Can’t Remember to Forget You: Memento in Twenty Fragments

illustration by Marc Aspinall

(The italicized portions of this essay are lines of dialogue repurposed from the film.)

1. A question: If given the choice, would you erase the memory of the worst thing you ever did? My friends and I recently bandied the permutations of such an erasure back and forth, speculating about therapeutic possibilities, considering all the potential ripple effects. But after a while, other queries followed the first: at what point in the absence of a particular memory do we become someone other than ourselves? As new experiences layer over the old, what happens to the identity we leave behind?

2. Leonard Shelby suffers from anterograde amnesia. So he carves out, carries with him a small universe made up of scant elements from his past. I have this condition. Without the ability to form new memories, the past is all he has—nostalgia is his world.

3. Merriam-Webster notably cites the nostalgist’s yearning for some “irrecoverable condition,” something we pine for but can never get back. Nostos from the Greek meaning “homecoming,” and algos meaning “pain.” The identification of nostalgia can be traced back to soldiers so afflicted by symptoms stemming from homesickness during the Thirty Years War that they were consequently discharged—indeed, nostalgia was originally considered a disease. And I have heard it said that home can be a person; I have felt this myself. But what happens, then, if that person dies, or vanishes? I’ve lost somebody. How do we find our way back home?

4. See, it’s a paradox. No matter what he does, Leonard can’t reunite with what is gone. Like the rest of us, he is fundamentally displaced from the past by the fact of the present. How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time? In this way he is caught in an endless cycle of dwelling. He thinks of his wife as his home, but she is dead, and nothing he does in the present will change that. His repeated acts of vengeance are nothing but empty gestures at the idea of resetting the scales—a life for a life. Of course, the scales are, in fact, very out of balance; he has killed many men in pursuit of “justice.” But Leonard has forgotten every single one of them.

5. For some of us, nostalgia becomes a survival mechanism. We dive back desperately toward the beguiling swell of the past because we believe we have lost the ability to move forward. But the danger in perpetually reaching for what is gone is that you may lose the ability to function in the now. And the present is trivia, which I scribble down as fucking notes.

6. I’ve seen Memento countless times. Once I watched it twice in a row. With every twist and turn of its reversed structure still fresh in my head, I was convinced I had unlocked something in the narrative. And yet, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I always feel as if something is being withheld. With a structure that defies the easy cause-and-effect chain of remembering, there is always a truth hidden just out of frame. Our own memories are like that—fragmented, achronological. Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. Everything is filtered through the lens of our present moment.

7. I’ve read that every time you recall a particular event, you are actually recalling the last time you remembered it. Recall in three definitions: a) to call back, b) to bring back to mind, c) to remind one of. In this way we can distance ourselves from the scenes that replay in our heads the most, the quality degrading over time. By seeking proximity, we push the past further away. In Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso wonders if “the best way to remember anything accurately is to write it down and forget it, and then, only at the last moment of your life, to recall it—like listening to a broken tape by hand-feeding it one last time through the tape player.” Through his tattoos, Leonard revisits his version of the past every time he looks at himself in the mirror. One reads MEMORY IS TREACHERY. This is truer than he knows.

8. There is a temptation to flatten the people we have known and loved into symbols, especially after they are gone. The memory of a wife in a Christopher Nolan film is often shorthand for a brighter past. She was beautiful. To me she was perfect. Perhaps she is also emblematic of the protagonist’s perceived failings, in one way or another. Leonard never names this woman. In the credits she is simply “Leonard’s Wife.”

9. There is a danger in repeating a single narrative about the past. Great story. Gets better every time you tell it. Memento is not an exact mirror of Leonard’s lived experience, but its structure forces the viewer to confront the ephemerality of memory on a loop, just as he does. The constant losing battle of trying to hold on to distinct moments, even as they slip beyond our reach. You can waste your whole life trying to return to a moment you will never get back. When Lot’s wife turned to gaze upon the home her family had abandoned, she was transformed into a pillar of salt. The city burned anyway.

10. In Identity, Milan Kundera writes, “You can suffer nostalgia in the presence of the beloved if you glimpse a future where the beloved is no more.” When Teddy eventually tells Leonard that his wife survived the assault, Leonard refuses to believe him—her real cause of death doesn’t fit within the framework of the story he tells himself. I guess I can only make you remember the things you wanna be true.

11. Does every nostalgist give themselves permission to omit certain elements of the past? Softening the bad parts bit by bit to center the good, like the lens of a camera sharpening its focus. Can I just let myself forget what you’ve told me? Often, we aren’t nostalgic for the way things actually were. Not the truth, not in total. We’re nostalgic for ideas, for mirages, for moments plucked from context. The one night you were truly happy, with all of the surrounding conflict conveniently blurred to obscurity. As Leslie Jamison says, “Nostalgia is a sneaky curator.” Teddy says, You don’t want the truth.

12. In a state of mourning, there can be an impulse to seek narrative. Perhaps we feel that superimposing a recognizable shape might make our grief more endurable, might give our feelings linearity. Linearity suggests the eventual relief of an ending. But in the repetition of a single story, we lose certain facts along the way. We may focus on the wrong details. And so our story might mutate into something else. Something that is not altogether truth, and yet the only way we can live forward is if we believe it. Who cares if there’s a few little details you’d rather not remember? Leonard is committed to the story he has fashioned for himself; he writes it in ink on his own body.

13. If you tell yourself a lie enough times, you may begin to accept it. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning. This is a kind of faith.

14. Memento begins with an ending. We watch as the Polaroid taken to mark the success of Leonard’s vengeance fades away with each subsequent shake of his hand. In reshaping the facts around his wife’s death into an origin story, Leonard obliterates the memory of his own vengeance. And with each kill, he leaves his past self further behind. The tattoo that might hint at this evolution after all: I’M NO DIFFERENT. Different from who?

15. Losing one’s memory of the past doesn’t change the fact that it happened. I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. The story of your life is simply altered for a later version of you. Jonathan Nolan’s short story “Memento Mori,” the inspiration for Memento, is heavily composed of dialogue from the protagonist’s present self, intended for his future self: “It’s a shame, really, that you and I will never meet.” These selves are differentiated as two distinct men—victim and vengeance. Christopher Nolan said the blood pooling beneath Leonard’s head on the night of the break-in “felt like his mind leaking out. It felt like the end of his past self.”

16. A film is a sequence of moments spliced together out of many. A film is a point of view. Memento is Leonard’s story. Memento is the revelation of how Leonard has learned to live with loss. It’s like waking. It’s like you just woke up.

17. If you input a particular sequence into the psych test provided on the limited edition DVD, you will be shown a chronological cut of the film. Everything that happens in the order it occurred, rearranging the puzzle of the theatrical release into ordinary chronology. Cause and effect. A simpler story, its characters’ motivations laid bare.  I have wished at times that life could be like this. That we could rearrange the shards of our memories into objective truth simply by pressing the right combination of buttons. But maybe the way our memories distort over time is a kind of self-protection. They’re just an interpretation. They’re not a record.

18. I have presented the fragments of this essay in a certain order. I have created a narrative for you. As I wrote, I rearranged the pieces, changing the path you might take. The numbers are chronological but the ideas are not. There are things I want to convince you of. Another of Leonard’s tattoos: CONSIDER THE SOURCE. But perhaps there are things I am also conditioning myself to believe through the act of writing.

19. In our group’s larger speculation about the erasure of memory, I was the first to respond. I was adamant, convinced. Yes, I would. When we began the conversation, I was confident. After all, even good memories can be dangerous; unchecked, nostalgia can breed the relentless belief that what you’ve lost is better than what you have. Couldn’t erasing elements of the past allow you to exist wholly in the present? It seems simple enough to extract certain memories and carry on without them. To live a less complicated life, free from the baggage of wrongdoing or failure. But now, still, a question lingers. Leonard in the car at the end of Memento, the sunlight streaming, his voice in my head—

20. Do I lie to myself to be happy?