Critics have given Christopher Nolan‘s Inception (2010) widely divergent reviews. The New Yorker‘s David Denby believes Nolan’s vision has “no spiritual meaning or resonance” whilst Slate‘s Jonah Weiner opts for a neo-Marxist interpretation of the film’s multi-layered dreamworld. Confusing this further, Nolan’s art direction team has sampled his earlier films, and alludes to genre films: 1930s hard-boiled crime and 1950s noir; Hong Kong and Japanese gangster films; and science fiction thrillers like Dreamscape (1984) and Cypher (2002). You’d be forgiven for thinking Inception was a transitional film between The Dark Knight (2008) and the third film in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, due in 2012. Rather, its caper and heist structure allows Nolan to explore the Platonic doctrines of alethic knowledge: unconcealment of the truth . . . hidden in a safe . . . inception as planting an idea in another person’s mind . . . that they are self-convinced is their own motivation and personal genius.
Perhaps Denby may have benefited from some background research before he wrote his review. Dzogchen, Tibetan Bon and Central Asian shamanistic traditions all feature dreamwork practices. Chogyal Namkhai Norbul’s Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light (Snowbird Publications, Ithaca NY, 2002) is a good place to start on dreamwork for conscientisation, healing and training the subconscious mind to achieve lucid awareness. Dzogchen in particular has an authentic practice with a long spiritual lineage of secret biographies and cultural transmission.
Throughout Inception, Nolan also hints at other 1970s emerging and borderlands/fringe research programs without explicitly naming them. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) discusses ‘inception’ as the implanting of an idea that can spread like a virus: this recalls ethologist Richard Dawkins‘ meme as a cultural unit of information, Jacques Vallee‘s study of early information networks and UFO cults, and anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Cobb’s training of Ariadne (Ellen Page) echoes Frances Yates‘ The Art of Memory (1966) on the architectonics of constructing a memory palace. Cobb mentions a self-recursive Penrose stair: a nod to mathematical physicist Roger Penrose‘s interest in M.C. Escher and topology as a model of human consciousness. Cobb’s colleague Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) claims the team’s technology came from military research to train the next generation of soldiers (probably Ericksonian trance induction and the United States Army’s experiments in the early-to-mid 1970s with neurofeedback and so-called remote viewing) before proliferation to the private sector (Robert Monroe‘s Hemi-Sync as a forerunner to 1990s mind machines; and Aum Shinrikyo‘s experiments with a Persinger helmet to create temporal lobe hallucinations as religious experiences). Viewers familiar with this fringe research will appreciate Inception‘s layers just as Nolan’s thriller The Prestige (2006) explored the 19th century world of feuding stage magicians and mentalists.
One of Nolan’s central threads in Inception is that the proliferation of quasi-experimental technology from the military into the civilian world may have devastating consequences. Inception envisions a world where autonomous, small teams fight over its secrets in art design that ranges from Chinese Triads to Art Deco. In the private sector, the norms and practices of academic research or proto-Jungian therapeutic interventions do not necessarily apply: poor research designs, quasi-experimental protocols, the ‘rush to publish’, and little evaluation or meta-analysis may be second to mind-share and tactical gambits. For instance, The Century of the Self (2002) by Adam Curtis illustrates how Freudian psychoanalysis informed the genesis of advertising and public relations campaigns – that Nolan’s creative team now uses to frame Inception as a blockbuster film event.
Nolan suggests – and it has been my personal experience – that despite the rich insights these methods can pose dangerous risks to researchers (and to their significant others). Curtis also explored this problematic view of self-growth and change in The Trap (2007). Inception‘s core lies with Cobb’s battles to forget his doomed wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). As Denby notes, Cobb and Mal’s relationship echoes the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in the Grecian Orphic Mysteries and Douglas Hofstadter‘s strange loops: both get ‘enmeshed’ in a powerful, evocative subjectivity that generates a dyadic, self-referential universe. This is a potentially deadly risk of any imaginal work with the psychecentric subconscious: reality-testing can fail.
To break these bounds, Cobb attempts an inception on his wife to wake her up: this reality is non-real. He discovers Mal’s imaginal totem – the symbol of her deep, core self that she has voluntarily chosen to ‘forget’: a spinning, gyroscopic top that Mal has locked in a safe. He induces an Ericksonian trance: “You’re waiting for a train . . .” Yet instead of the heights of Platonic noesis, ‘recovered’ memory and freedom Cobb ensnares Mal in eikasia: Is this ‘layered’ reality also non-real? What happens when our subjective, dream-like images bleed-through to objective reality, even though we may be consciously aware that they are false?
Mal develops suicidality and she succeeds, almost luring Cobb with the promise of an eternal communion of souls. To survive and maintain his self-coherence, Cobb draws on his memories of Mal – and the techniques of Hofstadter, Norbul and Yates – to construct a simulation of his dead wife. Mal becomes a Shade who lives on as an imaginal symbol in Cobb’s subconscious. The price is that Mal now becomes a random force in Cobb’s dreams – forcing him to assemble a new team to lead him out of his personal labyrinth.
This is why when Cobb hires Ariadne (Ellen Page) her first task is to conceive a one-minute labyrinth as a game designer. Cobb is partly testing Ariadne’s receptiveness to cosmological structures and symbols that are part of humanity’s evolutionary and cultural legacy. Nolan thus connects Interception to the body of cultural anthropological research of Anthony Stevens, Terence Deacon, and Steven Mithen over the past decade, and to the earlier Eranos conferences on the power of deep myths to regenerate civilisations and societies.
Cobb sadly tells Mal who exists only as a Shade in his subconscious: “How could I capture all your beauty, your complexity, your perfection, your imperfection, in a dream? Yes, you’re the best that I can do. But, I’m sorry, you’re just not good enough.”
Cobb chooses reality over a Shade’s promise . . . takes a flight like the Lost team from Sydney to Los Angeles . . . arrives safely and passes through LAX security . . . Nolan’s final shot suggests Cobb has entered a new dream under the custodianship of his mentor and father-in-law Miles (Michael Caine) . . . as the camera and soundtrack close in on Cobb’s totem – a spinning, gyroscopic top . . . fadeout.