By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 21, 2010
Two of the most popular movies of the past few years are The Hangover and The Bourne Identity. What do they have in common? They’re both amnesia stories.
I love amnesia stories. What could be more fun? Guy wakes up face-down on the floor of a villa in Vegas, or floating in a wetsuit off the coast of Marseilles. He remembers nothing. Who is he? How did he get there? And where the hell did that tiger in the bathroom come from?
Why do we love amnesia stories? Because we sense, at some level, that they’re the secret narrative of our lives. We’re searching for ourselves too. We know we’re somebody; we’re just not sure who. Remember Stanislavski’s famous questions that every actor must ask himself in a role: “Who am I? How did I get here? What do I want?” In My Dinner With Andre, Andre Gregory relates an encounter-type experience that he witnessed in a Polish forest, where real people–guests at an event–were really assessing their real lives by asking those same questions.
Do you feel like that sometimes? I do. If you’ve read The War of Art, you know that there’s a philosophy, a view of life that undergirds the concepts of Resistance and Professionalism and Inspiration. That philosophy says:
Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.
Jackson Browne says he writes a song to find out what he thinks. He doesn’t know going in. The process for him is one of discovery, of self-discovery. That’s what I’m trying to do with my books. Who was I before The Legend of Bagger Vance? I had no idea that stuff was in me until it suddenly came out. Or Gates of Fire, or any of my other books. I didn’t even know I was interested in such subjects until they seized me and compelled me to immerse myself in them. One of the most telling moments in The Hangover is when Stu the dentist (Ed Helms) says something like, “I would never have done that. But it must have been me because I did it.”
That’s how I feel. It must have been “me” or I wouldn’t have written it.
One of the mandatory scenes in any amnesia story is when the protagonist encounters someone who knows him–a lover perhaps, who suddenly rushes up and kisses him, or slaps his face. Or an enemy who draws a gun and tries to kill him. These are clues. Like Mister Chow leaping naked out of the Mercedes trunk. Or Clive Owen as he’s dying, telling Matt Damon, “We always work alone.” Who are these guys? What do they know about us that we don’t?
Friends and lovers help unravel the mystery of who we are. So do our passions. To me the practice of art or entrepreneurship is an Amnesia Story. The act is one of self-discovery. Who are we? What are we good at? What brings us joy?
Why is the practice of art or entrepreneurship a vehicle for self-discovery? Because these enterprises are ours alone. They spring from the unfeigned gifts, joys and enthusiasms of our hearts. They are us “at play”– and thus at our most authentic.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises in us, our life’s star,
Hath elsewhere had its setting
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come,
From God who is our home.
I’m with Wordsworth on that. Including the “sleep and forgetting” part. The ancient Greeks believed that souls before their birth–or returning to life after their round beneath the earth–were required to drink from the stream of Lethe. That draught (like the light-flasher in Men in Black) erased all memory of prior existences.
I have a theory that charisma arises from authenticity. When a writer has found his voice, when a singer has discovered her style, they have power. We feel it. It draws us to them. Why? Because we want it too. We want to be ourselves they way they are themselves. One of the reasons wild animals are so compelling is that they are entirely themselves. They can’t be otherwise.
That’s how I want to be. I want to “coincide with myself,” as the great Southern writer Walker Percy phrased it. I don’t want to second-guess myself, in life or in art. I want to speak in my own voice and act from my own center. Plato said that nothing is ever learned, it is only remembered. I believe that. It’s the Amnesiac’s Story.