Inception: Dream or Not?

Here are two (related) book reviews which may be of particular interest to readers of our new serialization of ‘The Dream Problem’.

Nearly 2 years ago, the film of the moment was ‘Inception’, directed by Christopher Nolan. And this justifiably went on to win four Academy Awards. Friends told me how good this film was but, as is quite normal regarding films, I did not actually get to see it until some time after it came out on DVD. Since I have been a fan of science fiction ever since my childhood, I realized fairly quickly what this film was about in a general sense. Nevertheless, it was obvious that the story was quite complex and that all of the nuances could never be fully appreciated with one viewing. Accordingly, even at the time, I wondered whether anyone would write a book about it. (Of course, I realized that there would be a deluge of blogs on the subject but there is the slight problem of not having sufficient time to look, as well as not knowing which ones would be worth reading.)

Most people will have come across the saying that you wait ages at the bus stop for your bus to come along and then two arrive at the same time. When I checked on Amazon, I found that two books on Inception were planned to be published simultaneously! And they had virtually the same title. In fact, having now completed the second of these books, I can tell you that the target audience is not quite the same and they cannot be equally recommended.

The book I finished first is called ‘Inception and Philosophy: Ideas to die for‘ edited by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein and is volume 62 in the series Popular Culture and Philosophy, published by Open Court Publishing Company. Both books are collections of essays by many authors. This one has 21 essays, by authors who mostly seem to be PhD students, not always in philosophy. It is divided into five sections: Level 1 – Come Back to Reality, Please; Level 2 – We’re Not in Your Dream; Level 3 –  The Infinite Staircase; Level 4 – The Most Resilient Parasite; Level 5 – Downwards is the Only Way Forwards.

This book is principally about the film itself. Many aspects of the story are investigated and analyzed by people who’ve clearly thought about it a great deal. And they come up with interpretations that certainly never occurred to me. Words or events from the film that did not, at the time, strike me as significant are shown to suggest entirely different ways of interpreting the story. The book is full of challenging and interesting ideas and, for the most part, is very readable. Naturally, given the title, there are lots of references to possibly relevant philosophical ideas but there is nothing too difficult and these generally serve to stimulate rather than befuddle.

The philosophical references tend to be popular in nature. For example: Plato’s cave, Descartes ‘am I dreaming?’, Berkeley’s idealism, Robert Nozick’s brain in a tank, or a superficial examination of Kant’s attitude to morality. But there are a few essays that go much deeper, with references to less well-known philosophers such as Bergsen and Husserl. If you enjoyed the film and want to discover other ways of looking at it, but do not regard yourself as a serious philosopher, then this is probably the book for you.

For an extract from this book, I have chosen a section of the essay (No. 11) by Emilie Dionne on ‘The Story of Reality’.

The second book is called ‘Inception and Philosophy‘, as before. But the subtitle is now ‘Because It’s Never Just a Dream‘. It is edited by David Kyle Johnson and is part of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series. It is slightly longer than that of the book at around 360 pages and is divided into six sections covering 22 essays, Part 1 – ‘Was Mal right? Was it all just a dream?: Making sense of Inception’. Part 2 – ‘Is the top still spinning?: Tackling the unanswerable question.’ Part 3 – ‘Is Inception possible?: The metaphysics, ethics, and mechanics of incepting.’ Part 4 – ‘What is dreaming?: Exploring the nature of (shared) dreams (upon dreams).’ Part 5 – ‘Should I take a leap of faith?: Religious themes in Inception.’ Parts 6 – ‘What does it all mean?: Finding the hidden lessons of Inception.’

This is a much more challenging book. Although each of the essays is triggered by something in the film, the tendency is to take this as a starting point to ask questions about something far more fundamental. The ideas of numbers of philosophers are drawn upon, including quite a few modern ones that I had not previously heard of. And it is this book which, of the two, is slightly more relevant to advaita. The word ‘slightly’ is significant in that neither book really touches on Nonduality to any extent. There are quite a number of mentions of the well-known Taoist story of the Emperor who had been dreaming that he was a butterfly and who, when he awoke, wondered if he was now a butterfly dreaming that he was an Emperor. But, most surprising is that I only encountered one reference to the yoga vishiShTa. Anyone who has read that book will know that the intricate dreams within dreams stories surpass even Inception in their complexity!

There is also a very useful appendix in this book; it is subtitled “A Safe Full of Secrets: Hidden Gems You May Have Missed” and contains lots of useful snippets about various aspects, such as that Marion Cotillard, who played Mal won an Oscar for portraying Edith Piaf in ‘La Vie en Rose’. Edith Piaf, of course, sings ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, which is used to signal the end of a dream. (It also says that ‘Cobb’, the name of the main character, means ‘dream’ in Sanskrit but I could find no evidence of this at all! But the first letters of the names of the main characters – Dom, Robert, Eames, Arthur/Ariadne, Mal, Saito – spells DREAMS.) There are also lots of clues that the entire movie should be viewed as a dream.

One of the most interesting essays in the book looks at the philosopher Norman Malcolm (1911 – 1990), whose book ‘Dreaming’ claims that our commonly held belief that our dreams are actually ‘experienced’ while we are asleep is false. This is only an inference we make on awakening. Furthermore, he says he does not even understand what it would mean to explain what dreaming is.

But the section I have selected as an extract is from the essay entitled Paradox, Dreams, and Strange Loops in Inception by Tyler Shores, a graduate student at Oxford (UK). Advaita itself might be thought of as paradoxical, presenting, as it does, what appear to be absurd or self-contradictory statements (the world is mithyA, I am brahman) which, when investigated, prove to be true.

Finally, I was left with the impression that, in fact, both books contain material which is both thought-provoking and informative. And I can recommend that you read both – possibly several times (interpolating this with further iterations of the film itself)! I can honestly say that I have never encountered a film which is so saturated with inventiveness and so worth investigating to see where else it might lead. It could even lead one to Advaita!

So, did I think that Inception was a dream or not? I thought it was mithyA! (But well worth watching again, despite that.)

(Note that the extracts I made were each around 1500 words long, and both authors approved them for publication. However, Emilie pointed out that the publisher probably owned the copyright and this indeed appears to be so. Accordingly, I have reduced both extracts to around 400 words, since this seems to be the figure generally accepted as permissable without paying fees!)