IfJohn Locke was alive now and watched the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he would probably consider ClementineKruczynksi’s and Joel Barish’s decision to erase every memory they have of eachother to be an erasure of their personal identities. The film explores thephilosophical issue of personal identity, primarily whether our personalidentity is linked to our memories. Clementine abruptly chooses to erase hermemories of her boyfriend Joel following an argument they have. Once Joel findsout about her actions, he also rushes to Dr. Mierzwiak’s memory-removalbusiness Lacuna, Inc. to expunge his memories of her and the heartbreak hefeels.
Because Dr. Mierzwiak requires his patients to turn over every item, suchas letters, pictures, etc., that remind them of the person they want to forget beforethey undergo the procedure, Clementine and Joel no longer possess anything thatis reminiscent of their relationship. By the time Joel regrets it, Dr.
Mierzwiak and his brain technicians have already hooked him up to the brainequipment 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 everknowing one another, there still is an attraction between the two. Clementine and Joel eventually learn that theyunderwent a memory-removal procedure to forget each other from Dr.
Mierzwiak’s secretary.Still, they agree to move forward as a couple. Twoother events in the film must be mentioned because they influence the outcomeof Clementine and Joel’s relationship. First, Dr. Mierzwiak’s secretary, MarySvevo, sends the doctor’s patients documents and tape recordings concerning theirprocedure following the revelation that Dr. Mierzwiak had carried out the memory-removalprocedure on her too.
Prior to the procedure, she loved him and that posed aproblem for his marriage. Another important event is that one of Dr.Mierzwiak’s brain technicians, Patrick, develops a crush on Clementine as theyare wiping out her memories of Joel. To try to make Clementine fall in lovewith 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 areunsuccessful. Joel overhears Patrickdiscussing his pursuit of Clementine while simultaneously sleeping during thememory removal procedure and experiencing the memories one by one as they arebeing erased.
As his frustration with both Patrick’s manipulative plan andhimself for proceeding with the procedure builds, he concludes that Patrick istaking his personal identity. Joel’sremark highlights the underlying theme of personal identity more than any otherline uttered by a character in the film. By linking the items associated withhim and Clementine’s relationship, which are essentially memories, to hispersonal identity, he believes at this moment that his memories form hispersonal identity. In other words, if he no longer has the memories that remindhim of Clementine, then he is not the same person he once was. His statementaligns with John Locke’s concept of memory-criterion found in Chapter 27 ofBook II of An Essay Concerning HumanUnderstanding. Locke claims that personal identity is rooted in an individual’sability to remember experiences from their past, thus connecting their currentconsciousness with their past consciousness.
According to Locke’s argument, theJoel who cannot remember Clementine after having every trace of her wiped outof 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 couldremember him.Nonetheless,Joel’s opinion that Patrick is stealing his personal identity becomesirrelevant once he permanently loses his memories of Clementine and hismemories of having her erased are deleted by the Lacuna technicians.
Based onLocke’s view of personal identity, the Joel and Clementine who meet followingthe memory-removal procedure are different people from who they were before.Yet, the film’s ending in which the two decide to give their relationshipanother try as “different people” sends a message about personal identity thatcontrasts with Locke’s argument. By showing that Clementine and Joel areintrigued by each other despite not having any memories that they were once inlove, 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 anotherexample to support this message with Dr. Mierzwiak’s secretary Mary. She toofalls in love again, even though she cannot remember she fell in love with Dr.
Mierzwiak before. After seeing thefilm’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 notchange who they were overall. They each behaved the same and fell for the sameperson again. The film seems to imply that not being able to trace yourconsciousness to past periods in your life does not mean that your identity haschanged. Perhaps, Locke did not consider an important point concerning personalidentity, which is that every past experience is not integral to shaping our personalidentity. If an individual could not remember a person they dated their firstsemester 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, memorycannot be the only basis from which someone can identify their self. EternalSunshine of the Spotless Mind does not merely provide us with romance andsci-fi. It leads us to question what we consider to be the makings of ourselvesor personal identity. More specifically, it examines if our memory constructsour personal identity and if we are still the same person even when some of ourmemories cannot be retrieved. Ultimately, the film depicts the connection betweenthe self and memory as weak.