Is forgetfulness good for art?

I’ve been thinking about Marian McPartland some more, especially about one of the most remarkable of her many remarkable characteristics – her memory for musicians and music. My memory isn’t that good, not even a little bit. It’s never been that good. My mother’s Alzheimers and my own aging made me more aware of it than I used to be. Most of the older people I know complain of the same thing, and jokes about memory loss abound.

Human brain, lateral view. Euskalanato, July 16, 2004. Creative Commons.

The March/April issue of AARP magazine has an article about the aging brain that comes to some marvellous conclusions and made me feel better. Its author, Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, describes recent research that shows that the older brain doesn’t have to decline and may, in some ways, even get stronger – a conclusion I’ve come across in other publications. What I haven’t seen before is the report on victims of Alzheimers who, miraculously, had no problems with memory. Why not? Scientists speculate that might be because of “cognitive reserve: the combination of a person’s innate abilities and the additional brainpower that comes from challenging the mind…. The more you work your mind, the greater your cognitive reserve.”

1:12th Scale Potions by Tiny Delights. Water from the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Flickr.

In the meantime, I’m still left with the fact that I have a bad memory – at least until I start doing the right exercises in hopes of reviving more of the past – and that moves me to explore what memory means to creativity. Because it seems to me that forgetfulness is not entirely negative, especially for a writer of fiction. I find that my writing is fed by things remembered and things forgotten that have somehow been stirred together and soaked in the same pot – impressions, feelings, ideas, none of them quite defined until I take hold of them and turn them into a story. Too little forgetfulness might become memoir, which isn’t at all what I intend.

That’s one reason I find a recent book especially fascinating. Delete, The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age is about our digital age and memory. The author (Viktor Mayer-Schonberger) explores our human drive to remember – in tales told around a fire, words inscribed on stone and papyrus, handcrafted books, and finally, with the Gutenberg Press, printed books. With books, memories were, for the first time, shared widely by unrelated individuals, and the pace accelerated with cameras, audio recordings, movies, TV, the computer. Mass media fosters the construction of a social memory that is now nearly universal in its scope. Today, nearly everything is remembered. As Mayer-Schonberger puts it:

Since the beginning of time, for us humans, forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception. Because of digital technology and global networks, however, this balance has shifted. Today, with the help of widespread technology, forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default.

"Installed in 2005 at Lytton Plaza in Palo Alto, California, this 7-foot-tall egg is made from welded steel, polystyrene bead foam, epoxy resin fiberglass skin and, for the outer shell, recycled circuit boards. Created by Brazilian artists Adriana Varella and Nilton Maltz, the sculpture has different phrases relating to technology written in multiple languages on its surface. Commissioned by the Palo Alto Public Arts Commission, the artwork is meant to honor the city’s role in birthing the tech-heavy Silicon Valley." http://www.womansday.com/Articles/Family-Lifestyle/8-Computer-Pa...

Needless to say, the author foresees all sorts of problems with our diminishing forgetfulness, too many for a single post, despite the fact that my focus may be narrower than his since it has to do particularly with the arts. Our overarching past, our incredibly informed present, these should provide grist for at least a few future posts!!!

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2 thoughts on “Is forgetfulness good for art?

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