Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Question of Transcendence

By David L. Smith


1. Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich  (New York:  Faber and Faber, 2000), p, ix.

2. On these modes of transcendence, see Kenneth Burke's essay on Emerson, "I, Eye, Ay - Concerning Emerson's Early Essay on 'Nature,' and the Machinery of Transcendence," in  Language as Symbolic Action  (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1966), pp. 186-200.

3. I exclude Confessions of a Dangerous Mind from this list and from our discussion generally.  My reason is that Kaufman was not involved in the changes made to his script during filming, was less than happy with the results, and has tended himself to leave it out in discussing the films he considers his own.

4. Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:  The Shooting Script  (New York:  Newmarket Press, 2004) p. 71.  Subsequent page references to this script will be included in the text.

5. One way to make this point might be in terms of neuroscience itself.  As Dr. Mierzwiak explains, and as contemporary research in neuroscience largely confirms, memory is linked to emotion (See Steven Johnson, "The Science of Eternal Sunshine,"  Slate  22 March 2004. 16 July 2004).  "There is an emotional core to each of our memories," says Dr. Mierzwiak.  "As we eradicate this core, it starts its degradation process."  Without their core, memories wither and disappear "as in a dream upon waking" (38).  Of course, what Dr. Mierzwiak proposes is beyond current science and technology; we cannot erase particular networks of neural response.  The important point, however, is that even if we could, it would not accomplish the doctor's aims.  Erasing particular emotional episodes would not affect our propensity to have those emotions or to act in the ways they inspire. 

6. The point is made explicitly in the shooting script, though not in the film as released, when Joel's previous lover, Naomi, tells him that whatever woman he takes up with, "You're just going to be Joel with the same fucking problems" (95).

7. Deleted scenes reinforce the view of Eternal Sunshine as a film haunted by fate. In a scene from the shooting script that did not make it to the screen, a younger Joel is warned by his father, "Don't be like me."  Don't let your life quote mine, or "you'll be sewn into your fate" (88).  An early draft of the script also includes the interesting detail that Naomi, Joel's former lover, is writing a dissertation on Calvin.  See Charlie Kaufman,  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  First draft, undated.  29 June 2004, p. 89.

8. Friedrich Nietzsche,  The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufman  (New York:  The Viking Press, 1954), p. 435.

9. Alexander Pope,  Pope:  Poetical Works Herbert Davis, ed.  (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 115. The paradox implicit in the use of this quote - namely, that a quote is being be used to express a desire to be free from the past - indicates how tortured the problem of entrapment can become.  Not coincidentally, this quote also recalls the Abelard and Heloise puppet show in Being John Malkovich that epitomizes its central character Craig's sense of estrangement and his sexualized approach to transcendence (See Kaufman, Malkovich, pp. 4-5). 

10. There are even more explicit quotes and references in the script that don't make it to the screen:  e.g. citations of Tom Waits (7, 35), Robert Frost (15), Anna Akhmatova (102-3),  The Velveteen Rabbit (57), and most strikingly, The Red Right Hand, a mystery novel by Joel Townsley Rogers (10, 66).

11. As the author of "Self-Reliance" put the same point, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."  Ralph Waldo Emerson,  Emerson:  Essays and Lectures  (New York:  The Library of America, 1983), p. 265.

12. As Joel admits, recalling Clementine's statement, "I still thought you were going to save me.  Even after that" (97). 

13. For example, there is a visual image - a drawing by Joel of Clementine in a skeleton costume, apparently done at a time when the problem of fate was on his mind (88) - which is a striking juxtaposition of contraries.  Why should Clementine, the spokesperson for ever-renewed instinctual life, be represented as death (i.e. as fatality, fate)?  The answer, perhaps, lies in another one of Clementine's set-speeches from early in the film:  "I'm always anxious thinking I'm not living my life to the fullest, y'know?  Taking advantage of every possibility?  Just making sure that I'm not wasting one second of the little time I have" (18-19).  Her desire to live life to the fullest here is inspired by thoughts of death and finitude.  For Joel, Clementine herself functions as an inspiration to live, and so plays a role parallel to the thought of death.  The drawing thus presents her as a memento mori - a specter of death, a ghost of time-future whose purpose is to recall us to life.  "Like that thing in Scrooge!" Clementine remarks in another context.  "Maybe some force is trying to help us" (122).  The Dickens reference may make the point seem trite, but its implications are subtle.  An awareness of fate can enable freedom, as the awareness of death here inspires life.

14. Some critics have noted a parallel here to  the classic Hollywood genre pictures that Stanley Cavell has dubbed "comedies of remarriage."  (See David Edelstein, "Forget Me Not:  The Genius of Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" in Slate  18 March 2004.  16 July 2004; and A. O. Scott, "Charlie Kaufman's Critique of Pure Comedy," in The New York Times  April 4, 2004:  AR16 col.1.)  In these, as in Eternal Sunshine, a broken relationship is restored, and the couple sets off again into the old, spoiled world, sadder but wiser.  I find this comparison suggestive but superficial.  While the main concern of the comedies of remarriage was moral and even political, according to Cavell (see Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words:  Pedagogical Letters On a Register of the Moral Life (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 9-18), Kaufman's interest is more frankly spiritual.  That is, he is less concerned with the gradual processes by which characters learn their lessons than with moments or insights that can bring a sudden change of perspective. 

15. Friedrich Nietzsche,  On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo,  trans. Walter Kaufman and R. J. Hollingdale  (New York:  Vintage Books, 1969), p. 258.

16. Nietzsche, Portable Nietzsche, p. 144.

17. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil:  Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York:  Vintage Books, 1966), p. 68.

18. See the discussion of eternal recurrence in Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche:  Life as Literature (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 141-169.

19. See Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine  First draft.

20. This ending was not originally planned by Kaufman.  In fact, he and his director reportedly struggled right up to the final edits to devise an ending that "worked" on as many levels as possible  (Interview in Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine, p. 143).   Accordingly, it would be a mistake to make too much of the "lesson" of the ending, as if it had anything clear or conclusive to teach.  In any case, in its current form, it is true to Kaufman's desire to keep things inconclusive on principle:   "I try to write things so that there's an opportunity to have various experiences" (Interview in Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation:  The Shooting Script (New York:  Newmarket Press, 2002), p. 127).  

21. The film's website includes a "share your experience" bulletin board.  The responses here are admittedly selected, but the  prevalence of "it changed my life" comments is striking.  For instance, to note a few entries toward the top of the list, see the statements by Chris, Virginia, and Malcolm Nevada, at  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 2004. Official website. 16 July 2004.

Copyrighted by Journal of Religion and Film 2003
Site Maintained by
Department of Philosophy and Religion
University of Nebraska at Omaha

Contact Webmaster about site