There was this French film I saw some years ago. I couldn’t remember the title, the director, and the names of the actors, mainly because all of them were in hard-to-pronounce French. All I remember is that it was a story about two lovers grappling with the tremendous dilemma of memory. If love is true and pure and eternal, how does it measure when you lose your memory? When you no longer can remember anything, even your own name?
The woman has a degenerative disease that gets worse and kills her short-term memory. Her memory and all the things she remembers—even the identity of her lover—is like a carpet being rolled up, or a star imploding into nothingness. She lives out her days posting her notes all over the place, on the refrigerator, on the doorknob, on the alarm clock. Notes about her daily schedule, what she does at this and that hour, what she buys for breakfast, which of the two toothbrushes were hers. All she remembers is that she is in love with this man—this man she finds silently crying at night and has the courage to tell her her stew tastes great even if it tastes like gutter slush—but even that, that last thing, is fading in her mind. The feeling of lostness, of blackness, descends more and more on her each day like a thick, impenetrable blanket. The dilemma is so massive that the little things and great sacrifices they do to keep their love alive appear so pathetic and small. Until one morning, he finds her in the miDle of a courtyard in the rain, her memory—and everything that mattered in their lives together—gone forever. The End. Or so that’s how I remember it.
In Stephen King’s novel Dark Tower, in Book One, the Gunslinger asks Brown, a man who lives amid the tumbleweeds in the desert, if he believes in the afterlife.
Brown nods, munching the beans and the corn. The beans, Stephen King says, are like bullets in the Gunslinger’s mouth. Afterlife? Brown nods and says, I think this is it.
Some months ago, when somebody asked if I believed in hell, I told her, Yes, I do. Hell is here (pointing at my heart), hell is here, (pointing at my head). Hell is you and I, living together with our desperate, separate, unbridgeable confusion.
Hell is this narrow space through which we all walk and dance with our spikes and blades and other deadly things that we hate but need to live with to survive our days. Hell is the kid outside the glass wall, peering wistfully at the warm, happy party inside.
That is hell, and it exists in jagged corners and small edges of all our lives. It happens here. Now. There’s nothing supernatural about it.
As Stephen King’s Brown said, the two of them eating beans in the middle of the desert: I think this is it.
In Ynarritu’s film 21 Grams, the thesis revolves around the fact that we all lose 21 grams of body weight when we die. Everyone. 21 grams. No more, no less. Years ago, somebody told me that that 21 grams was the soul, departing. Yet, somebody also told me (this one’s smarter) that it can be explained by Einstein’s e=mc2. You make the right transpositions, make it mass equals energy over velocity of light squared. Or to put it simply, energy is also mass. When we die, we lose mass because we finally lose the body’s energy—we lose all the minute electricity that used to power our muscles, heart, neurons. All that minute electricity, upon dying, is the 21 grams that everyone loses. It’s not the soul, my friend said. Don’t be so simple.
But this isn’t the point, the film tells us. The point is that when you lose 21 grams, what do you really lose? It’s equal to a stack of nickels, a bar of chocolate, Ynarritu says—but it’s also somebody’s world collapsing, fates realigned, stories cut short. When that happens, what is it really are we measuring? What happens, what is gained, and ultimately, what is lost?
When you die, or you lose your memory, what is really lost?
Love, for one, becomes a dried-out corpse, a joke that’s no longer funny. Hell, heaven, love, hatred, memory—all those absolute human reasons and absolute truths, they are matter, Yossarian realized in Heller’s Catch-22. Matter. Garbage. Things that rot, crumble, scatter in the air, vanish. When you lose the material foundation, all those supposed “eternal” truths fall down like a stack of cards.
Brown says, “I think this is it.” I can imagine the Gunslinger, who has seen it all when the world moved on and seemed different, and who has grown to realize that both the dreadful and joyful things around him are threads of a story the Man In Black is weaving, I can imagine him nodding in assent.
I also think this is it, the Gunslinger would have said. All else is shit.
[Written on June 13, 2005]