Monthly Archives: July 2013

Do I Lie To Myself To be Happy?: Buddhist and Platonic Themes in the Film, “Memento”

I. Introduction

1)    Summary of Memento

The movie was backwards, starting from the end and ending with the beginning in order for viewers to fully understand the movie. Leonard Shelby was in search of the guy who raped and murdered his wife; a guy he believed to be called ‘John G.’ He uses notes, photos, and tattoos to hunt for John G. He witnessed his wife being raped by a masked man.When he tried to help his wife, the man (so called ‘John G’) slammed Leonard’s head on the mirror. This caused him to have a memory disorder. He can remember everything in the past, his long-term memories, but he isn’t capable of making new ones. He believes that he is an investigator and that he was assigned to a case of a man named Sammy Jankis who was in the same condition he was in. But in reality, he was Sammy Jankis. Because of his disorder, he doesn’t remember that his wife survived the attack and that his wife was the one who died due to overdose because he forgot that he injected her three times with insulin, causing her to go into a comatose, then subsequently die. He believes that he can’t remember what happened to his wife because of his disorder, but in reality he made up Sammy Jankis because he didn’t want to believe the truth. He made up his own truth because he does not want to believe what really happened. Teddy, who claims to be a cop, told Leonard that they found the real John G. years ago. That there will always be another John G. for Leonard because he does not want to accept the truth. Upon hearing Teddy reveal to him what really happened, Leonard decided to make Teddy his next “John G.” since Teddy’s real name was John Gammel, John G., and so Teddy would not use Leonard to his advantage again. Leonard knew he would forget everything Teddy said anyway, so he decided to keep looking for another John G so he can have a purpose in living. Later in the movie, Leonard met Natalie and thought that she was helping him out of pity since she has lost someone too –her boyfriend, but he didn’t know that she was also using him to his advantage since he was the one who killed Natalie’s boyfriend. Knowing that Leonard was after Teddy, she gave Leonard all Teddy’s information and which made him believe that Teddy is the John G. he was looking for.

2) Character Analysis

  • Leonard Shelby (called Lenny sometimes) made up his own lies and believed them to be truths just to give purpose to his life. When he found out the real John G. is dead, he thought of killing the next John G. he finds so he has something to live for, something to do. He has a psychological disorder; he can’t make new memories right after his accident. His ability was psychological because there are some parts in the fill where he could remember what happened. But because everyone believed and told him that his disorder was incurable, that’s what he also believed.
  • Teddy (John Gammel, Leonard’s next ‘John G.’)is a crooked cop. He claims that Leonard killed the real John G. and Teddy took a photograph of it. He claims to be helping out Leonard he was the next “John G.” that Leonard was after. He doesn’t always tell the truth that’s why Leonard decided not to trust him, and then target him as the next “John G.”
  • Natalie also claims to be helping out Leonard but she’s only using him to her advantage since Leonard killed her boyfriend. She was the one who gave Leonard the license plate of Teddy. She made Leonard punch her then made him think that another guy, Dodd, beat her up just so Leonard could get rid of him.

II. Body

Q # 1: Allegory of the cave, what it means, how it relates

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, an allegory is “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence”

The allegory of the cave shows the ramifications of having education to a person/human, and perceiving reality and truth. The phases which the prisoners undergo represent the various stages of cognitive activity, and in the most basic sense, the comparison between the ‘immaterial’ reality and ‘material’ reality.

1.Stages: The stages where the prisoner passes through when he was freed from his chains represents to the realms that the world has: (1) Visible realm/material (senses), and (2) Intelligible/immaterial realm (mind).

-When the prisoner was inside the cave, he was under the ‘visible’ realm. When he was dragged out and ascended to see the daylight, he was on the intelligible realm.

*Application to the movie: The visible realm for Lenny was when he acted and lived life based on his memories, notes, tattoos, and photos which gave him the idea that he should live his life seeking revenge for the death of his wife. On the one hand, the intelligible realm was when Lenny knew about his ‘real’ identity from Teddy’s Revelations

2. Prisoners’ conditions: The condition of the prisoners when they were chained to see only what’s in front of them, thus they shadows on the wall gives the idea that man do not realize that there is more to be known and seen apart from these mere images. This way of perceiving things then contributes to a passive life.

*Application to the movie: When Lenny is merely accepting what he is told of or what he immediately experience, and not seeking knowledge and truth for himself.

3. Shadows: The shadows in the allegory refer to representation of the ‘real’ things that casted the ‘shadows’. The prisoners are mistaken to focus on viewing the shadows instead on the things which casted those shadows.

*Application to the movie: Lenny had his memory, notes, tattoos, and photos as his own ‘shadows’.

4. Puppeteers: The puppeteers in the allegory represent those persons who manipulate or suggest the ‘representation’ of the real objects.

*Application to the movie: Natalie and Teddy were the puppeteers in the movie who manipulated the ‘shadows’ in Lenny’s life. Both Teddy and Natalie took advantage of the condition of Lenny (having Short-term memory).

5. Searching for the ‘Truth’: The event where one of the prisoners were released from his chains pertains to “truth-seekers” or those people who are willing to know the ‘truth’ apart from what they immediately see and experience.

*Application to the movie: There are 2 types of people in the world: (1) those who are afraid to search for the truth (thus resembles the image of a prisoner who would want to immediately go back to the cave), (2) those who are willing to search the truth (resembles a person who would look at the sun and finally see the truth)

In Lenny’s case, he decided to go back to the cave, to go back to the ‘lies’. This was shown when Lenny decided to pursue his search for revenge to “John G.” who was in the end identified as “Teddy”.


1. Gives Plato’s idea of what a virtuous leader should be. *That a leader who was enlightened should be ready to go back to the cave and rescue his fellow prisoners from the darkness.

2. Our senses are not reliable in knowing the ‘truth’ because the things we view from our senses are mere representations of the ‘real things’ which is found on another realm, and the things we perceive as ‘truths’ are manipulated and controlled by other people.

3. That people, all of us, should seek for enlightenment.

4. It is not easy to be an ‘enlightened’ person. From the process of accepting that what you formerly deem as truths are mere representation of things and might be false, to the way other people would view you as a person.

*In the allegory, we can see that the prisoner who was freed from his chains, was able to see that the things they see were mere shadows, and was able to see the world outside the cave, was rejected by the other prisoners who were left inside the cave. No one would believe him, some would even call him crazy, etc.

Q#2: How does the mind separate false reality from true reality?

Everything is a product of our illusion- our desires and wants in life have been stimulated by notions we believe as the definition of a “perfect life.” Purposefully, our mind averts the fact of reality to pacify our extensive desires in life, thus, creating a whole new sphere of thinking- the false reality. Apparently, we barely can distinguish what in life can be dubbed as the “true reality” and “false reality” as we are sugarcoated with a lot of stereotypes and views. The fine line between our fantasies and realities has ledour minds to believe that more improbable things would happen in our lives. In the movie, Leonard’s search for happiness was the “meat” of the story. Had he known of the truth behind the facet of “justice” for his wife, he shouldn’t have been wandering, but his ideas are cloistered with what he defines as “happiness” – that he can only feel such if he kills the murderer. The implication, therefore, is how we tend to utilize truth and reality. These concepts become less comprehensive when dealing with our experiences for we are inclined to believing and doing something that can make us feel better. Unconsciously, we divert our attention to a false reality just to satisfy our happiness and that of others even if we know for the fact that at the end of the day, true reality would just eventually haunt us.

In effect, philosophies have claimed that there is “true reality” below the surface which consists of the underlying concepts of atoms, matter, and among others. Basically, what we see is what we believe, however, gears our perception to an illusion. At first, we may seem to believe what we see upfront but in deeper thought, it has this stimulation confusion which encapsulates our beliefs and notions. It is through the structure why we tend to be more inclined to believing false appearances- thus, false reality.

Philosophers have initiated three categories by which we tend to believe on false appearances. First, the physical appearance itself, that is, nature or everything around us tricks us considering the fact that we have limited knowledge and senses. Following is self-deceptions by the mind. These are the factors which trample over or fabricate our notions of reality just so we can pacify our longing for our desires. Also, coming up with such fabricated structure of mind helps to gauge ourselves away from what reality wants us to believe- that life is full of suffering. Actually, this becomes a matter of self-defense or to repress from sadness, doubts and fears. Lastly, here are the “mirrors” by which we highly depend to for they are the ones who have been there in our lives ready to guide us. However, in contrast to the stereotypical manner that everyone is innately “good” to lead us to the “right path”, these “mirrors” can somehow lead us otherwise. Sometimes, through the cover ups and patches provided by these mirrors, we are stirred or directed to a different reality- a reality which, in the first place, hasn’t been there and shouldn’t be there.

This, therefore, raises its connection with Buddhism, that is, everyone wants to reach “nirvana” or simply our desires, but as we all know, it’s not easy. Just to feel contented and happy, we always look onto the false reality sugarcoating our minds (and that falls under self-deception) with what is really true and what our “true” mirrors say. In the allegory of the cave, on the other hand, one factor which seemed to overpower other factors is the concept of “being lured by others”. The prisoners have been lured by nature and by other people considering the fact that they stayed true to what they believe which is, that the shadows are the “real” ones and not what the other prisoner saw when he got out of the chain.

The binary oppositions, therefore, simply initiate the disturbance created by other people, ourselves and by nature. The effects have gone to the point where we can barely distinguish “true” from “false” and that we hardly equip ourselves with the truth, which in the first place, has been there “hanging” but our grip is just too loose enough to forbid it goodbye.

Applications in the movie:

  1. Lenny has always been manipulated by his two mirrors- Natalie and Teddy, who later confused Lenny, to who holds the “truth”. Somehow, because of the two people, they tend to patch up what should be known by Lenny.
  2. Apparently, in the movie, the environment he leaves in gives him the impression of a false reality. The surroundings he has been exposed to lure his senses later made him believe that the killer is just there ready to get killed considering abandoned buildings and the like.
  3.  Lenny’s more preoccupied to reaching happiness if only he kills the killer. And just to satisfy his thirst for “justice” and “happiness, he stirs away from what reality dictates.

Q#3: What sort of “mirrors” do people with normal memories rely on to remind themselves who they are? 

People with normal memories utilize their brain’s capacity to recall the past. Possible tools or “mirrors” they usually use could be planners, a sticky note, a novel they have seen a part of their lives in, a diary, a picture album, or even people they have or haven’t met and supposed that they act similarly to the way they live. It can also be a movie or a play where they have seen exact patterns, beliefs. These “mirrors” can go as extreme as absolute belief in –isms; they can also be dogmas. Some “mirrors” appear in our dreams. The usual and most traditional way to recall ourselves is to ask someone who knew one way back in the days, who we used to be just like our parents, our childhood playmates, house servants, or the people who have seen us grow in our primary environment.

There are mirrors that make a person look stout, there are mirrors that make a person look skinnier. Take note that mirrors can also deceive us and alter the way we think about ourselves.

The concept of “like attracts like” is universally known. We tend to be drawn to people who remind us who we are. (The DailyOm, 2013)

Those people whom we are drawn to reflect our inner selves back at us, we act as mirrors for them. The way we look at people in our lives can tell us a lot about ourselves. However trustworthy these people are, they will always have different impressions about us that makes the narration biased, having different experiences compared to others. Therefore, mirrors are also difficult to trust, whether or not we are part of those who have normal memory.

Q#4: What does that say about truth when Lenny says “Do I lie to myself to be happy? In your case, Teddy… yes, I will.”?

In a scene where the film is coming closer to its end, Teddy said something to Leonard. He said, ”Fuck you! I gave you a reason to live and you were more than happy to help. You lie to yourself! You don’t want the truth. The truth is a fucking coward. So you make up your own truth.” Based on the film and my opinion, Truth is relative. Different people can perceive it as a different thing/event/whatever. For example, in a psychological exam, several pictures are flashed and people are asked to distinguish the pictures. After the exam, people have a different perception of these pictures. They claim what they have seen as truth based on their own senses and experiences. But in reality, what they believe as true is doubtful. It can happen that what is true to other person is not true to other person. Furthermore, if the truth is unbearable or painful to remember, we forget about it and constitute a lie to convince ourselves that we are living a happy life. In the case of Leonard, he constitutes a lie that Teddy is John G. (the guy who raped and murdered his wife) so that he may live his life with a purpose. He said to himself that he must be sure that Teddy will not use him again. In the scene where

Leonard jots down Teddy’s license plate, Leonard asked himself if he needs to lie to himself in order to be happy, and answered to himself “In your case, Teddy… yes I will.” He constituted his own truth so that he will have a purpose to live and attain happiness. That purpose is to kill John G. According to Alex Lickerman, M. D., “We lie to protect our interest. We lie to get wealth whether it’s material or non-material” (Lickerman, 2006). In Leonard’s case, he lied to himself so that he can attain a purpose in life. A purpose, which drives himself to live everyday.A purpose that can make him happy if fulfilled. In summary, Truth is not absolute. It can be a lie but can be perceived as truth. In Leonard’s case, he made himself believe a lie that will make a purpose for him to continue living in this cruel world.

Q#5: Discuss how Lenny’s actions follow closely either some of the 4 Noble Truths or all of them.

Though it may not be directly seen, Leonard’s actions have Buddhist undertones behind them. Upon closer analysis, we can say that his actions throughout the movie parallel to only 3 of the 4 Noble Truths. The only thing he was not able to accomplish was the complete cessation of his suffering.

1. Life means suffering

It was shown that Lenny suffered through a lot of things in the movie. He has been part of an incident which caused his retrograde amnesia, lost his wife (though this was largely his fault), been lied to and manipulated by the people he thought he could trust. Leonard suffered daily because he can never hold on to a single thought long enough for it to mean something to him. He had to rely only on his notes, but even they weren’t helpful at some points. Leonard was also angry – his anger was directed to the people whom he believed killed his wife. These emotions troubled him and brought about more suffering in his life. But it was not only psychological suffering that he had to endure; he had to endure some physical suffering as well. He inflicted pain on himself in the form of the tattoos he had on his body. He had to do this because this is the only way he could be reminded of the things he should know about the “case.”

2. The origin of suffering is attachment.

Leonard suffered because he was attached. Attached to his wife, his thirst for revenge, his hatred towards Teddy, etc. He was motivated to do the things he did because of these attachments. According to the teachings of Buddhism, there are three main causes of suffering, and these are desire, ignorance or delusion, and hatred or destructive urges (BBC Religions, 2011). Lenny displayed all three of these. He desired his wife so much that he would do anything to avenge her, he was ignorant of the truths Teddy had told him about the case, and he deluded himself into thinking that Teddy was the bad guy, and because of that, his hatred for Teddy grew and it ultimately led to him killing Teddy. Basically, ever since the day Leonard lost the ability to create new permanent memories, he has been living in a world he has created to suit his own need. He is ignorant of the truth primarily because he chooses not to believe in them, and decided to make his own.

3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.

Leonard wanted his suffering to end; he wanted to live peacefully without having to worry about the ghosts that haunt him. He did whatever he thought would release him from his suffering. For example, in order to help himself get over the loss of his wife, he decides to burn her old belongings so that he would not get reminded of her anymore. He hired an escort to alleviate his loneliness. Though these are temporary solutions to his sufferings, it should be noted that he exerted an effort. To satiate his thirst for revenge, Leonard investigated and gathered information about the identity and whereabouts of this “John G.” He thought that by killing “John G.,” he would avenge his wife’s death and finally bring peace within himself. He was wrong, of course, as he was actually partially responsible for his wife’s death and that John Gammel a.k.a. Teddy had nothing to do with the murder of his wife. But like I said, he did whatever he thought would liberate him from suffering.

4. The path to the cessation of suffering

     I believe that Lenny did not actually release himself from suffering. If the liberating force of action was apprehending or killing his wife’s rapist/killer, then his suffering would have already gone away a year ago relative to the movie’s timeline when he and Teddy caught the perpetrator. I think that Lenny’s actions such as killing Teddy and getting tattoos to help him remember “important” details are more like Band-Aid solutions to his suffering, rather than things that would bring about the cessation of his suffering

Given that the plot of the movie ended when Lenny murdered Teddy, we have absolutely no way of telling what Lenny did next after that. My best guess is that he would repress the memory of that ever happening – perhaps by burning the photographic evidence out of confusion or something – and proceed to go on a hunt for another “John G.,” as he is still looking to avenge his wife. This is assumption would mean that Lenny was not fully liberated from his suffering, and would continue to do more of the same until his end. He is another tragic hero similar to Sisyphus.

III. Conclusion

1. How is it related to Plato’s allegory of the cave?

In Plato’s allegory on the cave, the prisoners only believed what they saw in the cave was the only reality since the images in front of them was the only thing they ever saw. When the prisoner who was let free came back to tell the others what reality really was and that the images/shadows that have been shown to them for a long time have been merely an illusion, the other prisoners laughed at him. Thereason behind this is that they can’t accept the actual truth so they lie to themselves and believe only their version of the truth –what they have already accepted as the truth. In contrast with the movie Memento, Leonard made up a whole bunch of lies and made himself perceive those lies as the truth because he cannot handle the actual truth. Despite hearing the truth from Teddy, and having flashbacks of the truth too, he decided to look the other way since it was easier for him.

2. How is it related to Buddhism (4 noble truths)?

The end goal of Buddhism is to reach “enlightenment,” and the movie’s central theme basically revolves around this. The four noble truths have been inculcated in our minds relating the latter with our lives. In this context, nonetheless, it’s about Lenny and how he was able to gear his life within the wheels of Buddhism.

  • Life is full of suffering: Leonard’s life has been blanketed by sorrows considering the fact that he lost the joys of life because of his condition and his unending search for justice.
  • There is a cause for suffering: In this context, the reason why Leonard suffered is because of his inclination to “false reality,” that is, he tends to lie to himself just to feel happy. If only he believed in the truth, he wouldn’t have had such erroneous problem of searching for the unknown.
  • There is a way to eliminate suffering: With regard to Leonard’s condition, eliminating his suffering wouldn’t be as easy as having a therapy session. He needs extensive care from people, whom he considers to be his true mirrors, and must nsider his memories. He needs much more than what therapy gives.
  • There is a path leading to the cessation of suffering: At the end of the day, Leonard still embarks onto the false reality by lying to himself and apparently, is the way for him to end his sadness and fears.



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