The Art of Forgetting

Feb 17, 2020

At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel. 

(Maya Angelou)

Until a recent conversation with my colleague and friend Leon Ingulsrud, I believed that the most significant effects of a theater experience are the memories created in the minds and bodies of the audience in the heat of a performance. If the theater were a verb, I believed, it would be “to re-member,” to put the pieces back together again.  Memory is a protein that is formed in the brain in the moments of intense emotional experience and our synaptic pathways can create repeated access to said memories.  But Leon, who is thinking a lot about memory loss due to a family member’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, asked me how theater might be beneficial to those without the capacity to remember. What about people who have trouble forming memories? 

I had to ask anew: What matters most in the experience of theater and how can the impact of that experience be measured? Perhaps more than memories, a great theater experience, indeed a great art experience, generates resonance.  The reverberations engendered in the moment of an artistic encounter can have a profound effect on the body, on neural pathways and consequently upon one’s actions in the world and subsequently, in the world at large.  

I read a lot of books and have done so since childhood. I mostly devour non-fiction. I treasure the books that I spend time with, and I cherish what I learn from them. But then, after I have finished a book, even one that has taken me on an intense journey of discovery and insight, I am often surprised about how little I actually remember. Generally, I do not remember the facts from the books or even the stories, which had so thoroughly engaged my attention and interest in the moments of reading. They seem to slip away, to disappear. I used to be distressed by how much I forget but now I feel better about it because I realize that the resonances that happen while reading is the point.  The reverberations that occur the moments of engagement can profoundly alter and influence who I am becoming.  I may not remember the details, but my life has somehow altered.

Resonance is a specific type of motion, characterized by synchronized oscillation between two states. Everything in the universe, even objects that appear to be stationary, are in fact vibrating, oscillating and resonating at various frequencies. Every physical object, including the human body, vibrates and fluctuates. In many circumstances, things vibrating in proximity will start to resonate together at the same frequency, achieving a shared resonance.  They sync up, allowing for a richer and faster flow of information.

The resonances, the syncing up, that I experience in the course of my life in turn influence the quality and trajectory of my life. And it matters with what and with whom I reverberate. When a piece of music truly reaches and touches me, I can feel my system shifting incrementally. But in order to resonate with something, I have to attend fully to it, with an openness to being affected, influenced, and literally moved. Sometimes it is a book or a person or an animal, an object or a work of art that re-sounds with me. I can feel the excitement rising up in my body as the encounter begins to have its effect. I am connected to the living network of the world and the roots beneath the surface via this encounter.

Look at a flower. What you see before you is, in fact, far more complex than what is immediately visible. If you look deeply into the flower’s nature, you will perceive the conditions that came together to create the display of the thing that we call a flower: the quality of the soil, the sunshine, the rain, the minerals and perhaps even the gardener. The interplay, the entanglements and the resonances create the flower. The flower manifests through its many conditions and what it has nourished it.  This example is probably true for humans as well.

Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1981 film, entitled Blind Chance re-released recently on Criterion, presents three separate storylines, told in succession, about a man running after a train. In one version he manages to get on the train and in two others, he does not. His life and trajectory take wildly disparate paths depending upon whether or not he gets on board. In each scenario the man meets someone or has an experience which influences key life choices that radically effect the rest of his life.  What he resonates with, even in what seems to be ordinary incidents, radically influence the trajectory of the man’s life. We, the audience, are left to the task of keeping track, of remembering his different trajectories and making sense of them.

The supreme achievement of memory … is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.

(Vladimir Nabokov)

Memory is fragile, and perhaps necessarily so. Forgetting may be as important as remembering. In order to make room for new insights and experiences, I must let go of the memories and the ensuing assumptions that tend to accumulate over time. I have to consciously bypass the repetitive default modes that have been installed in my organism by habit. In order to move on, I have to forget. How can I create space for new experiences without forgetting and making room for new ones? Perhaps, in fact, both the art of remembering and the art of forgetting must work in concert.

We live in a technological environment that prizes storage of memory. And yet occasionally as humans we have to reboot and forget what has been accumulated. Lewis Hyde, in his brilliant new book entitled A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, offers a defense of forgetfulness. To Hyde, forgetting can be a necessary blessing, a path to rejuvenation and even to social justice because it is an essential condition for imaginative as well as political freedom. The book chronicles a “history of forgetfulness” by assembling fragments of art and writing from the ancient world to the modern, weighing the potential benefits of forgetfulness as a philosophical and political force. Artful forgetting is not about repressing memories, but rather encountering them and consciously letting them go in order to create space for new possibilities.

The way that the brain stores memory is nothing like the storage of information digitally or in a library.  Memories in humans must be reconstructed through encoding as there are different elements scattered all over the brain. Our memory is not sequenced, rather it is more like a jumbled-up jigsaw puzzle. As memories from a new experience are being made, so are new patterns of synaptic connections between the engaged neurons.  Neural activity associated with a novel experience causes the brain cells to ramp up protein production. I am thrilled by the notion that theater going can actually cause physical alterations in the body of the spectator.

And so, perhaps a successful theater experience is one which sets up resonances in the bodies and minds of the audience in ways that do nothing less than alter the physiognomy of those present. In rehearsal we search for resonances between the actors, between the compositional elements in the space and in the musical nature of the text, the shifting qualities of tempo, repetition and duration in movement and in sound.  Ultimately, we are attempting to construct moments of shared resonance between the stage and the auditorium, between actors and audience, among bodies, objects, ideas and moments of being.

I am currently working on a new book of essays entitled The Art of Resonance that will be published in early 2021 by Methuen/Bloomsbury. But as I am writing now, I am in Rijeka, Croatia in rehearsals for a new production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, an opera that spans over four hours of what now feels to me to be the most resonant music imaginable. Tristan and Isolde drink a magic potion that allows them to see the fathomless love that already exists between them. Perhaps it is true that resonances require that something that already exists inside of us, something that is already looking to sync up. Each day in rehearsal I am massaged by the magic potion of the music and the voices and I surrender to the intense ensuing resonances.