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Factotem: Waking Up After ‘Inception’

Juxtapoz // Friday, 13 Aug 2010






By Tommy Tung



“So it was all a dream then,” said Matt.


“Well, we did see the totem wobble,” I replied.


We had just walked out of the auditorium after Inception. The film ended and we did not witness whether Cobb’s totem would spin interminably or topple over. Yet in online discussions, many viewers expressed that it was all dream -- that the totem does a perpetual pirouette. Some groaned inaudibly, cheated that the story didn’t finish with definite answers.


The story did finish, however, because the story is this: Cobb retiring his guilt about Mal. That is the heart of Inception, the story on a character level, and that dramatic conflict is resolved. Even if all the events in Inception are, in fact, a dream, this doesn’t invalidate Cobb forgiving himself, because as we witness in Inception, the dreamers wake up retaining the spiritual and emotional lessons of their slumber.




The unknown fate of the totem, therefore, is not to infuriate, but to plant the inception of this in the audience -- is the very nature of living a form of dreaming? If one informs the other, are they not parts of a whole? And since they are equally impermanent, are we meant to appraise them separately? With these considerations, the film cannot show the totem falling to finality or spinning into eternity. To do so would be to deny our own quest.


And art provides travel options for this quest, rather than a single-lane highway (500 years later, we still can’t decide what Mona Lisa is smiling about). To view Inception then is to view an art film. Pay no attention to the film budget and heavy advertising; these do not classify Inception in the same genus as Salt.




With an art film, you liberate the plot with your interpretation -- you are free to move about the cabin -- and certainly you should after experiencing any form of art. With this one in particular, ponder your four-walled reality. Echo the inquiry often. Activate five senses at all times. You might just wake up enlightened.


One viewer with PhD work in neuroscience also avoids plot-parsing: “I find that there are certain types who need concrete answers in everything. There’s a certain rigidity to the way they approach things. Science actually attracts those types, which is odd, because science is rarely like that, which leaves them often confused and disappointed.”


Some critics grumble that false realities are unoriginal in Inception, but director Christopher Nolan never claimed he was the forerunner of films wrapped in dreams.




Imperative is that we wrap ourselves in something else -- this reversible jacket of dream and reality is not exclusively worn by science fiction. The premise has been in our lives as early as the nursery rhyme, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” published in 1852 (“merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream”).


Time-traveling further -- 2300 years ago -- the idea was popularized by Hinduism, asserting we are all characters of one dream -- Vishnu’s. Mythologist Joseph Campbell explained the cosmology like so:


“The images of Indian mythology and religion that we see on the beautiful Indian temples are called, in our language, ‘gods.’ But they are not gods in the same way that the god of the Old Testament is a god. The god of the Old Testament is conceived to be the ultimate truth. There is said to be nothing beyond this god. But the Indian gods are only pointing toward truth; because it is impossible, according to the Indian view, to speak about truth or to picture truth, to personify truth. The personifications, the images, the forms, are only clues, merely guides. And now, to give you a notion of how some of these deities are pictured:




“There are three very important deities in Indian worship, and they are Vishnu, Shiva, and Kali. Vishnu is pictured as the divine dreamer of the world dream. Vishnu sleeps on a great serpent, whose name is Ananta, which means, ‘Endless.’ The serpent floats on the universal ocean, called the Milky Ocean. But this Milky Ocean and the Serpent and the sleeping God: these are all the same thing. They are three inflections of the same thing, and that thing can be thought of also as the subtle substance that the wind of the mind stirs into action when the universe of all these shifting forms is brought into being. Vishnu, the God, sleeps, and the activity of his mind stuff creates dreams, and we are all his dream: the world is Vishnu's dream. And just as, in your dreams, all the images that you behold and all the people who appear are really manifestations of your own dreaming power, so are we all manifestations of Vishnu's dreaming power. We are no more independent entities than the dream figures in our own dreams.




“Hence, we are all one in Vishnu: manifestations, inflections, of this dreaming power of Vishnu; broken images of himself rippling on the spontaneously active surface of his subtle mind stuff. Moreover, this sleeping god's divine dream of the universe is pictured in Indian art as a great lotus plant growing from his navel. The idea is that the dream unfolds like a glorious flower, and that this flower is the energy -- or, as the Indians say, the shakti or goddess -- of the god. I hope that some of you are recalling the counterparts of some of these images in the Biblical tradition. The waters that are stirred into action when creation takes place are comparable to those of the first verse of the Bible, where it is said that the wind or breath of god blew, or brooded, over the waters.”


Ancient thinkers also concluded that waking life is the B-side of more music:


One Chinese philosopher sung it like this: “Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”




In the 13th century, Rumi, a Persian poet and Sufi mystic, abstracted further, “This is not the real reality. The real reality is behind the curtain. In truth, we are not here. This is our shadow.”


Therefore, the question of originality in Inception is not a properly phrased one. Is the film presenting a new theory about dreams and reality? No. Is Inception an artistic rendering of these ancient ideas? Yes. It imagines the philosophies of Rumi, Chuang Chou, and Hinduism in a manner unique to Christopher Nolan.


This hunger for clarity then about the last totem reflects the individual not the film, and that energy would be better spent harmonizing the self with the universe -- however the individual desires it -- art, religion, mysticism, yoga, or more science fiction.


Row your boat gently down the stream, everyone.



----- the writer -----


Tommy Tung will wake you up if you ask him nicely. He writes fiction mostly and Juxtapoz articles sometimes. Armed with a B.A. in English and M.F.A. in Screenwriting, he now seeks literary representation for his novels, Taurus Ikkanda and nutopia. Direct all compassion and controversy to




Every image in one place


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