The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
As time moves forward, a new past begins to take shape.
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.
Pain, in its many psychological manifestations, has been the defining force in my life for the past seven months. It is an invisible field that surrounds me day and night, one whose force waxes and wanes but never disappears entirely. It is a transformational power, and I can often feel it reshaping me, almost physically, into a different person from the one I woke up as on the morning of June 1st, 2022. It has been a difficult process to undergo at this stage in my life, and certain events reverberate in my mind more than others. One occurred to me a few days ago. I was at the movies, and, at one point in the film, I turned to my right to say something to Enzo. Of course, I instantly recognized the futility of my act, and the episode was over in a second. It was an empty moment, yet it continues to affect me.
There is no question that I comprehend that my son is gone; however, somewhere in my mind either he is being kept alive or is being momentarily revived in my consciousness. I find this phenomenon remarkable, for it is not the recollection of memory that I experienced; rather, it was an instant when my son was fully alive and ready to hear what I had to say. In that split-second, I felt his presence next to mine and I turned to speak not to a ghost or memory but to my living son. I happened to mention this event, which has never happened to me before, to a good friend, and he told me that at times he has the same experience. There are certain topics that make him physically reach for the phone to call his father—an impulse that lasts only until he suddenly remembers that his father has been dead for more than twenty years. My friend’s desire to share with his father a piece of news or some interesting thought is so strong that decades after the latter’s death, a part of my friend’s mind can still trick him into thinking that the parent he loves is still alive.
Speaking with him made me wonder whether those whom we lose, to death or time or distance, somehow continue to exist within our minds in a form that is not memory but something else. They continue to possess a shadow-existence, as dimly lit figures who stand ready to emerge into the light. As my friend’s tale attests, this experience can recur for decades, perhaps for as long as we live, and contemplating this possibility prompts me to wonder about how the conception of those we have lost functions within our minds. It seems to me that when we consider others we place them into temporal categories of present, future, and past. When our lives are still before us, we place most people in the first category. In youth, we imagine a wider circle of people we will meet, befriend, marry, work with, etc. than those we have met. As our lives evolve, however, the distribution among the three categories changes. Once we reach the point where we have lived more time than we have left, it is the past that becomes a great hall in which reside all those spirits of our memory. It is this phenomenon that makes losing a child so painful: to a parent, children live most of all in the future, for we dedicate ourselves to setting them on their way, imagining all they will accomplish and experience even after we are gone. When we lose a child, life forces us to move them from the realm of the future to that of the past. This is a traumatic relocation for us, one that we complete slowly, unwillingly, and in uneven steps.
As the new year begins, I feel that my comprehension of Enzo is beginning to take its place inside that great hall of memory. He is transforming slowly from someone who is and will be to someone who was. This realization is profoundly sad for me, but I understand it is essential to the process that I am undergoing in this first year after losing him. Nonetheless, my experience at the movie theatre teaches me that it will be impossible for all of him to move into the storeroom of spirits. There is a part of him that will forever reside in my mind in the present, and there will be sights and sounds that, in some mysterious way, will bring him back to life. Perhaps what I have discovered is that there are some people in our lives that our minds simply will not allow to disappear completely: a part of them, however small, will remain with us, if not in the future, definitely in the present awaiting the right moment to return into our consciousness.
Absorbed in these thoughts, I recalled the plot of Michel Gondry’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Clementine, a woman who has experienced a traumatic breakup, hires a company to erase her memories of the relationship. The firm she engages promises a mind free from painful memories—a spotless field devoid of unpleasant recollections. When Joel, her ex-boyfriend, learns what she has done, he seeks out the same procedure. As Joel undergoes the erasure, his memories of her move back in time through the painful episodes to the days in which the couple were happy. When the process of forgetting is nearly complete, and the only memory of her left is of the day they met, he suddenly decides he does not wish to forget her. From that point, the film explores how our conceptions of the past shape our beliefs about the present and our hopes for the future. It also examines the boundaries between the temporal compartments I mentioned earlier and the fluidity with which some people in our memory cross from one to another, as a person from our past is forgotten for years and on a random day fills our thoughts and imagination, brought back to life by love or nostalgia or remorse.
I recalled the film again today as I reflected on the transformation of my memories of Enzo. I imagined a world where grieving parents could walk into a clinic and have all of the pain of loss erased, leaving behind only the happy recollections of parenthood. In such a world, they could shape their past with exacting precision, erasing all the stains, and leaving only a spotless landscape of joy. At times, I think that this is the world in which Dino, my surviving son, exists to some degree. He is a high-functioning autistic child, and his experience with the loss of his brother is unlike mine. When he thinks about Enzo, he wishes his brother were here, but he does not experience the same deep pain that can engulf the other members of his family. It is as if his brain has moved Enzo from present to past in one swift effort, and all that remains are the memories of the good times he and his brother shared. There is regret but not sorrow, remembrance but not despair. Seeing how Dino’s mind works and then considering my own experience, I have wondered which is preferable. Is it better to have the ability to recall those who are gone without the deep emotions that cause us anguish, or is it better to hold on to all the memories and let them affect us in ways we cannot control? Should we wish for a world clouded by the sorrows of life or for an eternally sun-filled existence that even death cannot defile? Or should we seek something in between those two extremes: a place where the joy and pain of memories find an equilibrium, where the past comes to rest, and we finally “move on”?
The larger question I pose may seem a rhetorical one, but it has been real to me as I have thought about my own future, for I worried that as I grew older some part of me would forget my son—that I would undergo a process such as the one depicted in the film. I worried that with time I would begin to forget how Enzo walked or looked when he was a child or the sound of his voice. I despaired that all the memories would be erased one by one by the passing of the years until only a general recollection of my dead son remained.
Strangely, my experience in the theater suggests to me that the memories that seem so alive today will never fully fade, because they cannot. This is a point made in Augusto Roa Bastos’ great novel, I the Supreme, the story of a dictator who is mocked by an anonymous proclamation nailed to the door of his capital’s cathedral. He becomes obsessed with discovering its author and is incensed when his servant rules out those who are rotting in the nation’s dungeons in silence and darkness. They live in absolute isolation, the servant proclaims, without the means to share even a word with the outside world. The dictator is not convinced that their seclusion necessitates their innocence, as he explains to the servant:
They may not have light or air. But they have a memory. A memory just like yours. The memory of an archive-cockroach, three hundred million years older than homo sapiens. The memory of the fish, of the frog, of the parrot that always cleans its beak on the same side. Which doesn’t mean they’re intelligent. Quite the contrary. Can you state categorically that the scalded cat that flees even cold water is possessed of a good memory? No, merely that it’s a cat that’s afraid. The scalding has penetrated its memory. Memory doesn’t recall the fear. It has become fear itself.
The dictator’s point is that some emotional experiences are so deep, so intertwined with their own recollection, that they cannot be remembered—they can only be relived. It is a necessary fusion, the indivisibility of two phenomena, explains the dictator, just as it is impossible to tell someone’s story without in some way transforming into that person one writes about:
If one wishes at all costs to speak about someone, one must not only put oneself in that someone’s place: one must be that someone. Only like can write about like. Only the dead can write about the dead.
I found Bastos’ novel, which constantly moves across those compartments of time, and between reality and imagination, remarkable when I first read it years ago, but only now do I feel as though I understand its full meaning. Memory does not recall true sorrow or true love or true hate; it becomes the emotions themselves. There is no recollection of my losing Enzo: there is only its reliving. I can write about him because some part of him lives within me, just as I can write about the dead because some part of me is no longer alive.
“There is always time,” says the dictator at one point, “to have more time.” Likewise, there is always space in our present to make room for the past, for it lies in a shallow grave, waiting to be summoned, even in the darkness, if only for an instant.