A crestfallen, middle-aged man stumbles toward the exit of the bookstore at which his girlfriend works, crushing in one fist a necklace he’d bought her for Valentine’s. As he crosses the threshold, the lights fizzle out and the walls converge, morphing into the cramped living room of a grimy apartment in which his friends regretfully inform him that his now ex had erased him from her memory. It’s probably the most beautiful and heartbreaking scene transition I have ever seen—maybe ever will.
Out of all the poignant sequences Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind offers, this is the one that resonated with me most upon my first of four viewings. It stuck with me because it terrified me. At 15, I knew nothing about love and the control it has over the landscape of our thoughts. At 15, I had no desire to experience such a destructive and (in my naïve little head) overrated force, until I saw Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) stagger into that living room, shoulders hunched and eyes hollow, exuding shock waves of grief and vengeance. It was my first glimpse at just how suddenly and completely love can crumble, and how powerless we are to its crumbling. I was intrigued—no, addicted.
Oblivion terrifies me. To be eradicated from the consciousness of a planet to which I’ve literally devoted my entire existence is the saddest yet most inevitable thing I can imagine. To be eradicated from the consciousness of a person to whom you’ve devoted your heart—and invested an unwarranted belief in everything transcendent and beautiful—is too cruel for words. Yet, there’s also a paradoxical sense of wonder to all this bleak bullshit, because the convergence of two souls is in fact the most transcendent and beautiful thing imaginable. Joel loved Clementine so much that he couldn’t remember a self without her; they were so connected that he had to eradicate her from his own consciousness to fill the void within it.
15 year old me was terrified of how much I craved that connection for myself. I still haven’t fallen for anyone the way Joel and Clementine fell for each other. I still want to as much as I did six years earlier because, really, how else do you defy oblivion other than by leaving an indelible imprint on somebody else’s mind? The perpetual nightmare of reality doesn’t grant you memory-erasing machines. If you get fucked, you carry those scars forever, but at least you know that someone, somewhere will always bear some remnant of your soul–no matter how small, no matter how bitter. And that’s pretty fucking neat.
I was actually planning to blog about something totally different today, but about five minutes ago I saw a picture of Neil Patrick Harris on Instagram, which reminded me of How I Met Your Mother…which pissed me off at first (because THE FINALE) but then brought me back to that episode in which Marshall’s dad died of a heart attack. Yep, out of all the hilarious and hilariously awful episodes, that’s the one that I remembered. I’m sorry, my mind just goes off on a thousand tangents at the smallest things. But anyway, in the episode following his father’s death, Marshall struggles to find and accept the final words his father said to him. He thought it was a spoken conversation at first, then it turned out to be a phone call, and then it ended up being a voice mail message. That’s not really the point, though. What’s important was that Marshall kept believing that his father’s last words must have been something particularly poignant. And in the end, it’s not. It’s just him saying something about a video game (or was it a pizza?). So Marshall goes through this sorta cathartic experience of learning that one’s last words don’t really define one’s legacy. It’s probably the only truly somber episode in all nine seasons of HIMYM.
So that got me thinking about death. How cheerful, I know. But really, I think it’s fascinating that we’re so preoccupied with the idea of last words and legacy and returning back to the dirt with a big fucking bang. On the one hand, death is so scary and final that we don’t really wanna think or talk about. But on the other hand, it’s hard not to wonder how we would leave this earth and who would actually remember or miss us. I think we’re less scared about dying than the idea of dying alone and unremembered, which basically indicates that our existence didn’t mean jack shit. John Green talks a lot about this whole dying/existence thing in The Fault in Our Stars, which I beg you to read if you haven’t already.
Anyway, I don’t think we’re being fair on ourselves my putting so much emphasis on the end. I always find it bizarre when people get moved to tears by those cheesy endings to melodramatic movies: when the abusive dad who mistreated his son his entire life lies on his death bed and says some bullshit like, “I should have treated you better,” and then cries a ton and dies. Somehow that makes everything okay and changes his child’s impression of him. Instead of a selfish, violent alcoholic, his dad is now a compassionate, misunderstood man who has always loved his poor kid. The fuck? I just think there’s something so fundamentally fucked up about that logic, about the idea that our last seconds can change an image we spent our entire lives building.
Maybe that’s pop culture’s way of giving us what we they think we deserve – a happy ending in which everyone wins. But I think we deserve better. I think we deserve to know that the lives we lead are meaningful enough that they can’t be undone by a sentence on the death bed. If you’ve been a shitty person your entire fucking life then one final regretful apology is far from enough. If you’ve been an awesome person your whole life then leaving anonymously shouldn’t be a shame at all. Of course it would be fucking legendary (or just fucking morbid) to say, “I want to be choked to death by a goat,” and then actually die like that an hour later. But how many of us actually get to predict our deaths? Movies and books glorify final moments so much that we’re made to believe that our ends are more important than our beginnings and our peaks. I’m not sure that’s the right way to live life.