In a beautiful coincidence, I have to watch this, my all-time favorite movie, for a class discussion on my birthday.
Professor Tinkcom asks us to consider how sci-fi shapes cultural perceptions of science and technology. This is my response essay, and it was damn hard to write.
Memory and the Myth of the Individual
There is a person you sometimes wish you could forget. Pause for a moment and think of them.
That thing you’re feeling right now––regret, nostalgia, annoyance, bitterness, longing––that emotional reality of shared memory is what it is to be human. But that emotional reality is an ever-evolving one, forming a cyclical memory of memories. As Heraclitus wrote: no man can step in the same river twice, for neither the man nor the river is the same. Day’s piece touches on this when he quotes Kaufman, “You’re a completely different person, it’s a completely different memory.”
Eternal Sunshine is addressing the myth of static individuality, acknowledging that we are not individual, but dividual, that our identity is a mosaic of pieces dependent upon the perceptions and shared experiences of others. There are versions of ourselves out there, in the minds of others, that we would not recognize if we met them.
Joel-the-physical-person is confronted with Joel-in-Clementine’s-mind when Carrie tells him, “She decided to erase you almost as a lark.” He is deeply hurt by this because he realizes that not only does he no longer exist in the mind of the woman he loves, but that the version of him that did live there was less important to her than he had hoped. In this moment, Clementine-in-Joel’s-mind becomes despicable to him, and it is only through the erasure process that he re-encounters things about Clementine-the-physical-person that he did (and does) love.
This depth of connection is not limited to romantic, heterosexual relationships. Notice the variety of items held by the nameless characters in Lacuna Inc’s waiting room: there is evidence of children, friends, and even pets on the verge of being erased. To be allowed into the experience of another is a profound, even spiritual experience from which no one emerges unscathed. Joel may erase his conscious recognition of Clementine, but he cannot erase the person he has become because of her. Or, as Day writes, “I cannot become you, and neither can I remain what I am (and likewise for you).”
In our world of repression, rather than erasure, the process of forgetting begins with missing someone. I have always loved the nuance in the French word “to miss,” manquer. Its syntax is unique: to say, “I miss you” is tu me manques, you cause me to lack, you have become a part of me that is now empty. If this person does not return, that part may only be filled by new experiences that connect and bring new sense to the emptiness.
At its core, “Lacuna” is a false concept, revealing the flawed logic in Dr. Mierzwiak’s procedure. One meaning of this Latin word is a missing piece of a manuscript. But the human experience is not a linear manuscript. It is not merely a hole or a space left in Joel’s and Clementine’s consciousnesses, but a winding path of unfillable emptiness that, in the end, leads them back to Montauk, back to each other. They can no more remove themselves from one another than green paint can return to wholly separate blue and yellow. I find McGowan’s words true, “if every memory has a connection to the whole and to every other memory, such a process becomes unthinkable. One cannot eliminate Clementine because she is everywhere.”
It is possible that our networked existence is too complex and too fragile to ever be successfully manipulated by any imagined technology. But as these ideas inch closer to possibilities, Eternal Sunshine (and the deep connection that viewers tend to feel toward the film) becomes an increasingly significant contradiction to the assumption that the human mind is an individual entity that can be digitized, mechanized, or even quantified. The person you thought of a few minutes ago is tangled up within every other person and experience you have known.
We are destructively and inextricably bound to one another.