Sunday, January 23, 2011


[a follow-up to this and this ]

            Come spring, you carefully fold your winter sweater, and set it on its proper shelf in the linen closet.
            The wheel of seasons turns, the cold winds blow; you unlatch the cupboard door … and find the garment in its place.  All is well.
            Suppose now rather, that at the first blast of winter, the sweater were to appear before you in midair.  Convenient to be sure; but disconcerting.
            Yet such is memory.  We do not choose where to store what we remember, nor can we fold these items to size.  Our experience vanishes backwards down a deep well, much of it never to reappear, some of it to pop back, bidden or unbidden, partially preserved or distorted or we know not what.  Our own experiences have become estranged from us, fallen into a vat of alchemy, from which they emerge (it may be) changed, we know not how or whether, for we have nothing against which to compare them – these insolent ‘memories’, these soi-disant relations to our own vital past, spewn forth from out the cauldron of the unconscious, like some unknown Australian self-proclaimed cousin showing up on our doorstep, bearing a letter of reference and a leer…
            How much   how far much   better  that, which our Memento hero hews to: It Is Written, on Mine Own Flesh.  He chooses which limb to scribe it on, what the wording, which the facts.   – Too, our standard memory is a cloaca, stuffed with every stray sensation, useless wadding stifling the essential.  Yet Leonard sets down only what will fit on his skin: Yea yea, nay nay; the rest -- away with it.

מנא ,מנא, תקל, ופרסין

            Such is the sanguine and level-headed view.  But now consider.  He awakens each day  to a world new-made; he spots the writing  with the same surprise  that Crusoe spotted footprints in the sand.  He cannot really recognize it as his own: even those he wrote himself, he stippled into the skin – it won’t resemble his normal cursive – and others he left to the tattoo-artist.   The writing must therefore confront him like that at Belshazzar’s feast.  It is otherwordly.  He is wreathed in cryptic admonitions, some penned in a Gothic script like that of Scripture.  He might almost be forgiven for fancying himself a prophet.  And yet – for here the story is bleakly modern.  He pays no mind to the source of these writings, just takes them for granted.  He simply takes the next step forward, in his appointed task.  That Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin  has no resonance, divine or diabolocal.

            The image of a man whose living skin is parchment, is striking in itself, apart from whatever story might be attached.  It is not a widespread motif.  One finds it in  Bradbury’s story “The Illustrated Man”, whose title character sports moving tattoos, each with a tale to tell.  These depictions are multifarious, and look outward, concerning the onlookers more than the bearer.  The situation in “Memento” is the opposite, the exact inversion: all the inscriptions prowl around the same central obsession; they are addressed to the bearer in the imperative; they hold nothing for anyone else.  Even for the bearer they are enigmatic, as he strains to find the goal at which they point.  In this respect the situation recalls that of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”, where the skin of the tormented man is slowly inscribed with the secret of his own guilt.  The parallel is exact if, in fact, Leonard is his wife’s murderer.

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