Myth, Memento, and Memory
Myth, Memento, and Memory
Avebury (Wiltshire, England)
In Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (Nolan 2000), Leonard Shelby— played by Guy Pearce—suffers from anterograde amnesia, which prevents him from generating any new memories. To deal with this, he creates material traces such as Polaroid photographs and notes and he tattoos the most significant facts onto his body. Each time he awakes, he encounters these mementos (notes, images, and tattoos) and must interpret them in order to decide what to do next. He sometimes leaves messages for himself, intended to constrain his future behaviour, but while these messages effect his actions, some of the notes or photos may be lost or destroyed, or he may fail to realize that they have been manipulated or altered. Further, he may not interpret them correctly, so that his actions are not what he intended. Despite his amnesia, however, the past is always implicated in Leonard’s story and it is always changing his future. In some sense, the way that Leonard leaves mementos for himself is a more interesting model for the way that successive human communities encounter the remains of the past than the idea of biographies. Just as on Leonard’s tattooed body, traces of the past such as earthworks and monuments are inscribed onto the landscape, yet oral tradition cannot transmit the detailed meanings of those traces or the intentions of their creators through long sequences of time so that human communities encountering them later are, metaphorically, amnesiacs. Sometimes earthworks and monuments are built with the intention of projecting a particular world-view, constraining future generations to act in particular (‘correct’) ways. Over long periods, however, oral traditions distort, people move away and areas are occupied by new inhabitants with no cultural memory of those intentions or meanings. Just as with Leonard’s tattoos, monuments become mementos that have to be interpreted and situated within a contemporary understanding of the world before meaningful action is possible. If we think of both Leonard’s tattoos and the physical traces of the past as mementos, then it’s worth thinking how these differ from memories.
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