John Locke was alive now and watched the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he would probably consider Clementine
Kruczynksi’s and Joel Barish’s decision to erase every memory they have of each
other to be an erasure of their personal identities. The film explores the
philosophical issue of personal identity, primarily whether our personal
identity is linked to our memories. Clementine abruptly chooses to erase her
memories of her boyfriend Joel following an argument they have. Once Joel finds
out about her actions, he also rushes to Dr. Mierzwiak’s memory-removal
business Lacuna, Inc. to expunge his memories of her and the heartbreak he
feels. Because Dr. Mierzwiak requires his patients to turn over every item, such
as letters, pictures, etc., that remind them of the person they want to forget before
they undergo the procedure, Clementine and Joel no longer possess anything that
is reminiscent of their relationship. By the time Joel regrets it, Dr.
Mierzwiak and his brain technicians have already hooked him up to the brain
equipment while he is sleeping, and they delete every memory of Clementine. Nonetheless,
the two exes meet again. Even though they do not have any recollection of ever
knowing one another, there still is an attraction between the two. Clementine and Joel eventually learn that they
underwent a memory-removal procedure to forget each other from Dr. Mierzwiak’s secretary.
Still, they agree to move forward as a couple.
other events in the film must be mentioned because they influence the outcome
of Clementine and Joel’s relationship. First, Dr. Mierzwiak’s secretary, Mary
Svevo, sends the doctor’s patients documents and tape recordings concerning their
procedure following the revelation that Dr. Mierzwiak had carried out the memory-removal
procedure on her too. Prior to the procedure, she loved him and that posed a
problem for his marriage. Another important event is that one of Dr.
Mierzwiak’s brain technicians, Patrick, develops a crush on Clementine as they
are wiping out her memories of Joel. To try to make Clementine fall in love
with him, he steals Joel’s items from his relationship with Clementine from Dr.
Mierzwiak’s office in order to win her over. However, his attempts are
unsuccessful. Joel overhears Patrick
discussing his pursuit of Clementine while simultaneously sleeping during the
memory removal procedure and experiencing the memories one by one as they are
being erased. As his frustration with both Patrick’s manipulative plan and
himself for proceeding with the procedure builds, he concludes that Patrick is
taking his personal identity.
remark highlights the underlying theme of personal identity more than any other
line uttered by a character in the film. By linking the items associated with
him and Clementine’s relationship, which are essentially memories, to his
personal identity, he believes at this moment that his memories form his
personal identity. In other words, if he no longer has the memories that remind
him of Clementine, then he is not the same person he once was. His statement
aligns with John Locke’s concept of memory-criterion found in Chapter 27 of
Book II of An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding. Locke claims that personal identity is rooted in an individual’s
ability to remember experiences from their past, thus connecting their current
consciousness with their past consciousness. According to Locke’s argument, the
Joel who cannot remember Clementine after having every trace of her wiped out
of his memory would not be the same Joel who could recall knowing her. Similarly,
the Clementine who has no memory of Joel is not the same Clementine who could
Joel’s opinion that Patrick is stealing his personal identity becomes
irrelevant once he permanently loses his memories of Clementine and his
memories of having her erased are deleted by the Lacuna technicians. Based on
Locke’s view of personal identity, the Joel and Clementine who meet following
the memory-removal procedure are different people from who they were before.
Yet, the film’s ending in which the two decide to give their relationship
another try as “different people” sends a message about personal identity that
contrasts with Locke’s argument. By showing that Clementine and Joel are
intrigued by each other despite not having any memories that they were once in
love, the film demonstrates that who an individual is as a person, their “self”
or personal identity, is not solely dependent on their memory. Additionally, the film provides another
example to support this message with Dr. Mierzwiak’s secretary Mary. She too
falls in love again, even though she cannot remember she fell in love with Dr.
Mierzwiak before. After seeing the
film’s conclusion, it becomes evident that Locke’s argument is not error-free.
Clementine, Joel, and Mary rid their minds of certain memories, but it did not
change who they were overall. They each behaved the same and fell for the same
person again. The film seems to imply that not being able to trace your
consciousness to past periods in your life does not mean that your identity has
changed. Perhaps, Locke did not consider an important point concerning personal
identity, which is that every past experience is not integral to shaping our personal
identity. If an individual could not remember a person they dated their first
semester of college, it still might not have any effect on who they are,
especially if the relationship did not alter their “self.” For this reason, memory
cannot be the only basis from which someone can identify their self.
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does not merely provide us with romance and
sci-fi. It leads us to question what we consider to be the makings of ourselves
or personal identity. More specifically, it examines if our memory constructs
our personal identity and if we are still the same person even when some of our
memories cannot be retrieved. Ultimately, the film depicts the connection between
the self and memory as weak.