Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie about memory. Throughout my viewing, I always get interrupted by my Lord-of-the-Ring memory and wanted to erase Frodo Baggins from my mind.
Like Strange Days, there’s only one technological innovation in Eternal Sunshine—the Lacuna procedure aiming to erase specific memories. All the other things in this film look exactly like what you would experience in 2004, and even in 2017. Therefore, in my view, this movie is less a discussion about the relationship between human and technology than a thought experiment asking “what if” questions. What if you can erase your memory, would you do it? What memory would you like to erase? Will you repeat the erased memory? If you know you will repeat it, would you erase it anyway?… All those questions boil down to the basic assumptions about memory, mind, and free will. So, in this paper, I’ll examine the following two questions—what assumptions about memory are made in this film? What questions does the film raise?
- Assumptions about Memory in Eternal Sunshine
Assumption #1: Memory is a complex, interrelated, dynamic network, where nodes are constantly interacting with each other and where connections among nodes are constantly being strengthened or weakened by new experiences. Conversely, the Lacuna procedure presumes that memories are independent instances that are loosely connected so that “one can eliminate one memory strand while retaining the whole system intact” (McGowan 2011)[i]. Admittedly, “memories are meant to fade,” as Mace said in the Strange Days, and the human mind is robust enough to bear mild memory loss, but no memory or memory strand can be pulled out without affecting other memories. That’s why things go wrong as the story unfolds. For example, after eliminating his memory of Clementine, Joel lost his childhood memory of Huckleberry Hound. I was wondering what would happen to the childhood memories related to Huckleberry Hound. Are they gone as well?
Assumption #2: Emotion plays a very critical role in memory. Each memory has an emotional core, whose eradication would soon degrade that memory, as Howard explained. This reminds me of the lovely animation film Inside Out, in which the memory orbs are “controlled” exactly by five personified emotions. Joel’s emotional responses toward Clementine are complicated and mixed–happy, sad, anger, desire, repulsive, impatient, disappoint, etc., like the colorful orbs in Inside Out. It is emotions that make memories memorable. Sometimes, even if we forget things, we still remember the feelings in them. Unlike Inside Out, Eternal Sunshine didn’t touch the relationship between memory and personality. I was thinking, if someone erases the memory of her mother, will the whole personality collapse?
Assumption #3: The connections among memories are symbolic. When we say “this reminds me of…,” we are retrieving the symbolic relations between memories. But most of the time, this association is made unconsciously, helping us make new meanings from the chaos universe. I would like to discuss this in hierarchical levels proposed by C.S. Peirce—icons, indices, and symbols[ii].
- Icons are mediated by similarities. The similarity between Clementine’s name and Huckleberry Hound song wires the two memories together. Since this connection is so strong, when Joel forgot Clementine, he forgot about Huckleberry Hound.
- Indices are meditated by “physical or temporal connections.” In Eternal Sunshine, Montauk beach serves as a physical index for the beginning of their relationship. The one who told Joel to meet Clementine in Montauk was not Clementine at all, but a memory of her, in other words, Joel himself. But Montauk became a common index shared in both of their minds. In Clementine’s procedure, she probably went through similar struggles and told herself to go to Montauk as well. That’s why they went to the same beach at the same time.
- Symbols are mediated by formal links that have nothing to do with physical characteristics. Freud’s works mentioned a lot of symbols, for example, water in dreams as a symbol of birth[iii]. In Eternal Sunshine, symbolic connections are most evident in the memories where Joel wants to hide Clementine. Joel wanted to find a memory without Clementine, but actually, every memory he selected had some unconscious, symbolic connection with Clementine. For example, Mrs. Hamlin probably was the childhood root why Joel found Clementine attractive in the first place—the two women have many things in common at least in tastes of clothes and decoration.
Assumption #4: Introspection and knowledge enable free will. In Eternal Sunshine, we witness three people’s transformations after they know about their procedure—Joel and Clementine get back together, while Mary quit the job and sent the files to the patients. Before that, all three were about to repeat the memory they have erased, and Mary even considered the procedure a way that “allows adults to return to the innocence of infancy.” Only by knowing the fact that they have done the procedure and introspecting their “innocence” after the procedure, can they gain the will to “break out of repetition” (McGowan 2011).
- Questions Raised
Question #1: is a spotless mind eternally get sunshine? My answer would be yes. A soul without bad memories will be happy forever, but it would be boring. Who wants to live in polar days forever? I don’t. Bad memories, even the traumas, help build my personality. I appreciate them.
Question #2: why does Mary change her attitude toward Lacuna procedure? I think maybe she felt, without knowing the truth, she couldn’t control her life and might make the same mistakes. Or perhaps she felt being fooled, especially when she found she thought she was smart. But the person who fooled her is herself because the initial request to do the procedure is made by herself, and she should have foreseen the consequences. This leads me to the next question.
Question #3: is choosing ignorance free will? Is free will about having a choice? If yes, choosing to be “innocent” is free will as well. Then, how can Mary deprive that “free will” from the patients who don’t want to remember? What makes she think her free will is superior to others’? Just as Cypher in The Matrix said: “I know this steak doesn’t exist. … After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”
Question #4: what happened in Clementine’s mind during her procedure? Did she go through the same struggles? Did she regret and try to hide Joel in secret places as well?
Question #5: will they break up in the future? This question is left open. I think it’s possible. What do you think?
At last, I’d like to talk about two things I found interesting. First, Lacuna procedure as a commoditized product is absurd, because the customers just don’t remember they have it unless paid by other people. Second, Mary told one client on the phone that she can’t have the procedure three times in one month. Aren’t the patients supposed to know nothing about previous procedures?
[i] McGowan, Todd. “Eternity Without Sunshine: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Embrace of Hopelessness.” In Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema, 83–110. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
[ii]Deacon, Terrence William. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
[iii] Freud, Sigmund. “X. Symbolism in the Dream, in Part Two: The Dream.” In A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920.