Vignettes of “truth”…

When do we start changing the caption, and when do we start forgetting we have...?
When do we start changing the caption, and when do we start forgetting we have…?

“He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know.
He who knows he doesn’t know, knows.”
-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

I heard Joseph Campbell say this when I was about 22 during a televised interview with Bill Moyers in the PBS series The Power of Myth. In many ways, this, among many other things I read and heard around that time challenged me to think differently, and to consider the wisdom of understanding and accepting that we do not, really, know anything. Campbell attributes the quote as an ancient axiom of anonymous origin, however it is framed within a dialogue in which a variety of concepts are challenged by Moyers and elucidated by Campbell. It is a well-known and fascinating series and Campbell’s work is a great study in myth and narrative.

Who knows…

Our discussion in class on the film Memento culminated in a small debate about the value of knowing. I submitted the argument that there are advantages to not knowing. Pete pointed out, that “not knowing may be great for some, but for others that would be terrifying.”

As I offer an analysis of the film for our class assignment, I think it is interesting to consider how our beliefs, biases, and fears in particular, shape the way and what we “know.” As a viewer, and especially as a scholar, it would seem imperative that I suspend belief and disbelief in the interest of investigation. Even if the goal is knowing, I can’t truly gain knowledge unless I am willing to consider all possibilities. By limiting possibilities, we can ultimately just tell ourselves any story we like, any story that keeps us from being uncomfortable, or any story that obscures information that could have horrible consequences. We can create a uniquely subjective narrative to suit our circumstances, which is really the theme of the film.

As the story takes shape, we realize we are only offered clips of reality in the life of Leonard. There is a splintered visual narrative in the captions on the photos, the tattoos and the notes that round out the scenes of Leonard’s life. These vignettes continue, out of order and overlapping as the viewer is challenged to make sense of Leonard’s story without a timeline, with limited or no context. In class we discussed how, in reality, we are all Leonard, moving through daily life in small narrative clips of consciousness that, depending on the conditions of any particular time, shape a metanarrative reality of what we know or think we know at that time. That’s interesting to think about when you consider how the limitations in the way we are presented with Leonard’s story, out of order and out of context, completely alters our perception of the reality.

I chose the above quote from our text because it fit this movie assignment so perfectly. The film is a study of pictorial fallacy in a narrative that is reshaped every 15 minutes. How does the recording of a moment, in a photograph, change as the scene changes, as the character’s circumstances change? How does “freezing time” shape reality? And how does the film in creating a second narrative, then create potentially infinite narratives by presenting them out of order? And how does the result then create yet another narrative, which goes on in the empty space left, for the viewer to consider about the characters and him/herself?

Knowing Lenny…

Clues to a hidden narrative thread do show up in the film at different points. For instance, the characters Leonard interacts with seem to have a curious contempt for him, while the audience seems inclined to see him as an afflicted and sympathetic character. This made me very suspicious about who Leonard really was. Some clues were more literal such as frames, scenes that are not consistent with the story we are inclined to believe. Even as the film ends, only part of the character is revealed which leaves a lot of the canvas blank for interpretation.

Ultimately, what we thought we knew about Leonard is shifted, yet knowing it leaves more questions than answers. Who was Leonard, really, before his “condition?” Is Leonard mentally ill? Is he a murderous sociopath who has either consciously devised a story or unconsciously dissociated and compartmentalized his life with lies that perpetuate his behavior? Why is Teddy helping him? Is Teddy helping him? Was Natalie a bad person or an avenging girlfriend of a murdered drug lord? How long has this been going on? The list goes on…

What do I know…?

So, coming back to our discussion on knowing, we were asked to consider the concept of knowledge and how or if it is really attained. My contention is that the need to know may, in fact, obscure the ability to understand. These are two distinct concepts, the latter, for me, holding much more value. I think it’s important to assume agency in shaping the narrative without disrupting the process of it beyond that agency. If I accept that any moment of Leonard’s story is only a clip, for which I do not have a context, I can be free to discover whatever possibilities exist as I come to learn more. If I constantly succumb to the urge to fill the empty space with my own narrative thread, I may make presumptions about Leonard that have no basis in fact. This can have value as a shock experience. But I believe I will understand more by wondering and postulating while leaving space for what I do not know, about Leonard, or anything else for that matter. Unless, of course, I don’t want to know. At that point I suppose I could start changing my own captions to avoid considering some upsetting thought or memory. I could redirect my own narrative and start filling the unknown space with what makes me comfortable. But isn’t being terrified what drives Leonard to start changing what he “knows”? When are we justified in changing what we know? Is that ever justifiable?

As Pete said at the closing of class, when it comes to “knowing,” we are all Leonard. All conscious reality is a clip of time, and everything we know, or think we know, is really not much more than a picture and a note. Memory might not be erased but it can certainly be reshaped by context, convenience and what we are willing to consider. And lying to ourselves may be easier than we think.

Interesting links:

This person did a blog about Memento that I found interesting. In it she mentions Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a perennial favorite of mine and always a good reference in discussions like this.

For your viewing pleasure:






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *