In the Light of Lost Words: Forgetfulness as Muse

In the Light of Lost Words: Forgetfulness as Muse
A Collage-Essay

Sometimes I’ll take a walk just to forget whatever good idea I had that day because I like to go into the studio not having any ideas.—Robert Rauschenberg

Myth tells us that Mnemosyne—memory—is the mother of the muses, which could possibly be taken to mean that tradition is at once the inspiration, the source material, and the measuring stick of the artist’s individual talent (TS Eliot). Or perhaps it means that creativity/inspiration is simply a matter of recombining our past experiences in novel ways. Calvino:

Who are we, who is each of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.

Honestly, I’m not sure what the Mnemosyne myth is supposed to tell us, but I’m struck by the fact that so many writers and artists I admire honor Mnemosnye’s exact opposite, Forgetfulness:

All good conversation, manners, and action, come from a spontaneity which forgets usages, and makes the moment great. —Emerson, “Experience”

Gertrude Stein goes so far as to say that Memory hinders inspiration:

Any of you when you write you try to remember what you are about to write and you will see immediately how lifeless the writing becomes. . . . The minute your memory functions while you are doing anything it may be very popular but actually it is dull. —“What Are Masterpieces”

And John Ashbery, it seems, creates an entire poetics out of forgetting:

And only in the light of lost words
Can we imagine our rewards.
—"The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers" 

Our phrase books began to feel useless—for once
you have learned a language, what is there to do but forget it?
Girls on the Run

Words have a tendency to fix meaning, to make it seem static and unchanging, but, as Ashbery says in an interview, “things are in a continual state of motion and evolution.” That’s why, he goes on to say, he likes ambiguity—it takes “further developments into account.” Forgetfulness works the same way—it loosens literal readings and allows alternative meanings to emerge.

A passage in Ashbery’s Flow Chart offers something of a “methodology” of forgetfulness:


It’s almost as if Ashbery describes playing a version of Exquisite Corpse or Chinese Whispers (to use the title of his 2001 book) aka “telephone” with himself, partially or wholly forgetting the initial impetus of an idea, and allowing the drift of the process to surprise him. I can say I’ve experienced something similar, taking up an fragment of something in my notebook and having no recollection of what I initially intended. The platypus piece I ended up with was surely more interesting than whatever it was I originally had in mind.

In a sense, Ashbery is showing us how to thoughtfully devise our own incompetence—how to make ready to forget, as he puts it in the last four lines of “Soonest Mended”:

For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.