Fullmetal Alchemist and Personal Identity
By Darian Shump
“I kill, therefore I am.”
– Barry the Chopper
(FMA: Brotherhood, Episode 8: The Fifth Laboratory)
In Episode 7 (“Hidden Truths”) of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the Elric brothers infiltrate an abandoned government complex they suspect was used to conduct experiments on condemned prisoners in an effort to create the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. As Ed enters the building through a ventilation duct, Alphonse is forced to wait outside, and the separated siblings are soon ambushed by a pair of serial killers: Barry the Chopper and the Slicer.
Like Al, these men were once flesh-and-blood humans, but now live as souls bound to empty suits of armor. Barry even attempts to use this to his advantage while fighting Al, removing his own head/helmet and expressing disbelief when the latter fails to react. When the young alchemist mimics the gesture and explains the circumstances of his binding, Barry seizes upon an opportunity to distract his opponent:
B: Are you sure this brother and you are really siblings? Are you sure you’re not a suit-of-armor puppet, created by your so-called brother? Were you ever really a person, originally?
A: I am, without a doubt, the person named Alphonse Elric.
B: How can you believe that?
A: Well, because of the memories I have, ever since I was born.
B: What if those are also made-up?
Alphonse stumbles. He argues that he knows they’re real, that his adoptive grandmother and childhood friend could not also have been willing participants in such a charade. Yet, his uncertainty remains, and these thoughts continue to plague him until he finally confronts his brother in the following episode.
Even then, it is Winry, not Edward, who convinces him that his worries were unfounded. Ed, she says, was terrified that Alphonse hated him for his current situation, stuck in a suit of armor with no foreseeable way back to his original body. How could he make that up?
With this in mind, Al sets out to reconcile with Ed. The two have quick sparring match (as two teenage boys with alchemical powers would, I suppose), reminisce about other childhood squabbles, and ultimately agree to move forward, together.
All’s well that ends well.
But, still, the question remains: What if Alphonse’s memories were fake?
My first inclination here is to argue that Barry is correct.
After all, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to claim that an individual is comprised of both a physical form (i.e., the “body”) and some sort of intangible mental complex (i.e., the “mind”). When we think of close friends or family or even strangers we encounter on a daily basis, we think not only of their physical appearance, but also their personality. What is it that makes them unique?
However, without evidence of a human form, without real proof that there was an Alphonse before Alphonse, our understanding of the individual is limited to what we can glean from the mind within the armor. We know that he believes he had a father who left, and a mother who died. We know that he believes Edward is his older brother, the one responsible for saving his life when they tried to bring their mother back to life. And we know that he remembers making a promise with Ed to get both of their bodies back to normal, regardless of how long it might take to do so.
If these beliefs and memories are predicated on lies, wouldn’t that mean the person we know as Al is a lie, as well? And if there never was a Young/Human/Real Al, would we not be justified in claiming that he’d done little more than waste years of his life as a result of false relationships and fabricated emotions?
Now, this is where I stumbled.
Perhaps the most obvious flaw of this argument is that it’s based on a pretty linear conception of identity.
In other words, we tend to think that we are who we are because of what happened to us in the past. Each new experience, good or bad, has allowed us to grow and has made us who we are today. And even though quite a few of us would like to think that we’re different people now, the fact remains that we would not be here today without what we did then… Or would we?
If we really do accept that an individual’s identity at any point in time is determined by everything that came before, how do we understand those whose thought processes are impacted by mental disabilities or physical/psychological trauma? Is an amnesiac not a person because she cannot remember her childhood? Are victims of childhood assault not people if they knowingly (and unknowingly) repress their experiences?
To claim that identity is a linear concept, then, is to discount the humanity of the men and women stuck in these situations. In fact, if we argue that Alphonse is not a person because his memories are false, then we are also arguing that the elderly woman with Alzheimer’s Disease must have reached some point where she passed out of personhood.
But what about everything that remains? What about the “fake” memories, the feelings of love for family that have driven Al for roughly four years?
Surprisingly enough, Barry the Chopper might have the answer.
When Al inverts Barry’s original question, the latter retorts that his identity is not determined by his memories of life as a human. Rather, he says, all that matters is the act of killing. As long as he can murder, he exists.
Although Descartes would probably roll over in his grave at the idea, Barry’s claim does point back to a Cartesian form of thought. As we saw above, Al believes in the memories that drive him. They’ve allowed him to become Ed’s brother and Winry’s friend, and he has in turn grown as a result of their friendship and love. Regardless of what happened before, he still exists and acts as a tangible part of their lives.
And, for that, he’s really no less of a human than any of the rest of us.
Darian Shump is a second-year M.A. in Religion at Florida State University. Although his primary research focuses upon manifestations of religious identity in Korea, he also enjoys exploring the ways in which comics are used as a medium of social expression.