Ignorance is bliss: Heartbreak, memory in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

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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, “Eloisa to Abelard”

It’s been 15 years since the release of the Academy Award-winning film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but the story continues to resonate today with the complex philosophical questions it raises about human nature. The Michel Gondry-directed film narrates the story of an estranged couple that has gone through a procedure to erase the painful memories of the breakup but unknowingly meet again after the fact. 

While the concept of memory-erasing technology is something still only conceivable in fiction (although recent studies have apparent proof of the ability to erase fear or trauma-induced memories from the brains of mice), the science in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” brings to light questions of ethics and the nature of memories in our lives. 

Scientists are constantly devising new ways to fix our problems, but can there ever be a limit to advanced technology? How do we navigate the morality of science in the presence of human emotion? For much of the first half of the film, Lacuna, Inc. — the memory-erasing clinic — is presented in a morally ambiguous light. Hundreds of patients flood the office carrying boxes of items belonging to the individuals they’d like to forget. Besides the protagonists, Joel and Clementine, who seek the clinic’s services for the erasure of their romantic failures, there are patients who arrive at Lacuna for other somber reasons, such as to forget the death of a pet. 

Watching this, I couldn’t help but connect the film to the popular phrase “Ignorance is bliss.” 

During times of adversity, it’s common for people to want to eliminate the memories that bring them distress. To cope with the pain of my grandfather’s death, my mother subconsciously blocked out all recollection of the day he passed away. She doesn’t remember the date of his passing and refuses to listen whenever someone tries to remind her of it. While forgetting the date doesn’t exactly keep her happy, it’s a way for her to manage the grief and avoid the difficult reality of acknowledging his death’s anniversary. In this way, she would rather accept ignorance than live through her sorrow. 

During times of adversity, it’s common for people to want to eliminate the memories that bring them distress.

After all, the truth isn’t always satisfying, nor is it pleasurable. It’s natural to tell a white lie to a friend to spare them some heartache on a small issue or neglect to tell your boss what you really think of their managing style. These instances of ignorance cause the individuals involved no harm, and in fact, they are probably better off without the full truth. But the line between happiness at the expense of knowledge and knowledge at the expense of happiness is thin. 

In the film, one Lacuna employee, Mary, defends the clinic’s work by claiming, “Adults are, like, this mess of sadness and phobias.” Although this may indeed be true, removing these sources of pain and fear does nothing to truly ease a person’s life: The pain points will remain until they are addressed and faced head-on. Ignorance, in fact, deters the attainment of bliss.

Someone who cannot see the entire picture in any situation, even if what they don’t know is as simple as an opinion of their performance, is at a disadvantage because they don’t have enough information to improve. The happiness or contentment they may feel will not last in the long term. And if the lack of knowledge stems from an intentional denial of memory, there remains a risk of falling back into old patterns of behavior. Erasing painful memories could also erase some of the most fundamental aspects of human nature — accepting and moving on from pain, as well as failing and learning from your mistakes. 

As children, we learn best through trial and error. Childhood is a messy period of failures, disappointments and worries, but it’s also a time of growth, as we become more independent and self-aware. Without struggle, there is no opportunity to learn and become better versions of ourselves, and this does not change in adulthood.  

Joel and Clementine’s reunion asserts that while you can forget certain people or events, you can’t eliminate the initial impulses or emotions surrounding them. So when they encounter one another again shortly after Joel’s procedure, the experience parallels their first meeting two years prior: Joel is still a pensive, taciturn introvert prone to wallowing in self-pity, and Clementine is an eccentric extrovert, wildly unpredictable and adventurous. It’s their differences that spark their initial attraction, drive them apart and draw them together again. 

Memories are a significant component of an individual’s identity, so a portion of one’s life story is essentially lost with the erasure of “sadness and phobias.”

When Joel and Clementine discover the truth of their relationship, they acknowledge the fact that dating again could end in disaster but decide to still try. The film concludes without a definite resolution to their story, but it’s possible that their newfound knowledge of everything that had gone wrong in their initial romance could be a guide to making things right the second time around. 

The film’s title comes from Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard,” a poem about a tragic love affair where forgetfulness is the only source of comfort for the heroine. Lacuna attempts to create a “spotless mind” by removing the pain and hurt associated with certain memories, but the oblivion Lacuna provides its patients with has an edge of cruelty to it. Memories are a significant component of an individual’s identity, so a portion of one’s life story is essentially lost with the erasure of “sadness and phobias.”

To some degree, everyone seeks “eternal sunshine” or carefree bliss. A spotless mind, however, is not to be admired, but to be pitied. Only through memories can we draw strength from the grief and pain and embrace a new day.

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Contact Stella Ho at [email protected].