What is Lost When an Oral Culture Disappears?
The Author Lewis Hyde on
A Phone Call From Paul Podcast
In this week’s episode of A Phone Call From Paul, Lewis Hyde takes the call from Paul Holdengraber to discuss his latest book, A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, out now from FSG.
From the episode:
Paul Holdengraber: In English, the word “remembering” is so strong because it really, truly, deeply means “putting the members back together,” as in a whole remembering.
Lewis Hyde: It’s also calling back to mind the thing that memory we hope may hold. You’re a walking anthology of quotations that stick to the mind.
Paul Holdengraber: That stick to the mind and find themselves so often on my tongue. … What is lost when an oral culture disappears?
Lewis Hyde: Part of what arises in my book is the idea that what is lost is the flexibility that comes in an oral culture. There used to be a thing called living memory and the argument that the law, for example, would be decided if one living human being would remember what happened. If nobody could remember about the details of the case, it just disappeared.
There is a wonderful phrase in the law: things happening in “Time immemorial,” or “time out of mind.” Now these days we have statutes of limitation which adjusts the fact that living memory has turned into written memory, which keeps things seemingly preserved forever.
Thinking about the quotations you love stick to the mind because they have some built-in mnemonic capacity, that they are rhythmic or striking, and deserve to live on in living memory. Most of what goes past our minds, happily and rightfully, disappears.
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Lewis Hyde is the author of Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, and a book of poems, This Error Is the Sign of Love. He is Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College.