Sunday, January 06, 2013

Out of time

The world is passing away (1 Jn 2:17)

Amnesia is popular plot device. It takes two basic forms. One is where the protagonist suffers from retrograde amnesia. In one common plot, the protagonist is out of town or out of state on a business trip when he suffers a concussion from traffic accidental. He wakes up in a hospital bed, not knowing who he is. And he’s surrounded by strangers who don’t know who he is.

Eventually, through news coverage, someone recognizes his name or face, and comes to the hospital to claim him. Back home, everyone knows him, but he doesn’t remember anyone. He’s taken to old haunts to jog his memory, which returns in fits and starts.

Films that exploit this plot device include Dark City, Past Tense, Mulholland Drive, and the Bourne series.

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, this has an analogy with the elderly:

The other form, which is more common to SF stories, is just this opposite. The protagonist wakes up in what seems to be the same world where he went to sleep, although he notices a few odd changes. At first, everything is deceptively similar. Everyone is familiar. He knows everyone. But no one knows him. He’s a total stranger to him. It’s as if he’s been deleted from their memories.

A variant of this theme is that everyone knows him, but they have a different past. The past he remembers is not the past they remember sharing with him.

At first the protagonist confronts them. Challenges them. When, however, he doesn’t make any headway, when he’s in danger of being committed, he decides to play along with the role he’s been assigned in this new realty.

But he doesn’t know what to make of it. It’s as if he was suddenly transported to a parallel universe which is eerily similar, yet at some point in the recent past it branched off in a slightly different direction, resulting in jarring differences.

Or it’s as if their old memories have been erased and replaced with false memories. Or maybe they are remembering what really happened, and he’s the one suffering from false implanted memories. Or maybe he’s been abducted and subjected to an elaborate simulation. Or maybe he’s just going mad. What’s more likely–that he’s sane and everyone else is bonkers, or everyone else is sane and he is bonkers? 

Although this can only happen in SF stories, it does have a real life analogue. And, once again, this involves the elderly. But unlike old folks who forget the past, this is where old folks remember the past, but no one else remembers.

Back around 1980, there was an elderly woman attending the same church I was attending at the time. I think she was about 88. She suffered a medical breakdown and was hospitalized. I visited her a few times in the hospital.

She was a lifelong resident of Seattle. I believe she was born in the 1890s. She would have been a teenager in 1910 or thereabouts. 

The world she knew growing up changed rapidly and radically in her lifetime. I guess she was a window. If she had grown children, they never visited her in the hospital.

She was very much like a character in a SF story where the character remembers a past everyone else has forgotten–or never knew (because it wasn’t their timeline). The world she knew had been replaced. The people she knew had been replaced. Like a stage set. There was a mismatch between the world in her head, and the world outside. Between the world she remembered, and the world in which she now found herself.

Although forgetting is a way of feeling lost, remembering can be another way of feeling lost–if no one shares your memories. If the present world no longer resembles your past world. You have a map, but all the old landmarks are gone.

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