6 min read

Taylor Swift proves Mr Bennet right

Romanticism: ruining lives since 1800. And we love it.
Hand-written poetry on a page
Memo: to JA from TS.
@taylorswift Instagr

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Bennet has a conversation with his favourite daughter, Lizzy, about her older sister’s heartbreak. He says,  

‘Your sister is crossed in love, I find. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed a little in love now and then. It is something to think of, and it gives her a sort of distinction among her companions.’ 

It’s one of those lines, genius as it is, that I would hate were it not written by Jane Austen. But it was, so I don’t. I do, however, like to think that his words are outdated. His thoughts, an artefact. That such a notion may have been true when women were unable to have any kind of aspirations that transcended romantic (and not-so-romantic) attachments, but we’re definitely over that now. I sit smugly in the knowledge that Mr Bennet’s words are a jibe that I can affectionately roll my eyes at; witty, yet redundant.  

At least, that’s what I did think. Now, annoyingly, I’m not so sure. What changed my mind? Well, Taylor Swift’s latest album dropped. And now I think that Austen, as usual, was onto something. 

The Tortured Poets Department has broken more records than I can count, many of which were broken before it was even released. Love it or hate it (I happen to be in the love it camp), Taylor is going to make it pretty darn hard for you to ignore it. Housed within this juggernaut of an album are thirty-one songs that seek to remind us that it’s better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all. Thirty-one songs that offer a masterclass in melodrama. Thirty-one songs that prove Mr Bennet right.  

Somewhere along the line, have we been taught that tragedy is a signifier that our love is some kind of epic thing that is happening in the universe? 

Here’s the theory, the premise, the pop-culture context you need to understand this album’s intentions: ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ was/is a WhatsApp group that Swift’s past-love, Joe Alwyn, was/is a part of. And so, this album is their story; it’s the story of their relationship crumbling, their hearts breaking, their understanding of one another disintegrating. Whether the lyrics are filled with fact or fiction, it doesn’t really matter. We’re soaking it up - every reference, every hint, every clue. These tortured poets have captivated us.  

Agony, tragedy, ecstasy, torment, regret: that’s the currency this album deals in. Heartbreak, I suppose. This record-shattering album is about heartbreak. And it got me thinking, why are we so obsessed with love hurting? Why are Romeo and Juliet something to aspire to? Why is tragedy some kind of signifier of ‘real’ love? Why, as Mr Bennet says, do we like being ‘crossed in love now and then’

The key lyric that holds the first song on Taylor’s album together sums it up pretty well, as Taylor melodramatically declares – ‘I love you, it’s ruining my life’.  

Firstly - no it’s not, Taylor. You’re Taylor Swift, a life less ruined no-one could find. But secondly, why is that tumultuous kind of love something to idolise? I’m genuinely wondering. Because, admittedly, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  

Maybe it’s a way in which we feel as though we’re living a meaningful story, it’s our main-character-syndrome rearing its head. Somewhere along the line, have we been taught that tragedy is a signifier that our love is some kind of epic thing that is happening in the universe? That our relationship is re-arranging the cosmos somehow? That this pain is so powerful, stories will be told of it? Afterall, many of the greatest love stories end in agony, do they not? Would we care about Titanic’s Jack and Rose, La La Land’s Mia and Sebastian, or Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie and Lindsay had they lived happily ever after? Perhaps not. If a beige life is to be avoided at all costs, the torture of heartbreak is, I suppose, a particularly vibrant shade.  

Taylor’s whole album is an ode to Romanticism: its lyrics are dramatic, beautiful, grand and religious. 

Or perhaps it’s a sensation thing, akin to our obsession with jumping out of airplanes or walking over hot coals. Maybe we just want to feel. And according to most psychologists, heartbreak is one of the most powerful and emotive experiences one could face – a plane could not get high enough, nor coals hot enough, to compete. The science behind it is fascinating. I truly had no idea.  

Which leads me onto my second question – why don’t we care for the science of it?  

Why, when it comes to explaining what we’re feeling, do we declare our ‘heart to be broken’ as opposed to ‘the right side our brain is experiencing a deeply distressing emotional sensation following a shattering of an emotional attachment, triggering feelings of loss and inadequacy’? 

Interesting, isn’t it? How that second definition somehow feels less true. Maybe we have Romanticism to blame for that - the poets, philosophers and writers who shunned reasonable, practical, scientific language in favour of the tragic, the grand, and the sublime. Taylor’s whole album is an ode to Romanticism: its lyrics are dramatic, beautiful, grand and religious.  

In her song, Guilty as Sin, Taylor writes –  

What if I roll the stone away? They’re gonna crucify me anyway. What if the way you hold me is holy… I choose you and me, religiously.’ 

Yes, she’s comparing her crush on a man to the crucifixion of the Son of God. If this isn’t over the top, I don’t know what is. In many ways, this album knows it’s being silly, over-dramatic and naïve. But it also knows that to be those things is to be as honest as possible. It is shunning human-sized explanations of heartbreak, and is instead desperately searching for the deepest, highest, grandest language it can find - because that kind of language just feels truer. And I find it pretty fascinating that such language still has Jesus all over it.  

All of it has got me thinking, we don’t really want everything controlled, measured and understood, do we? We don’t really want to be the most powerful thing we know. I think that’s a myth. A convincing one, I grant you. But one that has cracks in it. Romanticism is one such crack. School of Life says this about the Romantics, ‘Romantics don’t believe in God, but they go in search of the emotions one might find around religion’. Awe. Transcendence. Our own small-ness in the face of something great – that kind of thing.  

They don’t believe in God, but they crave him. Interesting.  

I think maybe that’s (at least partly) why we want our love stories, the good and the bad, to engulf us, to be something we must succumb to, to be written in the stars – predating our awareness of it and transcending our control over it. We think, at least to an extent, that love and heartbreak, they happen to us. They’re a sacred hand that we have been dealt and must grapple with. This is Romanticism - and apparently it hasn’t gone anywhere, Taylor Swift and her band of tortured poets have just proved it.  

Perhaps Mr Bennet was right after all; perhaps we do have an odd thing about heartbreak. But hey, don’t blame women. Blame the Romantics and that God-shaped hole within them… and within us too, apparently.  

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.