Beginning Thursday, the Museum of Modern Art will celebrate its addition of the Jason Bourne trilogy (2002's "The Bourne Identity," 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy," and 2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum") to the museum's permanent collection with screenings of all three films. Then on Friday night, MoMA's Titus 1 theater will host a symposium featuring the producer, screenwriter, and film educator James Schamus as he moderates a discussion with Doug Liman, director of the first "Bourne" film, and Dr. Giulio Tononi, a prominent psychiatrist and neuroscientist with a particular interest in the real-life underpinnings of the kind of memory disorders that are the basis for Jason Bourne's dramatic on-screen struggles.
The Jason Bourne of Robert Ludlum's 1980 novel "The Bourne Identity" cannot match the lethal skill set the character wields in the films. Ludlum's print vision is in many ways an update of the influential Scottish author John Buchan's literary creation Richard Hannay, the hero of the 1915 novel (and Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film) "The Thirty-Nine Steps." But as conceived by Tony Gilroy (who has script credits on all three films) and William Blake Herron, Matt Damon's boyish, blond, blue-eyed, and buffed programmed killer bears more of a resemblance to a post-Watergate, black-ops version of Marvel Comics's scientifically advanced World War II "super soldier" Captain America than to the Bourne of literature, who was portrayed by a weedy, patrician, and flannel-clad Richard Chamberlain in a 1988 television miniseries adaptation.
Heroes have changed in 25 years. In this P.S.L. era (Post-Stan Lee, architect of Captain America's 1960s rebirth, Spider-Man, and Marvel's highly influential brand of testosterone-flavored bubblegum soap mythology), the appeal and energy of genre storytelling come from the impact of the intrinsically epic, timeless, and metaphoric nature of super-powered heroes ("Good Lord, I have the proportionate strength and dexterity of a spider!") colliding with the personal and social obstacles we all struggle to overcome ("Darn it, I'm still a nerd.").
Jason Bourne's particular dual super-heroic/super-hung up nature is summed up in a marvelously written declaration in Mr. Liman's initial entry in the series, in which Bourne lists every salient detail he has involuntarily cataloged to make a war zone out of the peaceful roadside café in which he sits. "I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself," he confides to his ad hoc traveling companion, Marie, a Euro-slacker played by "Run Lola Run" star Franka Potente. "I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray truck outside, and, at this altitude, I can run flat-out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?"
Most of us take never-ending baby steps down the road of life, clinging to our self-conscious sense of who we are while forever confused about our latent potential. But Jason Bourne holds the opposite end of the rope. A creature of lethal instinct whose clear sense of his past and identity has been shattered by ruthless government training and on-the-job trauma, Bourne is all capability and no self-knowledge.
"This is something that you actually see, more or less, in many disorders of memory and brain function," Dr. Tononi said in an interview. A professor of psychiatry who holds a distinguished chair in consciousness science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he speaks from firsthand clinical experience. "What is depicted there is a situation that rarely but occasionally occurs in the real world which is usually called 'dissociative amnesia' or 'psychogenic amnesia.'" Jason Bourne, Dr. Tononi said, "can't access his history. He is otherwise fully conscious. He knows what he's trying to do and can think about what just happened to him, and can worry about why he doesn't remember anything."
Dr. Tononi speculated that the seeds of the series appeal (to the tune of some $945 million in worldwide combined ticket sales) lie in a small death of memory that is familiar to many. "It's like the way many of us feel in the morning in those few seconds when you wake up and, for a moment, don't really know where you are and how you got there or don't even know who you are for a short time," he said.
The sturdy verisimilitude that grounds the outrageous action and conspiracy of the "Bourne" films, Dr. Tononi said, lies in their continuing exploration of the essential importance of personal narrative in individual human experience. There's a taste of Bourne's dilemma in a phenomenon most New Yorkers know well from drifting down the city's sidewalks.
"Sometimes when you walk absentmindedly, you're not really self-conscious of who you are and thinking about why you're doing what you're doing and whether what you're doing fits with your own character," he said. "You're just taking in what comes at you without much reflection. Nevertheless, you know that the moment you look for it, your past is always available. You know you can reconstruct that very rapidly. Bourne doesn't have that."
The series' visionary rapid-fire bursts of bone- and bumper-crunching PG-13 violence notwithstanding, Jason Bourne's dilemma represents a full-blown case of a small-scale nightmare we all harbor.
"People are worried when they lose their identity card," Dr. Totoni said. "When you lose your own identity, it's much more of a problem, I guess."