I was having a conversation with a student after class, who mentioned that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is his favourite movie. In a nutshell, his question was whether the use of a memory removal machine – in which the characters in the film undergo in a bid to whitewash the heartache, bitterness and disappointment of relationships – was a good thing. What would be left of man if we all allowed our memories to be erased, in his words, to a “spotless sheen”?
Some questions to wrap your mind around:
1. The philosopher John Locke, in one of the first modern accountings of consciousness and identity, argued that personal identity is defined not by the physical body or the “soul”, but by repeated self-identification. Thus, according to Locke, memory is an integral aspect of the self. Are Clementine and Joel (Kate Winslet and Jim Carey, the leads in the movie) different people after they have their memories erased? In other words, have their identities changed in some meaningful way?
2. Consider that elective plastic surgery might be a real-life analogue to the memory-erasing procedure. On the American TV show “Extreme Makeover”, people are given plastic surgery as part of a radical image upgrade. Do these peoples’ identities change in any meaningful way when their bodies are changed?
3. Does your answer to the previous question help confirm or deny Locke’s idea of identity?
4. In a compelling final scene, Joel and Clementine listen to tapes of each other justifying why they chose to erase each other from memory. If on a first date with someone, you could hear a tape of yourself in describing what it’s like to be in a long-term relationship with that person, would you choose to listen to it?
5. Suppose a former client of Lacuna (the company that provides memory erasure) demanded to know whether the procedure had been done: which is more important, the wishes of someone before they had the procedure done, or their wishes after?
6. Can you imagine a situation in which memory erasure is completely justified?
Sunshine is a film with a philosophy, in that it not just presents a philosophy, but offers, even takes a philosophical position. The question of course is, would you erase all painful memories (including that of ever having to make such a choice) and begin all over? What sacrifices are made whether we choose to forget, or choose to carry these memories in our bodies?
Is there value in suffering, even extreme suffering?