Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/03/2009

Habit or condition? Epistemology, Hypergraphia, Memento, and Guy Pearce

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Guy Peace, Memento

The three pounds of me that I love most fill my cranium. I’m writing today on a tangent * (when is that so?—my whole life feels tangential: “meeting at a point without intersecting”). I wonder if my need to write is not any kind of compulsive-obsessive disorder or hypergraphia. It’s habit. I simply can’t get started with any other activity in the day until I write. Or give in to another compulsions. A writing a day keeps insanity away.   What  “normal” writers may not understand (perhaps I am perfectly “normal,” and all writers do what I do; how will I ever know?) is that it doesn’t matter what I write as long as I’m doing it. Sometimes I have a goal, usually not. I just start writing and stuff comes out.

If you ask me (non sequitur) my favorite movie, I’ll tell you it’s a toss-up between  Memento and Mulholland Drive (or Chinatown if I’m in an especially dark place). Most people are incredulous. “They are so weird.” Well, yes, they are. Do I understand them? No. But I have my opinions. I have a file of Memento quotes. The best is:

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, oh my, Guy Pearce):  I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?… Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.

We all need [something] to remind ourselves who we are. I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. On October 23 my post was about my self-pitying little question lying out under the stars when I was in high school, “Where does it end? It has to end somewhere. And what’s beyond where it ends?” Well, that question is the same as, “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind.” Wrapping all of my idiosyncrasies into one bundle, I might as well admit that one of the reasons Memento affected me so much, and perhaps the main reason I remember it is  because Guy Pearce said those words. But that’s another day’s writing.

In second grade, when I first began to experience dissociation as the constant worst symptom of what I later learned are  Temporal Lobe Epilepsy seizures, I started wondering (as, I should think, everyone does, whether they have TLE or not) if I was real. I decided I am “the figment of someone’s imagination.” That has been one of my inner dialogues for fifty years. I am the figment of someone’s imagination. The question is, whose? The Big Bang’s? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and Jesus and Mohammed)? Shiva? Or some guy I met in a strange place, or a teacher, or my parents? Who has me floating around in their mind pretending I’m real? That’s the big question, even bigger than, “Where does it end?” Because, if I can’t figure out if I’m real, or exactly how, then what does it matter where it ends? Oh, I know all those philosophical explanations: “I think, therefore, I am.”

When I was a graduate student working on my second PhD, which, mercifully, I never finished—who on earth needs two except to brag about it—I was in a seminar studying Fitzgerald and Hemingway. One of the other students said something about “epistemology,” and I was dumbfounded. I had never heard anyone use the word in an out-loud sentence. I still don’t know how to use it in a sentence. The dictionary says it’s, “The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity.” Just what the hell that means, I’m not quite sure.

But my problem, like Leonard Shelby’s (Guy Pearce) is that I have to “BELIEVE the world’s still there” because I don’t (at least when I’m having a seizure) KNOW it’s still there. I have no epistemological certainty about the world. (Ha! I can use it in a sentence!)

I think the people in that seminar would have said I’m dealing with an ontological, not an epistemological question (from the Greek ὄν, genitive ὄντος: of being (neuter participle of εἶναι: to be) and λογία, study or science. I’m asking the philosophical question of the nature of “being,” not of “knowing”).

I’ve arrived back at the question of my compulsive writing. What is all of this for? Who gives a rat’s behind about epistemology or ontology? Let me pull this back from the tangent.

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Guy Pearce, Memento

Yesterday I found (don’t even think about how or why) an article about Søren Kierkegaard. I’ve read quite a lot of his writings (what depressive person wouldn’t?). I came across this sentence, “Theologically understood, the inconsistency of such a rejection of acceptance is undermined by the desire to establish a refusal of forgiveness in the self’s epistemological reflections on its own sinfulness.” **  I suppose that, if I had ever had any ability or desire to discipline my brain (my favorite three pounds, remember), I would not only understand a sentence like that, but I would think it was important. (Kierkegaard must have had a great problem with epistemology; I’m sure the first time I ever heard the word was in a seminary class when I was working on my first unfinished graduate degree.)

The fact is, however, I cannot discipline either my mental tangents or the way my writing comes out. I can’t imagine writing an “academic” article (even though I did, once, write an entire PhD dissertation that earned that Dr. before my name). I can scarcely imagine writing 1200 words (about the length of most of my postings here—I’ll bet no one is still reading) that makes sense to anyone but me. Is this some kind of compulsion or just massive lack of discipline.

The end of the tangent is that I can’t do anything on any given day until I have written. I tried this morning. I was working on stuff for my classes. I began to have a pain in my chest. I began to feel as if I were about to cry. The stress was getting to me. So I started to write about it, and it started dissipating. And then I started writing this, and—except for the sense that I’m about to cry, all of the tension has gone away. It’s better than sex. Well, maybe not.

Don’t ask me why I wrote any of this stuff today. Or why I’m posting it here for all the world (all five of you who may stumble upon it) to read. I don’t know. I have no epistemological foundation for any of this. In fact, I’m still not sure that I’m not a figment of someone’s imagination, so I guess I have no ontological understanding, either.

If I am the figment of someone’s imagination, I hope it’s Leonard Shelby’s.

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I have to believe when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there

* tangent (adj.) 1594, “meeting at a point without intersecting,” from L. tangentum (nom. tangens), prp. of tangere “to touch,” from PIE base *tag– “to touch, to handle” (cf. L. tactus “touch,” Gk. tetagon “having seized,” O.E. paccian “stroke, strike gently”). First used by Dan. mathematician Thomas Fincke in “Geomietria Rotundi” (1583). The noun also is attested from 1594; extended sense of “slightly connected with a subject” is first recorded 1825. Tangentia is recorded from 1630; “divergent, erratic” is from 1787.

** Podmore, Simon D. “Kierkegaard as physician of the soul: on self-forgiveness and despair.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 37.3 (2009): 174+.



  1. […] (Christopher Nolan, 2001), the central character Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) says, “memory’s unreliable . . . it changes the shape of a room, it can change the color of a car. And memories can be […]


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