Friday, July 23, 2010

Inception Redux

The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel
If you haven't read this,
 For 25 years I taught a course called History and Thought of Western Man. The unit I enjoyed teaching the most was the last one which revolved around the questions: Who are you? How do you know who you are? I covered the 20th century art movements of Dadaism and Surrealism [which emphasized the importance of the dream in our world], Sartre and Camus’s concepts of existentialism [where our actions define the world we live in], No Exit, Cocteau’s Le Belle et la bête, and ended with a modern work, such as What Dreams May Come?, Big Fish, or (perhaps my favorite) The Lathe of Heaven.

Urusula LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven  (1971) deals with George Orr who suddenly finds he has effective dreams—whatever he dreams changes the world that he lives in and no one remembers it any different. Plagued with a desire to commit suicide, George is sent to an oncologist—a dream doctor—who realizes George’s gift. Dr. Haber decides that he can change the world through George, so he begins suggesting dreams: creating a Haber Institute to study dreams, curing the world’s population problem [by wiping out 2/3 of the people with a plague], solving the race problem [everyone turns grey], and eventually taking the ability to dream away from George. The only thing Haber doesn’t know is that George began dreaming when the world was blown up in a nuclear war and all his dreaming, in fact all of reality, is only happening in the few moments before the world ends. As long as George can dream, the world will continue.

LeGuin’s work prompted many questions among my students: How do we know what reality is? What if the problems of the world aren’t really problems but rather the way the world is? How might our individual actions save the world?

Seeing Christopher Nolan’s Inception again tonight, I’m struck by how his work fits into the world of surrealism and dreams. [From here on out, I’m going to give some spoilers, so if you don’t want what to know what happens in the film, stop reading.]

Inception’s world begins with Dom Cobb, the main character, in the water by a beach where he sees two children playing. I’m reminded immediately of Odysseus arriving on the shores of Phaeacia. He dreams of Penelope and home; Dom dreams of his children and home. This beach, which we see several times in the film, is limbo—an unstructured dream world where one could be trapped for eternity. He is taken to an oriental building where an old man sits, asking if he has come to kill him.

Jump cut to the much younger Saito in an elegant hideout where Cobb, his sidekick Arthur and dream architect Nash are trying to steal Saito’s secrets. But the trick here is that it is only a dream, and not Cobb’s or Saito’s, but Nash’s, the dreamer and architect of two dreams.

We learn several things about dreaming, however, in Christopher Nolan’s world.
  • People can share dreams.
  • People’s hidden ideas can be stolen in dreams.
  • People who die in the dream wake up [although later this changes if the dreamer is on an opiate—then they end up in limbo forever].
  • People can feel pain.
  • The dreamers require some kind of kick to jolt them from their dream—music, being thrown into water, knocking a chair over.
  • Another thing we learn later is that the dreamers must carry a totem with them—an object which reminds them that they are not in someone else’s world. Cobb, for example, carries a small gyroscope top which was his wife’s. When it stops spinning, it convinces him he is not in someone else’s dream. That image of the totem spinning ends the film and establishes one of the major mysteries. [In fact, that image is available as a screensaver from the Inception website.] 
Let’s leave the plot for the moment. A very complete plot description can be found at

My take on the film is that the entire thing is a dream, much like George Orr’s rebuilding the world every night. Ah, but if Cobb is trapped in someone else’s dream, whose is it? If I were teaching this film—something I would definitely enjoy—I have a list of questions. The first two were suggested by Richard McDuffie:
  • Who is the dreamer of the film?
  • Who is the architect?
  • Why is Cobb never able to see his children’s faces until he has finally confronted Mal and gone beyond his guilt?
  • Ariadne has a specific place in Greek mythology. Why evoke her name for this character? In what way does Nolan play with that idea?
  • Cobb says, “Positive emotion trumps negative. We all seek reconciliation.” How does that play out in terms of his character? How does that play out in your own life?
  • Many 20th century philosophers suggest that time is only a man-made construct. What point does Cobb make when Mal says, “You promised we would grow old together”? Describe the ways that the film proves time is only a man-made idea.
  •  What does Mal as a suffix mean? Why is it appropriate for the character’s name?
  • For me, one of the best dreamworld images in the film is Arthur ferrying the team to the elevator in a weightless world. Compare that scene to Belle’s traveling to her room in the Beast’s castle, from Cocteau’s La Belle et le bête.
  • Cobb says that in a dream we often don’t know how we got there… and it’s only at the end of the dream that we realize things were strange. Give examples from the film which show how that is true.
  •  Why do Cobb and Ariadne feel that memories have no place in the dream world?
  •  If every dreamer must carry their own totem, one constructed or found by themselves, what does it mean that Cobb carries Mal’s totem as his own?
  • Justify that the entire film is or is not ultimately only another dream layer.
Surrealism grew out the 1930s-1940s as a reaction to the irrational world of Nazism. The advertising world commandeered much of the same visual language of the Ernsts and Dalis and others.

Our world is just as absurd as that of 70 years ago. We see all too often common, ordinary people who strap bombs onto their bodies and blow themselves up for political and religious causes; we are wrecking our environment daily; our economic system has toppled through our own greed; our political figures continue to prove to us that power corrupts; and two airplanes have proven that the stability of skyscrapers was always only a myth.

Why not escape into a fantasy dream world where we can safely confront those fears we all have? With luck George Orr can continue to dream us alive and Dom Cobb can force us to go deeper into ourselves.

Great literature and film should prompt us to think about our lives. Inception does that.


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