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‘Eternal Sunshine,’ ethereal love

I wrote this column for an assignment in ENGL 316 (“Rhetoric of Love”), which explores how rhetorical discourses shape and constitute peoples’ understandings of love.

My generation is anything but naïve. Embittered by news media, as well as Comedy Central, we cannot accept purported truths with a nod and smile. We wield instead question and criticism, ever intent on discerning the difference between what something is and what something seems like.

In short, my generation likes questions and, quite frankly, loathes answers. Because they’re never as absolute as they pretend to be. Next time you hear someone give his or her opinion, listen for all the maybe “possiblys,” the “kindas,” “sortas,” and “likes” which neuter his or her claim to make it nothing more than a hesitant musing.

Any presumption of knowledge or steadfast truth faces strict critical attention, so who in their right mind would dare make one and run the risk of looking naïve? At best, you’ll hear a non-scientific claim begin with “It appears to me that,” or “In a very specific context…”

So let’s return to the question of love, which is, categorically, a transcendent claim. In this (dare I say, post-) modern world where nothing is known for sure, transcendent claims are dead in the water.

This might help explain the current boom in atheism across the United States, as well as the stark contrast contemporary art holds with that of times past. Modern artists explore emotional territories with audiences rather than enlighten them in classical cinematic fashion. Love plays a central role in many of these non-pedagogical films.

Case in point: “How Do You Know,” a 2010 rom-com about three city dwellers struggling to know what love is. The film, of course, never answers its own question. But really, how do you know whether or not lovers are merely naïve? “Lost in Translation,” “Sideways,” “(500) Days of Summer,” “Blue Valentine,” “Beginners,” and several other films have tackled this issue one way or another in the past decade. But none have made such a huge splash in the cultural and critical community as Michel Gondry’s 2004 film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Appearing on best-of charts for almost every film critic who recalled the greatest films of the 2000-2009 decade, “Eternal Sunshine” seems to have left a greater impression in filmgoers than the aforementioned films. Says The AV Club of the film, “It’s the rare film that shows us who we are now and who we’re likely, for better or worse, forever to be.”

It follows Joel Barish, a man who has the memories of his ex-girlfriend procedurally erased once he realizes that she had done the same to her own memories of him.

Joel’s voiceover reveals an attitude of rational cynicism this generation can relate to; he calls Valentine’s Day “a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap” and beach sand “overrated. It’s just tiny little rocks.” At the risk of spoiling the movie, I must recall its climax, the very reason I write this now.

Joel and Clementine (his ex-girlfriend) reconnect after their respective procedures, at first unaware of the fact that they used to be lovers. Once they discover the relationship they shared and how horribly their personalities eventually clashed with one another, they both deem it irrational to try again.

That is, until Joel goes mad. Presented with all the costs which will surely outweigh the benefits further down their relationship road, Joel speaks from the heart, simply uttering “OK.” And so, the doomed enterprise begins once again.

Do yourself a favor. Let yourself be as naïve as Joel Barish. Shut up that inner voice garrulous with questions about whether you’re in love or just plain crazy. And refrain from confusing the self-liberation from misguided whimsy. Charlie Chaplin famously said in “The Great Dictator,” “We think too much and feel too little.” Over 70 years later, the diagnosis still stands.

This column is not meant to throw more praise on “Eternal Sunshine,” but rather to propose an explanation for its acclaim. The film hits a nerve so deep within our subconscious yet so obvious on the surface: Love has a place in all of us, if separate from our ability to understand it.

Much like déjà vu, I admit that I’m crazy to believe in something either nonexistent or impossible to prove, but you can’t convince me to stop being crazy (I’ve been here before, dammit). And unlike déjà vu, love is the only brand of madness absolutely necessary.
I don’t know any of what I just wrote to be certainly true. But you know what? OK.

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