How Does “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” Illustrate Nietzschean Philosophies?


“Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders.” - Friedrich Nietzsche, stated by Mary (Kirsten Dunst)

After forgetting all their mistakes and blunders, and especially the pain they have inflicted on each other, theoretically a couple would be able to start again. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was a proponent of the idea that forgetting is essential to the human condition. People need to be able to forget certain memories to handle their total experience. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), we are introduced to Lacuna, Inc., a company capable of scientifically assisting people with forgetting specific memories they want gone. The film’s concept plays on the natural human desire to wipe bad thoughts from the mind but questions whether the ramifications of such an act would be helpful or detrimental to a person. The result of the thought experiment, not surprisingly, is that such a procedure would be morally wrong, and the strength of a human comes from their ability to face and accept the truth. While the film embraces the necessity of forgetting, it disagrees with the notion that blindly forgetting all bad experiences in life would make a person happy.

In Nietzschean philosophy, even if something is bound to be doomed or transient, the present good should be appreciated. The film showcases this logic throughout, and directly via two specific scenes. When Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are meeting each other for the (original) first time, which happens near the end of the film’s chronology, she says to him, “This is it, Joel. I’m going to be gone soon. What do we do?” He answers, “Enjoy it.”

Later, when the couple receives the cassettes Lacuna recorded in which they voice the reasons their relationship failed, they choose to re-embark on their relationship journey despite the prophecy of failure. Clementine says Joel will find flaws in her, and she says she’ll get bored with him, because that’s the way they are. Joel simply tells her “okay”; she says the same in return, and they reconnect in spite of the evidence against them. The risk feels worth it to them because right now, in the present, things are perfect. And the present is where life happens.

In this knowing, willful repetition of their previous cycle, the couple echoes one of Nietzsche’s most famous ideas: eternal recurrence. The University of Omaha writes, “What is there in this final, flat ‘Okay’ that feels so resonant and promising? The power of the scene owes much, I believe, not only to the way it grows from the themes of entrapment and repetition developed throughout the film, but to the way it recapitulates a crucial moment in modern intellectual history when a similar sense of fatality flipped dramatically into its opposite: namely, Nietzsche’s discovery of the concept of eternal recurrence. Like Kaufman, Nietzsche envisioned no way out of the traps set for us by our own natures or the nature of the world. Nevertheless, in eternal recurrence he believed he had found an idea that effectively transformed that trap from within. ‘My formula for greatness for a human being,’ wrote Nietzsche, ‘is amor fati [love of fate]: that one wants nothing to be different. A new will I teach to men: to will this way which man has walked blindly and to affirm it.’ Moreover, Nietzsche believed that the only way to affirm life completely is to want it forever - to want ‘what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo.’ Eternal recurrence, then, is not a cosmological theory but a practical response to the knowledge that life is inevitably bound by its own character and that we have nowhere else to go. It affirms liberty in spite of the prospect of endless quotation. Eternal Sunshine either echoes or rediscovers this response to the essential problem it sets for itself the problem of achieving significant change in a world characterized by repetition. We know by the end just how deeply human life is constrained by its conditions. Likewise, Joel and Clementine know how likely it is that their relationship will only repeat itself. Nevertheless, by saying ‘Okay’ to each other, they say yes with open eyes to the whole foreseeable mess, and the moment feels like liberation - like the change they had been seeking all along.”

Nietzsche argues the importance of both forgetting and of remembering. Remembering every detail of our lives would likely drive us insane, and so the ability to forget is important to human survival. But to remember is to acknowledge all the elements of life, for better or worse. Embracing all memories in tandem leads to an authentic life. By having the Lacuna procedure performed, Joel and Clementine are heading down the path of inauthenticity through failing to cope with their negative experiences. Later learning of their quarrels and pressing forward in spite of the drawbacks shows them embracing the situation as a whole without fear.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes, “Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, ‘You please me, happiness! Abide moment!’ then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored—oh then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants—eternity.”

This passage expresses a belief that all things are linked; removing one part alters all other parts. Memory is holistic. As Joel’s memories of Clementine unfold and he returns to all their happiest moments, he begins to plead with himself to hang onto just one or two of their best moments. But he’s chosen to erase her—and he must erase the good and the bad together. Saying yes to a single joy is to say yes to all woe, rendering the opposite equally true. He’s said no to his memories of Clementine, so he must say no to all of them. People cannot pick and choose.

Will Joel and Clementine actually repeat the same mistakes on their second try, knowing the qualities that destroyed their relationship? The subplot between Mary and Howard (Tom Wilkinson) seems to suggest yes, although when Mary re-fell for Howard she didn’t have the foreknowledge of her previous relationship with him.

As Joel and Clementine renew their relationship despite its likelihood of repeating earlier problems, they become an affirmation of Nietzsche’s embrace of eternal recurrence. The film’s ending leaves it open to debate as to whether their relationship will play out the same way the second time—or whether, perhaps, the cycle will continue ad infinitum.