After having seen both Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and Scorcese’s “Shutter Island” in a single week, it’s hard not to consider the similarities between the two films. In both cases the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio has repressed a primal trauma – an act of violence, death(s) in the family – underneath layers of created “dream” realities. We are never sure what is real and what is projected/imagined/hallucinated, for the characters or for ourselves as prisoners/dreamers of the filmic medium. In both films the “return of the repressed” is the thread which undoes or at least subverts the elaborate fantasies, in the form of flashbacks that seep into the dreamworlds in unexpected ways. The traumatic event is inscribed into the very architecture of the dream.

“Shutter Island” seems to be Scorcese’s take on the German Expressionist film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920), with the big “reveal” at the end which inevitably is turned on the audience; our willingness to entrust ourselves to an unreliable, deluded narrator makes us question our own sanity. This is already a unique narrative device. But “Inception” pushes this trope a bit farther, layering realities in such a way as to prevent a sudden narrative “revelation”; the implied world underlying the diegetic reality is a palimpsest, finally impenetrable, where no sudden discovery can pin down the exact contours of the story. We have a dream within a dream, covering another dream and other dreamers… it gets complicated and convoluted, though no less pleasurable for all the loose ends.

Freud suggested in “Moses and Monotheism” that the death of Moses (or at least the parricidal desire for the death of Moses) was the traumatic event par excellence for the Jewish religion, covered over but continually “returning” in different forms in Judaism and Christianity. I think this might be a bit too idiosyncratic of a reading of what is a complex story (the birth and development of monotheism) but the idea of religion as layered realities covering over a primal trauma makes some sense to me. In “Inception” we are told that in the dream the dreamer creates and perceives simultaneously, a sort of rapid-eye-movement version of Berkeley’s esse est percipi. I’m not sure how it all hangs together, but I think there is something there – religion as a constitutive way of seeing, a mode of perception that is creative rather than passive, which covers over the essential trauma of the real.

Just some scattered thoughts, I’m not disingenuously trying to draw an explicitly religious moral from a couple of films most obviously dealing with psychoanalysis. Mostly I would like to say I really enjoyed both films, and that they deserve to be seen together as different developments (a recurring dream?) of a similar narrative.


5 thoughts on “Incepting

  1. The central aspect of the “essential trauma of the real” seems to be death — when the real snuffs out our consciousness. Perhaps the “primal trauma” is humanity’s becoming conscious of its own mortality. Many mythologies have a story about how humans lost immortality. Maybe religion/mythology is an attempt to come to terms with the discovery that humans are mortal.

  2. Thanks Fred… death is, I suppose, the ultimate interruption, the essentially traumatic event. In terms of human culture broadly considered, it’s the one element that doesn’t fit neatly into the system, which simultaneously undergirds and legitimizes the whole system!

    The relationship between religion, immortality, and dreams is an interesting one… you could profitably think of the opening chapters of Genesis as something like a hazy dream, or then again the Australian Aborigines with the Dreamtime… the origins of humanity are a sort of emergence from a dreamy fog, like slowly waking up.

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