My friend Leonard in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, whom I will call Lenny, typifies the seeker of truth and justice in his mission to kill the man who raped and killed his wife and took away his capacity to create long-term memories. Though some moments in the film, such as the moment Lenny commits what I will call his ‘original sin’, indicate that Lenny may be an unreliable narrator of his own mental condition, I will assume his own characterization to be true: Lenny remembers everything in his life that occurred before the violent incident but quickly forgets anything that occurs afterwards. His episode with Natalie most dramatically demonstrates the nature of his condition: After Natalie verbally assaults Lenny, enraging him to the point of hitting her, he unsuccessfully scrambles to write down what happened and, minutes later, worryingly asks her what happened to her face.

I refer to Lenny as the seeker of truth and justice in that his self-proclaimed mission is to find the true killer of his wife and restore justice by killing him. As such, Lenny’s struggles with short-term memory elucidate the relations between truth and justice and the concepts of information, memory, and interpretation. Lenny’s condition forces him to wrestle differently with these elements of the mind which the ordinary-minded may be said to perform passively within unconscious mental processes. As a result of his short-term memory loss, any event within Lenny’s progression toward finding his wife’s killer must be intentionally encoded and constantly retrieved anew. (Lenny’s skill for accurately encoding and interpreting his own notes and directing his attention appropriately to the most relevant is definitely an unreal element of the plot.) Lenny’s pursuit of truth and justice thus dramatically depends on his maintenance of an external memory that documents events as they occur. Furthermore, he must hold the necessary faith and mode of interpretation to retrieve events from his notes.

Within Lenny’s mental condition, original sin is committed in the purest sense—the potential for truth and justice is forever lost—when he departs even momentarily from this necessarily continuous procedure of memory-keeping. I argue that this original sin is committed when he writes “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on Teddy’s photograph, intentionally contaminating his own memory.

When Lenny scribbles “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on Teddy’s photograph, he is in a confused and agitated state. Though the confusion in this scene may be Lenny’s in relation to his total situation or mine in relation to the question of whether Lenny is himself trustworthy, Lenny’s actions at this point certainly contain a negligence for the truth that constitutes his original sin. Such photographs capture for Lenny the people he has encountered and his notes on them provide information about their relation to his mission. An unfounded note on Teddy’s photograph, a single deviation in Lenny’s procedure of memory, is permanently embedded as a new source of “truth”. In a sense, the memories Lenny inks are his lifeline, his connection to reality, carrying his story and preserving his actual orientation toward justice in the world. Lenny’s narrating voice is conclusive as he encodes the fatal lie: “Do I lie to myself to be happy? In your case, Teddy… yes, I will.”

Only the encoded signs will be remembered: “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES”. The enraged state that motivated its storage, the necessary context for its truthful interpretation, will be forgotten. Believing himself to be a just man (embodying the only hope for justice), Lenny assumes his memories to be maintained in good faith and interprets them accordingly as a source of truth (providing the only hope for truth).

Lenny’s departure from his mission to kill his wife’s actual killer parallels his departure from reality (if he had not departed already). The moment Lenny writes the note about Teddy, he incorporates a falsity into the memory in which he invests his faith. Subsequently, when Lenny forgets this moment of original sin, he forgets that his memory is corrupted and again places faith in his procedure of maintaining truth. Though truth and justice remain possible in Lenny’s mind, the truth he cannot see is that his faith is now misplaced in his documentation of himself.

Lenny of course will always believe himself to be a seeker of truth and justice, and perhaps nothing can change these sentiments. He will unendingly place his faith in the process of maintaining truth and seeking justice that he once contaminated in a moment that he allowed himself to forget.

Driving, somewhere else all of a sudden, Lenny thinks to himself: “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind.” The paradox is that only from within Lenny’s own mind is he permanently a seeker of truth and justice. Only from there does their possibility remain intact. He places his faith where he must—in the only documentation of himself and his past that could reasonably situate him in the world. Only from outside his head, from the world that is still here when Lenny closes his eyes, can it be demonstrated that he is lost. I can see that Lenny’s pursuit of truth and justice is contaminated by a self-created lie—by original sin. Only from here can it be determined that his pursuit is futile.