On Inception

I dreamed I was a butterfly. Now that I am awake I wonder, am I a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or am I butterfly dreaming that I am a man? - Chuang Tzu

Man’s quest for the unknowing, the boundless vacuum of the Universe stretching across a perfect night sky, the “whole beyond the parts” is often at odds with the limits of his sensory perception and comprehension. What we hear, see, touch, taste or smell defines our world, a pretty postcard-picture with an occasional blemish of discontent, distrust or dystopian prophecies. But what if (a BIG if), all that your senses conveyed was a steady stream of manipulated neural impulses that artfully concealed “what lay beyond the veil?” What if we were the butterflies, merely dreaming that we were human? Would our minds have the ability to grasp the truth? And, more importantly, once the truth was known, how much of our own mind would we be able to trust?

Welcome to the world of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” where your dreams can be bought at the right price, by the right (or wrong) bidder. Inception is a tale with multiple, parallel narratives - guilt, redemption, expectation, loyalty, deception and acceptance. It is a tale that bridges the subconscious with the conscious, constantly probing the limits of the viewer’s assumptions about their world.

The subconscious (or unconscious, to be more precise) is an old battleground in the world of storytelling. Generations have been enthralled by the eternal struggle between Man, with his physical frailties, and the Mind, the ruler of Man, with its supposedly omniscient disposition. This duality is a commonly found in the myths and teachings of religions and cultures throughout the globe.

But what IS duality? A duality of form, of space, of existence, or of nature? Is duality defined for every individual? Or are we strands on the loom of creation, each with its own hue, but integral to the tapestry of Universe? Nolan deftly mixes into the pot, influences from both the Eastern and Western schools of thought. On one hand, we have individuals addicted to a shared reality. For them, the dream state is the reality. Interestingly, the ones who are the “addicts” are shown to be older - a cultural reference that could mean “the wise”. And how do our dreams “communicate” across the barriers of consciousness-as-we-know-it? What is the subconscious? Is it a part of the self (Nietzsche/Freud/Jung), or are we a part of a global sentience (Vedas / Taoism), a cog in the wheel that drives the machinery of the Universe?

Secondly, given the very definition of “duality,” can we limit the participants in this cosmic dance to “two” (yin and yang, Nara and Narayana, ego and id) or can we apply this definition recursively, abstracting all physical phenomena and their manifestations at each step, until all that remains is pure thought - without birth or death, without a beginning or an end?

Nolan treats this highest level of abstraction as a “limbo” - a world that is neither here nor there. Space, time and other physical phenomena hold no meaning here. The only currency are thoughts, and ideas that germinate from them. But thoughts are fleeting, evanescent, and ideas often crumble and fall, only to rise on a better foundation. What better way to represent the “castles in the air” than with crumbling high-rises and a dynamic, restless frontier between land and water? And is it not natural that a dream sequence that begins with the lowest denominator of human instinct, “survival” (Yusuf), progresses through “deception” (Arthur), “knowledge” (Fischer) to finally “acceptance” (Cobb)? Once we understand this progression, the ending does not look so ambiguous!

In the days when studios would rather produce sequels or comic-book crossovers, Inception belongs to the ever decreasing family of original and thought-provoking storytelling that makes movies enjoyable in the first place. It challenges our notion of reality, not by proposing an alternate-reality (a la Matrix), but by asking us to look “beyond” ourselves to find the meaning of our existence. Inception forces us to ask - “We may be aware, but are we truly awake?” - or is it the other way around?