Pope’s Longing for a Spotless Mind

Winslet, Carrey in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

Winslet, Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

In a continuing education film course that I am teaching on “mind bending films,” I recently had a chance to rewatch the Jim Carrey film Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004). I had forgotten that the title comes from an Alexander Pope poem and am using today’s post to reflect upon the film’s use of it. I also will be talking about John Keats’ Eve of St. Agnes, which I’ve recently become obsessed with.

“The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” appears in “Eloisa and Abelard,” which is about the famous medieval lovers who were separated when Eloisa’s family had their servants break into Abelard’s house and castrate him to end their love affair. He went to a monastery, she to a convent, and the letters they would eventually exchange would become the stuff of legend.

In Pope’s poem, a lonely Eloisa is imagining how much easier her life would be if she could forget about her passion and live as an innocent vestal, ignoring the world and devoting her life completely to God:

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;
Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
“Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;”
Desires compos’d, affections ever ev’n,
Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav’n.
Grace shines around her with serenest beams,
And whisp’ring angels prompt her golden dreams.
For her th’ unfading rose of Eden blooms,
And wings of seraphs shed divine perfumes,
For her the Spouse prepares the bridal ring,
For her white virgins hymeneals sing,
To sounds of heav’nly harps she dies away,
And melts in visions of eternal day.

Instead, however, Eloisa is tormented by thoughts of Abelard—who, having been castrated, is unable to return her passion. Only in sleep can she find him again:

When at the close of each sad, sorrowing day,
Fancy restores what vengeance snatch’d away,
Then conscience sleeps, and leaving nature free,
All my loose soul unbounded springs to thee.

The film (spoiler alert) follows the poem in some interesting ways. It also offers viewers a profound insight into relationships.

Joel, a socially maladroit introvert, meets the outgoing and whacky Clementine at a beach party, and an improbable relationship develops. We learn from flashbacks that they had many magical moments together but also some very painful clashes. After an argument where he says something seemingly unforgivable for something seemingly unforgivable that she has done, she runs off and has all memories of him removed by a special psychological process. When he learns about it, he undergoes the same procedure.

Much of the movie occurs on the night when his memories are being removed. Midway through the process—and too late to stop it—he decides that his good memories are too precious to surrender. We, who are sometimes in his mind and sometimes with the technicians working on him, watch him trying to escape their computers. Finally, realizing that he will lose everything, he and his memory of Clementine agree that they will meet up again at the beach house.

Joel’s dream is not quite as unbounded as Eloisa’s but enough gets through so that both he and Clementine board the same train car the following day, although they don’t know why. Unfortunately Joel seems like a mentally castrated Abelard when they meet and can’t even remember Huckleberry Hound, his favorite cartoon strip. Clementine is persistent enough to jumpstart the relationship, however.

The movie opens with this train encounter, which grows into a promising relationship. All appears to go well until a discontented employee from the firm sends them their files, which alerts them that they have already had a relationship and that it ended on an ugly note. They prepare to break up a second time but then, even after learning about themselves at their worst, decide to give it another shot. The film ends with them back on the beach.

Telling the plot doesn’t do justice to the film because the pleasure lies in sorting through the jumble that was their relationship. The work that we as viewers must do is a version of what couples do after they have emerged from a painful breakup, remembering both bad and good moments as they strive to figure out what it all meant. One of the students in the class compared it to Groundhog’s Day and there are indeed many resemblances.

In Groundhog’s Day, the film’s organizing trope is that every day in Bill Murray’s life will be the same and every relationship will turn out the same until he undergoes an internal transformation. As the movie is set up, Murray will always fail in his relationship with Andie MacDowell, but that is just a dramatic way of making the point that the same narcissistic behavior will always lead to the same outcome. The identity of the other person is immaterial.

In Eternal Sunshine, we can imagine a similar repetition ahead. The relationship that begins the film, which is actually the second time these two have come together, could easily duplicate the first go-round. Like the first time, the second begins with a fantasy projection that could well proceed to disillusion and conclude with a desire to forget everything—to find a spotless mind—and begin again.

Only in this instance, Joel and Clementine decide to continue on, even though they know in advance the worst that they are capable of saying about each other. This second chance will be based on honesty, not fantasy projection. They know that the relationship will require hard work but undertake it anyway.

This is what reminds me of Eve of St. Agnes. As I noted in Tuesday’s post, Madeline wakes up from her fantasy version of her lover to see the actual man but decides that she wants a life with him regardless. Together they walk out into the storm. Both the movie and Keats’ poem would make for great date discussions.

Unfortunately Pope’s poem of frustrated love, although tremendously popular with young lovers in its day, won’t go over as well. Heroic couplets and stories of frustrated passion don’t cut it anymore.


Additional note: I learn from Wikipedia that scriptwriter Charlie Kauffman also references “Eloisa and Abelard” in On Being John Malcovich. They appear in the erotic puppet show. Not bad for an all-but-forgotten poem.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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