The ordered memory

In his Confessions, Augustine puzzled over the different operations of the memory, this mystery he found inside of himself "which is like a great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds which are conveyed to it by the senses." As he examined its contents, he found that the power of the memory is such that the sky, the earth and the sea are lodged within it, awaiting his summons to bring them before his mind's eye, as was everything he had ever experienced, with the exception of the things he had forgotten. But even forgotten things could be retrieved from the places they hid, with a little patience and poking around. Perhaps most remarkable was that the mind could wander the precincts of memory to meet up with itself: "In it, I meet myself as well. I remember myself and what I have done, when and where I did it, and the state of my mind at the time."30

The function of memory in comprehending the contours of the self has been at the center of several important movies in the last few years.31 Christopher Nolan's film, Memento (2000), for example, is about a man who, suffering from a condition of short-term memory loss that prevents him from retaining any memory for more than a few minutes at a time, compensates by relaying messages to himself through snapping Polaroid pictures, scribbling notes on them ("this is my car," "do not trust this man"), and stuffing them into his pockets. Each day he must decipher the clues he has left for himself in order to recall that his wife was raped and murdered and that he was struck in the head during the attack, which accounts for why he cannot remember anything. He archives the most essential messages to himself by tattooing them onto his body, in effect, inscribing his memory onto his skin. The single goal he has assigned to his cubist consciousness is to avenge his wife's death. He awakens each day to the necessity of recovering his identity out of the meager scraps he has left himself, recalling what he must do, and chasing down a few more clues, to be recorded on more photographs and tattoos. Yet even if he has his facts straight, which is never obvious, the film makes clear that finding and killing his wife's murderer will amount to little. As a bartender tells him, "Even if you get revenge ...you're not even going to know that it happened." Without memory, there is no self to derive satisfaction if or when the wrong has been righted, no consciousness extended in time to make or retain the connection.

In Steven Soderbergh's Solaris (2002), astronauts aboard a space station orbiting the distant planet Solaris are surprised to be visited by loved ones, some of whom have long been dead. When psychiatrist Chris Kelvin shuttles in to investigate, he awakens in his quarters to discover that his deceased wife, Rheya, is lying beside him, fully alive. In what can be described as nothing less than a well-meant gesture from the planet Solaris, Rheya and the other Doppelgängers on the space station are physiologically full-functioning facsimiles tugged from the memories of the astronauts. As strange and wonderful as their reunion is for both of them, it slowly dawns on Rheya that she is only as much of a self as could be recovered from Chris's memory of her. When the realization sinks in that she is only a composite of Chris's recollections and longing, without the connecting memories of those parts of her life that had not been witnessed by or confided to him, she resolves to destroy herself. Devoid of memories that are her own, she reaches the conclusion that she is not in possession of a self.

In Anthony Minghella's The English Patient (1996), a man whose identity has been consumed by fire lies bandaged and recuperating in the abandoned ruins of a Tuscan monastery which has been converted into a makeshift field hospital at the end of World War II. His memory has been scorched along with his body in a plane crash, and he is a cipher to himself and to the strangers who rescue him. After some recuperation and at the urging of his nurse he begins to tell stories of his past as individual memories, in no particular order, begin returning to him. Slowly he sifts through his bleary memory, until he begins to see, really for the first time in his life, who he is. He was a cartographer who made maps of desolate and ancient lands, a free soul with no meaningful loyalties or lasting attachments. As he slowly dredges up these memories, he comes to realize the cartography of his own life, the marks that his past have made on others - the deaths of his lover and her husband, of his best friend, and of thousands of others because of the strategic advantage the Nazis gained after he turned over to them maps of his archeological expedition of the North African desert. It is only as this realization is made that he bumps up against a self inside his charred form that bears responsibility for its actions and their rippling effects. It is only through this prolonged act of confession that he finally orders his discrete memories into a narrative and discovers a self that has been living in the world, acting and being acted upon.

And, in the 1997 movie, Dark City, filmmaker Alex Proyas tells the story of a species of vampire-like aliens called "Strangers," who, having existed eternally, have collectively exhausted all potential ways of being and find themselves locked in a malaise of declining vitality and utter boredom. Scanning the universe for a possible antidote, they discover a still youthful species on earth, and conclude that the human soul might be their cure. They build a platform in outer space, cover it with an earthlike city circa 1950, abduct enough humans to populate it, and extract their memories in liquid form so that they have no recollection of their abductions and no idea that they have spent their lives anywhere other than in this dark metropolis where they now find themselves. Before they vaccinate themselves with the human soul, however, the Strangers want to analyze it thoroughly. Having preserved all the liquid memories they had suctioned out of the brains of their human subjects, they proceed to distill the discrete memes and even synthesize some new ones. Then, at regular intervals they induce all the human inhabitants to sleep while they mix and match memes ("the recollections of a great lover, a catalogue of conquests, a touch of unhappy childhood, a dash of teenage rebellion, and last, but not least, a tragic death in the family"), squirt them back into their hollowed out human subjects, rearrange the physical and familial circumstances of their lives to match the new meme sets, and run them through various simulations. As one of the human corroborators explains it:

They abducted us and brought us here. This city and everyone in it is their experiment. They mix and match our memories as they see fit, trying to divine what makes us unique. One day a man might be an inspector, the next someone entirely different. When they want to study a murderer, for instance, they simply imprint one of their citizens with a new personality, arrange a family for him, friends, an entire history, even a lost wallet. Then they observe the results. Will a man, given the history of a killer, continue in that vein? Or are we in fact more than the mere sum of our memories.

They manufacture lives, pasts, memories for the inhabitants, record their interactions, then reshuffle and start over. They have ascertained that the human soul is lodged in its memories, and want to catalogue all possible combinations before they harvest and imprint themselves with it. But they fail to grasp that, in the end, the soul cannot be sustained on simulated memories infused with a syringe. A recurring symbol in the movie is the spiral, suggesting aspirations that go nowhere, and the inhabitants of the city are becoming as listless as the Strangers. Even happy memories are rejected when they are discovered to be fabricated. The soul consists in memories acquired in the old-fashion way - through genuine experience. It must be able to survey the contents of its memory and concur, "Yes, these are mine. I was there, I did those things, I heard that, I saw that, and this happened to me."

Dick Hebdige describes a world he calls "Planet Two," which is a world where the conjectures of the nihilist wing of postmodernism hold sway. On this planet, "the 'I' is nothing more than a fictive entity, an optical illusion, a hologram hanging in the air, created at the flickering point where the lazer beams of memory and desire intersect." For inhabitants of this planet, much like for those in Dark City, "our lives get played out for us, played out in us, but never, ever by us."32 In his reflections at the end of his autobiography, Augustine concluded that it is in the exercise of the memory that one emerges as a self.

What, then, am I, my God? What is my nature? A life that is ever varying, full of change, and of immense power. The wide plains of my memory and its innumerable caverns and hollows are full beyond compute of countless things of all kinds. Material things are there by means of their images; knowledge is there of itself; emotions are there in the form of ideas or impressions of some kind, for the memory retains them even while the mind does not experience them, although whatever is in the memory must also be in the mind. My mind has the freedom of them all. I can glide from one to the other. I can probe deep into them and never find the end of them. This is the power of memory! This is the great force of life in living man, mortal though he is!33

The Confessions testify to this; they represent Augustine's sustained examination of the contents of his memory, whereby he isolates the crucial moments and strings them together and discovers a soul that has been feeling its way all along. Out of the jumble of images, impressions, and bits of knowledge scattered about, he discerns the unity of a self. Ordered memories are the sign that a life is taking place; without these two things -the memories and the act of ordering them - one is left to wonder if a self ever came to be. The films described here confirm this. They share this element of Augustine's anthropology and they add to it a concern that is more pertinent to us than it could have been to Augustine: these memories must be real. A person cannot be sustained on simulacra alone.

It is ironic that this message is being voiced by filmmakers, who oversee an industry that exists to produce simulacra, and who give us many of the fabricated images that take up time in our lives and space in our memories that would otherwise be occupied by impressions left over from things we had actually done. Fortunately there are filmmakers like Proyas and Soderbergh who use their craft to awaken us to some of the inherent dangers of their craft. Wim Wenders has been reflective on this, even repentant. He began his career making films in which nothing happened -no action or dialogue, just interesting images appearing one after the other. Images can be powerful, jostling our emotions and assumptions about reality. But in time, he tells us, he developed an appreciation for story:

In my business, craft or art, there is a danger that you want to produce images as a purpose in themselves. But I found that "a beautiful image" is not of value in itself____So I learned, from mistakes, that the only protection against the danger or the disease of the self-important image, was the belief in the priority of the story. I learned that every image had a truth only in relation to the characters of that story. ... Only the story gave credibility to each image; it furnished the moral, so to speak, to my profession as an image-maker.34

This is what makes Wenders a trustworthy maker of images - he handles them like symbols that point beyond themselves to that dimension of experience where lives are interconnected and selves emerge from acting and being acted upon, and he is truthful about what kinds of characters result from what kinds of interactions, what kinds of selves are extruded by the choices they make, the memories they store up, and the unified stories they finally settle upon.

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