If you could remove a painful memory, would you? Should you? These are some of the central questions that Michel Gondry’s (dir. 2004) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind asks. The film seems to offer some of its own answers to these questions, and interpretations by Christopher Grau and Troy Jollimore that draw on the content of the film and external philosophical concepts offer more (Grau 2006, Jollimore 2009). On one hand, Eternal Sunshine argues that memory removal is indeed wrong. On the other, it offers a less systematic ethical stance that aligns more closely with a Nietzschean immoralist world view. The film uses narrative and characterisation techniques to explore these philosophical and ethical concepts on memory removal and ways of living.
There has been much discourse surrounding whether film can be regarded as “doing” philosophy. It is not my intention in this essay to argue for or against Livingston’s “bold” thesis for ‘film as philosophy’ (2008, p. 592). A movie does not need to adhere to this “bold” thesis in order to be considered philosophical. We can use Stephen Mulhall’s first idea on how film “does philosophy” to establish Eternal Sunshine as a philosophical film; it is a film that philosophises (2007). Mulhall states that some films can be seen to think seriously and systematically about philosophical issues and arguments “in just the ways that philosophers do” (2007, p. 279). The question of whether memory removal is wrong is, naturally, a philosophical and ethical question. And it is one that Eternal Sunshine engages with entirely.
It is once Joel chooses to undergo a procedure to erase Clementine from his memory that the film begins to fully engage in the ethical questions that naturally arise from this action. There are a number of key scenes, one being when Mary recites the quotes from Nietzsche and Pope:
“Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.” – Friedrich Nietzsche (Gondry dir. 2004, min. 0:44:06)
“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 (Gondry dir. 2004, min. 01:17:15)
The concepts of these quotes contradict heavily with the ideas the film puts forward on memory loss. While Mary recites Pope, the film visually shows Joel’s memories of being with Clementine at a festival; they are quite clearly in love and happy, yet this memory is in the process of being removed (Gondry dir. 2004, min. 01:17:21). The question that arises from this visual and audio juxtaposition introduces a cognitive dissonance. The quote says one thing, but the content of the film does not match up: how could Joel and Clementine have “eternal sunshine” by forgetting such a happy experience? Here begins the core philosophical “thought process” of the film. The Nietzschean quote introduces a similar question when contrasted with the film’s content: are the forgetful really blessed? Mary herself will discover that this quote does not apply to her; though she forgets she had an affair with Dr. Mierzwiak, she does not “get the better” of this “blunder”, because she makes it again in ignorance of the past. So, if the film is not advocating for the content of these quotes, what is it saying?
Christopher Grau focuses on factors external to the film techniques to explain how we might respond to the ethical questions of the film and decide that memory removal is wrong (2006). Grau argues that we sense the tragic loss that Joel will experience when he loses his memories of Clementine (2006, p. 120). Referring to Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment, he notes that humans typically place value truth over the absence of pain (or pleasure, in his words) (Grau 2006, p. 121). Grau also draws on other prescriptive moral philosophy to apply this to how the film works philosophically. On of Grau’s central claim is that memory removal is harmful to the self. He refers to Immanuel Kant’s “duties to oneself”, outlining that people have a duty to treat themselves with respect, and should “never… use [themselves] solely as a means to an end” (Grau 2006, p. 124). In this context the memory removal in ES can be described as a kind of immoral “self-objectification” and “mutilation” of one’s mind (p. 124). Furthermore, Grau draws on Iris Murdoch’s argument that we have a moral responsibility to “perceive the world and other people accurately”, and to remove your memories would be to inaccurately perceive our world (2006, p. 127). Grau’s interpretation of the ethical engagement of the film depends largely on viewers agreeing with these external philosophical concepts, and less on how the film works and engages with these ethical ideas itself. This implies that the film relies on the audience’s ethical values, external to its own means of persuasion or argument, to be able to engage in ethics at all.
How does the film itself engage in ethics, then? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind makes a strong case against memory removal. Some of the strength of this case can be explained through the film’s use of the character Mary, and this is further explained through Carl Plantinga’s framework for how viewers respond morally and non-morally to fictional characters in film (2010). Plantinga built on Murray Smith’s concept that we give our allegiance to characters whom we have a good moral evaluation of, to include non-moral judgments of characters in our responses to fictional characters (2010). He notes that humans tend to confuse moral and non-moral judgments, using Legends of the Fall as an example of how this plays out in our responses to film (2010, pp. 35, 45). In Legends of the Fall, the character Tristan carries out many morally questionable actions: murderous rampages, affairs with his brother’s lover, and cruel violence (Plantinga 2010, pp. 49-50). Yet it was not an uncommon reaction of some viewers to idolise the character (Plantinga 2010, p. 45). The film associates Tristan with wilderness, passion and beauty, using aspects of its soundtrack, visuals and characterisation, leading some viewers to have allegiance for him despite his moral flaws (Plantinga 2010, pp. 49-50).
Though a less extreme example, in a similar way, it is not the moral actions of the characters in Eternal Sunshine or our allegiance towards them that carries the ethical engagement in the film. It is the filmic techniques used, that cause us to have sympathy for Mary and Joel, the characters that mainly drive the ethical discussion of the film. Sympathy is granted to those who need care and concern, and Mary, who is cast as a young, beautiful, romantic and naïve woman, is a prime candidate (Plantinga 2010, p. 41). Because of Mary’s characterisation we are positioned to want to protect her from harm, and this makes it easy to sympathise with her when we discover how she has been manipulated by Dr. Mierzwiak (her hesitation to undergo memory removal is clear in her tape recording) (Gondry dir. 2004, min. 01:24:11).
Smith and Plantinga both agree that while these non-moral factors can influence the strength of our allegiance with a character, they can also be overridden by the spectator’s moral judgment of the character (Plantinga 2010, p. 41). Whether Mary’s moral decision to release the memories at the end of the film is enough to win our allegiance is dependent, of course, on each individual viewer’s own moral values. However, our chances of agreeing with her decision are strengthened by the decision to cast her as young, beautiful and naïve that makes us likely to sympathise with her. In this way the film operates to position viewers to agree with the ethical idea that memory removal is wrong.
While the film does, then, offer an answer to the ethical question of whether memory removal is wrong, a deeper reading (largely through Joel’s narrative arc) also indicates a Nietzschean-like approach to ethics. Friedrich Nietzsche was a strongly anti-systematic philosopher, yet his ideas on value creation and affirmation may be the closest we come to a “positive” ethics (Jollimore 2009, p. 57, Anderson 2017). Through Troy Jollimore’s reading, I do not intend to ascribe an ethical interpretation of Eternal Sunshine to Nietzsche, rather, to use Nietzschean concepts to indicate another way the film engages in ethics.
While Troy Jollimore’s Nietzschean reading of the film, like Grau, relies on external philosophical ideas, it more closely aligns with the content of the film and thus seems to rise out of the film itself, rather than from an external value system that viewers may or may not have (2009). We can look at Joel’s narrative to understand how the film itself engages with ethical ideas, not just on memory removal, but on ways of living. The key narrative complication for Joel arises when he is in the midst of removing Clementine from his memories. Whilst reliving a particularly vulnerable memory in which Clementine reveals her insecurity about how she looks, Joel decides he wants to keep the memory, forgetting that to keep one means he must keep all of them, even the painful ones (Jollimore 2009, p. 46). Yet he soon comes to realise that to lose his memories of Clementine, even the painful ones, would mean to lose all of her (Jollimore 2009, p. 48). Joel realises that he must affirm all of their relationship, not simply the “good” parts; this is what Jollimore interprets as his third Nietzschean affirmation thesis: “there are certain moments in a life that ought to be wholeheartedly affirmed. But to do this, it is necessary to affirm everything in one’s life” (2009, p. 47).
Finally, the film closes on Joel and Clementine choosing to begin a new relationship, knowing that they have suffered together in the past and will likely do so again (Gondry dir. 2004). Jollimore argues that this makes Joel and Clementine Nietzschean immoralists: they affirm “the value of the present moment without thinking about its future consequences” (2009, p. 51). And certainly, in their final “okay”, Joel and Clementine are accepting that their relationship will likely fail, as it has in the past, but they are embracing their pleasure of being with each other in the present moment (Gondry dir. 2004, min. 01:43:17). While this affirmation thesis strongly resists systematic ethical frameworks, for it prevents us from “clinging to our unacceptable and regrettable pasts”, it also has its own kind of ethical quality (Jollimore 2009, p. 51). Coupled with the film’s strong ethical stance that memory removal is wrong, this ending of the film implies that we should affirm our lives in the way Joel and Clementine does. Just as Mary decides it is wrong to keep the memories of the Lacuna patients hidden from them, Joel and Clementine decide it is right to accept these memories as well as the likely painful relationship they will have, affirming their lives together.
Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind offers a great scope for philosophical discourse, particularly surrounding ethical questions regarding memory removal and ways of living. It is a philosophical film that engages in ethics through the use of narrative and characterisation.
Anderson, RL 2017, ‘Friedrich Nietzsche’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, viewed 7 November 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/
Gondry, M (dir) 2004, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, motion picture.
Grau, C 2006, ‘“Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” and the morality of memory’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 64, no. 1, pp. 119-133.
Jollimore, T 2009, ‘Miserably ever after: forgetting, repeating and affirming love in Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’, in C Grau (ed.), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 31-61.
Livingston, P 2008, ‘Recent work on cinema as philosophy’, Philosophy Compass, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 590-603.
Mulhall, S 2007, ‘Film as philosophy: the very idea’, The Aristotelian Society, vol. CVII, no. 3, pp. 279-294.
Plantinga, C 2010, ‘“I followed the rules, and they all loved you more”: moral judgment and attitudes toward fictional characters in film’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 34-51.
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