Inception: Wonder via the Pursuit of Reality

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What is reality?

Suddenly awakened from a deep sleep, I rolled over to reach for a sip of water and saw that it was 4:30 a.m. I sat up to clear my head; still shaking the residue from the dream I was in – one about Inception, which I had seen the night before. The dream was not about the movie itself per say, but about the post-film processing experience. While walking out of the theater (in my dream), I panicked realizing that I was supposed to be part of the last “kick” of the film. I had missed this essential transport due to some daring pursuit that involved my little orange scooter.

I was stuck in the dream (that was within my current dream). And according to the logic of the dream, I would have to place myself into the actual movie in order to be thrust from my dream into a reality in which I could truly wake.

I awoke.

And as I reached for my glass of water, I slowly realized I was no longer dreaming…or at least I thought so. Obviously, it didn’t take long for Christopher Nolan, director and writer of Inception, to get to me. But this is the film’s brilliance. It’s not mere entertainment. It’s a visceral experience. An element we celebrate here at rednow.

Seen in the context of a tradition of philosophical inquiry beginning with Descartes’ epistemological treatise “Meditations on First Philosophy” and which has found its way into our media (see “Orpheus,” “The Fountain,” “The Matrix,” etc.), “Inception” does not raise a new question but iterates an old one. This question, of perception and reality; however, does not seem one that Nolan is interested in answering, which is just as well, for a tidy answer to the deeply meaningful question certainly wouldn’t satisfy a thoughtful viewer (nor Nolan).

The good of the movie lies in what is not answerable, what can’t be said. The spinning top, Cobb’s (DiCaprio) totem, is left a mystery in the final scene. (Assuming you have seen…) But whether the totem drops or not is not the point for this is exactly where Nolan wants you. Cobb is reunited with his children, some sort of fulfillment is made; however, the point is that you and I are discussing it, questioning it, wondering, and exploring our own intrigue with reality. Nolan is simply setting the stage.

For example, when Cobb sees Mal for the final time in limbo, he discovers a clarity of perspective that allows him to let go of his desperate attempts to keep her alive. Cobb recognizes that his projection of her, recreated by his memory and emotions, ultimately fails to express her in her completeness – her complexity, her beauty, her mystery. “You’re just a shade,” he says, “of the real Mal. I could never remember all of you.” That Cobb cannot fully remember or comprehend the real Mal does not mean that he did not know her; it means that there is much more to her than he knew, and that his perception of her is inherently limited. It implies that whenever we encounter something real, we inevitably see in part, never fully. This is, in many ways, the definition of mystery.

Cobb gives up his etiolated memory of Mal and accepts the limits of his perception. I’m reminded of one of C.S. Lewis’s thoughts: “There are three images in my mind which I must continually forsake and replace with better ones: the false image of God, the false image of my neighbors, and the false image of myself.” If we are to see more fully, to see how others really are apart from our biases, stereotypes, generalized, and preconceived notions, we must encounter them with humility, acknowledging that we don’t know their full character, story, potential, and that we are open to learn who they are.

This humility presupposes no conclusions and de-clutters our senses so that we encounter the fullness of one another in our particular beauty and mystery and humanity. Encountering this fullness sparks wonder, for we begin to see these characteristic uniquenesses where before were foregone conclusions. Our minds work by organizing and compartmentalizing experience into memory, a necessarily reductive process that we can’t escape and that requires us to cultivate a discipline of wonder so that we know one another more truly.

The totem’s fate remains a mystery, and the crowd groans, some throw popcorn, and Nolan smiles – partly because he knows that the question, the whole movie, is an answer in itself. If we’re in a dream, we don’t have a way of determining whether or not the dream is real unless something (seemingly) more real impinges upon our experience.  The problem is (and contrary to Descarte’s own exploration of reality’s various forms) that reality is not subjective in and of itself – only from an external view.  Ultimately, reality is.  Nolan has simply muddled any such distinctions in a way that brings us back to the inevitable question(s)… What is reality?  And is it worth pursuing – mystery and all?

It seems the more we explore reality’s complexity, the more we pass from the region of understanding to the region of awe and wonder.  And for these opportunities, we (of course) welcome.  Good art, Inception included, tends to provide a “kick” for wonder, incepting the thought that there is more to reality than we could ever comprehend, that the world I woke into may be just as fleeting as the dream I left.