Memento and Philosophy

Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2001) explores the dull archetypal story of revenge combined with aspects of traditional detective stories, which have been recycled and churned out repeatedly by Hollywood over the years, through the cliche of a amnesiac narrator. Perhaps, what is so original, compelling and truly brilliant aspect of Memento is the structure that the story takes and the way in which Nolan combined old ideas with a new form.

The protagonist, Leonard Shelby, suffered a head injury whilst trying to save his wife from intruders who had broken into their house. Since then Lenny has suffered from anterograde amnesia, in which he retains his old memories and knowledge but is incapable of maintaining new memories. The film is structured, to fit the unsettling subjectivity of the protagonist’s view of reality, in reverse chronological order. As Nolan explains, Memento does not have a non-linear structure, at least not in the conventional sense, because each scene is directly dependent on the one before just as in a linear structure.

Though the film is enthralling on many levels, it introduces an age-old area of philosophy to popular culture and its audience. In the opening scene, we are confronted with a polaroid photograph of a man who has been shot dead. In reverse of the process taken in photographing the corpse, the polaroid slowly fades as it gradually returns to it’s initial blank state before retreating back into the camera. The polaroid itself is passive to the camera and it’s owner to determine the image of which it will ultimately convey. This is almost a metaphor for the blank slate, or tabula rasa, description of the mind, favoured by empiricists like John Locke.

The empiricists argued that all our ideas and knowledge are essentially derived from experience, particularly through the range of senses. For instance, our ideas of ‘white’ and ‘cold’ come from the first time we encountered snow. Our experiences shape our knowledge of reality and all the ideas we’ll ever have are taken from our experiences. There are parallels to this in Memento. The polaroids, notes and tattoos are the only ways in which Leonard Shelby can collect knowledge – which is derived from his daily experiences in his search for John G.

The way that a camera can serve as a model for the empirical view of the mind. Images are received and after a flash imprinted onto a polaroid, the tabula rasa, as the human mind is blank upon birth and develops an understanding of the world from sense impressions, as the empiricists claim. The opening shot of the polaroid is a metaphor for the inner-workings of Leonard’s damaged psyche – a truly empirical model perhaps is one in which memories cannot be sustained. If everything is received immediately, then nothing can be retained.

The distorting effect amnesia has on Shelby’s consciousness is why a priori knowledge is absent in his life after the incident. We do not live like Shelby because we can make new memories, we don’t need all those notes and tattoos to get by. The reason: because Lenny is lacking something we are not. We can hold onto knowledge, probably because the mind isn’t a blank slate normally. Rationalists would argue that we have a priori knowledge, which is independent of experience and sense impressions (if anything) “unlock” such knowledge. There has to be something in the camera to hold images, it can’t just be a void.

Immanuel Kant proposed a synthesis, a compromise in the epistemological argument between philosophers of the rational and empirical traditions. Most animals receive information through sense impressions, a dog can hear us speak but will not understand our language. It takes reason to understand the received information, which is what may separate us from the animals. The reason interacts with the experience and is not passive, if anything, reason dominates experience shaping it into concepts that we can understand.

The concepts of ‘white’ and ‘cold’ exist to us, not because they exist objectively. But because we have imposed these concepts onto our subjective experience of reality, snow can appear to us as both ‘white’ and ‘cold’. This is not because the world is inside our minds. This is because our minds only have the capability to perceive the world in such a way. For instance, the unified notions of time and space that we hold are not entirely independent of our minds. We just cannot perceive the world without applying the concepts of time and space, otherwise nothing would be comprehensible.

This is a point enforced by the reverse linear structure of Memento. If we could perceive the world without applying the concept of time, as we understand it, the reversed structure of the film would be insignificant. Though, we can follow the storyline because we put things together as we’re watching, the structure has a major impact upon how we interpret the story. When we first come across Natalie we see her as a possible love interest. This is due to the traditional depiction of female main characters as a love interest or play-thing for the leading man.

In Memento, this assumption of Natalie is further played on when Leonard awakens after sharing a bed with Natalie. It is only as the story progresses, that it becomes apparent that Natalie is not a love interest at all and appears to be a manipulative character with her own goal of avenging her boyfriend’s death. All of this is predicated on the fact that the audience would be caught off guard by the structure of the film. Though it’s possible that the film could not even have been made if the concept of time was totally objective and unconnected to the human experience.

During the conclusion of Memento, which is actually the beginning of the story, Leonard acknowledges that there is such a thing as a priori knowledge when he says “Yeah, we don’t need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” In doing so, he rejects the notion that knowledge is derived only through sense impressions. We do not need to sense ourselves to know ourselves, we simply are ourselves and therefore know ourselves a priori – it is not acquired through experience but known.

So this would mean that the metaphor of a camera for Shelby’s mind is only partially accurate of his “condition” – a state of near passivity to knowledge, to others etc. Leonard has anterograde amnesia and the way he has been led along by Teddy shows the depth of his passivity. It is in the film that we see the transition Leonard Shelby makes from “bad faith” – acting as if one is a object passive to the forces around them – to authenticity and all the responsibility that comes with it.

Leonard Shelby is a highly original character, standing out against scenery in his cream suit and even standing incongruous to the banal revenge story he is part of. Shelby is remarkably independent, resourceful and determined for an individual suffering from such a “condition” – in contrast with the story of Sammy Jenkis who ends up in a home. But at the same time, because of his “condition”, he vulnerable to the power of others. We can only watch as Leonard is manipulated by those around him.

Teddy, Natalie and even Burt use his “condition” to further their own ends, whether it be for financial gain or revenge. Though the trust Leonard places in his notes keeps him from being easily manipulated by Teddy. On several occasions Leonard looks at the picture of Teddy and his comment “Never believe his lies” which stops him from following his guidance blindly. Partly this is the way that Leonard continues on his own independent path to find the killer-rapist John G. Of course, John G is already dead and Shelby is already free but trapped in “bad faith”, allowing others to determine his actions.

Though it could be that this element of Memento cannot be understood fully without exploring the ideas of existentialism. Existentialism is a radically subjective philosophy that places the individual, autonomy, authenticity and the self, at the centre of importance. Fanon believed that the only way individuals could achieve true freedom, as opposed to the spurious bourgeois freedom of the West, is through violence. The very experience of violence would be cathartic and can awaken individuals from the West’s insidious form of control.

At the heart of existentialism rests a view of human beings not too dissimilar from empiricism. The way in which empiricists view the mind as a tabula rasa at the beginning of life is similar to the way in which existentialist philosophers viewed the attaining of essence after existence. But for the likes of Sartre, the individual is not a passive and blank slate waiting to experience the world. Sartre would have argued that the individual must not act in “bad faith” in order to attain authenticity and experience true freedom. “Bad faith” being to act as if one is passive and conform to the pressures that surround you.

The story of Memento relates closely to the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon. This is also appropriate as Sartre was heavily influenced by Kant and pursued merging the duty-based ethics of Kant with existentialism. The act of killing Teddy may be the emancipation in itself, as it is Shelby’s action that destroys the powerful force that he has been passive to for so long. After which Leonard emerges as a “new man” who has taken charge of his life and has purged himself of the “bad faith”.

The paradox of this relationship being the comfort and security of it, but also the turmoil and horror that is innate to the relationship. However, it could be argued that the emancipation Leonard achieved by killing Teddy was set in motion when he first wrote down Teddy’s license plate, in the film’s conclusion and the story’s beginning, and in that sense it was that action, not killing John G, which was truly authentic.

About Joshua White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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