¨Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by,¨ Friedrich Nietzsche begins a brilliant, somewhat eccentric 1876 essay he called ¨The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life¨. ¨They do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored….
¨A human being may well ask an animal: ¨Why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only stand and gaze at me?¨ The animal would like to answer, and say, ¨The reason is I always forget what I was going to say¨ -but then he forgot this answer too, and stayed silent.¨
The first part of Nietzsche´s essay is a moving and occasionally hilarious paean to the virtues of forgetting, which he maintains is a prerequisite to human happiness, mental health, and action. Without dismissing the value of memory or history, he argues (much like Emerson and Thoreau) that we spend altogether too much of our energy laboring in the shadows of the past –under the stultifying weight of convention, precedent, received wisdom, and neurosis. Like the American transcendentalists, Nietzsche believes that our personal and collective inheritance stands in the way of our enjoyment of life and accomplishment of anything original.
¨Cheerfulness, the good conscience, the joyful deed, confidence in the future –all of them depend… on one´s being just as able to forget at the right time as to remember.¨ He admonishes us to cast off ¨the great and ever –greater pressure of what is past¨ and live instead rather more like the child (or the cow) that ¨plays in blissful blindness between the hedges of past and future.¨ Nietzsche acknowledges that there are perils to inhabiting the present (one is liable to ¨falsely suppose all his experiences are original to him¨), but any loss in knowingness or sophistication is more than made up for by the gain in vigor.
For Nietzsche the ¨art and power of forgetting¨ consist in a kind of radical editing or blocking our of consciousness everything that doesn´t serve the present purpose. A man seized by a ¨vehement passion¨ or great idea will be blind and deaf to all except that passion or idea.¨
Reference:From The Botany of Desire. P. 163-164. By Michael Pollan. New York, 2001