Dearest Lady Masham,
I am writing to you about something absolutely extraordinary; something that I cannot explain without the fear of being termed a lunatic. I confide in you with the firm conviction that you believe I am mentally sane, and that I speak the truth. Before I proceed, it is my obligation to apologise for failing to write to you in the recent months. Such is the nature of these events I am about to describe, that I found myself incapable of much interaction.
Four months ago, I was in Amsterdam, strolling down the Warmoestraat, as is my wont. It was rather late in the afternoon, and there were no people around. A flying carriage – yes, a flying carriage- appeared out of nowhere, and before I knew it, there was a wispy young man in front of me. He asked me if I was John Locke, and I nodded. He said that he came from the future. I didn’t believe him at first of course, as no sane man would, but he appeared to know things about me that nobody else in the world at this point does. Besides, he came in a flying carriage!
I decided to believe him, for the sake of conversation at the very least, and asked him who he was, and what it was that he wanted from me. He said his name was Nick Hill and that he was coming from the East Indies of the 21st century. A certain Doctor Baindur, he said, was teaching him at university about my work, and he had something to show me. I was flattered, certainly, but I was also intrigued.
A woman and not just any, but a doctor, teaching philosophy at a university? And in the East Indies? The 21st century? My work? I wanted to know more.
“What do you want to show me?” I asked him.
He asked me to enter the flying carriage, which I did. Before I could even begin to think about what was happening, I found myself having to contend with the most bizarre sensation I have ever experienced. It felt like my body was being torn into a thousand pieces, and I was going to die. This lasted for only a second or so. “Here, Mr. Locke,” he said, opening the door of the carriage, “welcome to the 21st century.” I would love to describe everything I encountered in that strange place, but I suppose that would amount to several volumes of writing. Therefore, I will jump straightaway to what I want to tell you.
A cinema hall, he called it; that’s where he took me. He bought me a delightfully strange chemical concoction called Coca Cola, and similarly delightful snack called popcorn. We were seated, along with hundreds of others, in a dark room facing a blank wall. I nearly jumped up in fright when the wall began to move, or rather, something began to move on the wall. It was an incredibly realistic painting that had acquired a life of its own. “Mr. Locke,” he said, rousing me from my trance-like manner, “this is a story that will fascinate you, as it directly engages with your conceptions of identity.” I did not know what he was referring to. For many years, I have been thinking long and hard about what constitutes personal identity, but have been unable to come up with a satisfactory answer. That might soon change though, for what I witnessed over the next couple of hours was truly illuminating.
The movie, as he called it, was about a man named Leonard Shelby who appears to have lost his ability to form memories. His wife seems to have been murdered by the man who also brought about this strange medical condition in him. He resorts to fairly abnormal behavior, using all manners of sophisticated tools, to try and keep track of his life, while also attempting to find out who was responsible for his wife’s murder and his current state. As the story moved along, I realized that things weren’t as simple as they seemed, and that he appeared to inhabit two completely different states of consciousness, with two different sets of memory. In one, he was the aggrieved victim seeking vengeance for the murder of his wife. In another, he was the murderer himself, who had-consciously, or unconsciously-invented this entirely new person to deal with the harsh reality of his actions.
Two different states of consciousness, and two completely different identities. Two different people!
This was the Eureka moment I have been awaiting for a very long time now. I have had several suspicions about the manner in which identity operates, and this movie confirmed many of these.
For one, I have always suspected that the nature of the substance that holds memory is perhaps irrelevant to the nature of how it actually operates in relation to personal identity. This is demonstrated by the fact that the substance in Leonard Shelby’s case is to some degree independent of the body and the soul. Any semblance of a long-term memory is mostly in the form of tattoos and photographs and notes.
The ending was particularly illuminating; in its exploration of how much of what we remember is a matter of conscious choice. When the truth is finally revealed to him at last, Leonard Shelby decides to disregard it. More consciously, he writes to his future self, asking him not to trust the man who has revealed the truth to him, thereby shaping his future memories, as temporary as they may be. I now very strongly believe that identity consists essentially of consciousness that can extend backwards to unite thought and action. This moving painting showed me in very concrete terms, how such an extension accounts for identity-and independently so-of the nature of substance. I was completely speechless, and my mind was fluttering with a million different ideas.
I wanted to stay longer, and understand more, but he said it was unsafe. He said it would alter the fabric of reality in an irreconcilable way or something of that manner. And before I knew it, I was back on the Warmoestraat, at the exact same time and date as I had left. It was almost as though nothing had changed.
The flying carriage was gone, Nick Hill was gone.
About the Writer
Nikhil Ravishanker is an undergraduate student at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities.