On the surface, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about Joel and Clementine, a couple experiencing a painful breakup. Because neither wants to face the grieving process, each removes selective memories with the aid of technology. Lacuna, a company specializing in memory erasure, offers them the tabula rasa, or blank slate of inexperience, famously described by philosopher John Locke.
Although Lacuna promises absolute deletion, things go awry when Joel realizes that his memories of Clementine are a crucial part of his identity. The protagonist’s fight to regain her then becomes the drive that moves the plot forward, albeit in a disjointed, non-linear, and decidedly unconventional way. A probe beneath the superficial layers of this film shed light on its postmodern roots, multiplicity, and meaning.
Needless to say, this probing begins with Freud.
Human memory is highly complex, and to simplify the “perceptual apparatus of the mind,” Sigmund Freud compares it to a child’s toy called a Mystic Pad, which is a bit like an old-fashioned Etch-A-Sketch. A Mystic Pad contains three layers: a dark, waxy surface with an air gap, a light-colored sheet, and a protective clear cover. When a person writes on the Mystic Pad with a stylus, the air gap is filled, and words appear on the page. Subsequently, the words can be erased when the air gap is restored.
Freud explains that memory works in the same way, and although words seem to disappear, they are permanently imprinted on the psyche, never erased. Memories simply move from an upper to lower level of consciousness. Thus, If the mind can be compared to a writing tablet, the unconsciousness is a type of palimpsest, or trace, which leaves a remaining and readable imprint.
This is where postmodern theorist, Jacques Derrida, makes his dashing, and far less brooding, entrance.
Derrida takes Freud’s analogy a step further and claims that it is not metaphorical but literal. According to Derrida, human perception is a type of writing machine, and it functions as such. Because the deepest layer (unconsciousness) must make contact with the upper layer (consciousness), awareness is dependent upon the existence of the unconscious. Derrida claims that people do not apprehend the world directly, but retrospectively, and that a person’s sense of what is beyond himself is a result of previous memories, or one might say, palimpsests.
Memories, even when hypothetically erased, leave permanent impressions on the writing tablet of the mind. This is why Joel and Clementine still recognize each other after the fictive erasure process.
Mourning is a natural part of loss, and through the (sometimes excruciatingly long) process of mourning, a person frees himself from former attachment and opens himself up to new opportunities. In Eternal Sunshine, Joel and Clementine try to bypass the mourning process, but this leads to new terrors, as evidenced by Clementine’s words.
I’m lost. I’m scared. I feel like I’m disappearing. My skin’s coming off. I’m getting old. Nothing makes sense to me.
Although Joel is not in her conscious memory, she continues to react with feelings related to their past together. Her memory erasure leaves an inner recognition, an impression of her past, and it cannot be obliterated. She knows on some deeper level that she must find Joel, as he knows he must find her.
This is where one may find a practical application in life and art.
When considering the human psyche as a text, one may begin to understand the many layers of its existence, and the complex meanings that may be found in erasures. In his essay “Erasure in Art: Destruction, Deconstruction, and Palimpsest,” artist Richard Galpin explains that the palimpsest conserves traces of the old while remaining receptive to the new. In the same way, both Joel and Clementine retain their “original text” while remaining open to rewriting.
Galpin goes on to explain what erasure means to him as an artist.
This presentation, this fiction of an erasure, is like the theatrical staging of a death, where it is not the obliteration of that character or thing that is the aim, but rather that it is a means of gaining new knowledge about that character or thing which is (fictionally) killed or erased, and gaining new knowledge about the process of death or erasure itself.
Galpin’s words perfectly illustrate the concepts at work in Eternal Sunshine. Through the fictional killing of Joel and Clementine’s relationship and memories, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and director Michel Gondry, explore new and intriguing aspects of the psychology of attachment, mourning, loss, and renewal. Worlds previously closeted in conventional film are released, and things hidden by the typical are now open to the viewer, in a presentation of the unpresentable.