SPidge Tales

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

"Fredo, you're nothing to me now. You're not a brother, you're not a friend. I don't want to know you or what you do. I don't want to see you at the hotels, I don't want you near my house. When you see our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won't be there. You understand?"—Michael Corleone, Godfather Part II

"The LORD God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken. When he expelled the man, he settled him east of the garden of Eden; and he stationed the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword, to guard the way to the tree of life."—Genesis 3:23-24

“I have no regrets! Everything I went through makes me stronger/the person I am today.”—In almost every girl’s MySpace profile (with some variations)

What things in our past have helped us grow? What have hurt us? Would we be better off without some events of the past? Or, is everything that has happened part of some bigger plan for our lives?

Questions and issues such as these were raised in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Jim Carrey. Jim Carrey plays Joel, a heartbroken man who visits his girlfriend Clementine at the bookstore she works at only to find out that she either does not know who he is or is pretending as if to not know. Joel finds out that Clementine went to a special doctor who erased her mind of any memories of Joel so that she could get a fresh start and move past their tumultuous relationship as if it never existed. Joel, in hasty frustration, decided to undergo the same mind erasing, collecting all items he has that are associated with Clementine in order to undergo the deep mind cleansing sleep. But, once in the mind erasing sleep, Joel realizes how much he loves Clementine and tries to hold onto memories of her before he wakes up and she is gone.

The first natural reaction to the decisions of Joel and Clementine is the naïve teenage girl reaction. We can say, “no way would I erase my memory. I have no regrets! Everything that happened has made me the person I am.” That is a shallow surface level reaction, though. We all have hurts. It does no good to sugarcoat them or play as if all the bad things really help. “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” is a false cliché. Looking at our world of drug addicts and suicides, it is pretty obvious that, though some people come out stronger from trying ordeals, many are broken by their sad circumstances.

I have some things in my past that I cannot just look at and say, “it is good that that happened.” I have had people who have hurt me, where I cannot really say, “I am glad that happened; it is a learning experience.” There are some things where I just have to say, “there is no fucking reason for that to have happened. Nothing can justify it. There is nothing to gain from this or learn from that.”

There is also another dangerous view to take. It is to take the view that Joel and Clementine made the right decision to erase unhappy memories. This comes from the Cartesian viewpoint that has largely shaped the modern worldview since Descartes wrote in the 17th century, “I think, therefore I am.” Based on observations of crazy people who saw things that were not really there, Descartes made the claim that there is really no way to know if the reality we see and perceive is really the way things are. After all, crazy people do not know that they are crazy. How is each of us to know that we are not really crazy, and we are not really seeing a skewed view of the world? Descartes says that each person can know for certain that he exists, since if you are doing the thinking, you must exist. But, beyond that, we cannot be certain of anything. “I think, therefore I am” means that I know I must exist since I am doing the thinking, but beyond that, I have no real way of knowing that anything else I think is real is really real.

Slogans such as “perception is reality” descend from this Cartesian worldview. What one thinks is real is real for that person. A person’s “reality” is what he perceives. A person’s past is what he remembers. Each person has his own reality, separate from all other persons. Obviously, we cannot use time machines to literally change our pasts, but, according to a Cartesian, changing memories is essentially the same thing. If our perception is our reality, why not change things so that we can be happier?

The problem with this idea is that, like the teenage girl with the no regrets view, it is naïve. Yes, we each perceive reality a little different. But, we perceive reality differently because there really is a reality to perceive. Most of us see things, though a little differently, almost the same. The few crazy people who really see things differently are an exception. There is an old saying that goes, “The exception proves the rule.” When we notice that crazy people see things weirdly, it is because we know that there is a right way to see things, and thankfully, most of us see things rightly most of the time.

Changing our memories, erasing our memories, though we all, if we are not naïve, wish we could do sometimes, does not really change our pasts. It is an escape mechanism that we use so we don’t have to deal with the past. As humans, our task is to deal with, and confront the things that happen to us. The “I have no regrets” viewpoint and the “let’s change our memories since perception is reality” viewpoint both avoid actually dealing with our problems. It is not healthy to cut ourselves off from those who hurt us, like Michael Corleone does to his brother Fredo in the Godfather Part II. We also can’t go back to the way things were before bad things happened. This is why God would not let Adam and Eve back into the Garden of Eden.

The late classical/early medieval philosopher Boethius, in his Consolation on Philosophy, said that all fortune is good fortune, and, in particular, bad fortune is better than good fortune, because we can learn from it. That is, everything that happens to us, whether good or bad, is good, because we can learn from it. And, the bad things are “better”, because we learn more from bad things. I am not so sure I entirely agree, but Boethius is right that we cannot ignore the things that happen. Like Jim Carrey’s character Joel in his dream, he realizes that we cannot just grudgingly accept the past or ignore the past, but we must confront it.

Did Joel and Clementine get back together? You will need to watch the movie for yourself to find out.


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