INCEPTION: Art, Dream and Reality

A cinematic meditation on the elusive nature of reality.

Posted Aug 01, 2010

The Zen teacher Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly. When he woke, he wondered, "Am I a man who dreamt about being a butterfly ? Or am I really a butterfly who now dreams about being a man?"

This basic question regarding the nature of reality is partly philosophical, partly spiritual, part psychological, and partly scientific in nature. But it is not merely academic. For how we perceive, understand, experience, interpret and respond to reality has concrete and practical repercussions in both our intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, for psychotherapy, as well as how we relate to the planet and cosmos. Over the past eighteen months or so I posted a few thoughts on the topic of subjective or relative reality here. Now, with the release and, to me, surprising popularity of Inception, it seems a good time to review what was said, and continue our conversation here on what is real and what is not.

For me, reality is something both subjective and objective. What I mean is that objective reality, say the existence of the physical universe, does not necessarily depend on subjectivity to be real. But then, subjective reality, say the experience of an emotion, impulse or dream, doesn't necessarily depend on objective reality for its existence. The subjective world is as real as the objective world. Both have their own reality. One is not "more real" than the other. But when subjectivity trumps objectivity, or vice-versa, we get into trouble. When hallucinations or delusions, for example, become so real for a person that they overpower and nullify objective reality, we call this dangerous state of mind "psychosis." And when objective reality totally dominates subjective reality, we lose touch with who we really are. Interiority and exteriority are two sides of the same coin we collectively call reality. Interiority is associated with introversion and subjectivity; exteriority with objectivity and extraversion. Too much of either can become pathological. (See my prior posting on C.G. Jung's psychological types.)

Inception pays respect to the powerful reality of dreams. In the film, the main infiltrators of the dreamworld (along with the audience) tend to become so confused between outer and inner reality, dreaming and waking, that one of the only means they have of distinguishing between the two is by carrying with them a "totem": something they can use to tell them whether they are still dreaming or not. For Cobb, Leonardo DiCaprio's character, it is a tiny metal top: if it eventually slows and topples after spinning it, he is presumably awake; if it just kept on turning into perpetuity, he is still asleep. Another problem faced by the "dream team" is how not only to deeply penetrate the dreamer's unconscious, but how to find their way back from the "underworld" to the outer world of waking reality. This is an archetypal motif found in many myths, including that of Theseus venturing into the labyrinth to meet the Minotaur.(See my previous post.) It is no coincidence that DiCaprio's female (Ellen Page) co-star's name is Ariadne: it was Ariadne who, after falling in love with the young Greek hero Theseus, secretly provides him with both a sword and ball of string to help him defeat the Minotaur and find his way back out of the winding, dark, maze-like labyrinth and into the light. Dreams, which Freud famously referred to as the via regia, the royal road into the unconscious, can, like the unconscious itself, be perilous places to dwell too long in, precisely due to their sometimes immensely seductive and convincing reality.

One radical reaction to this recognition of reality's relativity and partial subjectivity is to reject any and all prior claims to our capacity to know reality, and, in some circles, to deny objective reality altogether. This is a type of psychological solipsism: refusal to recognize the objective existence of reality beyond the mind or psyche's subjectivity. But the solution to this dilemma does not call for or warrant such extreme rejection of our capacity to apprehend reality because of our becoming more aware of its inherent uncertainty and complexity. On the contrary, reality consists of both objective or external phenomena and subjective, internal experiences which are constantly acting upon and influencing each other. Denying either is a simplistic, cowardly and convenient reconstruction of reality as we would like it to be, rather than a courageous, organic acceptance of reality as it truly is--in all its glorious ambiguity, messiness and mystery.

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.