Memento – Memory and Identity

In Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Leonard Shelby suffers from a very particular disability. When he and his wife are attacked, Leonard suffers a head injury which renders him unable to form new memories. In considering Leonard’s condition, it is possible to examine how important memory is in making us who we are, and in ensuring the continuation of our identity over time.Leonard describes his condition in a conversation with Burt, a motel attendant:

I have this condition… it’s my memory… I have no short term memory. I know who I am, I know all about myself. It’s just, since my injury, I can’t make new memories – everything fades. If we talk for too long, I’ll forget how we started. Next time I see you I’m not going to remember this conversation. I won’t even know if I’ve met you before.

Leonard’s condition is superbly captured by the film’s plot structure, where the majority of story events unfold in reverse chronological order. This device is revealed at the outset of the film when the shaking of a polaroid photograph leads to its fading rather that being rendered clear. This early scene represents Leonard’s condition – ‘everything fades’. Indeed the entire structure of Memento places us in the same epistemic position as Leonard – neither of us know what happened before.

In my consideration of Being John Malkovich, I ended by pondering the issue of personal identity – that is, what is it that makes us the person that we are and secures the continuation of our identity over time? It was insufficient to say that what makes us the same person today as we were ten years ago, or will be in ten years from now, is possession of the same body or brain – the ‘Malkovich vessel’ had both – yet we are not inclined to say that Malkovick, when inhabited by Craig or Lester, is the same person that we meet early in the film. This, it seems, is due to the fact that the particular consciousness inhabiting the Malkovich vessel in these two cases is either that of Craig, or Lester et al – not Malkovich. Rather, what it is to be John Malkovich, is to have access to his subjective mental experience – to his consciousness.

This is the view of the English empiricist philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704,) who argues that consciousness is key to the self and, as such, continuity of consciousness is central to the enduring survival of a person over time. The continuity of the conscious self is, for Locke, guaranteed by memory, which plays a very important role in identity. For Locke, the reason that I am the same person that I was twenty years ago is that I remember being that person. I can now bring to mind the subjective conscious experiences I had as a teenager through the faculty of memory. I remember (for the most part) what I’ve done, who I’ve met, how I felt at a given time, what I like and dislike. This is why, after waking from a night’s sleep, I find myself to be the same person in the morning. Furthermore, it is for this reason that I bear moral responsibility for my past actions. As such, memory is of paramount importance to our experience of ourselves as responsible agents.

Here Memento presents us with a superb opportunity to investigate the fundamental role of memory in human affairs; we can establish its importance  by envisioning what happens when it is absent, much like a scientist might test the causal efficacy of a certain variable by removing it and keeping every other factor equal.

Consider the scene, in Leonard’s car, when Teddy says to Leonard, “You don’t even know who you are”.  When Leonard responds that he remembers everything up until the accident and is Leonard Shelby, etc. Teddy states, “That’s who you were. You do not know who you are, what you’ve become since – the incident”.

In one way, Leonard is right – he is the same Leonard as existed before the incident. This, we might imagine is why vengeance is of such importance to him – the horrifying attack being forever present as his final indelible memory.  However, on the other hand, Teddy’s claim that that’s who Leonard was, rather than now is, seems to me to be correct. When reflecting upon who Leonard now is I admit defeat. Perhaps this difficulty is reflected in Teddy’s exact choice of words – “what you’ve become”.  Is it possible that Leonard, through his disability, actually lacks the necessary properties for personhood? Of course, due to his pre-incident memories, Leonard still has future plans, and we might think this important. However, let’s remove Leonard’s existing memories of his life up until the injury. Now, who – or what – is Leonard? How does he differ from us?

Another factor to consider is whether Leonard (with pre-incident memories now restored) is actually morally responsible for any of his actions. In Locke’s view, the later Leonard would not be responsible for the murder of Jimmy or Teddy as he would not be the same person that committed these crimes (having no psychological continuity facilitated by memory). Does this differ from me arguing that I am not responsible for stealing apples as a child, as I have no memory of having done so? Does this mean that I am not the same person as I was at that time?  Questions such as these have led many to propose that it is mere contiguity, rather than continuity, of our subjective mental experiences that matter in ascribing identity and responsibility.  That is, as long as I remember being the twenty-something who remembers being the teenager who remembers being the child who stole apples then my identity is secure – and I am responsible for my early crimes. What does the contiguity approach mean for Leonard’s identity and responsibility?

Finally, I would like to consider memory and self-deception. At the end of Memento, Teddy reveals ‘the truth’ about the assault and the death of Leonard’s wife. This perhaps throws some light on Teddy’s particular use of the term ‘incident’ in the conversation referenced above. Many critics have debated whether Teddy’s testimony is to be trusted, however, there is a reveal earlier in the film which may establish this (Nolan himself has stated that the answer is in the film).  What this twist shows, is that sometimes our memories deceive us, or rather, sometimes we deceive ourselves by ‘choosing’ to forget or by manipulating our memories of past events. This brings us on to the issue of memory and authenticity – which is explored in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.


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