Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind questions the ethics and morality of memory manipulation that tie into Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas of how memory existentially affirms and ethically tests the moral positions of eternal recurrence.
The following deleted scene is a mock advertisement for Lacuna, provider of the memory erasure service:
Nietzsche argues the importance of forgetting. If one were to remember every single detail, every day of our lives, one would go mad. Eternal Sunshine acknowledges an importance in forgetting: the two main characters, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), have both willingly had their memories of each other erased by the Lacuna procedure. Both want to forget the pain they inflicted on each other.
However, Nietzsche also argues the importance of remembering. To remember is to acknowledge all elements of one’s life both pleasurable and painful. Nietzsche argues embracing all memories is the only way to live an authentic life. In the film, Joel and Clementine have failed to respect the importance of remembering that Nietzsche argues as they both decide to have the memories of each other removed. Therefore, by Nietzsche’s account, they live in self-deception and do not lead an authentic life.
Additionally, Nietzsche considers the various elements that make up a memory of some major life event to be inseparable from each other. In other words, memory is holistic. In the film, a major life event occurs when Joel and Clementine lie on the ice and fall in love for the first time. But, if Joel has only Clementine removed from this memory, how much of the experience is truly removed considering Joel would still have many other elements in his memory of that experience independent of Clementine being there or not: himself laying down on the ice, the starry sky, the passing cars, and the background noises. Traces of the experience still exist. Joel breaks the holistic memory bond that Nietzsche describes and therefore the film again questions Joel’s ethics and morality in partaking in this self-deceptive act.
Finally, Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal recurrence’ questions one’s attitude towards the idea of one’s life infinitely and exactly repeating itself. How we respond to this ‘tells us about our attitudes about ourselves and the lives we live’ (Jollimore 2009 p. 55). The end of the film presents an ‘eternal recurrence’ of Joel and Clementine who decide to live their love affair again, even though they know it will be both good and bad.
Their decision may suggest a happy conclusion, but moreover, it questions if this is ethically the right thing to do considering they both know the likely outcome is only going to cause each other pain.
Eternal Sunshine is a complex film on many levels. This Nietzschean approach to the way the film questions the ethics and morals of memory and its erasure provides only one reading of a rich text that will surely be analysed and debated for a long time to come.
Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Case Study 1 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, Lecture 19 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.
Troy Jollimore 2009, ‘Miserably Ever After: Forgetting, Repeating and Affirming Love’, in Christopher Grau (ed.), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Philosophers on Film, Routledge, London, pp. 31-61.