoreau, who relished the sense of losing something instead of pounding his chest to insist that there was never anything to be lost. Thoreau, like Hyde, remembers forgetting, but he is consumed by neither memory nor loss. The last words of “A Primer For Forgetting” are “teach me to disappear.” But there they are: words visible on the page — the trace of a lesson.

Getting Past the Past
By Lewis Hyde
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
372 pp. $28

Trump Tweets and Higher Education

It’s been clear from the time Donald Trump ran for the Republican nomination for president, that he represents a force contrary to the goals of education. My personal political leanings aside, I feel obligated to speak up in defense of the values that animate Wesleyan and so many other schools—values that President Trump attacks on a regular basis. From the denial of science, to the politics of division and cruelty, his irrationality and downright nastiness have been a direct challenge to the research, teaching and inclusion that lie at the core of the mission of colleges and universities. This mission includes promoting intellectual diversity, but it can not abide the politics of racist divisiveness. Condemning President Trump’s attack is not about choosing “sides” in a debate about ideas. It is a defense of what higher education stands for, and of the kind of country in which higher education can thrive.

President Trump’s tweeting tirade against four congresswomen of color this past weekend, telling them to go back to their countries, is just the latest example of racism run amok at the highest level of our government. White supremacists and neo-Nazis are celebrating his administration’s insistence on hate as a vehicle for stimulating the most destructive energies of a sector of the American population.

As many of us plan our return to the campus at the end of the summer, let us imagine alternatives to the noxious brew of racism and xenophobia emanating from the White House. Let us imagine creating a vision for our country as a place of inclusive experimentation — a project that can be achieved only by considering a wide range of ideas that will help us create greater opportunity, freedom and justice. I know these words often conceal hypocrisies and worse, but let’s strive to find ways to make them more real — at least as a civic aspiration for our campus and beyond. We don’t have to live in President Trump’s country of carnage. Let’s return, or turn toward, a country, our country, that we build together.



Don’t Let the President Define Independence Day With Tanks

There are some years when the celebration of America’s birthday is pretty straightforward. I know, things have  never been perfect, but often July 4th feels to me a good moment to salute a country that gives the people who live in it opportunities to make it a better place. Today, though, the president of the country is creating a militarist spectacle in Washington while serious historians and less serious politicians are debating whether the United States is operating concentration camps (rather than merely ‘internment’ camps that make money for investors) at the border. I think of these lines from the great novelist Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive: “Euphemisms lead us to tolerate the unacceptable. And, eventually, to forget. Against a euphemism, remembrance. In order to not repeat.”

I like to write hopeful messages on July 4th. Normally, I’d find a way to cite Frederick Douglass, who wrote with pride of the best aspects of the American experiment:

A Government founded upon justice, and recognizing the equal rights of all men; claiming no higher authority for existence, or sanction for its laws, than nature, reason, and the regularly ascertained will of the people; steadily refusing to put its sword and purse in the service of any religious creed or family, is a standing offense to most of the Governments of the world, and to some narrow and bigoted people among ourselves.

But today the “narrow and bigoted people among ourselves” are in the White House, and they are running roughshod over the best of American values. They demonize the most vulnerable, and then they are offended when their cruelties are exposed. They are undermining inquiry in our universities, and they are taking steps to reduce access to the educational opportunities that are still are best tool for reducing inequality and promoting democracy.

The Fourth of July can remind us that if we don’t renew the American experiment, the possibility of “achieving our country,” others will do it for us. Historian Jill Lepore has recently has recently pointed out who is filling the void:

Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence.

We don’t have to allow the president to define Independence Day with militarism in Washington and with cruel dehumanization at the border. Whatever our political affiliation or ideological proclivities, we can use July 4th to imagine other ways to work for a better democracy and a more inclusive and just community.

But let’s be hopeful. Let’s end with the Sage of Concord. Here’s some excerpts from a poem of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, recited on July 4, 1857:

United States! the ages plead,—
Present and Past in under-song,—
Go put your creed into your deed,
Nor speak with double tongue.

For sea and land don’t understand,
Nor skies without a frown
See rights for which the one hand fights
By the other cloven down.

Be just at home; then write your scroll
Of honor o’er the sea,
And bid the broad Atlantic roll,
A ferry of the free.

A ferry of the free. Happy 4th!


Happy Summer, Wesleyans!

I’ve been traveling a lot as the end of the fiscal year approaches. This isn’t just the usual fundraising — I also got to meet my first grandchild! Luc is a few weeks old, and he’s beautiful (and smart!). No pics allowed online yet, but Papi Mike is very happy to hold the little fella.

Now we are off to Massachusetts for some walking, swimming, and our usual summer writing projects. Mathilde doesn’t understand why we don’t just hang out in the pool with her!

Mathilde in summer

Happy Summer, Wesleyans!

Recent Panel on Campus Speech Issues

I am just back from Washington, D.C., where I participated in a panel sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center on “disinvitations.” There are many important free speech issues in the country right now, and I don’t think commencement disinvitations is one of them. I might put demonizing the press at the top of my list. In any case, I offered my two cents (and misspoke in calling Justice Scalia “Chief Justice”) on what I do think about the need for “safe-enough spaces” on college campuses. You can read about the panel here, or, if you have the time, here’s a video of the event.

Happy Juneteenth!


Welcome Home to Wesleyan!

The reunions are upon us, and it is a glorious spring morning. We’ve been planning for Commencement and for welcoming back a few thousand alumni. Foss Hill looked ready early this morning:

We’ve had plenty to celebrate lately. The women’s lacrosse team is heading to its first Final Four in program history this weekend, and so we had a special graduation ceremony for the seniors on the team. It was fabulous!

While we were holding that special ceremony, the Wesleyan Women’s tennis team was WINNING THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP! It’s our first ever in women’s sports.

Coach Fried was named Coach-of-the-Year and Victoria Yu ’19 was named Senior Player of the year!! Many other awards to come!

Other seniors were practicing their graduation poses, getting ready for the big day:

They invited me to join in, but I’ll have to wait for one of our seniors to send me a photo of me posing with them.

Post your photos from the weekend on social and tag us at #wesreunion or #wes2019.

On the Need for a Recovery of the Humanities

I am reposting this this op-ed I published yesterday in Inside Higher Ed.


As the academic year concludes, I find myself looking forward to a break from the onslaught of bad news about higher education in general and the humanities in particular. Another liberal arts college is forced to close for financial reasons; another university humanities program is cut back; a superrich university floats the idea of reducing its support for book publication.

Even more salaciously, admission scandals give the impression that our finest educational institutions are willing to betray their own standards when political correctness or enough money is involved. Pundits proclaim that we in higher ed aren’t doing enough to rectify the gross inequalities that characterize the K-12 school systems — systems in which students in high-poverty areas aren’t given the tools to be college ready. Critics announce that faculty members, especially those in the humanities, aren’t doing enough to overcome their leftist biases, aren’t doing enough to keep up with the digital economy’s rapid pace of change, aren’t doing enough to pay homage to conservative thinkers of the past and aren’t demanding enough of their students.

Higher education in general and the humanities in particular are awash in a flood of negativity, which arrives on ground already saturated with suspicion of “elites” — in academe and beyond.

Some of these criticisms are on target. The search for ever more funding breeds corruption, and murky admissions criteria stimulate efforts to game the system without consequences. And as more and more undergraduates flock to STEM programs, we in in the humanities often just seem to be talking to one another in our own jargon while blaming undergraduates and the public for not understanding or supporting us.

We can change this, but in order to recover the trust of students and their families, we must overcome our cultivated insularity.

At the heart of any recovery will be a vital curriculum, and the place of the humanities in that curriculum will distinguish an authentic college education from specialized technical training. Some people suggest returning to the glory days of the humanist past to restore confidence in the humanities today. “We urge colleges and universities to risk a dramatic reversal,” David Steiner and Mark Bauerlein wrote in a recent essay. “Instead of pursuing fashion, let humanities professors work to create deeply demanding courses that confront students with searing, elemental, beautiful and soul-searching materials.” Remembering their own excitement as humanities students in the 1980s, they evoke a time when it was cool to wrestle with challenging films or to work through texts in theory and literature. But the coolness factor, as they remember it now, wasn’t just due to the flashiness of deconstruction or the hip brashness of the early days of semiotics. No, students flocked to demanding classes in French literature or art history because “what happened in humanities classrooms was momentous and adventuresome.” The recovery of the humanities begins, for these professors, in a return to the sources of wonder and appreciation — at least, to their own personal sources.

Michael Massing takes a different tack in the face of the precipitous decline in funding for and interest in studying the humanities. He, too, appreciates the vitality of the theory-infused liberal arts of the 1980s, but he connects that vitality to commercial clout. Pointing to Brown University’s Modern Culture and Media program, Massing notes that “graduates have included Virgin Suicides author Jeffrey Eugenides, Ice Storm novelist Rick Moody, Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, independent film producer Christine Vachon and public radio’s Ira Glass.” Warming my own institutional heartstrings, Massing reminds readers of the confluence of historical and musical innovation in Wesleyan University alumnus Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which has earned gazillions of dollars and has employed thousands of artists, musicians and craftspeople. In an era in which tech investment is soaring, Massing underscores that content is everything — and it is the artists and humanists who are called on to provide ways to teach and entertain in modalities ranging from podcasts to live performances, from streaming services to video games. Coders need something to say, and broadly educated humanists have plenty to offer.

The paths to recovery mapped out by Steiner and Bauerlein, on the one hand, and Massing, on the other, have two obstacles in common to overcome: excessive professionalization and overspecialization. “The problems facing the humanities are in part self-inflicted by the academy,” writes Massing. “Historians and philosophers, literature profs and art historians too often withdraw into a narrow niche of specialization, using an arcane idiom that makes their work inaccessible to the uninitiated.” What gives your work cred among your colleagues may make it impossible for that work to have any impact beyond the university. When students understand this, they rightly look for something else — something that will still feel “momentous and adventuresome,” or just relevant, outside the campus walls.

A Path Toward Recovery

Periods of great cultural and economic change have often put tremendous pressure on the humanities, because at such times, people agree less on what counts as relevant, let alone as momentous. In 1917, in a world torn by war and economic dislocation, the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey asked how philosophy could possibly be relevant to the crucial questions of the time. In “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” he wrote that the task of reflection wasn’t just to mirror the opinions of the day but “to free experience from routine and from caprice.” He urged his readers to break out of their lazy habits and their easy infatuations; he wanted philosophy to leave behind its obsession with general theories of knowledge and with technical expertise. In response to outside pressures, Dewey imagined a philosophical education that would not just turn inward but that would be “empirically idealistic,” while focusing on connecting to an “unachieved future.”

Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism points us to a path toward recovery for the humanities. Connecting the momentous achievements of the past to our desires for “unachieved futures” seems a good place to start. In an age of vicious inequality, humanists can help build recognition that we must change the trajectory of our societies by ensuring that the achievements we seek become building blocks not just for the few — that the futures being built embody shared values and ideals. That takes informed conversation and not just algorithms.

The conversation might start with venerable subjects like Aristotle’s distinction between satisfying one’s appetites and flourishing through sharing in a public good, and move on to contemporary concerns about vulnerability and sustainable happiness. In my Wesleyan University humanities class, for instance, we develop questions from reading Confucius and Aquinas, and we go on to consider Saidiya Hartman’s perspective on the possibilities for “living otherwise” in a world of oppression. Having attended to powerful thinkers of the tradition, we debate how we might build sustainable freedom now. My students recognize great works on enduring questions without just designating them monuments to a heroic past, and they acknowledge the cultural and economic power of the humanities without just tuning them to replicate the present. Together, we avoid both “routine and caprice” by articulating the connections between what we study and the societal problems we face.

As trusted norms on campuses and in politics erode all around us, Dewey’s warning against covering up our brutalities with high-minded theories and noble sentiment seems all the more relevant. But pragmatist hopefulness is also relevant, as we close one academic year and prepare for the next. To paraphrase Dewey: we can recover the humanities if we cease trying to refine them as insular tools for academics and cultivate them instead as a frame of mind for dealing with the problems of today’s world. When we do that, we will begin to regain the trust of students and their families.

More Champions! (and more competition)

Last weekend the Women’s Tennis team won its first ever NESCAC championship, defeating the top-seeded Middlebury.

Meanwhile, the men’s Varsity Eight boat won the New England Championship.

And don’t forget our New England champion in pole vaulting, Andrew McCracken ’19.  

Faculty representative to the NCAA, Fred Cohan, recently posted this information: “So far, four of our spring varsity teams have qualified for the post-season NCAA tournaments— lacrosse and tennis, both women’s and men’s! And Wes is hosting the first games for three of these tournaments. If you’d like to see our teams in post-season tournament play, here is the schedule for the first games. I’m posting the links to the team rosters.”

Men’s Lacrosse (at Wesleyan)

Wednesday, May 8, at 4:30, on Jackson Field (north of Usdan). Western New England vs. Wesleyan.

Women’s Lacrosse (at Wesleyan)

Sunday, May 12, at 1:00. (Site to be determined). The opponent will be either Mary Washington or Westfield State.

Women’s Tennis (at Wesleyan)

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, May 10-12, starting at 10:00. The tournament will be on the Vine Street courts, unless they are moved indoors and off-campus on account of rain.

Men’s Tennis will begin the NCAA post-season tournaments at Johns Hopkins.

Saturday and Sunday, May 11-12, 10:00. (Video links are not yet posted.)

Lots to cheer about when you are a Cardinal!

The Choice for Education and Against Violence

I didn’t post anything or offer an official communication expressing sorrow and support after the Easter attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka. Had I just become accustomed to the capacity of hate to connect to tools of mass violence after the horrific shootings at mosques in New Zealand, when a right-wing terrorist gunned down Muslim worshipers? I contacted friends, I expressed my condolences privately, and I went about my business. Shame on me. Is it because I’ve become inured to political violence, or because the attacks were so far away? The vicious bombings in the name of a religious or political crusade have the ring of familiarity, and it may be inevitable that repetition reduces the stench of brutality.

Yesterday, again, news of hate crimes came back home. Newspapers report that a driver plowed into a crowd in Sunnyvale, California because he thought he would hit Muslims. As a result, a young girl lies in a coma with severe brain trauma. And further south in Poway, California, yet another right-wing, white supremacist tried to massacre Jews celebrating Shabbat and the end of Passover. He killed Lori Gilbert-Kaye and injured others—it seems only a faulty gun prevented a much worse massacre. The attack fell on the day of the six month anniversary of the murder of Jews in shul in Pittsburgh.

I shake my head; I feel sorrow and rage. But I am a teacher, and so what do I do? I turn to my books.

Many years ago I studied Éric Weil, a German-Jewish refugee philosopher who settled in France and taught that the option for discourse, for meaning, was a rejection of both certainty and violence. But he also taught that violence was always an option—that the violent rejection of meaning and direction was an ongoing threat. The philosopher, Weil wrote, chooses conversation, not as a weapon against violence but as an alternative to it. When we choose conversation, or education, we don’t get the Truth, we don’t get certainty, but we create what I’d call a safe-enough space to make meaning.

There are those in the academy taught to find “violence” in all sorts of ordinary interactions. Although this may enable a loose critique of privileged environments, it also fudges the distinction that Weil so clearly observed: When we choose education, we are choosing conversation against the alternative of violence; when we choose education we are choosing meaning — rejecting (and sometimes having to use tools to prevent) violence.

Recent events remind us of the threats against our choice, as an educational community, for uncertainty. We are reminded of the threats against our willingness to embrace ambiguity, engage with different points of view, and to seek compromise rather than certainty. Now we mourn the fallen, and we aim to help those damaged or still threatened by attacks. And we hold fast to our choice against violence—our choice for meaning and for education.


Little Three Times Three!

When I was first hired as president back in 2007, a trustee presented me with a chart that showed how few Little Three Championships Wesleyan had won in the previous several years. Amherst and Williams had been dominating in most sports, and this trustee wanted to know why we weren’t competing at the highest level. Well, times have changed. Many of our student-athletes have won individual championships, and several of our teams have won Little Three titles (and beyond).

This past weekend, we added three more Little 3 titles. Women’s Crew and Men’s Crew came away with the laurels, and the Women’s Tennis team also earned bragging rights. All three squads are ranked among the best in the country! Our student-athletes compete while also excelling in the arts, academics and being engaged in the community. They make us proud!


And while we are talking about champions, let’s not forget Ivie Uzamere ’21 whose throwing this year has been off the charts! This past weekend she broke the school record in the hammer throw. Go Ivie, Go Wes!