Critic Bernard Knox writes: “The hero… is thus his own destroyer; he is the detective who tracks down and identifies the criminal—who turns out to be himself.” While this analysis could have been penned about Memento, an astonishing neo-noir directed by Christopher Nolan, it is in fact an analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a play written some 2,430 years ago.
When I first saw Memento in a theater, I dismissed it as nothing more than a stunt. The film’s gimmick is that it is told in reverse, starting at the end and ending at the beginning. The film’s opening sequence features a startlingly brilliant image: a Polaroid, rather than developing, retreats back into its camera. However, what is astonishing as an image is not necessarily riveting for an entire film. Reverse storytelling was funny when it served as a comic gimmick in the Seinfeld episode called “The Betrayal,” about the New Yorkers’ ill-fated voyage to a friend’s wedding in India. The episode’s title, in fact, is a parodic reference to a terrific dramatic play by Harold Pinter, Betrayal, in which we are presented with a romance’s break-up in reverse order. However, after some thought I came to realize that in Memento, the reverse storytelling technique works not to entertain, but rather to forward a disturbing anti-intellectual agenda.
Memento presents us with a man, Leonard Shelby, who has endured a trauma—the murder of his wife—that results in the loss of his short-term memory. He pursues his wife’s attacker maniacally, until, at the end of the film, he comes to realize that he himself perpetrated the crime. Faced with the truth, he decides to forget once again, and lives out his life in a blissful state of ignorance. This ending struck me as resolutely amoral, and it haunted me for weeks. I couldn’t quite get a grasp on why the film bothered me so much, until I encountered Knox’ analysis of Oedipus Rex.
If we follow Knox’ reasoning, Sophocles and Nolan cover the same ground: both texts grapple with the search for truth. In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus is on a mad quest for the truth of his life. His wife Jocasta and various other characters all beg Oedipus to simply forget what he’s unearthed, namely that he murdered his father, married his mother, and brought about a curse on his community. Oedipus’ refusal to listen is crucial for Knox, since it represents a human intellectual freedom outside of the jurisdiction of the Gods. The Gods may have fated Oedipus’ actions, but they cannot control what makes him human, his ability to decide and act. As an investigating detective, Leonard finds himself in exactly Oedipus’ plight. However, he ultimately makes a decision very different from Oedipus: Leonard chooses to forget the truth rather than embrace it at any cost. Leonard is an Oedipus figure who chooses to listen to the Jocastas of the world.
The fact that the film endorses this action indicates that a great moral shift has befallen modern man. The moral of Oedipus Rex is very clear. Oedipus is fully accountable for his actions, and deserves to suffer for his deeds. That he was a great man who once saved Thebes from the Sphinx matters little in the final tally. Selectively remembering only the good deeds was simply not an option for the ancient Greeks. However, it seems to be an option today.
American culture has absolutely thrived on a relativist view of truth predicated on the forgetting of history. The Vietnam War is seen as an act to stem 1950s Communism, never mind the betrayal of Ho Chi Minh by the American government in 1945 to appease the French. We see the anti-American sentiments in the Arab world as the acts of fanatics, a viewpoint made possible only by ignoring the CIA’s defense of the Shah of Iran in 1954 at the expense of the vastly more popular leader, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Given such historical myopia, Leonard Shelby is the quintessential American, willingly and gleefully engaging in anti-intellectual selectivity. I’ll put my money with the Greeks and their Oedipus myth: better to know the truth and feel terrible rather than live under the false delusion that one is righteous.