Sisyphus in the Sunshine: The Philosophy of Doomed Romance Narratives
If all it means for a romance to be doomed is that you know it will end, then all relationships are doomed. Because everything ends.
Garrett Kincaid — October 6, 2022
The saying “all good things come to an end” isn’t wrong, but it’s misleading. The saying should be “all things end, and it’s hard to let the good things go.”
We know this truth of change and finitude, but we still treat good things as if they should last forever (and the bad as if they will never subside). What would happen if we didn’t do that? What if we flipped the script?
How would the dynamic change between two people in a romantic relationship if their goal weren’t to stay together but to be together in a certain way — to enjoy their relationship fully and to make it the best it can be, for however long it lasts?
Doomed romance narratives explore these sorts of questions. In a doomed romance, the audience knows from the beginning that the couple doesn’t end up together, which is a potent form of dramatic irony. The audience knows there’s a breakup coming but not how or when it will happen, or — more importantly — what will happen between the beginning and the foretold ending.
Take Titanic, for example. You know that Jack and Rose have an iceberg ahead, but it’s still a gripping story because of the relationship that develops between the beginning and the inevitable end of their romance. There are many examples of doomed romance narratives, from Romeo & Juliet (the OG star-crossed lovers) to other films like 500 Days of Summer and Marriage Story.
Despite the endings of these stories being “spoiled” from the jump, they still draw us in and keep hold of us throughout. I find doomed romance narratives more compelling than traditional happily-ever-after romances because they’re real and nuanced. (See my post on Ferris Bueller to explore more narrative nuances.)
Rather than propping up our whimsical hopes of fairytale love, doomed romance narratives lean into the fact that all things end, even beautiful relationships. (Even relationships that last a lifetime end upon death.) And these types of stories make a case for giving the middle all you’ve got, before it’s gone.
Doomed romance narratives reinforce a fundamental truth — the fact that all things end — which is why they resonate. Doomed romances are the only real romances.
All of this is connected to what existentialist philosopher Albert Camus calls the absurdity of existence. To formally explore the relationship between doomed romance narratives and the absurd, I’ll establish an analogy, using two sources. The first is one of my favorite films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry; and the other is Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
The Absurdity of Romance
Humans are contradictory composites. We are mortal, but we have divine knowledge; we are part finite, part infinite. We have self-awareness, free will, and unique consciousness, but those make us uncomfortably aware of our own physical decay and the inevitability of death. We aspire to transcend the world, yet we are bound to it.
We long for things that, if they exist, exist beyond the world we know — like an eternal afterlife or even happily ever after. Our ability to reach beyond what we can grasp constitutes our infinite part. It is a gift, for we can imagine and approach great heights. But that is at odds with the nature of existence.
According to Camus, the world doesn’t rise to meet our needs and give us answers. Instead, the world sits in still indifference. It is our finite, worldly part that restricts us from attaining the highest of our heights.
This leads to a conflict between our finite and infinite parts:
The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation […] the absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together (1).
Like the absurdity of existence, the absurdity of romance is neither in people nor in relationships but comes from people being in relationships. It is a confrontation between the romantic, eternal aspirations of love and the finite, fleeting nature of the world.
The absurd — this special confrontation — is woven into doomed romance narratives. Camus says, “That nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute illustrates the essential impulse of the human drama.” That very impulse is what drives the drama of doomed romances. Unity — being together — is what we want for our Jack and Rose. And we want to know that the two will absolutely remain together forever. But Titanic’s iceberg is the world’s indifference.
The characters in a doomed romance aspire to happily ever after, but the audience knows from the beginning that their relationship will end. Doomed romance narratives manifest the absurd confrontation. The audience desires absolute unity and eternal happiness, which stands at odds with reality. It’s the absurdity of romance.
So, that’s the first piece of our analogy: existential absurdity is to existence as romantic absurdity is to romance.
Camus has a framework of three possible responses to the absurdity of existence. They are:
- Philosophical suicide, which I will refer to as “blind faith” (for brevity)
He advocates for rebellion, for reasons that I will explore below, and argues that neither suicide nor blind faith is the right choice.
We tend to respond to the absurdity of romance according to this framework too, which is evident in Eternal Sunshine. Like Camus, the film argues in favor of rebellion. The following sections will apply Camus’s three-part framework to the film, drawing parallels between existence and romance through the idea of the absurd.
“Each prayer accepted, and each wish resigned.”
Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” begins with him saying,
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.
His answer is that life is worth living, but he marks the importance of asking this question — a question prompted by the absurdity of existence.
Suicide is one way that people respond to the absurdity of existence because it eliminates absurdity by removing man from the world — ending the confrontation between the two. But the way that suicide eliminates the absurd is by truncating existence, and that’s not a valid response. The goal is not to escape the absurd but to learn to live with an awareness of it. Camus calls suicide a “repudiation” of the truths of existence.
Eternal Sunshine is centered on the relationship between Joel and Clementine, and its premise has to do with a unique option for relationship-suicide. Through a neurological procedure offered by Lacuna Inc., the characters can choose to erase their ex-partner from their memory. After a fight, Clementine opts for the procedure and erases Joel. And it isn’t until Joel finds out what Clementine has done that he decides to do the same.
Since their relationship did not satisfy the unattainable, transcendental desire for happily ever after, both Joel and Clem decide that it’d be better if their relationship had never happened at all. They commit this relationship-suicide to try to escape the absurd.
To clarify, relationship-suicide is not the same as a breakup. Rather, it’s killing something that is good now because you think it will be too bad to handle later. Relationships can dwindle, extinguish, and end naturally in a breakup. But relationship-suicide ends it in the middle, ahead of whatever and whenever its natural end would be.
The non-linear story of Eternal Sunshine takes the audience through Joel’s memories of Clem in backwards chronological order, as each is erased. But, toward the end of the procedure, Joel realizes what’s happening, like becoming lucid in a dream. He rails against the treatment, regretting the whole thing, and tries to hold onto Clem — to save his memory of her.
The film’s title is a line from the poem “Eloisa to Abelard” by Alexander Pope, which is an ironic, romantic description of the benefits of forgetting:
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.
Eternal Sunshine is the antithesis to the words in the poem. It’s not a gift to forget; it’s a painful curse, and that is captured in Joel’s rejection of the memory-erasing procedure.
Suicide doesn’t solve the problem of the absurd. Suicide makes one into a casualty of the absurd confrontation, rather than a witness or participant. There’s no solace in Joel’s forgetfulness because his memories and experiences of Clem were beautiful and shaped him into who he is, despite how much pain they brought him.
Both Eternal Sunshine and Camus explain why suicide might attract some people as a response to the absurd, but both argue for why it’s not a valid option.
In the film, you see Joel’s anguish in the midst of the procedure and that he regrets his decision. And, as Pope’s poem says, suicide may fulfill every prayer to eliminate pain, but it will make you resign every wish you ever had. Suicide is a wholesale sacrifice of our high-reaching aspirations.
Camus says, “If I judge that a thing is true, I must preserve it.” Here are two things I believe to be true:
- Despite their finitude and the guarantee of suffering, existence and relationships are beautiful and good
- I should not kill what is beautiful and good.
If one agrees that these are true, then one must not commit suicide or relationship-suicide because suicide doesn’t preserve these truths. It denies them: “Suicide is a repudiation.”
All that we have for certain is the present. Why willingly give that up?
“I’m not a concept, Joel.”
The second response to the absurd in Camus’s framework is blind faith, or what he calls “philosophical suicide.” It’s the counterpart painkiller to suicide. Rather than surrendering to the finite part of ourselves, blind faith means surrendering to the infinite part. It is a willful ignorance of the absurd, accompanied by believing that life has a prescribed meaning or purpose, that everything is ordained, or that one has all the answers.
Clementine’s response to the absurd is relationship-suicide, and Joel’s response is blind faith.
Joel doesn’t see himself as worthy of Clementine. He’s just a messed-up mortal and Clem an other-worldly goddess, yet she loves him. Rather than working on his self-image, creating meaning, or searching for purpose in his own life, Joel derives his happiness and worth from his relationship with and proximity to Clementine. And that negative, dependent mindset causes him to fall into blind faith.
Soon after Joel and Clem meet, he develops this idea that she is all that he needs in life — that she completes him; that because he is with her, he is enough; and that he must do everything he can to stay with her. But what he does to maintain their relationship is lie to himself and ignore issues, rather than address them and make changes. Throughout their relationship, Joel resists personal growth and discomfort, refusing to change for the benefit of himself or their relationship. He’s often apathetic towards Clem, and she always calls him out on it. But Joel never evaluates, or even questions, his behavior or the consequences.
Joel recognizes his relationship with Clem as absurd. He knows it will end but longs for it to last forever and for it to be perfect and unchanging. Joel’s failure — the leap that he makes — is that he transmutes the absurdity of romance into something that it’s not: the answer.
Clementine captures this dynamic perfectly in one of the best lines in the film:
Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.
Joel’s crooked acceptance of the absurd leads to problems in his relationship and creates distance between him and Clementine.
What if Joel hadn’t made Clem into a “concept that completes” him? What if he had remained independent and didn’t need Clem to be happy or to feel fulfilled? Maybe he could’ve helped Clem find her peace of mind, and maybe Joel would’ve learned to love himself for his own sake.
In response to the pain and discomfort of the absurd, Clem chooses relationship-suicide. She runs away from the pain of unresolved conflicts in their relationship and clings to her independence with a fervor that alienates Joel. Joel chooses the painkiller of blind faith, making Clem into some transcendental answer to all his problems. But painkillers don’t heal; they only mask reality.
Through blind faith, Joel denies the nature of the absurd and is promptly slapped in the face by reality as his relationship crumbles after his ignorance. As Camus says,
the struggle is eluded. Man integrates the absurd and in that communion causes to disappear its essential character, which is opposition, laceration, and divorce. This leap is an escape.
When Joel becomes lucid during the memory-erasing procedure, he realizes the leap he made to blind faith and struggles to fix everything — to change himself and his relationship for the better. But it’s too late. Clementine is wiped from Joel’s memory, along with the fruits of his realization.
“Wait a while on the ‘dizzying crest.’”
So far, Eternal Sunshine and Camus have only told us what we shouldn’t do. “It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will,” Camus claims. To be unreconciled, one must not succumb to blind faith, and suicide is death by one’s own free will. So, neither suicide nor blind faith is an effective response to the absurd.
At the end of both works, there’s a suggestion of what we ought to do. There is a third, favorable response to the absurdities of existence and romance: rebellion.
This rebellion is a sustained, lucid awareness of the absurd and a conscious decision to live without a desire to escape it. Rather than longing for something that can’t be, like a pain-free life or a perfect, never-ending romance, it’s making what is the best that it can be. Camus says that rebellion is “the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.”
Everything ends, and it’s hard to let the good things go. But, as soon as you accept the inevitable end, the good just gets better. Presence, complete consciousness, and an awareness of these truths of existence, or romance, are what make the middle so special.
More than most stories, Eternal Sunshine focuses on the middle. The beginning cleanly sets up the premise and provides just enough context, and the end is a brief and ambiguous resolution. It’s in the middle where the film lives and where it shines. The audience is thrown through Joel’s memories, which convey every emotion and highlight both poignant and mundane moments that he experienced with Clem. Through these dense, intensely human vignettes, the audience understands not just their relationship but who Joel and Clementine are as individuals.
Even though Joel has his Camus-like moment of lucid awareness, it comes too late. He fights and fails to save his memory of Clem, so they both forget about each other. The only thing that remains is a subtle, subconscious seed of salvation that brings them both — through some intuition — back to Montauk to meet again.
They fall in love all over again — stood at the bottom of the mountain, about to push their boulder up once more. But this time is different because Mary, Kirsten Dunst’s character who works for Lacuna Inc., launches her own revolt. She sends every former patient a note explaining the procedure they had and a tape from their files that exposes what they’d chosen to forget.
The morning after their magical night on the frozen Charles River, where they fall for each other again, Clem and Joel listen to the tapes and read Mary’s note. They hear hateful things about themselves from one another on the recording, gaining a sudden, uncomfortable awareness of reality. The person that they’d just met turns out to be someone they used to love and grew to hate. All of Joel’s aspirations — the thought that Clem is the thing to complete him — crumble, and Clem’s insecurities and doubts are amplified.
In the final moments of the film, the absurd confronts Joel and Clem, and they’re forced to respond. It is a perfect illustration of what Camus calls the “dizzying crest;” the two are teetering on the precipice of lucidity and are tempted to fall off either side into comfort — by suicide or blind faith.
The danger […] lies in the subtle instant before the leap. Being able to remain on the dizzying crest — that is integrity and the rest is subterfuge,
Camus says, arguing for rebellion as the only viable response to the absurd.
In this moment, on the crest, Joel and Clem are drawn to their respective painkillers. Clem could walk out and leave Joel, ending right then and there what had just begun. Joel could lie to himself and think that Clem is perfect or tell her that he knows this time will be different.
But what do they do instead? They maintain and elevate their awareness of the absurd. Joel and Clem rebel.
I’m going to share the final lines of the screenplay in their entirety because nothing could do a better job illustrating an encounter with the absurd and what it means to rebel against it. This final exchange starts with Joel and Clem on opposite sides of the door frame of Joel’s apartment (literally on either side of the dizzying crest!).
Clem: “Bye. It was nice meeting you and all.”
She stops and turns.
Joel: “I don’t know. Just wait.”
Clem: “What do you want, Joel?”
Joel: “I don’t know, I want you to wait for just … a while.”
They lock eyes for a long moment: Clementine stone-faced, and Joel with a worried, knit brow.
Clem: “I’m not a concept, Joel. I’m just a fucked-up girl looking for some peace of mind. I’m not perfect.”
Joel: “I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you. Right now.”
Clem: “But you will. You will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.”
Rather than longing for a spotless mind and eternal sunshine, Joel and Clem embrace their spots and enjoy the momentary, fleeting sunshine that they have in the present. After all, what else can we do?
The film ends with a loop of Joel and Clem dancing on the snowy beach in Montauk, suggesting that this cycle may continue, or that it may have repeated many times already. But, like Sisyphus and his boulder, what matters is maintaining lucid awareness of the absurd and creating meaning throughout the process.
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy (1).
… And They Lived Happily for a Time Thereafter
If all it means for a romance to be doomed is that you know it will end, then either all relationships are doomed or none of them are. Because everything ends.
Camus and Eternal Sunshine call us to live the absurd by remaining on the dizzying crest — perched precariously above the painkillers of suicide and blind faith — and to make the middle the best it can be, even if we know the boulder will roll back down.
This truth of finitude — our “certainty of a crushing fate” — doesn’t have to be a cause for resignation. Instead, it can be the rally-cry of rebellion.
- “The Myth of Sisyphus” — Albert Camus
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman
Is romance absurd? Can we find comfort in this grand confrontation between our aspirations and the universe’s indifference? Let me know your thoughts and thank you for reading!