It must be Thanksgiving or some such holiday, because I have shown up at my brother’s house to find Mother and Father waiting. Mother stands in the front hall bearing her old smile of greeting, overlaid now with a touch of anxiety because, I realize, she doesn’t remember my name. “Lewis is here!” I call out, as if such announcements were our custom. I don’t want to embarrass her. “Lewis is here!”
Sometime in the twenties in Berlin, a certain Dr. Kurt Lewin noticed that the waiters were very good at remembering the particulars of his restaurant bill—until the bill was paid. Soon settled, soon forgotten. Lewin wondered if he hadn’t stumbled upon a fact of mental life, that the finished task drops into oblivion more easily than the unfinished.
In 1927, a colleague of Lewin’s, Bluma Zeigarnik, designed a study that appeared to show that Lewin had observed a specific example of the general case, now called the Zeigarnik effect. “Unfinished tasks are remembered approximately twice as well as completed ones,” she concluded. That was her finding with adults; with children, the effect was stronger: not only did they remember tasks they’d been forced to leave unfinished but “not infrequently they would beg to continue the interrupted tasks even two or three days after the experiment was over.”
Zeigarnik’s explanation of the effect seems a touch obvious (each task brings a “quasi-need for completion” or a “tension system which tends toward resolution,” and memory endures when these are not discharged), but her conclusions are clear: “Strong needs, impatience to gratify them, a childlike and natural approach—the more there is of these, the more will unfinished tasks enjoy in memory a special advantage.” On the other hand, memory of a completed task—even if driven by need, impatience, or childlike enthusiasm—soon disappears. Pay your bill and the waiter moves on.
Pay your bill and the waiter moves on. Or, win your war, erect a few statues, and everyone moves on. It is the battle lost, not the battle won, that clings to the mind. What never found satisfying closure becomes the opening chapter of a story that cannot be forgotten. The seceding states’ “Lost Cause” makes for a durable tale precisely because the Confederacy was defeated. So, too, with the Battle of Kosovo and its unforgettable hero, the martyred lord Lazar Hrebeljanović. The Virgin Mary sent a gray falcon to give Lazar a choice; by now no one would know his name had he chosen to win the battle rather than ascend to heaven immediately. But loss is what he chose, and therefore neither the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand nor the apologists for the Bosnian War had to strike any new sparks to set a dormant enmity aflame.
When Ernest Hemingway’s wife lost a suitcase containing the only copies of many of his stories, he found he was unable to re-create them. They were done and gone. A character in a posthumously published short story, “The Strange Country,” explains:
Some of the stories had been about boxing, and some about baseball and others about horse racing. They were the things I had known best and had been closest to and several were about the first war. Writing them I had felt all the emotion I had to feel about those things and I had put it all in and all the knowledge of them that I could express and I had rewritten and rewritten until it was all in them and all gone out of me.
Because I had worked on newspapers since I was very young I could never remember anything once I had written it down; as each day you wiped your memory clear with writing as you might wipe a blackboard clear with a sponge or a wet rag.
Modern studies of the Zeigarnik effect have been inconclusive, leading some now to think it does not exist. To my mind, however, the studies have been poorly designed. Typically, undergraduate test subjects are either interrupted or not while doing the most banal of tasks: rearranging letters in nonsense syllables, remembering strings of consonants, or solving anagrams (“ibrd” should be “bird”—that sort of thing). Not surprisingly, the results have been mixed. Subjects interrupted while solving anagrams, for example, had no better memory of what they were doing than students allowed to finish.
I wish they’d take two groups of undergraduates and interrupt half of them while they were cashing a paycheck or making love. Memories of emotional states are processed by the amygdalae, and I bet those nonsense syllables never light up those organs. Desire seeks completion and unrequited desire does not easily abandon the search. Money or sex, a war against the infidels or a pilgrimage to the promised land: should the finish line be reached, the memory thins out, but the unfinished hangs around for years, for decades, for generations. In fact, time itself may be a creation of all the undone stuff that clings to the mind. Past, present, and future do not exist, argued Saint Augustine; what does exist are temporal states that stretch out the mind, and from the distended mind arise the sleepless nights, the years, the decades …
Lewis Hyde is the author of Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art and The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, as well as a book of poems, This Error Is the Sign of Love.
Excerpted from A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, by Lewis Hyde. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 18, 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Lewis Hyde. All rights reserved.