Memento: “I have this condition …” Psychosis and the Past
Here, we will approach the question of self-creation in a psychotic subject in relation to the remembering and forgetting of past history. The full text of this article appeared in a chapter of my book: Lacanian Psychoanalysis from Clinic to Culture, Routledge 2020.
Memento: “I have this condition …”
Psychosis and the Past
The Time of the Unconscious
“I have this condition,” he explained. “It’s not amnesia. I have no short-term memory. I know who I am. I know well about myself.”
Since “his injuries”, he had been unable to make new memories; in medical terms, this condition is known as anterograde amnesia. He could not remember what he had said or done in the past few minutes. He could not recall what had been registered by his brain. Nothing new of his daily interactions appeared to stick to his mind. From one moment to the next, he was living in the present, while hoping for a future in which he would be able to accomplish his mission of revenge. This was his purpose in life: a wish for vengeance. His last recorded memory was that of his wife’s death, and he wanted to find her attacker and kill him. Driven by his goal of revenge, he had found ways to tackle his amnesiac condition. He had created a system of physical tools and reminders for himself, which he could refer to every time he found himself confused as to what was happening around him, in relation to other people. He carried photographs with some lines of description on them in his pocket, and words tattooed on his body acted as agents instructing him towards a course of action.
Jonathan and Christopher Nolan made the movie summarised above in 2000, inventing a new style of narrating a single plot while playing with the concept of chronological time. The movie follows two alternate of chronologies, giving two ways of recounting the series of events: one travelling forward and the other going backwards in time. From these two narratives, the viewer slowly pieces together the jigsaw puzzle of the plot. At a certain point of the movie, at which these two trends of time meet, the viewer supposes that s/he has grasped the plot. However, precisely at this point of convergence comes the twist, as the third trend of events appears and we find we have been misled by the whole narrated plot up until this moment. This is when we might ask: was the protagonist really suffering from his amnesiac condition?
One might even have to re-watch this movie several times to understand how the plot is constructed. In addition to the objective and subjective narratives of the series of events, which are depicted in colour and black-and-white scenes respectively – showing the lure of the Imaginary register – we are able to observe the agency of a psychotic subject in manipulating truth and facts to create a new version of himself – synth-homme – (Lacan, 1975) after a triggered psychosis. A highly stable psychotic structure having been triggered at a certain point meant a psychotic episode followed by the recreation of a new mode of living. Such a mode gave specific meaning to the subject’s being in relation to the Other.
The Nolan brothers’ movie Memento also exemplifies one way in which to understand the concept of logical time in Lacan’s teaching. In a paper of 1945 Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty, he refers to the dialectical structure of time and temporality, which in fact contradicts the familiar idea of time moving along a continuum (Lacan, 1945). In Memento, the recollection of past events as they appear to have happened to the subject in the present moment is all one narrative, the après coup in Lacanian terms; while the actual reality of past events is depicted in a second narrative, and shown to be different. However, the third way of making sense of events – only brought in as a narrative later on in the movie – shows how the realisation of truth momentarily shatters Leonard’s imagined anticipated revenge, which gave him purpose to live his life. When this climactic moment arrives, the subject chooses to manipulate and falsify the truth in order to create a mode of living in that precise moment of hesitation: a moment to conclude. In an a-temporal structure of time, a historical event, subjectively recollected, along with his anticipation of an action to take – a hope -, concludes an urgency to make a decision at a very precise moment in the present.
Lacan, J. (1966). Écrits: Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty. pp.197-196. Bruce Fink (Trans). The United States: Norton
Lacan, J. (1975-6). Le Séminaire Livre XXIII : Le Sinthome. Paris: Seuil