Forgotten memory

Date: Tue Dec 18 2001 - 11:11:01 MST

I rented the movie Memento over the weekend, an unusual film noire which
will be on many top ten lists this year. I don't want to give away
the plot, which has a number of surprises and possible inconsistencies,
but rather to discuss some of the philosophical implications of the film.

It is not a secret that the movie is about a man, Leonard, who due to an
injury has lost the ability to form long-term memories. He can remember
everything up to the event, but since then he forgets everything that
has happened. He can't retain a memory for more than 15 or 30 minutes,
sometimes less.

Despite this handicap, Leonard has a goal. As a substitute for long
term memory he makes notes to himself and carries labeled photographs.
And he is at least somewhat effective in making progress towards his
goal on a day to day basis.

I see two connections between Leonard's situation and some of the
issues we have discussed. One is the question of whether Leonard's
life has any meaning, and indeed whether in a meaningful sense he is
living at all. With his memories constantly being erased, is there any
point to staying alive? Dying would erase his memories and his future.
But his memories are already gone, and in a way the point of a future
is to give you new memories. If those are going to be taken from you
as well, then what is the point of living?

If you were in Leonard's situation, would you try to live, to improve
your life? Or might one just as well give up?

The second point is that if we manage to survive for a very long time,
our situation may be much like Leonard's. If we reject the notion of
stasis, for what is the point of living forever if you are in a rut,
then we have to embrace change. And with enough change, inevitably
the person you were before will be lost. While the memories may not
be totally erased, still you will be effectively a different person and
the memories might as well belong to someone else. Of course the time
horizon will be much larger; unlike Leonard's 15 minutes, we may have
a thousand subjective years of continuity. But beyond that threshold,
we will not be the same person. Like Leonard, our life will be a series
of time-bounded moments, with continuity and causality linking them,
but no sense of common identity.

Some have argued that such a picture is appealing because even though
they will change so much as to be unrecognizable, the changes will be
gradual so they will still be, in a sense, the same person. However I
think this movie calls that view into question. Yes, in a sense this
moment's Leonard is the same person he was an hour ago. But in another
sense, he is someone completely different since he knows nothing of his
earlier mental state. When we see the situation compressed down to a
time horizon of a few minutes, it is much more questionable what the
value is of such an existence. Yet it is what many of us have planned
for ourselves.


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