My Journal of Religion and Film review of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is now available.
There was a lot I had to leave out due to space constraints, but overall I’m pleased with the outcome, minus the grammatical error the editor managed to introduce into my article. (My version had said, “as C. S. Lewis . . . once wrote,” whereas the published version says, “as C. S. Lewis . . . once describe it.” It’s always frustrating when that happens.) For some reason, the footnotes didn’t transfer to the posted version; the two referenced sources are Timaeus 35a–b and C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, 159.
Here are a few things I had to leave out or abbreviate in the review (spoilers follow for those who haven’t yet seen the film):
Mal’s totem, as it represents Cobb’s deception of Mal, serves as a reminder and representation of Cobb’s guilt. When he leaves it behind at the end of the movie, he finally chooses to live without regret, to abandon his attempts to control that which he can no longer control. Instead, he throws himself into his present relationships, focusing his attention on his children.
I think the Mombasa backroom scene serves as a major critique of the modern addiction to the “fantasy” worlds of movies, video games (e.g. those who spend nearly all their spare time playing MMOGs like World of Warcraft). There is no doubt that Inception is in some form an exploration and critique of film itself as a medium. Nolan highlights the power of narrative and immersive media in Inception, but he also critiques the danger inherent in such media—that people can (and sometimes do) exchange reality for the copy, pouring their lives into virtual worlds rather than real relationships. This is the battle Cobb must fight and win by the end of the movie—he needs (as he is told on a couple occasions) to “come back to reality.”
Cobb’s insistence upon using positive emotions rather than negative when planting the idea in Fischer derives directly from his experience with Mal. He states that positive emotions are stronger, but the real issue is that negative emotions (like the negative idea “your world isn’t real”) can implode, submarining the person’s entire life, whereas positive emotions would seem to have less chance of being destructive. In that sense, positive emotions are stronger, because they don’t inherently consume everything around them like black holes. This concept is tied together with a notion of “evil” as a negative non-entity—that is, as the “absence of good.”
I also continue to think the film’s exploration of suffering as a key to retaining one’s grip on reality and one’s true place in the world is an interesting insight.
Other Noteworthy Similarities to Platonism
I do think the film’s exploration of essentially the same kinds of questions reflected in Platonic philosophical tradition is remarkable, especially since there’s no real evidence that Nolan has spent much time with those texts. For example, this quote from an interview with Village Voice is remarkable in its correspondence to certain discussions in the Platonic tradition:
“The world is founded on paradoxes,” he answers, grinning. “2 + 2 = 4 … we can see why that’s true, we can observe that, but when I talk to my kids about numbers, they have already completely taken aboard the idea that you can’t ever have two identical objects, meaning, on some level, that numbers don’t exist. Everything in life is inherently paradoxical. You can’t prove anything. But we accept that and we live with that and we just sort of deal with it, and what you try to do with a film like Inception is to pull at a few of those threads.
“One of my favorite brain teasers, or things to occupy my mind with when I have spare time, is that if you look in a mirror, left and right are reversed, but up and down are not. How is that possible? I’ve been trying to wrap my head around that for decades and I make no progress. If any of your readers have the solution, I’ll be interested.”
The Middle Platonists and Neoplatonists were especially fascinated with number (borrowing from Neopythagoreanism and the Timaeus), with the concept of “number” as an intelligible reality involved in the very creation of the world—the cosmos is seen as formed and ordered by number. Likewise, Plato’s Timaeus itself explores the inversion of right and left that happens when looking into a mirror and its implications for the ordering of the cosmos (Timaeus 45b).
Lessons from Inception applied to the “real world”:
For those of us who teach or work in scholarship, the concept of “inception” should be especially important. We should be especially careful when we teach, lest we perpetuate error via accidental “inception.” As Michael V. Fox often says, “Much scholarship is merely the perpetuation of prior error.” I’m convinced that all too often we train others to miss the best solutions to problems by trying to teach problems starting with their most theoretically-accepted solutions. For example, within my own field, the “Synoptic Problem” continues to be taught primarily by introducing the most common solution (the “Two-Source/Four-Source” hypothesis) for the problem at the very start. Likewise, when a student wants to know how to read the apostle Paul, they’re guided to secondary literature, where the discussions continue to be informed primarily by recourse to Reformation theology (or reactions against said theological paradigms). As a result, our students are generally inoculated against potentially better solutions that we perhaps have not considered. (This, by the way, is why I steadfastly avoided as much secondary Paul scholarship as possible while I was working through my own paradigms for how he should be read and continue to have a bit of an aversion to too much exposure to secondary lit.)
It takes real imagination—and care—to avoid “accidental inceptions,” in which we pass off our own biases and uninformed assumptions to those we teach. What is tacitly, unconsciously accepted ultimately determines what is consciously accepted. Thus, the professor who poo-poohs a given opposing view as though it’s so obvious that one can assume it’s foolish has made a more powerful rhetorical statement than he/she often realizes. Again, it is the job of those of us in academia to question (and cause our students to question) deeply-held assumptions. All too often, we simply reinforce them or create different ones of our own. This doesn’t produce critical thinkers; it serves as a form of “inception.”
Again, it is often not so much the actual substance that is taught that has influence but the things that underlie that substance, the underlying framework that has great power. The things assumed in entertainment or our teaching, those things accepted without question as part of the framework—these are the most powerful concepts, because they are accepted without argument and without consciousness of their influence. We learn these things without even realizing it, we take them in when we’re not on our guard. Rather, the we accept them as though they were our own thoughts. We must, as both learners and teachers, be ever conscious of the framework underlying our overt conceptions, and we must recognize the fundamental power of even the most basic of changes at this fundamental “assumed” level.
As scholars, we must recognize that the most influential ideas are the ones that have become so embedded without reflection, the ones that have become obvious, that are taken as a given. In my own work within the field of Pauline scholarship, I’ve found it exceptionally difficult at times to explain certain basic principles because they conflict with the “obvious” parts of other paradigms that have been so internalized that it takes a great deal of effort to get anyone holding to such “obvious” ideas to see any (better) alternatives. One of the lessons of Inception is that narrative is the tool that holds the power of opening eyes to such things—paradigm shifts generally only occur once a scholar has come along who is capable of synthesizing the data into a new narrative into which others, having been immersed, can be affected by new ideas.