Christopher Nolan has a well-deserved reputation for striking a balance between smart art-house film and blockbuster action flicks. The Dark Knight was great fun, and a reminder of the philosophical potential of the comic-book genre in the hands of an Alan Moore or (Michael Chabon’s) Sam Clay. Inception romped through different characters’ brains like so many video game levels, but only really engaged Leonardo DiCaprio’s mind. Still, it was a feat of pure ambition.
My philosophy class and I watched my favorite Nolan film, Memento, today. After a traumatic accident in the past, the protagonist, Leonard, is unable to form new memories. A collection of annotated Polaroids, notes, and tattoos drive him on a highly questionable quest to avenge the death of his wife. Fixated on vengeance, Leonard is a single-minded character. Besides for early memories of his wife and career as an insurance-claim investigator, the sources of his self are written on his body and strewn across the motel rooms where he wakes up confused.
The philosophical content of the movie is rich. I intended to talk about Bernard Williams’s “The Self and the Future”, John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the relation between memory and personal identity. Basil Smith’s essay in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir seemed to serve as a good starting point. And I wanted to talk about the content of memory, relating Leonard’s use of photographs and written information to Wittgenstein’s reconsideration of the picture theory of meaning and Hume on composite impressions and the mental habits that “apprise” causation.
My students, however, fixated upon the ethical dimensions (or lack thereof) in the film. For those who have not seen Memento, reading further will spoil a great film worth watching once.
As the plot unfolds (mostly backwards) it seems increasingly likely that Leonard is being manipulated. At times he seems like a helpless pawn, used by drug dealers, a hotel clerk, a spiteful woman, and a crooked cop as a killing machine. We begin to suspect his Polaroids, notes, and tattoos — his “sources” — have been tampered with, making him a sympathetic character despite all this sangfroid wild justice. Besides, why not let Leonard off the hook for moral rectitude? Without any unity of life, Leonard is unable to live a life of virtue. As the clock winds further back, the sinister motives of more and more friendly characters are revealed. At the climax of the film comes the grim realization that Leonard himself tampers with his “sources”.
Has Leonard avenged his wife? The tragedy is that he cannot remember. Worse, by the end of the film we are even doubting whether his wife was murdered. (Is his anterograde amnesia from a more mundane source, like alcohol abuse or venereal disease? Was Leonard an unwitting accomplice in her suicide?) Leonard is able to kill those who manipulate him, but for what?
Compelling voices in modern philosophy have called for liberation from our pasts. Derek Parfitt wants to liberate us from our selves. The capacity for radical self-fashioning freedom has been celebrated by a tradition stemming from Friedrich Nietzsche. In Memento, Leonard is able to destroy his masters through just this kind of self-fashioning. But it is a hollow victory.
Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1989) is a late modern bulwark against the neo-Nietzschean project. Taylor thinks this disconnection from moral sources, from a conversation about the good life with others, is pathological. Memory is necessary for a connection with other human beings (and God) that Taylor thinks is necessary for morality. (I have long had a hunch that, to some degree, Taylor would find Kierkegaard’s emphasis on conversion as a voluntary and radical self-transformation as “pathological”.) There is a role for memory:
The new time sense has also changed our notion of the subject: the disengaged, particular self, whose identity is constituted in memory. Like any other human being at any time, he can only find an identity in self-narration. Life has to be lived as a story. (289)
Leonard is not an identity, but a fragmented person, a multiplicity of selves with changing sources. It is a haunting vision of radical freedom.