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Friday, 28 December 2012

Samuel Johnson: The Uses of Forgetfulness


The Alley at Middelhamis
: Meyndaert Hobbema, 1689, oil on canvas, 103.5 x 141 cm (National Gallery, London)

Men complain of nothing more frequently than of deficient Memory; and indeed, every one finds that many of the ideas which he desired to retain have slipped irretrievably away; that the acquisitions of the mind are sometimes equally fugitive with the gifts of fortune; and that a short intermission of attention more certainly lessens knowledge than impairs an estate.

To assist this weakness of our nature many methods have been proposed, all of which may be justly suspected of being ineffectual; for no art of memory, however its effects have been boasted or admired, has been ever adopted into general use, nor have those who possessed it, appeared to excel others in readiness of recollection or multiplicity of attainments.

There is another art of which all have felt the want, tho' Themistocles only confessed it. We suffer equal pain from the pertinacious adhesion of unwelcome images, as from the evanescence of those which are pleasing and useful; and it may be doubted whether we should be more benefited by the art of Memory or the art of Forgetfulness.

Forgetfulness is necessary to Remembrance. Ideas are retained by renovation of that impression which time is always wearing away, and which new images are striving to obliterate. If useless thoughts could be expelled from the mind, all the valuable parts of our knowledge would more frequently recur, and every recurrence would reinstate them in their former place.

It is impossible to consider, without some regret, how much might have been learned, or how much might have been invented by a rational and vigorous application of time, uselessly or painfully passed in the revocation of events, which have left neither good nor evil behind them, in grief for misfortunes either repaired or irreparable, in resentment of injuries known only to ourselves, of which death has put the authors beyond our power.

Philosophy has accumulated precept upon precept, to warn us against the anticipation of future calamities. All useless misery is certainly folly, and he that feels evils before they come may be deservedly censured; yet surely to dread the future is more reasonable than to lament the past. The business of life is to go forwards; he who sees evil in prospect meets it in his way, but he who catches it by retrospection turns back to find it. That which is feared may sometimes be avoided, but that which is regretted to-day may be regretted again tomorrow.

Regret is indeed useful and virtuous, and not only allowable but necessary, when it tends to the amendment of life, or to admonition of error which we may be again in danger of committing. But a very small part of the moments spent in meditation on the past, produce any reasonable caution or salutary sorrow. Most of the mortifications that we have suffered, arose from the concurrence of local and temporary circumstances, which can never meet again; and most of our disappointments have succeeded those expectations, which life allows not to be formed a second time.

It would add much to human happiness, if an art could be taught of forgetting all of which the remembrance is at once useless and afflictive, if that pain which never can end in pleasure could be driven totally away, that the mind might perform its functions without encumbrance, and the past might no longer encroach upon the present.

Little can be done well to which the whole mind is not applied; the business of every day calls for the day to which it is assigned; and he will have no leisure to regret yesterday's vexations who resolves not to have a new subject of regret tomorrow. 

But to forget or to remember at pleasure, are equally beyond the power of man. Yet as memory may be assisted by method, and the decays of knowledge repaired by stated times of recollection, so the power of forgetting is capable of improvement. Reason will, by a resolute contest, prevail over imagination, and the power may be obtained of transferring the attention as judgment shall direct.

The incursions of troublesome thoughts are often violent and importunate; and it is not easy to a mind accustomed to their inroads to expel them immediately by putting better images into motion; but this enemy of quiet is above all others weakened by every defeat; the reflection which has been once overpowered and ejected, seldom returns with any formidable vehemence.

Employment is the great instrument of intellectual dominion. The mind cannot retire from its enemy into total vacancy, or turn aside from one object but by passing to another. The gloomy and the resentful are always found among those who have nothing to do, or who do nothing. We must be busy about good or evil, and he to whom the present offers nothing will often be looking backward on the past.

Samuel Johnson: The Idler no. 72, Saturday, 1st September 1759

A Watermill: Meyndaert Hobbema, c. 1666, oil on panel, 61 x 85 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

A Watermill: Meyndaert Hobbema, c. 1664, oil on panel, 62 x 86 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)


TC said...

Given the option, I'd probably take forgetting. But there is no option. So many things can never be forgot.

Ed Sanders sends along a moving tribute to the revolutionary comic artist Manuel (aka Spain) Rodriguez, a salient force in what was (way back when) called the counterculture.

Back in 1967 an equally committed revolutionary artist, my round-the-corner-of-Avenue-A neighbor Ed, put on a show of Spain's art. Spain was residing just a few blocks away on Avenue C. I can still remember the opening. So much for forgetfulness.

Here's the flyer Spain made for that show..

Spain Rodriguez at Peace Eye Bookshop, 22 September 1967

Spain's art provided a tense, nervy counter-punch against the power structure he so vividly named "The Hideum". (Ed would deploy the "concept of the Hideum" theatrically, in a Fugs touring number.)

Things were different once.

Spain passed away one month ago today. RIP 1940-2012.

I'd like to think Samuel Johnson, that great collector of urban characters sans portfolio, would have dug Spain's work -- "Trashman" a creation worthy of Hogarth.

TC said...

None was ever better than Johnson at that lost craft, the construction of the English sentence. I've always enjoyed this one, which contains the gist of the piece:

"We suffer equal pain from the pertinacious adhesion of unwelcome images, as from the evanescence of those which are pleasing and useful; and it may be doubted whether we should be more benefited by the art of Memory or the art of Forgetfulness."

Boswell, writing on the Idler series in his Life of Johnson, left us with this remarkable note on the composition process, suggesting the pieces came, as is said in footy, "first-time":

"Many of these excellent essays were written as hastily as an ordinary letter. Mr. Langton remembers Johnson, when on a visit at Oxford, asking him one evening how long it was till the post went out; and on being told about half an hour, he exclaimed, 'then we shall do very well.' He upon this instantly sat down and finished an Idler, which it was necessary should be in London the next day. Mr. Langton having signified a wish to read it, 'Sir, (said he,) you shall not do more than I have done myself'. He then folded it up, and sent it off".

kent said...

Ashamed to say I'd forgotten she was still with us, but you TC will forever have given her most useful of eulogies:

I don't know what it was exactly
that you rescued me from
but Fontella Bass
couldn't have need a life preserver more

Tom Clark, FAN POEMS 1976

TC said...


Glad to hear that there are a few (more?) synapses still firing, out there on the Western Front.

Thanks from Fontella (and Vida, and Sam) for leading this
heroic Rescue Operation.

kent said...

Thanks again, TC.

Got to hear & meet her years ago along the banks of the Colorado River in Austin @sxsw introduced by the most gracious Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Great gospel w/the Rescue finish. What a delight.

Hey, do you keep up Vida & Co.?



Thanks for reminding us of this from Dr. Johnson, lest we forget -- "Little can be done well to which the whole mind is not applied; the business of every day calls for the day to which it is assigned"


light coming into sky above black plane
of ridge, jet passing above pine branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

presence one step at a time,
each in position even

there, “object” grounded in
emotion, “inner sound”

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
sunlit green of pine on tip of sandspit

Anonymous said...

maybe we forget (for mental health) what we "want" and what we "need" to forget...(?)

TC said...


Yes, I believe we tend to do exactly that -- provided we are able. A big IF, in that.

(Perhaps removing the inconvenient and uncomfortable furniture that clutters the working and resting space of the mind is one of those tasks that is, as the saying goes, easier said than done!)