Groundhog Day:
The Problem of Consciousness

by Ralph Dumain

I was glad to read Matthew Coniam's take on the brilliant film "Groundhog Day" ("Rodents to Freedom", Philosophy Now #32), as I never thought to link my own analysis of it directly to Existentialism. I am also glad he was perceptive enough to recognize how unsatisfactory was the conventional, banal romantic happy ending. Coniam's alternative Sisyphean ending, though intriguing, is also psychologically implausible, but that is because there is an important dimension missing in his analysis.

First: the film's ending ruins its ingenious premise as the result of two rigidly enforced ideological requirements of Hollywood films: (1) romantic love is the solution to social alienation; (2) there must be no space allowed for the fostering of any individual consciousness that transcends the norms of the conventional consumer mentality.

Second: the one thing that ultimately separates Phil Connors from the people around him is his consciousness. At first, this difference is rather pedestrian: Connors is a jaded big city boy clever enough to chafe against the dull, ingrown, conventional, routine behavior of the small town rubes in the Twilight Zone scenario in which he is trapped. The dull daily semi-conscious rut that consumes most people's lives is even more conspicuous in small towns, especially in irony-poor pockets of the USA. In his unhappy self-consciousness Connors at first seeks to exploit his awareness of the breach between appearance and reality, but, after running through all the variations, learns to be genuinely compassionate and even absorbed in the daily trivial concerns of the people around him. While this sort of personal redemption has its virtues, neither this nor the happy love ending is satisfactory. Why not?

The reason: even while his own compassion and humanity begin to unfold as his selfishness gives way, the gap between his consciousness and theirs can only widen. Unconsciousness unites, but the price of consciousness is separation. The only way to bridge the gap would be to find another person with an awareness comparable to his own, and thus who could recognize and respond to his consciousness. Connor's interminable experience of the time-loop would inevitably mentally isolate him more and more from his fellow humans, as no one else knows what he knows. Would the only solution be then that his lady love herself experience or otherwise learn of the time-loop so that they could share a common awareness? Well, on the metaphorical level, the issue here is appearance and reality; what is needed is for Connors' lady love, if not the other townspeople, to develop the sort of awareness to penetrate beneath appearances to become aware of the truths about people that Connors has learned, so that she understands him in a way that transcends conventional expectations. For a conscious person, there is even more to life than learning to be nice to people. The difference that Connor embodies represents a stage in the evolution of human consciousness, and it is no solution to revert to a non-conscious state.

(19 August 2001, letter to the editor of Philosophy Now)

©2001 Ralph Dumain

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Uploaded 30 November 2001

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