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Hunting for Butterflies

Posted On April 21, 2020 | 08:47 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Lewis Hyde talks butterflies, Buddhism, and the problem of the unforgettable

Lewis Hyde, emeritus Richard L. Thomas Professor in Creative Writing at Kenyon College and a MacArthur Fellow, was a visiting scholar in fall 2019. His talk, “A Primer for Forgetting,” offered a series of examples of the uses of oblivion, drawing on mythology, personal psychology, and creative practice.


Q&A with Lewis Hyde

What is A Primer for Forgetting about, and what surprised you while writing it?

In a sense, the book is an exploration of the mystery of time. Memory is the faculty of mind by which we are aware of time, and time is a fascinating and mysterious fact of human life. I come at it from the reverse perspective: rather than thinking about memory, I’m thinking about places where forgetfulness is more useful than remembering. I like to write about things that are fascinating but not obvious.

I was surprised to find the problem of the unforgettable. In Greek mythology, the Furies are embodiments of unforgettable crimes—so they harass Orestes, for example, who has killed his mother. But if you’re thinking about when forgetfulness is useful, it helps to know that the unforgettable can be a curse. If you can’t get something out of your mind, then you can’t have a new life.

There’s a little poem of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s where he writes, “teach me I am forgotten by the dead / and that the dead is by herself forgot.” He's writing about his wife, who died young. He wanted to give up mourning, he wanted to stop being obsessed with his loss, and he wrote this poem when he was about to leave Concord, Massachusetts, and go to Europe for the first time. So for Emerson, to be caught in the grief he felt over his wife’s death was to stop living.

I hadn’t thought about the unforgettable as a curse before I began. In a way it’s obvious once you see it, but it was one of the avenues of inquiry that opened up before me when I got to work.


How does Buddhism figure into the book and your other projects?

Buddhism appears in A Primer for Forgetting because the Buddhists say you should live in the present moment as much as possible—which means not to forget that you have a dental appointment tomorrow or that you went to Europe last year, but to stop living in your fantasies about the past and the future. So if you were insulted by somebody two years ago, you might as well stop thinking about it. Or if you think you will be a better and kinder person in the future, you should come back to the present and see if you can do it now. 

For a new project, I have translated from Chinese a set of medieval poems called the “Oxherding Series,” which constitute a parable about how to practice Buddhism. I have also written two essays about these poems. While at Dumbarton Oaks, I am preparing a final manuscript of the translations and essays, to be published by Copper Canyon Press next September. I collaborated on what’s now called The Disappearing Ox with my friend the painter Max Gimblett, whose ink-wash paintings match each of the poems.


Tell me about the butterfly hunting project you are also working on. 

I have been an amateur lepidopterist since I was a child. I am curious about what it means to me to go out into the fields with my butterfly net, particularly about the state of undifferentiated attention that comes over me. That is, I’m looking for something which in fact is not there, usually. But I need to be alert to the fact that it could appear at any moment. I find that state of mind pleasant, but also hard to have without my butterfly net. I actually have to be doing the work of hunting before I fall into this alertness.

I hope to write a book trying to understand my own experience, engaging with the work of other people who were naturalists. I’ve done a lot of work on Henry David Thoreau, so I’m interested in his awareness of butterflies. I’m also interested in Vladimir Nabokov; I’m hunting for butterflies in Nabokov’s novels. 

Plants are important to butterflies, and I am curious to find out if the Dumbarton Oaks collection around landscape gardening has anything that might speak to my own interest. The larvae of butterflies typically have a quite restricted number of food plants—as many people know, the monarch butterfly caterpillars feed on milkweed. Butterflies are often located by the food plants their caterpillars will need, especially when laying eggs. And when the new butterflies hatch from their chrysalides, they need nectar, which they can get from many different kinds of plants. So an interest in butterflies brings an interest in botany.


Julia Ostmann  is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by  Elizabeth Muñoz  Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.