Every experience that you’ve ever had, from the desolation of bottomless despair to the zenith of limitless euphoria, constitute the wholeness of your being. They make you who you are, whether you like it or not. Do you deny it? Your experiences shape how you see and interact with the world around you. To loose one’s memories is to loose one’s grasp of self.
Today, I’d like to talk about an extraordinary film called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In it, we can explore an array of interesting principles including the value of memory as well as the concepts of fate and chance. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman presents us with one of his finest accomplishments through peerless storytelling and deep and meaningful characters. Likewise, director Michael Gondry outdoes himself in Eternal Sunshine by devising some of the most ingenious uses of line, shape, space, and color in nearly every shot than I have seen in any film. The result is aesthetically beautiful, and I do not use the term lightly. I have never seen a film which has kept me so engaged on visual level while only utilizing such simple elements of design. I do not hesitate to call this film a true work of art, and as such I have developed a deep and profound respect for it.
The film explores several different yet equally important topics, the best way to proceed is to analyze them one at a time.
“Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.”
Many philosophers, including Immanuel Kant, support the idea that tampering with one’s memory or any other form of ‘self deception’ as he put it, is morally wrong. That’s all well and good, but what about the nature of memory itself? Is it not true that a man is shaped by his experiences, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Everything that he has been exposed to will effect the choices that he makes as well as his outlook on the world. Essentially, this view presupposes the premise of subjective reality based upon the perception of the individual. For instance, if one were to be exposed to violence at a young age, that individual may grow up thinking that violence is a normal and valid response to conflict. On the other hand, that same individual may become disgusted with the violence that he was exposed to as a child and later in life adopt a non-violent worldview. Either way, and regardless of which choice he makes, that individual has been affected by the events that have occurred in the past. He is who he is now because of who he was then. Such a principal may seem like common sense, but it is vitally important nevertheless. Every choice you make, from the kind of coffee you drink in the morning to your stance on the upcoming election, is a result of the things that have happened to you in the past and your memory thereof.
Now consider Joel, who voluntarily forfeit his memory to escape the pain of the past. Considering what we now know about the nature of memory, is it possible to suggest that Joel is not quite complete? In other words, is he somehow less of a man? Physically, he is healthy. He has a brian, a heart, a liver, four functioning limbs and all the rest, but what about mentally or philosophically? For a real-life example, we need only look to an amnesia patient. If his memory is muddled, unclear, or even cuts off at a certain point, can we conclude that some part of him is missing, even if he does not know it himself? If he has no concept of how much time has passed between his last memory and the present, can he try his best to pick up where he left off and be no worse for it, or is his case hopeless because he cannot remember the events which shaped and guided his life up until that point. It is for you to decide. Both schools of thought are valid, and no great philosopher has succeeded in reaching an objective conclusion.
While not an outright theme, Determinism is subtly woven into the context of the film. In short, determinism states that all events in life are based on the law of cause and effect, meaning that for every action there is one and only one unalterable and unavoidable reaction. According to its supporters, mostly pre-enlightenment philosophers, the process began at the very instant of the universe began and continues uninterrupted to this day. This being the case, and all actions being a result of cause-and effect, it would follow then, that free will as we know it would be rendered an arbitrary illusion as all of our ‘choices’ are indeed the only actions that could have occurred under the circumstances.
In the context of the film, determinism may be viewed as the inevitable fate of the two lovers, Joel and Clementine. The two had their memories erased and by reasonable conclusion should not fall for each other again. The simple phrase “Meet me in Montauk” whispered by a fleeting memory of Clementine travels through space and time and memory to find Joel in the present against, or perhaps because of, all odds. Ultimately, Joel and Clementine find each other again, almost as though it was meant to happen no matter what.
Let me qualify this apparent contradiction. Indeterminism, as one would assume, is the opposite of determinism, and suggests that chance, rather than fate, is the determining factor in the process of events in the universe. Indeterminism began to gain widespread popularity with the advent of the study of quantum physics. Until that point, all observable information that humans possessed was based on the law of cause and effect, lending a huge amount of support to determinist thought and creating a grim outlook for free will as a concept. However, in 1927 Werner Heisenberg formulated his uncertainty principal, which states that that position and momentum of a particle cannot be known simultaneously. Essentially, what Heisenberg was suggesting was that the movement of the particles was without cause and therefore based on chance. Once it was accepted that the smallest units of matter were floating around more or less randomly, the concept was soon applied on a grander scale and free will returned as a valid concept of decision-making.
In the case of Joel and Clementine, it seems as though it was by mere chance that they fell in love the first time, and it seems as though it was by mere chance that they were able to find each other again. Isn’t it miraculous that a simple shard of a vast and beautiful memory was spared, when all other vestiges of Clementine were erased from Joel’s brain? Such a simple phrase…”Meet me in Montauk.” There was nearly an infinite number of variables, and still they fell in love again. I know what you’re thinking. How can we know if the events that transpired were machinations of fate or the defiance of free will? The answer is, admittedly, unsatisfying. We cannot know. Perhaps the more important question is “what do you believe?”
For now. and perhaps always, the truth will be a matter of perspective.
*Special thanks to Professor of Philosophy Christopher Grau of Clemson University.