The Journal

of Religion and Film

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Question
of Transcendence

By David L. Smith

Vol. 9, No.1, April 2005 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Question of Transcendence

By David L. Smith


[1] The screenplays of Charlie Kaufman explore possibilities of transcendence within the limits of a wholly natural world.  From Being John Malkovich through Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his characters struggle to transform their lives or to get beyond the limits of their circumstances.  Most of these quests end in paradox, but some, especially in Kaufman's most recent films, point in more promising directions.  In this paper, I interpret Eternal Sunshine as offering something very much like Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence as a way to transform the conditions of life from within.



[2]  Is it possible to change?  In an everyday sense, of course it is.  We routinely make choices that change the future and revise our views of the past.  For example, like Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I could decide not to go to work this morning and instead take a train in the opposite direction.  Like Clementine Kruszynski, I could dye my hair blue or tangerine.  I could leave the relationship I'm in or settle for what I think I have.

[3]  Let the question resonate in a wider context, though, and the answer becomes less clear.  Am I the kind of person who bolts from work, dyes her hair, or abandons old loves?  Apparently so, if I've done it.  And come to think of it, haven't I done things very much like this before?  Being a kind of person-having a personality, in the usual sense-means behaving in certain ways.  And those ways or patterns, once recognized, can come to feel like traps.  I make choices, but my choices already seem over-determined by who I am-by the behaviors in my repertoire.  Can that change?  More to the point, what can I do to change myself, given that my own limitations are what I want to overcome?  I seem to be caught in a paradox.  Whatever I do will simply be more of the kind of thing I do.  However I exercise my freedom I am only rattling my chains.

[4]  Charlie Kaufman is the lyricist of this particular sense of entrapment in life, and his screenplays are explorations of various means by which people try to break out.  His characteristic worries are stated concisely in the introduction to the published script for Being John Malkovich (1999).  After spinning his wheels for several pages, stewing over how impossible it is for a writer to say anything worthwhile, he suddenly turns to the reader for the very thing he feels unable to give:  "Maybe you have the one thought that'll change everything for me.  The one thing I haven't considered in my relentless, obsessive, circular thought process.  Is there that one thing?  Is it possible for one person to impart any transformative notion to another person?"1 First, there is the trap, the sense of being imprisoned in your own form of life or habits of mind.  Then there is the desire to change, the hope that something could come into your life and make the world new.  But then there is the doubt-is there such a key?  Given your own profound cluelessness, would you even be able to recognize it if it were offered?

[5]  Kaufman's screenplays are typically about people who think they have found the "transformative notion" they need, or who find themselves in circumstances where a possibility of change is suddenly opened to them, sometimes by fantastic means.  The films unfold, in turn, as critiques of the particular means of change under examination.  In Being John Malkovich, the principal motive of the characters is to become someone else.  In Human Nature (2001), characters strive to become either ideally civilized or ideally natural-to achieve transcendence either upwards or downwards.2  In Adaptation (2002), the preferred means of liberation is passion or absorption; in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it is forgetting.3  The ways are many, but in each case the route turns out to be blocked.  Life, it seems, is too entangled and interrelated for our choices to make much difference.  The harder we press toward the object of desire, the more we drag along the thing we are trying to escape.  Nature is always shadowed by culture; the self I want is shadowed by the self I am, the self that does the wanting.  The more things change..

[6]  Some of Kaufman's scripts, especially Being John Malkovich and Human Nature, are all about these gloomy ironies-levitating them into comedy, but essentially letting entrapment have the last word.  In his most recent work, however, and especially in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a different sense of our possibilities begins to take shape.  Kaufman does not soften his analysis of the paradox of change.  He continues to set his stories in worlds constrained by circumstance and haunted by fate.  Nevertheless, Kaufman seems to have become more willing to entertain the possibility that humanly meaningful change sometimes happens-that the fatal character of conditions can be, if not evaded, then somehow transformed from within.  To risk a rather grand formula, Kaufman's interest has begun to turn towards the possibility of transcendence within the limits and on the terms of a wholly natural world.

[7]  Grand as it may sound, this way of understanding Kaufman's creative project simply acknowledges a context that he creates for himself.   Through plot devices and explicit references, he frequently invokes the science that underlies contemporary naturalism (evolution in Adaptation; neuroscience in Eternal Sunshine).  Moreover, references and allusions sprinkled throughout his scripts show his interest in philosophers and essayists who have explored the human consequences of this way of seeing the world, especially those who have transformed the sense of natural limits into a new and peculiar kind of spiritual poetry.   Nietzsche in particular is mentioned or quoted in every one of Kaufman's scripts and will appear prominently in what follows.

 [8]  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then, is first of all a love story.  Joel Barish and Clementine Kruszynski meet, become lovers, get fed up with each other's foibles, reject each other, and finally meet again-although not exactly in that order.  Among these familiar story elements, Kaufman's particular interest is the break-up.  Thus, the film turns the timeline of the story inside out to highlight its conclusion, making the urge to wipe someone totally out of ones memory its principal subject.  The film's main plot device, in turn, offers its characters a fantastically literal way to act on this urge.  Lacuna, Inc., run by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, is a low-rent neighborhood clinic that provides a revolutionary service.  Lacuna will eliminate the memory of anyone you choose from your life, be it a dog, a lover, or a dead child.  The aim of this service, as explained by Dr. Mierzwiak's doting secretary, Mary, is "to let people begin again.  It's beautiful.  You look at a baby and it's so fresh, so clean, so free.  Adults.they're like this mess of anger and phobias and sadness.hopelessness.  And Howard just makes it go away."4

[9]  Thus, the film introduces Kaufman's typical problematic:  there is a) a problem characterized by a sense of entrapment and b) a prospective way out.  The trap here is the debilitating "mess" of anger and sadness that seems to accumulate in adult life, and in bad relationships in particular.  Joel's friends, Rob and Carrie, are a case in point-a comic example of a couple trapped in patterned behaviors, endlessly feeding off each other's complexes.  It is not a situation any reflective person would choose to be in.  As Dr. Mierzwiak says in his pitch to potential clients, it amounts to "a psyche forever spinning its wheels" (38).   Lacuna's extraordinary claim, then, is that it can break the cycle by eliminating some of the links to the past from which your complexes are forged.  By editing your memories, the theory goes, you can change your life. 

[10]  The film unfolds, then, as a critique of this theory.  Above all, it raises the question whether a change in what one remembers amounts to a change in who one is.  Its answer, in turn, is that behind memory there lie affinities and predilections that more deeply define and constrain us-call it the mystery of character.5  Thus, Joel and Clementine are shown throughout the film to have marked and persistent defining traits.  Clementine is impulsive, willfully spontaneous (oxymoron intended), fun loving, and inclined to be harsh with those who don't rise to her pitch of intensity.  Joel, by contrast, is "nice" in a way that occasionally draws Clementine's scorn (9-10).  He keeps a low, self-protective profile;  he evades responsibility for expressing himself by mumbling or insisting that he really has nothing to say (53).  Much more could be said about each, of course, but the point is simply that these-the characteristic forms of their behavior-are the things that matter.  Whatever changes they make in their circumstances-whether they dye their hair, switch lovers, or radically edit their memories-they are still essentially themselves.6  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, Howard and Mary, in spite of Howard's attempt to cover up their prior affair by erasing Mary's memory, eventually fall back into each others' arms.  Character begins to look a lot like fate.7

[11]  Another reason why the erasure of memory fails to have the desired effect is the interrelated character of reality as Kaufman understands it.  Throughout his writing, Kaufman tends to see the world in terms of fields of mutually defining polarities:  nature and civilization in Human Nature, authenticity and artificiality in Being John Malkovich, and originality and convention in Adaptation.  His characters, however, tend to want it all one way.  They want things without their shadows-nature without culture, or originality without convention.  The characters in Eternal Sunshine who opt for Lacuna's brand of therapy are, in effect, making the same mistake. They want to discard a piece of their lives.  But experience is a delicate network, and no one thread of it can be pulled without threatening to unravel the whole.  Nietzsche, from a similar view of the nature of things, drew a similar conclusion in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:  "Have you ever said Yes to a single joy?  O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe.  All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said 'You please me happiness! Abide, moment!' then you wanted all back.  All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored.."8  There are parts of life that are painful, that is, and parts that we love, but to want one part to the exclusion of the rest is to want something that is not life. 

[12]  This is exactly what Joel comes to realize in the midst of the procedure that is erasing his memories of Clementine.  At first he is exhilarated by the loss, seeing it as "a perfect ending to this piece of shit story" (46).  But then he recalls a moment of unqualified joy.  Lying on his back on a frozen river with Clementine, he had once made a perfect affirmation:  "I could.die right now, Clem.  I'm just.happy.  I've never felt this before.  I'm just exactly where I want to be" (60).  He simultaneously realizes, moreover, that to hold on to this he has to hold on to everything. He has to stop the procedure (61).  His struggle to do so-involving a sort of metaphysical chase scene through his own past-leads him back into some of his sharpest memories of shame and humiliation.  These parts of himself, however, turn out to be the necessary enabling context for preserving the things he loves.  To want any of it back is to want it all back.

[13]  These points about the fateful influence of character and the interrelated character of reality are reinforced and extended, in turn, through the film's wider meditation on quotation.  Eternal Sunshine swarms with quotations.  The title of the movie is itself a quote, and specifically a quote about the desire to escape from painful memories.  In Alexander Pope's "Eloise to Abelard," Eloise yearns to erase her past-and Abelard in particular-by withdrawing into a convent:

How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot?

The world forgetting, by the world forgot:

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd .9

Mary uses quotations cribbed from Bartlett's to charm Dr. Mierzwiak, shyly reciting bits of Nietzsche and Pope, including the quote that gives the film its title.  Patrick, Clementine's wannabe boyfriend, quotes Joel in hopes of taking his place.  Quotes from songs and shared reading, along with multiple pop culture references, are the conversational staples of Joel and Clementine's courtships.10  Clementine even quotes herself-especially in her repeated "impulsive" urges to dye her hair or to go back to spend the night on the frozen Charles River.  Quotation, then, becomes a metaphor for repetition-for all the ways we both use the past and are constrained by it.  Psychologically, we constantly quote ourselves through our complexes, repeating behavior patterns fixed by our character. Everything we can say quotes the forms of grammatical speech and the content of what we have learned.  Biologically, every individual quotes its ancestors through its genes. 

[14]  Is quotation, then, a help or a hindrance to life?  Some of the examples above indicate how, for better or worse, it facilitates human relationships.  It enables both what Mary calls the "constant conversation" of the human race and the particular conversations of couples (52).  The film's main preoccupation, however, is with quotation's darker, fateful implications, which is highlighted by contrast with the ideal of the "spotless mind"-a state completely free from memory and its constraints.   This ideal is expressed by Clementine early in the film (which is actually late in the chronology of the story-though significantly it's still the same Clementine, with or without her memories):  "My goal, Joel, is to just let it flow through me?  Do you know what I mean.?  I think we're all taught we should be consistent.  Y'know?  You love someone - that's it.  Forever.  You choose to do something with your life - that's it, that's what you do.  It's a sign of maturity to stick with that and see things through.  And my feeling is that's how you die, because you stop listening to what is true, and what is true is constantly changing. You know?" (19-20)  The idea of flow here is one of pure spontaneity or originality.  Clementine's ideal self-reliant person quotes no one and adheres to no fixed standards, not even the internal standard of consistency.11  Formulaic, quoted thought and behavior spell death.  Life and truth, by contrast, are "constantly changing."

[15]  The opposing modes of life represented by quotation and flow are framed somewhat differently in another statement of Clementine's philosophy:  "Joel, I'm not a concept.  I want you to just keep that in your head.  Too many guys think I'm a concept or I complete them or I'm going to make them alive, but I'm just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind.  Don't assign me yours." (96)  The tendency is strong, that is, to turn other people into concepts or formulaic characters, quotes from some preestablished story of how things should be.  The concept of the soul mate, of the other who will complete us, is one of the most seductive such formulas.12  The will to reduce life to story, however, is countered by the demand we make to be taken for nothing but ourselves.  Conventional forms of meaning exercise a fatal attraction, but freedom kicks back against them.

[16]  Fate, however, generally seems to come out on top in this contest.  The self insists on its uniqueness, but what, after all, is this self that wants to be free?  The irony is that, left to itself, it behaves in highly predictable and stereotypical ways.  Clementine, when she is at her most impulsive, enacts Clementine.  She drives all night to the river, dyes her hair, "gets bored," "feels trapped," and moves on (129).  She is a repertoire of behaviors, a pattern of patterns.  At her most free, she is most fated to be herself.  Likewise with Joel, Howard, Mary, Rob, and Carrie:  simply by doing what they do, they find themselves repeatedly quoting themselves, striking the same poses, acting exactly as if they had ".nowhere to go except where [they're] headed, like a train on a track.  Inevitable, unalterable" (88).

[17]  Is this endless round of self-quotation, then, the last word-the trap from which there is no escape?  This question is addressed in the film in several ways,13 but especially through its final sequence.   The end of the story begins with Mary's discovery that Dr. Mierzwiak used the procedure on her in an unethical, coercive way to cover up the traces of their affair and her abortion.  Her response is to send all of Lacuna's files back to its clients, thinking that they too should be able (or be forced) to come to terms with what they have lost.  As a result of her actions, Joel and Clementine discover, immediately after their promising "first" meeting free from memories of each other, that they have what Dr. Mierzwiak calls "a history" (87).  They already know the worst about each other.  On the tapes sent from the Lacuna offices, we hear Clementine say how sick she is of Joel's "pathetic, wimpy, apologetic smile.  That sort of wounded puppy shit he does" (121).  We hear what Joel thinks about Clementine's "complete selfishness," her promiscuity, and her insecure pretense of free-spiritedness (125).

[18]  So what do they do, knowing what they know, being who they are?  Clementine's impulse is to leave it all behind again, but Joel persuades her to wait.  And so the final scene plays out, simply and unforgettably.  It  starts with Clementine quoting once again from her own rather fixed philosophy of freedom:


I'm not a concept, Joel.  I'm just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind.  I'm not perfect.


I can't think of anything I don't like about you right now.


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.




Okay (129).

[19]  What is there in this final, flat "Okay" that feels so resonant and promising?14  The power of the scene owes much, I believe, not only to the way it grows from the themes of entrapment and repetition developed throughout the film, but to the way it recapitulates a crucial moment in modern intellectual history when a similar sense of fatality flipped dramatically into its opposite:  namely, Nietzsche's discovery of the concept of eternal recurrence.  Like Kaufman, Nietzsche envisioned no way out of the traps set for us by our own natures or the nature of the world.  Nevertheless, in eternal recurrence he believed he had found an idea that effectively transformed that trap from within.  "My formula for greatness for a human being." wrote Nietzsche, "is amor fati [love of fate]:  that one wants nothing to be different."15   "A new will I teach to men:  to will this way which man has walked blindly and to affirm it."16   Moreover, Nietzsche believed that the only way to affirm life completely is to want it forever-to want "what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo."17  Eternal recurrence, then, is not a cosmological theory but a practical response to the knowledge that life is inevitably bound by its own character and that we have nowhere else to go.18  It affirms liberty in spite of the prospect of endless quotation.  It achieves transcendence, not by recourse to an imagined "elsewhere," but precisely through the renunciation of supernaturalistic notions of transcendence-rejecting the desire for a different world in favor of  the world we actually inhabit. 

[20] Eternal Sunshine either echoes or rediscovers this response to the essential problem it sets for itself-the problem of achieving significant change in a world characterized by repetition.  We know by the end just how deeply human life is constrained by its conditions.  Likewise, Joel and Clementine know how likely it is that their relationship will only repeat itself.  Nevertheless, by saying "Okay" to each other, they say yes with open eyes to the whole foreseeable mess, and the moment feels like liberation-like the change they had been seeking all along.

[21] Granted:  Joel and Clementine's "Okay" strikes a different note from Nietzsche's Dionysian "Eternal Yea."  It is all a bit tentative, a bit hedged.  The concluding scene, which may at first seem like a straightforward feel-good moment, is in fact hard to read, leaving the protagonists' prospects far from clear.  Will they just play out the whole cycle again, ending in bitterness, wiping it all away, and beginning again in (false) hope?  An early draft of Kaufman's script foresees them doing exactly that.19  Or might it all be different, as Joel hopes, "if we could just give it another go around" (97)?  Amor fati brings some sort of change-a curious infusion of spirit into circumstance, like a rush of oxygen into the room-but is it the sort of change that will make a practical difference for Joel and Clementine?  Eternal Sunshine offers no clues, leaving the question of the value, for life, of this sort of transcendence open.20

[22]  So what good in the end is vision, insight, or ecstatic affirmation if it leaves us largely where it finds us?  It is hard to say-ultimately hard-and Kaufman offers no pat response.  What he gives us in the meantime, however, is a work of art that resonates powerfully on several levels.  It works intellectually by recalling wider themes in modern intellectual history; it works artistically by conjuring up a sense of spiritual possibility from the very circumstances that constrain us; and it works in a surprisingly powerful way with audiences.21  The sense of possibility it communicates is at once accessible and subtle, simple and complex-as immediate as a declaration of love and as abstract as Zarathustra's victory over time.  At the heart of a familiar story, that is, Eternal Sunshine rediscovers one of the most searching and intellectually responsible ways to think about transcendence in the modern world.

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