Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Labyrinth of the Film INCEPTION

Besides reading books, I do watch films from time to time. Maybe it's a little unorthodox to write about one on a book blog, but there is a literary tie in, as you will see. If you haven't seen the film, I highly recommend watching it, and you should not read this post until you do so. You might want to watch it twice, because it's a little confusing at first. Let this serve as my SPOILER ALERT!

Inception retells the myth of the minotaur in the labyrinth, and discusses other themes as well. Here's a brief recap of the original legend:

The labyrinth on Crete was built to house the Minotaur, a half-bull, half-man monster which was born as a result of King Minos's greed, greed which prevented him from sacrificing a particular white bull to Poseidon, as he had originally promised. From this bull and a woman was born the Minotaur, (Mino from Minos + taur from taurus, the Greek word for bull) a half-human monster that, as a living reminder of King Minos' greed, devoured human sacrifices. The hero Theseus comes from across the sea to enter the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur, but he faces the problem of being able to find his way back out of the labyrinth. The king's daughter, Ariadne, gives Theseus a ball of thread that he unravels on his way to the center of the labyrinth; after slaying the Minotaur he follows the string to find his way back out.

In the film Inception, the protagonist, Cobb, is  unable to come to terms with his wife's death and let her go. This results in the birth of a shadow figure of his dead wife, Mallorie, in his subconscious. The Jungian idea of a person's shadow, those aspects of the subconscious which haven't been integrated, is a nice parallel to the Minotaur, as a person's shadow can be seen as part human and part inner beast, untamed by the civilizing aspect of personal consciousness. Each time Cobb attempts to enter his subconscious, his plans are thwarted and his companions are attacked by this violent shadow, born of his inability to sacrifice/let go. In the film Cobb must go deeper, deeper into the layers of dream mazes in order to confront and slay the monster, his own inner demon which his desire-to-hold-onto (greed) has created. Or, in Jungian terms, he must descend into the depths of his subconscious in order to integrate his shadow, which he has personified as Mallorie. This is especially difficult for him because the shadow appears to him as his deceased wife. (One's shadow may be composed of sacrosanct symbols that the individual is loathe to disturb.) As Cobb sleeps and descends to the realm of pure subconscious, he washes up from the ocean onto the shore of the dream world his subconscious has constructed, like Theseus sailing across the sea and landing on the shores of Crete, ready to brave the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur. The character Ariadne, like the Ariadne in the myth, helps the hero navigate the labyrinth and emerge victorious.  The totem which Cobb uses to ascertain whether he is awake or dreaming and to find his way out of a dream corresponds to the ball of thread, and slightly resembles a ball of thread as well. The fact that the top spins and the ball of string was spun from fiber is also a fun piece of wordplay.

The film questions whether our motives are composed of the pure cause and effect that we ascribe to them, or whether they stem from a deeper will in the subconscious, perhaps one that another person or being has placed there. From whence come the ideas that take hold within us? We, our left brains, our Interpreters, invent causes that may or may not have brought about the effects. Tesla believed that humans are meat machines, mere stimulus and response, and if all possible factors could be known, all outcomes could be accurately predicted. Like him, Kant saw the cause and effect, the phenomenality of time and space. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, saw the will in nature, the one consciousness that wills all things. Einstein says it another way, "A human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants." Ambiguity results when these two are integrated, as in Nietzsche's writings . For Nietzsche, the Apollonian individuating principle and the Dionysian energy of the will are balanced. Life eats life,and when ego dissolves and the dynamism of the will is experienced, rapture results. For Nietzsche, amor fati (the love of fate) is the goal. In other words, if you criticize one detail of your life, you've unraveled the whole thing (Joseph Campbell). This is depicted at the end of the film: from the time that Cobb and Saito awake on the plane, it is impossible to tell whether they are dreaming or not. At the end, when Cobb spins his totem but then walks away, the viewer sees that he has stopped analyzing and questioning his reality, and  has instead chosen to live it. This is the equivalent of Theseus setting down the ball of yarn and walking away. The reality Cobb chooses to live is that which he desires most: life with his children. Cobb has accepted and internalized his fate, but interestingly, he may have chosen that very fate as well by choosing not to recognize and leave a dream world.
     The film's end is ambiguous. So... has he embraced his fate, a reality that he could not control, or has he willed his own reality? How do you perceive the ending? Which idea has taken root in your own mind? I think that question, the question of our own perception and not that of Cobb's, is one of the most interesting aspects of the film.
     The other point of interest for me is the concept of shared dreaming. Is it possible for a group of people enter into another's dream? Can we gather in darkness and watch the images and narratives that another has constructed? Surely film is this shared dream-state.

p.s. Sometimes I, like Saito and Cobb, become lost in the labyrinth of my own thought world. Someday, you might have to send someone to bring me back. Or maybe I should just carry a ball of thread.

January: Fairy Tales

Yes, I've had my eye on Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm for a while, so I spent January reading about ogres, princesses, talking animals and cruel parents, step- and otherwise. I have volume 1 of The Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm (which is 2 volumes) and I made it about half way through that, meaning I read 50 of their 200+ tales. There were well-known ones and ones I'd never read before. Of course, these were the real deal, not the sanitized Disney versions. Cinderella's stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to make the shoe fit, birds peck out people's eyes and a young man visits hell and tricks the devil. My two favorites so far were The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, which reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk for some reason, even though it contained no beanstalk, no ogre, no magic treasure to steal. Then in reading up on the tales I was gratified to find that the Grimm brothers also categorized those two tales together, so I must have been making the right connections. Having recently read some Norse myths, it was also interesting to see some parallels in the Teutonic fairy tales, and in following my hunch I found online articles and blog entries discussing the similarities between Jack's beanstalk and the Germanic world tree Yggdrasil. It's been refreshing to switch to thinking about myths, after spending most of 2011 in the 19th century.

I also read The Owl, the Raven and the Dove: the religious meaning of the Grimms' magic fairy tales by G. Ronald Murphy, which offered some interesting historical and cultural criticism. I started The Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz, but haven't finished it, and Jack Zipes' Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale is still on deck. The only Hans Christian Andersen tale I read so far is The Little Mermaid, which had a lot of interesting symbolism that I missed when reading it as a child, although I did read the original version and not the Disney one. So, since I'm enjoying this and I still have a lot that I haven't gotten to read yet, I'm going to extend the fairy tale theme through February, and then I'll be done; I promise! That is to say, even if I haven't finished reading all the tales available to me, I'll probably be ready for something else. of the reasons that I didn't finish the above mentioned books is that I read a bunch of other stuff as well: 

Icons: Masterpieces of Russian Art by Olga Polyakova
Tesla: Man out of time by Margaret Cheney
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
Goliath by Scott Westerfeld
Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card
Look Homeward, America by Bill Kauffman
The Complete Moomin Collection: volumes 1 and 6 by Tove Jansson
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Criticism edited by Chester G. Anderson

Now that I've gotten all of those...ahem...pressing volumes out of the way, I'll have more time for Hans, Jacob and Wilhelm. Ooh la la.

2012: The Big Reveal...

...and it's only a month late! I took stock of 2011, what worked and what didn't, and have made modifications for 2012. Here are my thoughts coming out of 2011:

-The main problem with reading a novel a week is that it's just not sustainable long term. This was an entire year without a break. Ever. Even jobs usually give you time off once in a while. I'll be honest; it was really hard to keep on track all year. Some weeks were insane and I had to choose shorter books. During 2011, I traveled out of the country twice-once for a funeral and once to visit family, had eye surgery,  worked at a farmers market and had a 2,000 sq. ft. garden in the summer, took care of my two kids, and had house guests for at least 11 weeks (I lost track). And every Sunday I said to myself, "What am I reading this week?" That's not going to happen this year. I am going to have some breathing room.

-If I kept this up forever, I'd also never get to read long works like War and Peace, and would rarely have time to squeeze in short stories either.I would be limiting myself to one form (the novel), and only novels of a certain length.

-Intellectually, I go on little jaunts where I obsess over a theme for a few weeks and then move on to a different one. This lends itself to reading thematically rather than structurally, which also brings me to my plan for 2012:


It sounds all gourmet, doesn't it? Like those clubs where you sign up and they send you a pound of coffee or chocolate or cheese or escargot (not really) each month. Yes, I know they have book of the month clubs, but I'm definitely going to be reading more than a book a month. I' will, however, read on a certain theme each month, and I'm only going to choose the theme at the beginning of each month. No long-term commitment here. Right now I might think that November will lend itself to all-Shakespeare-all-the-time, but when month #11 actually rolls around, I might be thinking Isaac Asimov. Or novels about jungles. Or short stories. Or Greek lit. Who knows. And I'm not going to put a quota on my reading either. One month (maybe July...aah..vacation) I might whip through 10 books, another might see me battle with one or two. Doesn't matter. I'll pick the theme and see how far I get. If the theme is somehow extra-awesome, I might be inspired to stick with it for another month. I'll probably end up reading some nonfiction and non-theme-related books too, which I may or may not blab about on here. So here's to 2012, which will be spent meandering through many categories.