Where was I?
Oh yes, Christopher Nolan‘s Memento . . . This film — about a man who can’t remember — reminds us that amnesia is the great theme of our time. We are becoming more and more forgetful. The way that people take such pride in remembering what they were doing when JFK or Diana died suggests they haven‘t a clue what they were up to on any other day. Ask someone what they did over the weekend and the reply will almost certainly be, “Saturday, Saturday . . . Shit, what did I do? Hmm. I really can’t remember.” The chances are that you can‘t either.
I certainly can’t. If I am on my way to a publishing party, I make a conscious effort to run through the names of some of the people likely to be there — and I don‘t just mean acquaintances. No, I mean people like my agent and editor. Sometimes I dial a number, and by the time the person answers I’ve forgotten who I‘ve called. I go upstairs to get a book and come down without it (“which is why,” as my friend Hania memorably put it, “you should live in a bungalow”). Every weekend I linger over those ads in the papers asking, “Are You Ashamed of Your Memory?” Well, I am, sort of, but it doesn’t seem much worse than anyone else‘s. As Baudrillard has pointed out (in the second volume of Cool Memories, ironically enough), “The sudden forgetting of names and faces is as contagious as laughter. At fashionable gatherings it has to some degree replaced laughter.” At one such gathering a friend embarked on an anecdote with the words “I remember . . .” Then, with barely a pause, he continued, “No I don’t.”
In this climate Alzheimer‘s has about it a parabolic, almost prophetic quality. Poignantly recollected in Martin Amis’ Experience, Kingsley‘s heroically futile attempts to remember his phone number seem not so much symptoms of chronic illness as glimpses of a quotidian forgetfulness. And it’s not as if amnesia is something that happens only to the old or aging. In Daren King‘s novel Boxy an Star, the teenage narrator and his girlfriend write instructions to remind themselves how to get up in the morning: “Open the certens wen it is shiny out an shut em wen it aint.” Their drug-induced helplessness is consistent with the old adage that if you can remember the ’60s, you weren‘t there. (I can’t remember the ‘60s; does that mean I was there?) Marijuana is notoriously bad for your short-term memory. I’m 42 now, and 20 years of short-term memory loss adds up, I suspect, to some long-term forgetting.
Plenty of things that allegedly happened have simply been wiped from the record. No trace remains. They‘re gone, vanished. A few weeks ago, an old flatmate claimed that I once threw a phone at her. I confessed that, while I had no memory of this event, such behavior would not have been untypical. In mitigation I should point out that the witness was by no means reliable: Halfway through her testimony, she asked to be reminded of my name.
Part of the problem is that we rely on other things to do our remembering for us. Remembering has, as it were, been outsourced. No wonder we need computers with more and more memory. I don’t know my best friends‘ phone numbers, because they’re all stored in the memory of my telephone. I can‘t remember how to do long division, because my calculator does it for me.
Then there are photos. People take them to preserve memorable moments or sights, but they end up as substitutes for memories. Rachael, the unwitting replicant in Blade Runner, cherishes her snaps in the deluded belief that they authenticate her memories — which are actually just “implants” — and prove that she is human. Polaroids are instant memories, and Lenny Shelby (Guy Pearce) relies on them totally to make sense of his “condition” in Memento. Lenny has no short-term memory: After 10 minutes or so, everything fades, stranding him in a perpetual existential present. He lost his capacity “to make new memories” after his wife was raped and murdered. The most tormenting thing is that each morning, as he wakes up, he reaches across the bed, thinking that she has just got up to go to the bathroom. He remembers her as she was — “beautiful, to me she was perfect” — but has no idea how long she has been gone; since he “can’t feel time,” the wound is unable to heal. In one astonishing sequence, we live through the terrifying process of forgetting as Shelby scours the house for a pen, for something to fix what has just happened before it fades into what comes next. To try to gain some purchase on the vertiginous face of events, he always wants to look people in the eye; in turn, his eyes — full of baffled wonder, straining to recognize but stranded in the realm of deranged cognition — are utterly transfixing and, yes, unforgettable.
Memento is simultaneously the ultimate stoner film, a noirish thriller and a brilliantly enacted investigation of the philosophical questions of time and memory. Remembering, the film makes clear, is not simply the opposite of forgetting. Forgetting, as Pynchon observed of ignorance, is not just a blank on the map; it has its own contours and laws, its own hunger. It is forgetting, after all, that makes memory possible. Total recall is close to complete amnesia. In Borges‘ famous story “Funes, His Memory,” the character who remembers everything — “not only every leaf or every tree in every path of forest, but every time he had perceived or imagined that leaf” — ends up like Shelby, who remembers nothing: “His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them.”
All of which helps convince me that, far from being ashamed of my memory, I am quite at home in its intermittencies and rhythms. The more I forget, the more I seem to remember. Instead of forcing myself to recall the name of that other really cool film, the one with another guy called Lenny, I simply forget about it and, in time, it comes floating back: Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow! And this kind of involuntary memory has a logic and reliability of its own.
One day I was in the lingerie department of Fenwick’s on Bond Street in London, buying underwear with my then-girlfriend. While she was in the changing room a woman came into the shop. Tall, long hair. I couldn‘t take my eyes off her. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful; she transfixed me totally. My heart went out to her. There was a smoldering of desire — what kind of underwear was she buying? — but mainly I felt the familiar melancholy of longing. I sort of fell in love with her then and there, but knew I would never see her again. She seemed to be in a hurry. I watched her pay and leave. She didn‘t see me. End of story.
Time passed. A million other things happened, most of them forgotten. I broke up with my girlfriend and, after a while, met, fell in love with and married someone else. And then, the morning after seeing Memento, I woke up and realized, with absolute certainty, that the woman lying next to me, my wife, was the woman I had seen that day in Fenwick’s.
After leaving Fenwick‘s, my girlfriend and I had gone to see that Korean S&M film at the Institute of Contemporary Arts . . . I couldn’t remember the name, but, yes, there it was in my diary for 22 January: “Saw Lies @ ICA.” We‘d walked down to Pall Mall in bright afternoon sunlight that ricocheted off the windows of buses and cars. The branches of trees were stark against the blue sky. We arrived at the film with several minutes to spare and killed time in the bookshop. All of which means we must have been in Fenwick’s between 2 and 2:30. My wife checked her diary. Yes, she had been in Fenwick‘s that day, at about that time — she was in a rush, her car was parked on a yellow — buying underwear because, later that day, she was flying off to see her lover in New York.
So it was true: I’d completely forgotten that first glimpse of her — but I had never quite forgotten it. The memory developed as I slept, its colors becoming deeper, more distinct: the ghost of a dream, but permanent, lovely.
Geoff Dyer‘s most recent book is Paris Trance.