I recently listened to an episode of This Movie Changed Me, a podcast by OnBeing Studios that explores the impact of film on people's lives. Each episode, Lily Percy speaks to one fan about the transformative power of a specific film. Other episodes feature Star Wars, You've Got Mail, Say Anything, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Bridget Jones's Diary. A short podcast that packs an emotional punch, This Movie Changed Me transports you back to old movies you love or need to watch. My favourite episode so far features Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film I loved and watched repeatedly in my twenties. I'm hoping to hear an episode on Donnie Darko or Wayne's World or St. Elmo's Fire so I can relive other favourites, but this one took me back to a paper I wrote for a lit theory class during my degree (I sure do miss debating literature, I might have to start up a literary book club in addition to my other one!).
Fated to Find Each Other: The Rejection of the “Man of Intuition” and the Destiny of the “Real” in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Most critics discuss Michel Gondry’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a cautionary tale in the spirit of George Santayana’s famous claim that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And, not surprisingly, the film’s central characters, Joel and Clementine, who literally erase – via a medical procedure – their respective memories of their past (and broken) relationship, find themselves repeating their torrid and traumatic love affair. The procedure is performed at Lacuna Inc., where clients bring in “everything [they] own that has some association with” the person or event they want to erase; those items are used to “create a map" in the brain to locate and delete memories (Gondry). Lacuna’s receptionist, Mary, also erases her memories of her relationship with Dr. Mierzwiak, her boss and Lacuna Inc.’s creator. But like Joel and Clementine, she finds herself falling in love with him again. That said, I would like to argue that it is their destiny, their fate, to reunite. Gondry’s film acts as a rejection of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of reality, of the freedom and power of the “man of intuition” to shape and create his own actuality. While Joel, Clementine, and Mary all attempt to alter their realities through the eradication of memories, however, Patrick, a Lacuna technician, tries to manipulate reality by emulating Clementine’s memories of Joel in an attempt to seduce her. Patrick’s failure to win Clementine’s love, in combination with Joel, Clementine, and Mary’s persisting attractions despite missing memories, reveal a Lacanian absolute working outside the constructs of a Nietzschean symbolic universe. Therefore, that constant, indescribable, and ultimately unknowable attraction, what Jacques Lacan might associate with the “Real,” decides their fate, limits their freedom, and works to bring them together despite their efforts to alter their symbolic realities. Thus, Gondry’s film contests the Nietzschean idea that reality, because it is an illusion, is wholly modifiable, and stresses the indefinable absolute that confines and forms our destiny: the “Real.”
To begin, Nietzsche argues in “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” that “truths are illusions of which we have forgotten they are illusions” (878), meaning that people construct their realities in what Lacan would likely call the “symbolic,” and they choose to forget that the symbolic reality they have constructed is an illusion. However, Nietzsche claims that the artist, what he calls the “man of intuition,” knows that he is purposely forgetting and breaks the illusions, reassembling them as he pleases:
That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the [man of intuition] as mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions. (883)
So, to Nietzsche, the “man of intuition” has the absolute freedom and power to re-make his reality at will. However, Gondry’s film rejects this Nietzschean notion that reality, existence, is arbitrary.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind centres around two characters, Joel and Clementine, who love each other but have a toxic relationship and, consequently, a harsh and hurtful break-up. Clementine, whose “personality promises to take you out of the mundane” (Gondry), reacts rashly and impulsively to the break-up by going to Lacuna to erase Joel from her memory. Her feelings for him are burdened by intense irritation and irascible indignation, evident in her description of him to Dr. Mierzwiak: “That pathetic wimpy apologetic smile…that sort of wounded puppy shit he does” (Gondry). Clementine, in choosing to eradicate Joel from her brain, seeks to alter her reality, to eliminate the pain associated with memory. When Joel learns of her decision, he decides to retaliate by doing the same. In his distress, he too, is laden with renewed feelings of annoyance and anger, obvious in his description of her to Dr. Mierzwiak: “The only way Clem thinks she can get people to like her is to fuck them…or at least dangle the possibility of getting fucked in front of them” (Gondry). Like Clementine, Joel also endeavours to harness and shape his reality; by expunging memories of her, he is changing his reality at will. Likewise, Mary has her adulterous relationship with Dr. Mierzwiak erased from her mind, although he coerces her to do so – again demonstrating the supposed freedom of the “man of intuition” to do whatever he likes. Superficially, these instances appear to coincide with Nietzsche’s concept of reality, since they all effectively act as “[people] of intuition” through their successful memory erasures. However, Gondry later reveals these attempts at altering reality to be failures because afterwards, they are still attracted to their erased counterparts. But, the most potent example of Gondry’s repudiation of Nietzsche’s claims regarding absolute freedom and power over reality lies with Patrick, the naïve Lacuna technician who “kinda fell in love with [Clementine]” (Gondry) the night he erased Joel from her memory. As a result of his instant infatuation with an unconscious woman, Patrick steals all of the accumulated remnants of Clementine and Joel’s relationship. Rather than pursue her as himself and risk rejection, Patrick mimics Joel’s words and actions. He calls Clementine “Tangerine” a nickname Joel gave her, he gives her an early Valentine’s gift that Joel had planned to give her, and when she takes him to the frozen Charles river, he holds her hand and repeats exactly what Joel said to her the first time she took him there: “I could die right now, Clem. I’m just happy. I’ve never felt that before. I’m just exactly where I want to be” (Gondry). But, unlike the euphoric impact those words had coming from Joel, Patrick’s version causes Clementine to bolt upright and say, “I wanna go home” (Gondry). On the drive back, while she cries, Patrick tries to calm her but only frustrates her, solidifying her rejection of him. Clearly, Patrick, believing himself to be a “man of intuition,” tries to take the symbolic (Clementine and Joel’s relationship paraphernalia) and re-assemble it to suit his desires. But, Gondry’s film presents Patrick as weird, awkward, and naïve, and, ultimately, irresponsible, immature, and incompetent. His attempts to be a “man of intuition” are thwarted, much like Joel, Clementine, and Mary’s are.
Arguably, Eternal Sunshine’s characters’ endeavours to change their symbolic realities are unsuccessful. Patrick is obviously rejected by Clementine when she screams, “Get the fuck away from me!” (Gondry), and Joel, Clementine, and Mary’s failures lie in their inherent attraction to their erased ex-lovers. David Smith, in his article “Eternal Sunshine and the Spotless Mind and the Question of Transcendence,” explains the importance of the characters’ personalities:
Whatever changes they make in their circumstances – whether they dye their hair, switch lovers, or radically edit their memories – they are still essentially themselves. Thus, when Joel and Clementine meet again after both have been treated by Lacuna, they are attracted to each other all over again for exactly the same reasons as before. Likewise, [Dr. Mierzwiak] and Mary, in spite of [Dr. Mierzwiak’s] attempt to cover up their prior affair by erasing Mary’s memory, eventually fall back into each other’s arms. Character begins to look a lot like fate.
Unwittingly, Smith is describing Lacan’s “symbolic chain”: the reality constructed by our experiences, choices, and the creation of self. To Lacan, the “symbolic chain” is ruled by the “Real” and functions to move people in the correct way: toward their destinies. He asserts in “The Purloined Letter” that a human “is an element in this chain which, as soon as it is unwound, organises itself in accordance with laws” (192-193). Juliet Flower MacCannell’s essay, “Oedipus Wrecks: Lacan, Stendhal and the Narrative Form of the Real Author(s)” elaborates on this concept: “the symbolic order…defines and positions us absolutely from before our birth – our figural, linguistic, literary, and cultural history” (934). Thus, there is something other than memories, something deeper, an unknowable absolute truth that affects and restricts the possibilities of Joel, Clementine, and Mary’s symbolic realms: what Lacan calls the “Real.” Consequently, memory erasure will not (and does not) prevent the attraction Joel and Clementine feel for each other, nor the attraction Mary has for Dr. Mierzwiak. Rather, their individual “symbolic chains” ultimately lead them to the same person again and again.
Fred Botting’s article “Relations of the Real in Lacan, Bataille, and Blanchot” argues that “Quite simply, the real remains what is, an unspeakable is, an impossible, inexpressible, ineffable, and undifferentiated space outside language” (24). Furthermore, he claims that “the real seems to function as that infinite field of alterity in which heterogeneous elements are yoked loosely together. These elements… remain knowable, insofar as they are knowable at all, only in the entangled relationships in which they make an appearance” (35). In this sense, “the Real” is an absolute, unknowable, and indescribable truth that limits and determines one’s fate. So, although Joel, Clementine, Mary, and Patrick all think they can (and attempt to) change their realities, the “Real” is the determining force. First, the “Real” prevents Patrick from successfully wooing Clementine in that she senses the falsity of his mimicked words at the Charles river (Gondry). Patrick is doomed to fail because “the real haunts the limits of language and perception” (Botting 26). Second, the “Real” is an underlying guide for Mary; her memory erasure has not eliminated her feelings for Dr. Mierzwiak because her “symbolic chain” gives her a predisposition to become attracted to a man like him (hence, her frequent references to his remarkable, and “beautiful” work to her boyfriend, and Lacuna technician, Stan). Furthermore, when Joel’s procedure goes off the mapped memories and Stan must call Dr. Mierzwiak, Mary is excitable and reluctant to leave. The “Real” further shows itself through her awkwardness with Dr. Mierzwiak and her eagerness to please him: “I really admire the work you do, Howard. I don’t mean to be so familiar” (Gondry). When he begins to reply, she kisses him, leading to her discovery of their prior relationship and her erased memories of it. Therefore, “the real engenders repetitions” (Botting 25), most evident in Joel and Clementine meeting again in Montauk after erasing each other from their memories (Gondry). The “Real” is, then, at play in Joel’s decision the morning after his memory erasure: “Ditched work today, took a train out to Montauk. I don’t know why. I’m not an impulsive person” (Gondry), and the “Real” is also at work in Clementine when she says to Joel later that evening, “I’m going to marry you. I know it” (Gondry). Lastly, when Clementine receives her taped confession about Joel prior to having him erased from her memory, she unknowingly pops the tape into Joel’s car stereo. Both confused, and Joel upset, he kicks her out and goes home to find his own taped confession about her waiting for him. Despite the viciously malicious, and brutally honest words they hear themselves speak about the other, despite the overwhelming confusion, hurt, and emotion they feel having heard those words about themselves, they both feel a pull, a need, to be together anyway. Joel initiates by asking her to wait, as she walks away, and she says, “I’m not a concept, Joel. I’m just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own piece of mind. I’m not perfect” (Gondry). Joel replies, “I can’t think of anything I don’t like about you right now” and she says, “But you will. You will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me” (Gondry). Rather than leave it at that, Joel shrugs his shoulders and says, “Okay” and she nods and says, “Okay” (Gondry). Nothing more needs to be said because “inaudible to the ears of the symbolic, the noise of the real shadows its speech” (Botting 31).
In closing, Patrick’s utter failure to win Clementine’s love, and the feebleness of Joel, Clementine, and Mary’s memory erasure illustrates the film’s opposition to Nietzsche’s nihilistic interpretation of reality. In effect, the film frowns upon the idea that destiny or reality can be avoided or tampered with. Ultimately, these characters are formed and shaped by their experiences and personalities. Their “symbolic chains” guide them according to the limitations and absoluteness of the Lacanian “Real.” Therefore, Patrick is doomed to fail in pursuing Clementine, Mary is condemned to fall for Dr. Mierzwiak, and Joel and Clementine are fated to find each other: it’s their destinies.
*Banner image sourced from here.
Botting, Fred. “Relations of the Real in Lacan, Bataille, and Blanchot.” SubStance 23 (1994): 24-40.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Perf. Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, and Kirsten Dunst. Universal Studios, 2004. DVD.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Purloined Letter.” The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book II. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 1988. 191-205.
MacCannell, Juliet Flower. “Oedipus Wrecks: Lacan, Stendhal and the Narrative Form of the Real Author(s).” MLN 98 (1983): 910-940.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, et al. New York: Norton, 2001. 874-884.
Smith, David. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Question of Transcendence.” Journal of Religion and Film 9.1 (2005). n. pag. EBSCO. Web. 12 Mar. 2010.