TIME AND FORGETTING: A SPORADIC COMMENTARY
ON ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
Before the beginning, there is a certain degree of indecision and anxiety. Or perhaps we simply expect and receive. In any case, depending on how we reckon time, or exactly what event rests under our consideration, Kant seems to have won from the start. I am holding in my hands a plastic disk. In my mind it is thoroughly atemporal, since it does not visibly change unless I act on it. It is simple, revealing very little information. I place the disk in my DVD player and begin. A droning, untravelled voice comes out of northern Poland to ask about the conditions for the possibility of movie watching. The spinning disk invisibly turns its perpetual return into a sequence of colors and sounds that have apparently nothing to do with that piece of plastic I held a moment ago. Somehow the DVD player and television have joined together, have found in this sandwich of plastic and foil a memento of some event, and spend the evening mulling over the past. I watch.
Kant has won because we think of our movie watching equipment not as a group of reminiscing old men who have a story to tell, but as a collection of machines operating according to set parameters and algorithms. Kant triumphs because the disk is το νουμενον, a non-movie which acts as the secondary, invisible cause of every event we see on screen. Kant triumphs because this equipment has certain faculties, schemata, principles and synthetic functions through which non-visual, atemporal data — we must remember that the entire film can be represented as a single integer, an incredibly long sequence of 0s and 1s — is organized and systematically transformed into something capable of being intuited. After all, intuition is that “to which all thought as a means is directed” (Critique of Pure Reason, ###), and intuition is what comes out of that disk in a surprising and abundant way. Space and Time are merely the forms used to represent a number as something other than itself, and time is composed of a predetermined succession of phenomena — frame after frame — which are determined in their succession not only by the necessary coherence of the film itself, but also by the arrangement of data on the disc, which is not made up of frames, but which produces them according to the forms set out in advance for it to fill. Kant triumphs quite easily over the question of movie watching, and with time to spare for his 4:15 stroll.
I took notes on the movie the last time I saw it. Here are a few of them:
Eternal Sunshine first viewing he wakes car drives off headache
strange pajamas car dented but he has his notebook
Impulsiveness as a yearning for the familiar in the unexpected
first journal entry in two years a lacuna in the journal
voices echo around the house he doesn’t remember he knows none of her names
The idea of these notes is to provide a map that would help me navigate the intellectual structure of the movie and find my way back to ideas I had once encountered. I am a stranger to my own thoughts, since they exist for me only as I think them out. We will return to this thought again in due course.
Kant breaks down the moment Patrick enters the film. We have hints of the unexplainable already, as Joel knows no constellations and has never heard the song “Oh My Darling, Clementine”. As soon as the Lacuna technician asks if he can help, the mood changes. We are unsettled and confused, and suddenly it is dark outside and Joel is sobbing at the wheel of his car. The viewer doesn’t know what the time relation is between the scene outside Clementine’s apartment and the one he is watching now, but Joel’s position is continuous between the two, suggesting that the one follows the other directly in time. We find out only in the course of the film that the fade to black outside Clementine’s also takes us back more than two days.
The choice to erase Clementine takes place at the moment Joel swallows Mierzwiak’s sleeping pill. From that point he has physically accepted the medicalization of his past and signed away his rights to the surgeon.
The erasure of memories seems at first to move in reverse temporal succession, but we quickly notice a few attributes of the process. First, memories are deleted as isolated events. The process of deletion is not like cutting portions of an audio tape (the way Kant would have us say), but like playing a very slow game of whack-a-mole. Memories are always experienced running forward in time and they are always grouped in clusters. These clusters are internally structured in a variety of different ways. Sometimes they flow temporally from one major event to the next (with gaps), sometimes they follow causal chains backward or forward through time, and often the links are merely links of relevance: some feature of the current memory makes it similar in content to those near it. Within a cluster, the transitions are generally as smooth as the relations between them are clear.
Mierzwiak’s explanation of the process captures correctly only the principle according to which memories are deleted. We should keep in mind how he has experienced the procedure he performs. His experience has been objectively distanced, and his description of the results of the procedure is a mix of poetry and good advertising. The Lacuna technicians encounter memories as clusters of dots on a brain scan, and are able to associate these dots at best with a few mementos and anecdotes. Hence they fail to understand the complexity of each cluster of dots in terms of its lived significance. For Mierzwiak, the procedure is merely a matter of the targeted destruction of brain cells, each of which makes up part of the “emotional core” of a memory.
Heidegger says there is no possibility for singular equipment, because all equipment is interrelated to other equipment that forms an environmental structure for the working out of ends. We can think of memory deletion in the same way. What if there were a single tool within an equipmental structure such that the elimination of that tool would render the rest of the structure insignificant? Or a single element of an environment whose erasure would cause the entire environment to collapse?
The main links between memories are temporal. We are always moving backwards from one major memory to the next, but in between these landmarks on the path through Joel’s past, there are detours. Frequently a major memory will implicate half a dozen other memories, each of which is then targeted for deletion. Stan, the primary Lacuna technician, sees these connections as lines drawn from one central dot to radiating dots at other locations in Joel’s brain. Thus the movement for Stan from one memory to the next is smooth only insofar as it involves crossing a set of preestablished coordinates off his list. These movements are the ones that are unsettling and sudden for Joel. They are always cued by a short beep and involve an instantaneous change to a new environment, often bringing along now out-of-place remanants of the last memory. However, between these major items on Stan’s list, there is the deletion of the pieces which constitute a memory cluster. These are chaotic and unpredictable for Stan, and his computer has to direct him to the relevant areas of the brain in order for the work to continue. So Mierzwiak’s description of deletion is ultimately incorrect, since it isn’t merely the “emotional core” which is being deleted, but the entire complex of memories, which are implicated by that core according to their meaningfulness for each other. These relationships are very Heideggerian, since we frequently see Joel returning to the core memory during and after its deletion, and he can continue to do so as long as the set of related memories remains. However, this is not completely evident until he begins to resist the procedure.
Deletion is frequently accompanied by a distortion or decay of the memory in question. Sound and image fail to line up, images are blurred, lights shut off, particulars are whited out. Each context is gradually wiped away until there is no longer a context for Joel’s mind to occupy, and he is forced (along with any remnants) into a new memory.
Outside of Joel’s head, another narrative develops. Patrick is manipulating Clementine, voltage troubles, etc., but the narrative becomes really engaging only when Mary Svevo enters. “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.” What perfection we miss when we fail to recognize that this quote, section 217 from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, is followed immediately Joel’s paraphrase of section 169: “Talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself.” The sarcasm latent in both of these thoughts is missed by each of the characters sharing them. Mary sees 217 as pure optimism, while Joel is simply struggling to speak at all.
Joel paraphrases 169 — unintentionally, it seems — only in order to defend his inability to grasp and explain his life, to share it verbally and emotionally with Clementine. What Clementine, whose very personality is the enacting of a crisis of self-consciousness — as revealed not only by her changing hair color, but also by her perpetual need to explain herself, and her concern that she is failing to take advantage of every available opportunity — misses in Joel is precisely what his experience of the operation proves to him, namely that his emotional life has consisted, for the better part of two years, in sharing his everyday existence with her. Clementine’s need to reflect on the relationship shows a deeper uncertainty about that stability of others, which is reflected in her own instability.
“Isn’t it amazing what Howard gives to the world? To let people begin again. It’s beautiful. You look at a baby and it’s so pure and so free and so clean; and adults are this mess of sadness and phobias; and Howard just makes it all go away.”
Mary has purchased wholesale Dr. Mierzwiak’s poetric vision of his work, according to which the operation allows one to begin again, completely from scratch. What both of them miss is that the connections between memories are not exhausted by the neural scans performed during the procedure. A whole part of someone’s life cannot be told in an hour or two, nor can it be sufficiently captured by a few mementos and journal entries. There are no lone contexts, no isolated memory-clusters that stand independent of the rest of a person’s life. As Heidegger says, Dasein is always already in the world, always already endowed with a facticity, and these vertical and horizontal super-contexts force relationships between every particular and every other. When an arm is amputated, there is still the occasional tingling of the missing limb, projected out by the nervous system through our remaining flesh.
Concerning Patrick’s strategy for winning Clementine’s heart. There is a core of idiocy in imitating the actions of a man your girlfriend apparently disliked enough to have erased from her memory, but Patrick’s strategy fails in more interesting ways as well. Whenever he brings some memento of Joel’s into use, Clementine gives him a glance of suspicion or irritation. Something doesn’t make sense to her; something is missing in her understanding or herself, and her self-consciously tenuous grip on her identity magnifies this problem tremendously. We compare Clementine’s post-operation behavior to Joel’s and notice that he wakes up feeling moderately depressed and confused, while she seems to be having a full nervous collapse. Patrick’s imitations of Joel are disturbing to her not at all because they don’t fit him, but because they remind her of something she cannot remember, so that time spent with him is a forceful indication of that unnamed absence which threatens to undermine the overall coherence of her past. He would do better not to remind her.
The rebellion against the procedure begins exactly half way through the movie. 53 minutes from the beginning, 53 minutes from the end.
The way to thwart the procedure is to take advantage of its shortcomings, and the shortcomings of the procedure are the same as those of the man who devised it. Mierzwiak does not understand the essential connectedness all memories, and hence doesn’t allow for the possibility of movement beyond those memories immediately evoked by the mementos and the oral account of Clementine. Thus Joel can escape the reaches of the computer, and in the same way Clementine can still be plagued by feelings of confusion when according to Mierzwiak the destruction of the “emotional core” should have wiped away any sense that Joel ever existed. When they meet again, something attracts her to him that was never present in any of the erased memories. She knows him already, and their reunion is merely a continuation of what had already begun.
One of the first things worth noticing in the movie is that, even though Joel cannot remember having written in his journal in two years, he still automatically brings it with him when he leaves for work in the morning. What does this mean? It’s a sign that our lives are constituted not only by specific memories, but also by habits. We move not merely out of a conscious assessment of our position and history which directs us to act, but also out of habit. It is the habit of knowing and loving Joel that cannot be fulfilled in Clementine after the erasure, and it is Joel’s longing to fulfill his habit of loving her that drives him out of the ordinary to Montauk on a snowy winter morning. Impulsiveness in both of these cases is a quest for the familiar in the unexpected, driven by the failure of available mental structures to fill out one’s average everyday existence.
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;
Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
"Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;"
Desires compos'd, affections ever ev'n,
Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav'n.
Grace shines around her with serenest beams,
And whisp'ring angels prompt her golden dreams.
For her th' unfading rose of Eden blooms,
And wings of seraphs shed divine perfumes,
For her the Spouse prepares the bridal ring,
For her white virgins hymeneals sing,
To sounds of heav'nly harps she dies away,
And melts in visions of eternal day.
The quote from Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard” is a complaint on the part of Peter Abelard’s former lover Eloisa that she cannot forget him — that even though she is in a convent her love for him lives on. She compares herself to a vestal virgin, who is able to abandon the world and forget everyone, and imagines the total freedom and happiness that would come from dedicating one’s life solely to God, detached from everyone and everything. Mary Svevo’s appraoch to the procedure falls along similar lines. She sees it as a restoration of innocence and freedom to lives burdened with the guilt of a past. The approach is very Heideggerian, since Heidegger associates the past or “having-been” with guilt. However, Heidegger would object to Mary’s idea of restored innocence precisely because it is necessary for human beings to have a past, since they are always already in the world. In other words, we are not born innocent, but are born with death already looming ahead of us, and because of that fact the call of care (Schuldig!) isn’t far off.
There is an obvious pessimism in Mary’s thought, as well. She forgets that people grow from their trials, that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance hope. The obvious reply to Nietzsche is “Woe to the forgetful, for they never learn from their mistakes.” Better yet we might say
But if Eloisa and Mary are right, if forgetting others is a good thing, then people are dispensible to a greater extent than ever before. Lacuna represents the final invasion of the assembly line into our lives. Not only are the parts of my computer replaceable, the computer itself, not only am I replaceable in my menial work which any of a million other people could do just as well, but even in my private life, the people I love are replaceable. They cannot leave indelible marks; history is not set in stone; nothing has guaranteed significance.
Of course, Mary changes her mind once she finds out about her own past. Mary’s own life is a demonstration of the principle shown in Clementine’s post-operation difficulties. Even when the memories are gone, something unexplicit remains which inclines us toward what we abandoned. She in habitually inclined toward Mierzwiak, and furthermore is likely to develop another infatuation with him if she is denied the ability to learn from her experiences and left in the same situation in which she first became interested.
The question of repetition arises. The question arises — because the whole movie is a repetition, because memory is a repetition, and because we have to wonder whether the second time through things will be the same as they were before. After all, how could they be different? They even begin at Montauk again.
They are different. The second time around, Joel picks up Clementine for a ride even though she seems crazy. He sticks with her, comes up for a drink, and calls her back when he gets home. The second time around, Clementine switches from having the two of them pretend to be a married couple (which fails when he leaves), to telling him that they’re going to get married (to which he ultimately replies “I do.”) The second time around is no mere repetition, but a continuation. They meet each other in Montauk, just as planned in his dreams. The erasure of their memories was no end to the relationship, but a lacuna in a much longer text. We recall that passage from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, about how love abides:
Can anyone determine how the long silence must last before it can be said that now there is no more conversation?Love abides. In this way we see at the very end the joyful repetition of the same as the two leap happily along the beach at Montauk. The get further away, and then suddenly are close again, but even though they backtrack a few times, they make progress. The past is indelible, no matter how our memory of it may change.