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.— Alexander Pope (As quoted by Mary [Kirsten Dunst])
Identity and the understanding of the self are generally thought to be deeply informed and influenced by memory. Michel Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind places this dynamic at its core, exploring the damage inflicted on its characters’ conception of their own identity by the effects of amnesia. Set in a world where selective memory erasure is a scientific reality, the film depicts the rupture of the consciousness brought about by forced forgetting. As its protagonists grapple with existential crises in the wake of their treatment, Eternal Sunshine calls into question the crucial importance of memory not only in our understanding of our past, but also our conception of ourselves. A film deeply concerned with the nature — and power — of memory, Eternal Sunshine‘s ultimate goal appears to be to determine what exactly is at stake in memory loss, and how a loss of memory can equate to a loss of self.
In the film, three of the characters, including the protagonists Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), in the wake of painful relationship breakdowns, elect to undergo a cutting-edge medical procedure whereby their memories of the ex-partner are erased. The clinic that provides this procedure, Lacuna Inc., purports to offer its patients the possibility of “moving on with their lives,” suggesting that the erasure of traumatic memories equates to a form of healing, a mending of the damaged mind. The ideology behind Lacuna’s work, as Kim Edwards sums up in her article “White Spaces and Blank Pages,” is that “there must be happiness in being able to erase the ‘spots’ — the traumas, the pains, the sins, the regrets — from one’s mind and memory.”1 Indeed, Lacuna’s secretary, Mary — who is herself unaware of having erased the memory of her relationship with the clinic’s head doctor, Howard (Tom Wilkinson) — sees the procedure as purifying, a means of deliverance from the “mess of sadness and phobias” that characterises the adult self. Mary admires the simplicity of the erased mind, “pure and clean” like a baby’s. She quotes Nietzsche: “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.”
Yet from the outset, we are led to doubt this romanticisation of elective amnesia (quite literally, according to Howard, “a form of brain damage”), and the film quickly turns to a questioning of the integrity of the treatment. Indeed, while the procedure is in fact based on actual brain research conducted around the time of the film’s release, Eternal Sunshine goes on to expose Lacuna’s promotion of memory erasure as a means of healing trauma as highly problematic. As might be expected, the characters’ recovery is far from seamless. Indeed, Edwards pinpoints an important message of the film when she warns, “A spotless mind comes fraught with its own horrors.”2 For the characters’ reactions to their erasure call into question an important link that is never evoked in Lacuna’s ideology: that between memory and identity.
From Ricoeur to Freud to Locke and back again, the interdependence of memory and identity has long been a topic of fascination for scholars. On a more local level, however, in her essay “The Me Who Knew It,” Jenny Diski makes the parallel between memory and identity in Eternal Sunshine explicit, exploring “the compelling feeling that we are our memories” and framing the film as a representation of the idea that humans are “the accumulation of their experience.”3 Diski’s understanding of memory is one that is inextricably linked with the understanding of the self. In her view, Eternal Sunshine‘s characters are plagued by “identity terrors,” directly triggered by their memory loss.4
Consequently, as we follow the characters through the process and aftermath of their treatments, we come to see that their experience and understanding of themselves and their past is undermined. Diski’s “identity terrors” manifest in each of the characters in the form of a personal crisis, a questioning of the self. Clementine in particular enters a state of panic, shouting at her new partner in an attempt to explain her behaviour: “I don’t know. I’m lost. I’m scared. I feel like I’m disappearing . . . nothing makes sense to me.” It is clear that Clementine feels the rupture in the continuity of her experience caused by the erasure, verbalising this as an inexplicable feeling of emptiness and disorientation. (The clinic’s name becomes relevant here, as a “lacuna” is a gap or missing part.)5 Clementine is, of course, unaware of exactly what she has lost, yet she feels the loss nonetheless: not so much the absence of the memory but the presence of the lacuna. The parallel between memory and sense of self is explicit here: the result of Clementine losing her memory is her impression of losing herself. This recalls Diski’s comment that it is not the lost memory itself which is bothersome, but the feeling that “it’s the me who knew it who is disappearing.”6
Simultaneously, Joel’s understanding of his identity is disrupted in the aftermath of his own memory erasure. Waking from the procedure, his behaviour and outlook are characterised by a sense of detachment and meaninglessness. After hovering on the train platform on his way to work, he blindly runs to jump on a different train headed to beach town Montauk, explaining his behaviour in a monotonous voice-over: “I blew off work today, took a train to Montauk. I don’t know why.” Though he is in actual fact responding to the phantom influence of one of his lost memories (before the erasure is complete, he and Clementine promise to reunite in Montauk, where they first met, to recommence their affair), his post-erasure self can assign no meaning to his actions. Jason Sperb has suggested that this very “not knowing why” is “Joel’s motivation throughout [much] of the film; he does not understand why he is so empty.”7 Indeed, Joel’s mind is made “spotless” by the procedure, but this does not result in the healing promised by Lacuna. Instead, he is subjected to a new crisis, an emptiness generated by his memory loss and that drastically alters his behaviour and state of mind. In this way the film’s message is clear: sense of self is too deeply defined by remembrance of the past to survive such memory loss intact.
Thus we see that in memory erasure, the mind is not rendered “spotless” but is riddled with holes. The result is an incomplete and fractured self lacking in substance and meaning, which the film externalises in the cracked surface of the frozen lake, the recurring imagery of the tabula rasa and the blinding white light that dominate the film’s imagery.8 The invalidity of Mary’s ideal of the “happy . . . lot [of the] spotless mind” is thus exposed, and rather than being healed, the characters are haunted by the feeling that they do not entirely know themselves.
Yet the damage engendered by the erasure does not end here. Mary is again mistaken when she quotes Nietzsche so admiringly, for the treatment in fact prevents its patients from “get[ting] the better . . . of their blunders.” Herein lies a fault in Lacuna’s ideology. Just as the procedure damages the characters’ perception of time and sense of self, so does it prevent them from growing and learning from their past experience. As Jason Sperb asserts, “to forget is to repeat.”9 Thus, oblivious to her past with the married Howard, Mary again falls in love with her boss and attempts to seduce him, and Joel and Clementine recommence their courtship. The suggestion is that the erasure produces an underdeveloped version of the pre-erasure, more experienced self: in removing consciousness, it cripples the patient’s ability to evolve.
We have seen how memory erasure affects the mind on one level, in the physical deletion of memories, and on another in its adverse effect on the patient’s conception of time and self. Yet Eternal Sunshine takes this concept even further, to suggest that the erased self is not merely an edited but a markedly changed one. Indeed, each of the characters behaves in converse ways in their pre- and post-erasure states, particularly Mary, who at one point in the film is told that she has undergone the procedure in the past. The discovery of the treatment not only re-exposes her to the reason she erased her memories in the first place (although, of course, there is no getting the memories themselves back), but it dramatically changes her outlook. She experiences a complete turnaround in her attitude toward the procedure, which she once considered a “gift” and comes to see as “horribly unethical.” This prompts her to raid the clinic’s archives and to return each client’s file to them, in an attempt to reverse their memory loss to the greatest possible extent. The implication is that the erased mind is somehow a false one; the patients no longer think or act as they would if their mind had not been tampered with. Lucius Shepard recognises this change and likens it to a handicap: “The reasons underlying the curious behaviour of all the characters may be that they, too, are impaired.”10 Of course, it is natural that the characters’ views and attitudes would be affected to a certain extent by the amnesia. Yet the film ultimately suggests that the self is not soothed or repaired by memory erasure, but made fundamentally different.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s characters could be forgiven for believing that the erasure of traumatic memories promises deliverance from suffering. It is certainly true that after their treatment, the film’s protagonists are no longer plagued by the memory of their painful, failed relationships. Yet the erasure, the return to the infant-like spotless mind, comes at a price. For with a loss of memory comes a loss of knowing, and the mind is plagued with lacunas that rupture the continuity of consciousness. The result is a damaged self-understanding that leads the characters to question who they really are. Lacuna’s work ignores the temporal continuity created by memory, which is so essential to the formation of identity. As Edwards suggests, “A loss of memory is not a fresh start but a void bridged only by new forms of grief and displacement.”11 The spotless mind is not a cleansed or purified one but a blank slate characterised by emptiness and meaninglessness. Thus the erasure of trauma, ironically, generates a trauma in itself.
Diski, Jenny, “The Me Who Knew It,” London Review of Books, vol. 34, no.3, 9 Feb 2012.
Edwards, Kim. “White Spaces and Blank Pages: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in Screen Education, vol. 51, pp. 119-124.
Shepard, Lucius. “Forget About It” in Fantasy and Science Fiction, pp. 123-128.
Sperb, Jason. “Internal Sunshine; Illuminating Being-Memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in Intertheory, vol. 2, 2005, http://intertheory.org/sunshine.