In the poem Eloisa to Abelard, Alexander Pope wrote:
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.
I know this, not because I’m big into 18th century poetry. I know it because it is quoted in one of my favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It is an interesting literary allusion. The poem tells the story of young Eloisa and her teacher Abelard. They fall in love and secretly marry. But when her family find out, they castrate Abelard. They spend the rest of the poem trying to get over the fact that they are completely screwed. As the quote above indicates, it is about acceptance and memory, or lack there of. In a general sense, the film is about these issues. But the story of a young woman falling in love with a wise older man is in both the film and the poem. And in both cases, it does not go well. Of course, Abelard does much worse than Howard Mierzwiak.
This evening, I watched the film again. It has been a while. It is such a delight. But I saw the film in a different way than I have previously. This time, the story of Mary and Howard was much more important. It demonstrated that forgetfulness deprives ourselves of the ability to learn and grow. Without it, we will continue to make the same mistake over and over. This might work for Eloisa and Abelard, because their problems are imposed from without, but the rest of us are dealing with mostly self-inflicted problems.
It is only with the Mary and Howard story that the ending can be seen as anything other than a tragedy. Because Mary offers them the ability to see where their previous relationship ended, they can (hopefully) learn and grow into a better relationship this time.