Review
Culture
5 min read

The spiritual depths of the genius

Moved by his songbook and his funeral, Belle Tindall considers the source, and sacrifice, of Shane MacGowan’s genius.
Upon his draped coffin, a picture of Shane MacGowan and a crucifix sit
Celebrating the life of Shane MacGowan at his funeral mass.
RTE.

Have you ever seen a Catholic priest hold up a Buddha during a Mass? Or a crowd applaud and cheer after a reading from the book of Micah? Or Nick Cave miss his cue by half an hour?  

No?  

Then I suppose you’ve yet to see the footage of Shane MacGowan’s funeral.   

On a cold December afternoon - in a Tipperary church which was full to bursting – family, friends and fans gathered to (in the words of the presiding priest) "hold, help and handle the loss of the great Shane MacGowan… to celebrate his song, his story, his lyric, his living." I watched the footage because I had heard rumours of dancing in the aisles, renditions of The Pogues’ songs on the streets, bible readings by Bono and prayers led by Jonny Depp. And I can confirm, the rumours were all true.  

People really did climb out of their pews to dance around Shane’s coffin to ‘Fairytale of New York’, a song which has just lost its maestro. Fans really did line the streets of Dublin to greet Shane’s body with raised glasses of Guinness and renditions of his most-loved songs. What’s more, Bono really did read the bible and Jonny Depp really did pray for ‘a deeper spirit of compassion in our world’. In fact, far more interesting (but far less documented) than the presence of Jonny Depp, was the presence of Shane’s raw and gritty Christian faith, which was so obvious throughout. It wasn’t just cultural Christianity on display here, it was far deeper than that. But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself - I’ll get back to that in a moment.  

There was defiant joy, immense grief, loud laughter and silent sobs. There was lament and there was celebration, there was bitter and there was sweet, there was light and there was darkness. It was raw and messy and awkward and authentic and, in every way possible, profound. I suppose you could suggest that it was a lot like Shane in that way.  

Indeed, this was no ordinary funeral.  

Nick Cave performed a rendition of ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, which has only cemented my opinion that it is the most romantic song ever written (we can argue about it later). And then there was the eulogy, given by the person that I like to think inspired the song that Nick had just performed: Victoria Mary Clarke, the woman who has loved, and been loved by, Shane MacGowan since she was twenty years old. And while it was the star-studded eccentricities that enticed me to watch the funeral, it is Victoria’s eulogy that has plagued me ever since. She delivered it with an eloquence befitting of a poet’s soulmate and the composure of someone who has been preparing to eulogise the man she loved her entire life.   

Victoria understood MacGowan completely, and through her words, she has helped us to understand him too. She told us how –  

"He wasn’t interested in living a normal life, he didn’t want a 9-5 or a mortgage or any of that stuff, he liked to explore all aspects of consciousness. He liked to explore where you could go with your mind…. He chose many, many, many mind-altering substances to help him on that journey of exploration. He really did live so close to edge that he seemed like he was going to fall off many times…"  

And I suppose therein lies the source, and sacrifice, of his genius. He was incredibly introspective, almost scarily so. It reminds me of another songwriter – a biblical one – King David, who once wrote:

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’  

I’m wondering if Shane made similar requests of God, whether anyone would have the boldness to pray this line with as much literality as someone who was fascinated by ‘all aspects of consciousness’. Perhaps such introspective depths are reserved for the geniuses that are brave enough to ask God to take them there. And that got me thinking about other such geniuses - some of them present in that very church - who have plunged the depths of themselves and gifted us with the spoils through their art, those who follow their romantic longing’s lead, those who have an eye for the unseen. I can’t claim to fully understand it, but how interesting that those who live as ‘close to the edge’ as Shane did tend to either bump into oblivion (Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, Ian Curtis) or God. Or, as in the case of Shane MacGowan, both.  

The reason I could never write a song like ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, is that Shane boldly went where I doubt I ever could - to the costly depths reserved for the brilliant. 

At one point, MacGowan was taking one hundred acid tabs a day, and Victoria recounted (with a hint of a giggle – her adoration of him utterly tangible) how, in the early days of their relationship, Shane carried an encyclopaedia of pharmacology around with him. This was so that he could look up each drug he was being offered before accepting it. I suppose to an explorer of consciousness, this encyclopaedia is as close to a compass as it gets. And so yes, there was darkness there. Deep and dangerous darkness. But Victoria wanted us to know that –  

"He didn’t just like to go to the dark places and the weird places, he also liked to go to the blissful and transcendent and spiritual places… he was intensely religious."

She evidenced this with a story drawn from the last months of his life, all of which were spent in hospital, when a priest had to confiscate Holy Communion from Shane – who had obtained it ‘illegally’ and taken it daily. You see, in the Catholic Church, Holy Communion has to be administered by a priest under specific circumstances. And so, Shane became, perhaps, ‘the only man in the world who’s been busted for Holy Communion’. But nevertheless, whenever he came to the end of himself, Shane found God. And while he held the pluralistic belief that no religion had a monopoly on God (hence the afore mentioned reference to the Priest displaying a Buddha), he was utterly devoted to Jesus.  

"I think what he was trying to get across was that there’s something in this stuff’ explained Victoria, ‘there’s something in Jesus that’s worth thinking about. It’s worth valuing. It’s worth exploring that Jesus is real."

I didn’t know this about Shane MacGowan; how actively he sought God, how deeply he enjoyed Jesus. But it makes complete sense. If one goes looking in the deepest places, they’re likely to find the deepest thing. Roam around the truest place, and eventually you’ll bump into the truest thing. 

 I, like Shane, believe that to be God. 

I suppose the difference, and the reason I could never write a song like ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, is that Shane boldly went where I doubt I ever could - to the costly depths reserved for the brilliant. Instead, I shall simply ponder how beautiful it is that God waits for the brilliant to notice him, even in those depths.   

Review
Culture
Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

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. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.