Love, Loss, and Identity in Solaris

In Susan Wolf & Christopher Grau (eds.), Understanding Love: Philosophy, Film, and Fiction. Oxford University Press (2014)
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The sci-fi premise of the 2002 film Solaris allows director Steven Soderbergh to tell a compelling and distinctly philosophical love story. The “visitors” that appear to the characters in the film present us with a vivid thought experiment, and the film naturally prods us to dwell on the following possibility: If confronted with a duplicate (or near duplicate) of someone you love, what would your response be? What should your response be? The tension raised by such a far-fetched situation reflects a tension that exists in real life: that between an attraction to qualities possessed by a person and attraction to the person in a manner that transcends such an attachment to qualities. In short, this cinematic thought-experiment challenges us to reflect on what we really attach to when we fall in love: is it the person, or is it merely the cluster of characteristics the person manifests? Which sort of attachment is appropriate? Which is philosophical defensible? The protagonist Chris Kelvin’s ambivalence at encountering this bizarre possibility is gripping because it tracks our own ambivalence about such matters. Frankly most of us don’t know just how we would react to such a situation. The thought that accepting and embracing such a “visitor” involves a violation to the original person is natural and pervasive, especially if the acceptance comes with a failure to acknowledge the distinction between the original person and the “visitor”. At the same time, a deep attraction to such a person would surely also be entirely natural and perhaps even inescapable. We, like Kelvin, are torn in different directions by this (thankfully) far-fetched possibility. One philosopher who affirms that accepting a duplicate as though it were the original is the rational thing to do is Derek Parfit. His argument for “the unimportance of identity” is both powerful and radical, and though I’ll be critical of his approach, in the final section of the paper I suggest that it does offer up the resources for an intriguing interpretation of the end of this complex and ambiguous film.
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