By: Joseph Diller
For any happy couple in the audience, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind might fail to offer truths relevant to their relationship. Instead, the romantic tragicomedy presents an island of depressed, anxious, and bipolar misfits trapped in an elaborate circular plot, destined to the eternal recurrence of their dysfunctional relationships. The film as such may be painful to watch, though I’d like to argue that in its pointless absurdity, there is―with the reliable help of philosophy! ―something to be gleaned that goes a long way beyond two hours spent on traded witticisms, cinematographic eye-candy, and an attractive cast. Particularly, the circular arcs of Joel, Clementine, and Mary reveal inescapable relationships with love that powerfully transcend their ephemeral painful memories. As they grapple between love and hatred, the truth on screen remains constant with love’s truth offering a higher-order determining force.
Making my job easier, the writer of the film Charlie Kaufman already includes some philosophy―namely, Nietzsche. Mary Svevo, the receptionist for the memory-erasing firm suitably named Lacuna, Inc., cites a famous aphorism from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil twice, both times as a congratulatory slogan for Lacuna: “Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders”. While Mary later reveals that she memorized the aphorism―ironically so―simply from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations out of romantic desire to impress her boss, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, it still is a clue to understanding the film and can lead us to looking at Nietzsche’s fitting theories on truth and memory, and their value.
In short, the aphorism articulates Nietzsche’s principal theory of value creation which holds that one is naturally driven by the will to power―an ineffable force that drives all life―and subjectively creates value relative to this drive. Memory then functions subordinate to truth, and truth in turn functions subordinate to the chief good, “life-affirmation”, e.g. the “forgetful” subject herself. This composite action of life-affirmation is formally the “transvaluation of values” ―the life-activity of Nietzsche’s post-modern ubermensch who is not passively slave to metaphysical ‘-isms’ but instead actively engaged in the subjective creation of relative truth.
Howard, then, can be viewed from Mary’s own Nietzschean reading as an ethical doctor insofar as he “heals” patients from psychological trauma through their volition. This offers a consequentialist way one creates value to affirm life, as Howard treats people who themselves have rationalized their depressive trauma to be so severely life-threatening that they resort to the artificial method of surgical erasure. The procedure makes the threat to “surgically remove someone” a reality as the patient escapes to, what Howard says to Joel, “a new life awaiting you”.
The film’s own truth on screen, though, argues against Howard’s status as an ethical doctor. Indeed, Joel, Clementine, and Mary prove Howard’s procedure to be instead an unethical Dr. Kevorkianesque murder of the mind. They each not only in the end palpably feel violated but also, over the course of their narrative arcs, reveal the procedure to as a practice be self-destructive rather than life-affirmative.
This objection has its footing in the very words Howard uses. The artificial aspect of the procedure results in a “new” and ultimately a completely different life. Rather than grounding in this life, the one Joel has deliberately lived, Howard mouths a sales pitch that promises a shallow simulacrum of genuine happiness for Joel to consume. What’s more to the fakeness of the scene’s premise, Joel never actively pursues the procedure himself but only accepts the procedure once he learns in a letter from Lacuna that Clementine had the entirety of him removed from her memory. That is, Joel, still painfully attached, opts for memory-removal out of mere desire to be in step with Clementine, only reacting to a psychological need for closure with the very artificial response that brought about the need in the first place. The procedure insidiously substitutes traditional, though challenging, psychotherapy, which assists the patient in actively overcoming personal trauma, with an anesthetic. The procedure, similar to drug addiction, distorts the truth the patient inevitably must come to grips with by debilitating consciousness itself, dissociating him into a universe that has a truth coherent only to him, not anyone else. The procedure, tersely, is a death wish to kill one’s natural truth in service of an artificial truth, giving it the same appeal as suicide.
Having said this, we can set the procedure’s suicidal wish-fulfillment aside, since suicide is never actually done. In fact, the procedure fails its own promise, as Joel, Clementine, and Mary’s circular plots demonstrate that their love’s truth is never killed. The explanation for this is that the procedure’s limit as a human artifice only temporarily satiates Joel, Clementine, and Mary’s need for closure. It doesn’t definitively erase their love’s truth in the natural universe, but merely redirects love’s pain to an artificially distinct though not entirely different universe. Nietzsche’s framework fits here, as the memory-removal procedure’s refusal to collaborate with a naturally life-affirmative truth inevitably causes Joel, Clementine, and Mary to all unconsciously fall back in love. This happens in the exact same scripted manner, where Joel and Clementine fall in a meet-cute, and Mary falls for Howard at the workplace. It is as if the procedure never happened––not in the sense of Howard’s promise but, to Howard’s dismay––their consciousnesses.
The procedure’s failure plays out between Joel and Clementine in a very surreal and poignant way. As Joel goes through with the procedure, it appears only he knows their love’s truth and will remove it once and for all. He revisits memories of his relationship with Clementine in reverse, passively experiencing their erasure; however, as he comes across happier moments of the relationship, he makes a powerful executive decision to rebel. He begins to actively associate with his memories and collaborate with Clementine to evade the procedure by jumping to memories not linked to her.
But, wait, who is Clementine here? Certainly not the Clementine post-procedure, nor the Clementine in his targeted memories. Rather, this can only be the Clementine he knew to be true when in love with her. That is, Joel has miraculously switched his psychological disposition from depressed to happily in love, allowing the Clementine from his unconscious which he repressed during his depression to be conscious. It is with their recalled love ever true that they part in a final act of rebellion with an agreement to meet in Montauk, despite the procedure’s success in erasing the memories.
This powerful leap of faith does not offer a definitive promise but merely a wish made by Joel and Clementine in their in-love selves. The following scene fulfills the wish, as the film relays the opening scene where post-procedure Joel and Clementine travel to Montauk without consciously knowing why they need to, only to meet on the train to rekindle their relationship. Here, the audience can only account that their love’s truth was never really killed by the memory-erasure procedure but survived as the natural persistent truth. Clementine ineffably must have also had the same experience as Joel in her procedure since she’s in sync.
The final scene rounds the film to absolve them from the bad faith memory procedure. As they receive their files from Lacuna, Joel and Clementine, confused, listen to the pathological reasons for erasing each other. Now returned to love, they actively dissociate from that figment of the past to opt for a revision of the truth reflective of their love. Endearingly, they can only laugh over the absurd past and affirm the present, thus conquering pain with love’s life-affirmative truth.