Philosophy through Film: Memento

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on Pulp FictionOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestGroundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix. Memento, Meaning, and one's present self

From the reading:

The more serious problem for Leonard is that his meaning in life is not based on a goal that he has chosen for himself, but is rather derived from a purpose or goal that he has inherited, or that has been implanted in him, from a previous self.  Leonard's problem--and by implication, our own problem--is not just that a person has a limited time within which to pursue the projects that give meaning to one's life.  The deeper problem is that the projects that give meaning to one's life never really seem to be chosen bythe person's onw (present) self, but are always inherited from another (previous) self.

Is it just me, or does anyone else read this argument as an implication that a bucket list is an attack on meaning in life?

If we interpret our selfhood as being an illusion of continuity between identities segmented on a periodic basis, that seems to me to only add more meaning to a long term goal -- because then, it's a whole horde of people cooperating to help only a handful of instances achieve only moments of transcendent experience, rather than one person selfishly hoarding those experiences for themselves.

In this sense, Leonard's condition only adds more meaning to his accomplishment, by escalating the number of fragmented quasi-people and diminishing each individual instance's capacity to contribute.

Michael Baur goes on in the reading to say:

But how can a person's own life really be meaningful, if such meaning is supposed to be derived from goals that have been dictated by some other (previous) self?  Don't my most cherished goals in life have to be chosen by me (my present self) if they are to have meaning for me (my present self)?

No.  No, no, no, no, no.  This is such an incredibly stupid argument that I don't know where to begin.  Who the hell thinks that meaning ever comes exclusively from one's present self?  Let's take the arguments in turn:

  • Religious meaning:  Life has meaning because of an external god.
  • Community meaning:  Life has meaning because of relationships with other people.
  • Existential meaning:  Life is meaningless, but we can constantly choose to participate in a larger tapestry of meaning.

Then there's arguments about loyalty to one's country.  Love of art or music.  Interactions with nature.  Having children. But nowhere, in any context, is there any case to be made whatsoever that meaning doesn't count if its source is outside one's immediate present conscious experience.


Even the argument that Leonard's immediate experience of killing Jimmy doesn't make the case for meaning coming exclusively from present experience.  Teddy is just making the case that Leonard's immediate experience is meaningless, not that he should derive meaning from the momentary experience of having killed someone, no matter who that person is.

The time-scale of collapsing identity

In the reading, Baur talks a lot about how most people live on a 24-hour cycle of refreshing identity, and Leonard lives on a 10-minute cycle.  I think this delineation is arbitrary.  Personally, my favorite way to describe consciousness is as a flickering electrical state hallucinating continuity.  That is, the space of a synapse is the amount of time in which one is a singular person, and the person who started typing this word is long dead by the time I will have finished writing this sentence.

I do think Leonard's experience is a good way of highlighting the immediacy of that reality, but I think the interpretation that we've got a longer timeframe than him is wrong.  The truth is, simply, that he forgets more than many of us do.  (I think it's kind of funny that this allows him to get a lot more done.  He didn't seem that world-shakingly impressive as an insurance investigator, so it seems his post-incident behavior is not a fraction of his original capacity, but an improvement.)

I think trying to find a way to logically work out, in a non-arbitrary way, a solid footing upon which to build a sense of self, is sort of missing the point.  I meant what I said in the first paragraph of this section:  We are hallucinating continuity.  It's a delusion.  A mis-apprehension of reality.

But there's a value to well-built mis-apprehensions of reality.  We can always drop out of the world, out of sanity, out of perspective and self-comfort, but if we've got a well-developed and pragmatically effective set of arbitrary assumptions to frame our experience in, we can always spring back into the world as we know it and go on living.

(There was a Hume quote I'm certain I remember, but I can't remember in which class I learned it and wasted far too much time already trying to find it online.  It was about how, when the unprovability of causation gets him too depressed, he just goes and drinks and hangs out with his friends.)

The thing is, understanding reality and participating in life aren't necessarily overlapping activities.  You don't have to do them at the same time.  You don't need to grasp the ephemeral nature of conscious experience while navigating an intersection in Boston.  You don't need to wonder about the contribution to your future that your current behavior is having while eating a double-cheeseburger.  (It might be a good idea to do that beforehand.)

But you also don't always have to be navigating intersections and eating double cheeseburgers.  If you're curious, it's not hard to drop out of the world and experience awe and terror at the magnitude of unknowability and the pathetic uselessness of your own tools of perception.  But if you're in the habit of doing that, you should be comfortable with the system of arbitrary assumptions you'll be coming back to when you need to do something that requires accepting the existence of, like, other people and walls and legislation.

Leonard has as little trouble with that as everyone else in the film.  His arbitrary construction of standards with which he interacts with reality are exactly as solid as he needs them to be in order to quickly pull himself out of existential angst when he needs to interact with the world around him.  And it's philosophically interesting, the ways in which other characters try to manipulate him by attempting to break that construct, but nobody in the movie really proposes a meaningfully different mechanism for coping with reality.