Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Eternity and a Day and Lightness
Every year, when the air is drenching of love, and red hearts seem to be nearly everyone’s favourite motif; when people are busy professing their love or breathing a sigh of relief at not having to buy another mindless expensive gift for the betrothed; or a certain breed of people complain both at the show of love, as well as the lack of it; I stand up and tell my acquaintances (or whoever cares to listen, in a true-blue Joel Barish style), “This is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people like us feel like crap. I do not believe in Valentine’s Day.”
By an inane mechanism of my mind, I can never isolate Valentine’s Day from this film. The action of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes place around this time - agreed, but it has little to do with this day in particular, and in retrospect, the first time I watched it was not on Valentine’s Day, but on a rather dreary December night. It had promptly blown away the detritus of a rather dull evening and I couldn’t sleep a wink. I got up the next morning only to watch the film again, and get lost in the labyrinth of neorealism and memory/imagination/erasure that this film takes you into. Having watched the film so many times since then, over the years, and quoted, requoted and misquoted it, writing a “review” for it now would be laughably absurd. So let’s just say, that having watched it for the umpteenth time this Valentine’s Day, and letting my mind go rococo with it (yet again), I decided to finally let go of myself (and though a fortnight has passed since the hullabaloo), write about it (though about what precisely – about the film, or my experiences on watching the film, or uncannily relating it to St. Valentine’s Day, I know not yet).
Strangely, I know that, I can never re-attach the broken pieces of a vintage vase and pretend that it never broke, but I find myself unable to throw it away either. It lies somewhere in the corner of my house, and I run into it from time to time - much like the memories Joel and Clementine share of one another. An acquaintance of mine had once quoted (while we were walking along the footpath of Shakespeare Sarani, discussing the film and suddenly discovering ourselves in front of the Sri Aurobindo house), “All problems of existence are essentially problems of harmony.” As I looked up to the leader’s formidable poster looming down upon us, I wondered, can a spotless mind ever stay eternally bright? Without any warning, it had promptly begun raining then, and in the rush to find a shelter, I relegated the question to the back of my mind. It came back to me late that night, when I contemplated that the kaleidoscopic walk through the various stages of romance and reality that this film takes one into, only proves the existence of the film’s emotional core, and the truth of this statement.
My newest friend, Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I have brought tiptoe from my German library to my personal study-table, features prominently in the film. Mary (Kristen Dunst) quotes from her Bartlett, the quintessential Nietzschean quote, which forms the basis of the film. “Blessed are the forgetful for they get the better even of their blunders” suggests the importance of the idea to affirm one’s life even in the face of great difficulty. Having found my way through the maze that calls itself ‘memory’ and ‘mind’ in this film, I could finally point out the four affirmation theses derived from Nietzsche’s writings and employed in the film - affirming one’s life necessarily involves denying and forgetting certain aspects of life and of reality more generally; when one can, one ought to affirm even the painful aspects of one’s life, for denying reality is a sign of weakness; to affirm certain moments in one’s life is to affirm the whole life; one ought to affirm life as it is lived in the present, and resist the temptation to evaluate the moment with reference to some general standard derived from either the past or the future. Though it bears the tendency to be irrevocably verbose, the four theses capture provocative but nonetheless genuine insights about the importance of affirmation in life and love. The fourth thesis contains a recommendation from Nietzsche that we resist the natural and strong urge to impose such a framework on either our lives or our philosophical thought. Resonating with Emerson’s notion, the film shows the multiple ways in which Clementine (and sometimes Joel) embodies this call to resist consistency and embrace the present moment. Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence presents a model of affirmation which surfaces in the film through the affirmations we see in the “okays” exchanged by Joel and Clementine in the final moments of the film.
Joel: I don't see anything I don't like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will, and I'll get bored with you and feel trapped, because that's what happens with me.
Clementine: Okay… Okay….
The couple’s readiness to say “okay” in light of the knowledge that any attempt at a new relationship is surely doomed, is a testament to their courage, their wisdom and their love. Such a miserable outcome for the couple is wholly compatible with their final affirmation, made while aware of the dark future that lay before them, provides a joyous finale to what becomes one of the greatest romantic movies ever made.
I can perhaps never talk about love and eternal recurrence without Milan Kundera prodding me at the back of my mind. What Identity explores, is the question of human identity and whether it is possible for lovers to understand each other in a world that is forever trapped on the level of the physical and the shallow. Joel and Clementine’s predicament can be relegated to quite the same emotions. However, The Unbearable Lightness of Being challenges Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, positing the alternative, that each person has only one life to live, and that which occurs in life occurs only once and never again — thus the “lightness” of being. In contrast, the concept of eternal recurrence imposes a “heaviness” on our lives and on the decisions we make (to borrow from Nietzsche's metaphor, it gives them "weight".) Nietzsche believed this heaviness could be either a tremendous burden or great benefit depending on the individual's perspective. When Einmal ist keinmal (once is nothing), encapsulating “lightness,” the concept is well expressed in what Kundera writes in the book: “what happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.” Following this logic, life is insignificant, and decisions do not matter, and are thus rendered light, because they do not cause personal suffering. Yet the insignificance of decisions — our being — causes us great suffering, perceived as the unbearable lightness of being consequent to one’s awareness of life occurring once and never again; thus no one person’s actions are universally significant. This insignificance is existentially unbearable when it is considered that people want their lives to have a transcendent meaning.
Somewhere deep inside I know that the predicament faced by Joel-Clementine and Tomáš-Tereza are quite similar, but their outlooks are the opposite. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a perfect movie about love’s inevitable perfections, and even someone as pessimistic as me doesn’t see Joel and Clementine as repeating the same mistake again and again. Optimism is justified because the couple’s memories of each other went deeper than Lacuna could ever reach, and thus, post-erasure, they are still in a position to genuinely benefit from their shared past and some knowledge of their previous mistakes. However, hope is warranted primarily because of a beneficial therapeutic transformation achieved in the course of Joel (self-consciously) undergoing the memory-erasure procedure. In other words, the unusual opportunity offered to him to relive and rework the past puts him in a better position to recognise both Clementine’s actual worth and the reasons why his own psychic limitations had previously led him to distort her nature and her importance to him. Joel’s conscious absorption into Lacuna’s process of erasure and the trip to the past it allows, gets him to see that Clementine’s real aid comes in the form of a partner who can help mend him rather than simply to inject the much-needed sunshine. As they go through the assorted memories of both their relationship and his childhood, we see her as teacher and guide, directing him to adopt a healthier and more mature perspective on his life, his limitations and his love for her. The significance of it all lies only in their personal lives, and in their being. In their life-times they get another chance to verbessern (make better) the mistakes that they had made. If only Tomáš had not been obsessed with the vertigo he describes as “the desire to fall”, against which "terrified" he continuously defends himself, he would definitely have stumbled upon the “metaphor” of love. Just as Kundera writes, "Two people in love, alone, isolated from the world, that's beautiful." And that alone is important.
I’m quite sure by now that I wouldn’t have referred to Kundera at all this evening, if my father wouldn’t have called me up and brought up the sudden discussion on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. A post on love by an acquaintance, my toying with Eternal Sunshine and an animated telephonic conversation later, comes this bizarre post. It is surprising enough that a staunch cynic like me is ranting about love. I guess I’ll just go back to my Lolita now.