One day after his mother died in 1977, the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes began jotting down notes, recording each stage and random thought of his grief. Only a few weeks into it, on Nov. 3, he made this observation, after confronting, as many in mourning do, the image he held in his head of his mother and what he perceived she still demanded of his attention.
“On the one hand, she wants everything, total mourning, its absolute (but then it’s not her, it’s I who is investing her with the demand for such a thing). And on the other (being then truly herself), she offers me lightness, life, as if she were still saying: “but go on, go out, have a good time.”
Barthes’ struggles with grief were documented last year in the posthumously published “Mourning Diary,” which collects the scraps of paper upon which he poured out momentary pangs of grief, embarrassed at them and fascinated by them, perceiving in them hard truths won at a very high price. The information we gain, the character we tell ourselves we are building at the price of dealing with the loss of a loved one’s life seems hardly a fair bargain.
I was reminded of this recently watching Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” a brilliant movie that not only deals with the difference between dreams and reality, but how we mourn the loss of the beloved, the loss of possibilities, and the loss of home. Rarely has any conventional Hollywood thriller ever tackled such themes in so compelling and subtle a way.
There are chases and gun battles aplenty in “Inception,” but we are assured these are merely projections in the dream worlds we enter - projections of either the dreamer protecting himself from unwelcome visitations or projections of the dreamer’s inner turmoil. Our hero is Cobb, a man who specializes in heists from the dream world, stealing vital information while the victim literally sleeps. He is hired by Saito, a Japanese businessman, to stage an inception - in other words, to plant an idea inside the mind of one of his key competitors.
To tell this complicated story, Nolan hit upon a conventional framework - the heist film. Cobb assembles a committed team and they carefully plan how they will conduct Fischer, the target, through many layers of dreams until Saito’s intended idea is introduced into his subconscious. But every heist film needs a villain, as well as a femme fatale, and “Inception” has both - in the form of Cobb’s wife, Mal. But we learn deep into the film that Mal is, in fact, not Mal but a projection of Cobb’s which follows him from dream to dream, tormenting him. The real Mal is dead, and this projection is a vengeful ghost, the memory of her conjured up by Cobb’s guilty conscience, bent on convincing him to remain in the dream world.
Cobb is a man plagued by guilt - survivor guilt. Both he and Mal shared a lifetime within a dream world of their own creation. The dream world still exists, and for Cobb to return home once and for all, he has to confront this false Mal, to her face, on why he cannot stay with her:
“I wish more than anything, but I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. . You’re just a shade of my real wife. And you were the best that I could do but I’m sorry, you’re just not good enough.”
True to form, the false Mal stabs him, asking him if it feels real. This set of circumstances would seem all too real to another grieving widower, C.S. Lewis, recording his feelings in a book he published under a pen name as “A Grief Observed.” Lewis, after despairing that he was losing vital memories of his wife after her death, realized that his memory created something dishonest in her absence. His words are much like Cobb‘s:
“All reality is iconoclastic. The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality. And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead.”
The lesson of “Inception” perhaps can be found in the parting words of Cobb’s partner Ariadne as she leaves the collapsing dream world - “Don’t lose yourself.” But Lewis realized that the loss of his wife could only remind him of how our imaginations buckle and fall short when we try to imagine, or understand, God. Jesus is the ultimate reminder that the idols we erect in our minds fall just as short as the ones we fashion with our hands:
“He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”
“Inception” lures us through a maze of false realities, with the world “up top” just beckoning us. It doesn’t take too large a leap to see Nolan offering a commentary on the hope of an afterlife. Reunion with loved ones long gone is one of the hopes of Heaven. And while modern rationalism tells us this is a false hope, a dream, that pang of doubt itself seems its own dream. Why should all that we are have no meaning? Surely, there must be something somewhere waiting for us that is real, that is truth. If we might only wake up and find the way…
In the end, Cobb escapes the dream world, and his avenging, tormenting memory of Mal, to a reunion with his children. Or does he? The final shot of the film leaves the question open. One of the oldest stories in human history is the longing for home, to finally return home. The assurance and security seem far-off, sometimes even when we are there. We wonder what else we require for bliss. Reality seems stubbornly unforgiving when compared to our dreams. The question “Inception” leaves us with is - when we "get home," how will we know we are really there?
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