Lethe is the river that cleanses Dante in Purgatory, that wipes the memories of the dead as they drink from it or bathe in it. As important recollections slip from our memory, this loss brings its own kind of grief, the pain of not being able to bring back a face or a gesture. The finite number of neurons in our brain means that these need to be assigned to other memories as we construct the narrative of our life.
Our memories play tricks on us. The past is not a faithful record, it is a mythology, a vast, blank territory where even the most important memories in life are gradually erased – if we do not remember them, perhaps these might not as well happened in the first place?
To bathe in Lethe brings grief, the numbness of oblivion, and a rebirth which Sylvia Plath described as stepping up from ‘the black car of Lethe, Pure as a baby’.