On Wednesday, February 24, the Columbia University School of the Arts held a dialogue with writer and cultural critic Lewis Hyde.

At 7:30 pm on February 24, the Columbia University School of the Arts held its third installment of its Nonfiction Dialogues series, this time featuring Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift (1983), Trickster Makes This World (1998), and, most recently, A Primer for Forgetting (2019). Hyde previously taught writing and literature at Harvard University and Kenyon College and has been awarded a MacArthur fellowship. 

I logged into Zoom to attend the conversation, which was taking place between Hyde and fellow writer Phillip Lopate, CC ’64, currently a professor of nonfiction writing at the School of the Arts. The conversation began with a discussion of Hyde’s book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, which examines the subject of creativity in a market economy, emphasizing the value of giving. The Gift has been lauded as a modern classic and a seminal treatise on creativity by Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Margaret Atwood, among others. 

Lopate asked Hyde about The Gift as an example of nonfiction writing. He described Hyde’s unique writing style that emulates such literary icons as Whitman and Pound and incorporates various disciplines, such as folklore and fairytales. Hyde explained that prior to publishing The Gift, he had thought he was going to be a poet, and therefore his writing style has always betrayed his poetic influences. The Gift was originally intended to be an essay, but it became a full-length book over the course of its development. 

Lopate then asked how the fact that both of Hyde’s parents were scientists impacted his relationship with creativity. Hyde responded jokingly, “When I began college, I thought that I was going to be a scientist… but then I got a D in chemistry.” He then described how his experiences at the University of Minnesota, his undergraduate college, introduced him to “a greater range of emotional life” that “opened doors” of creativity for him, allowing him to see an alternate path for his life. 

Hyde then discussed some of the literary influences that had surrounded him when he was developing as a writer. He talked about his interactions with John Berryman, who had been a professor at the University of Minnesota. His relationship to Berryman, who was famously an alcoholic, was offset by his experiences working at a hospital with patients who were suffering from the severe effects of alcoholism. Of Berryman, Hyde said, “I had a lot of respect for Berryman, but he was not the teacher for me.”

Next, the conversation moved to spirituality. Lopate asked Hyde if he has any particular spiritual practice; Hyde described himself as a “lazy Buddhist.” He added, “What the Buddhists have to say strikes me as true.” Buddhism is a major influence in Hyde’s most recent book, A Primer for Forgetting. According to Hyde, following the teachings of Buddhism leads to a study of the self, and “when you study the self, you can forget the self.” 

This subject led Lopate to ask how much Hyde lets his own “self” into his nonfiction writing. Hyde answered that he used to write more self-consciously in the first person, but he later realized that the first person is always present, even in nonfiction writing, so now he does not “appear as a character” in his writing. The exception is A Primer for Forgetting, in which several personal anecdotes about Hyde’s life do appear.

A Primer for Forgetting is Hyde’s investigation into the areas of life in which forgetting is more useful than remembering. The idea sprang from a course that Hyde was teaching on cultural memory; he was describing cultures that have an oral history, and came to the realization that such oral cultures “keep themselves in equilibrium by sloughing off memories that have no present relevance.” Therefore, every act of choosing what to “remember” by including in an oral history is also an act of choosing what to forget through exclusion. This concept led Hyde to explore the ways in which forgetting is a useful practice.

Hyde then read a brief excerpt from A Primer for Forgetting on the topic of “cosmic boredom” and the idea of being “bored to life.” He introduced the concept of life as a way to relieve the boredom that comes with cosmic omnipotence, and described birth as the ultimate act of forgetting, because to be born is to forget everything that can be known and emerge into the world as a blank slate. Hyde qualified that this can be interpreted literally, but it can also be interpreted metaphorically – for any new life to truly begin, one must forget the old life.

Returning to the subject of nonfiction, Lopate asked Hyde how he incorporates research into his own prose style, and if he feels that it is a struggle to try to maintain his own voice while bringing in so many other voices. Hyde referenced his former poetic inclinations, saying that he labors over his prose as if it were poetry, paying special attention to the language he uses and reading it aloud to himself. Therefore, Hyde is able to bring other writers into his nonfiction practice without feeling that he is losing his own voice. He described his nonfiction writing style as “a kind of translation,” prompting Lopate to make a connection to Hyde’s past experience as a translator of Spanish poetry. 

Next, the two discussed Hyde’s 1998 book Trickster Makes This World, which uses something Hyde called “the trickster narrative” to describe the creative careers of several artists and visionaries, such as Picasso, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Allen Ginsberg. Hyde explained the trickster narrative as the story of someone who blurs the boundaries that are carefully delineated by the society they live in. Society sets up “shame boundaries,” but the notoriously shameless trickster is able to cross those lines with their “disruptive imagination” to create art that expresses a sense of shocking shamelessness. For example, Ginsberg’s poetry often dealt with topics that were considered taboo in a defiantly shameless manner. Lopate asked if Hyde considers himself to be a trickster, to which Hyde modestly replied, “I’ll leave that up to them to decide, but I think I’m too disciplined to be a trickster.”

Towards the end of the conversation, audience members were invited to pose questions to Hyde. Responding to a question about The Gift, Hyde described the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the major shifts in American attitudes toward gift-giving in the past century. During the Cold War, Americans were “self-conscious about their capitalist side,” and, not wanting to seem overly mercenary and materialist, set up funds for the arts and humanities such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. According to Hyde, the attacks on the NEA and the NEH began soon after the Soviet Union fell, because “capitalism had triumphed,” the desire to turn everything into a market economy resurfaced, leaving charitable funding for the arts and humanities behind. 

Answering another question from the audience about forgetting as a potential minefield because it allows for the possibility for people and cultural groups to be instructed to forget and repress their trauma, Hyde clarified that “you can’t forget yourself until you are one.” In other words, groups that are struggling to gain recognition for the injustices that they have faced must first be allowed to fully experience and acknowledge the depths of what they have undergone before they will be liberated into a space that allows for forgetting.

To end the dialogue, Hyde read another excerpt from A Primer for Forgetting, in which he recounts a dream that he had about having forgotten to write his term paper, even though it has been many years since he has been in school. “Will my students someday dream of me?” he asks, before returning to the syllabus of a course he is teaching and removing several assignments. Speaking as an overextended college student, I appreciated this symbolic gesture. I hope some of my current professors were in attendance at this event and that they, too, will remember to “forget” some of their upcoming assignments.

Lewis Hyde via Creative Commons.