U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Don’t Trust Your Weakness

I get to teach my favorite course this semester, historiography. My colleagues and I offer the course to our undergraduate majors as a way to get them oriented in the idea of history; in other words, we do not dedicate most of the class to studying historians but to thinking about what history is.

Obviously, such an approach can be translated in many different ways. So, for example, in the first few weeks I choose to dwell on movies, memory, and morality. I use the films including Christopher Nolan’s Memento which came out almost twelve years ago.

I explained my admiration for this film in my review to David Sehat’s extraordinary first book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom. The film strikes me as powerful because it demonstrates an idea I found endlessly interesting: the willful and ostensibly innocent construction of myth. I imagine that most folks know the film but to make explicit my use of it, let me give a brief synopsis.

The film opens with a man named Leonard killing another man, named Teddy. They seem to know each other, even be friends, but Leonard believes that Teddy bears responsibility for raping and killing Leonard’s wife. But there is a wrinkle in what might otherwise be a straight-forward morality tale–Leonard has no short-term memory. Leonard has a condition–he never tires of explaining–that causes his memories to fade as soon as he makes them. The cause of this problem, though, also serves as his will to live. We come to learn that the fate of Leonard’s wife motivates him to search for and consequently kill many people. So here is our dilemma: we know Leonard is physically responsible for killing people, but is he morally responsible? He can’t remember what he does and, moreover, when he does kill he often seems to us, the viewer, either justified (in that film noir way), or manipulated.

I ask students two basic questions about this: how does Leonard create his mythical past? And why does Leonard create his mythical past?

We see that Leonard has a system of noting taking that is at once ridiculous and somewhat familiar. He takes Polaroid photos of his immediate surroundings to get a situated; he takes notes on everything from people he meets to directions to a hotel; and he tattoos things he wants to be considered as “facts” in order to create a “permanent memory.” Out of this system, Leonard crafts narratives that help have agency. And out of this aspect of the film, I get to discuss the idea of narrative with my students.

I use an essay about Hayden White and an excerpt from an essay by White entitled, “The Fictions of Factual Representation,” to play with the idea that we fool ourselves into believing that narrative is an adequate structure for representing reality. The reality we create in our narratives leads to new realities that we then represent in new narratives, thus perpetuating two kinds of myths–the one we live by and the myth that we can demolish a myth through a narrative of truth.

The device in Memento that represents this ironic relationship to narrative is pictured above. Leonard has a tattoo telling him to “remember sammy jankis.” We come to learn that sammy jankis was either a person with the same condition as Leonard but without a system for living with it, or a con-man that Leonard has deliberately misremembered to give his system credibility. In one review of the movie, the writer smartly observed that Leonard might not be able to create new short memories, but the more serious problem is that he deliberately manipulates long-term memories as well. And so, sammy jankis is one very consequential manipulation.

In the end, I want students to figure out ways to understand what Leonard is doing to his past–and “the past” as an abstract, historical concept–and to imagine that their critique of Leonard’s system of remembering, documenting, and acting has moral consequences. Not only does Leonard’s misremembering get people killed, but his deception (by himself and others) illustrates the need for some vigilance when trying to think historically. In short, I want the students to consider what kind of historical method works?

I’m interested in what other people use to illustrate historical methods.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray,

    You’ve now convinced me that I _have_ to use Memento somewhere in my courses.

    It just so happens that I spend the first week of my survey courses talking “What is history?” and exploring issues of philosophy and method. It makes me wonder if I should work in a film like Memento to get them unsettled about narrative construction just before I start boring them to tears with my survey textbook (*Out of Many*, Faragher, et al) and attending documents.

    As for methods, I haven’t taught a course dedicated to historiography, but I’d use texts, films, and exhibits to illustrate the varieties of sources used and the varieties of narrative delivery. I’d especially do this in an undergrad situation where they need wide exposure than just text specific critical skills.

    – TL

    – TL

  2. In many years of teaching a seminar on film noir, I’ve never used Memento in my neo-noir unit…and your post makes me wonder why. I’ve always liked Memento since seeing it when it first came out. And just as its peculiar story and plot (which reflect each other) says really interesting things about narrative and history, they are also a fascinating variation on the theme of fate and responsibility which is so central to noir.

  3. Tim and Ben: as always, your comments are generous. I’ve played with the idea of pitching an edited book on either this film or on demonstrating history through film–but not whether the history is good or not in a film but how the film raises interesting questions about our methods.

    When is noir month this year?

  4. This year’s For the Love of Film Blogathon will be on a different topic. It’ll be announced on February 1 and it will take place in May. Hopefully it’ll be something that we can take part in! I’ll keep everyone posted.

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