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Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Inception of Guilt

SPOILER ALERT - If you haven't seen Inception, this will give away some of the plot.  However, I doubt it will ruin either your surprise as the plot unfolds in its entirety or your enjoyment of the movie.

Inception is a movie for the thinking man who also likes explosions, gun fights, and random destruction.  Those elements would be enough for most movies but this one also includes stunning visuals and a man's poignant struggle with loss and grief.

Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is the leader of a group that specializes in entering other people's dreams, similar to The Cell.  Rather than trying to treat psychological problems of the subjects, Cobb's group attempts to extract information for purposes of corporate espionage.  There is a predictable military connection to the technology that allows this ability.  When Cobb is propositioned to implant an idea in a subject's mind it leads to planning, rehearsal, and revelation worthy of any caper movie.  This is also the source for the title of the movie.

The recent death of my own wife has made me more likely to latch onto stories like Inception.  However, this movie presents the impact of grief and the struggle back to normalcy as a central theme.  I would argue that it becomes the focus of the question(s) an audience member is left with at the end of the movie.  It is Cobb's inability to let go of his own feelings of guilt that cause him to keep his wife "alive" in his own dreams in a way that is unhealthy psychology and detrimental to his business.

C. S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, describes his own grieving process after the loss of his wife.  Lewis talks about the dangers of keeping and using our own memories and images of the dead:  "But the image has the added disadvantage that it will do whatever you want.  It will smile or frown, be tender, gay, ribald, or argumentative just as your mood demands.  It is a puppet of which you hold the strings."  Cobb sees his dream visits with the specter of his wife as his only moments of happiness.

I too have desperately tried to hold onto memories, mental images, and the sound of Colleen's voice.  At just under three months I find that those things are already hard to bring into focus.  Unlike Cobb however, it wasn't until about two weeks ago that I had the first dream (I remembered upon waking) with Colleen in it since her death.  I woke up crying; this is by far not the first time in the last three months that has happened though.  This experience of grief was different because it was inspired by the dream.  This dream was nothing that unusual; it drew mainly on the experience of being in the hospital with Colleen.  It is this very "real" element of the dream that was so disturbing.  Why would my mind want to go back to a time when Colleen was suffering so much?  Why didn't it focus on our first kiss, our wedding, or our trips together?  I don't know.

Cobb seems to have had the exact opposite problem; that might be a risk of a profession that puts you so intimately in touch with the inner workings of dreams.  Cobb's wife interrupts his work though.  The unconscious manifestation of his wife works actively to undermine his missions to extract information from various "subjects."  This leads to some of the most action packed and suspenseful sequences in the movie.  I believe it is also one of the reasons that the plot is both complicated and rich.  Since these projections of his wife are coming from Cobb himself, we are left to wonder what subconscious reason Cobb has to cause them to be working against him. 

There is a lot to be said for the motivations in creating such an elaborate memory.  In Cory Doctorow's recent short story, "Ghosts in My Head," the first person narrator explains that her mother died when she was 14, and from that point on her mother became a sort of Jiminy Cricket in her mind telling her when to be cautious and how to more accurately perceive the world.  The narrator proceeds to explain that her mother is only one of many "ghosts" she keeps in her head.  Many fictional characters are there too.  We learn that the narrator is the inventor of a technology that maximizes the ability of advertisers to implant such characters into the emotional centers of people's minds.

This is a frightening proposition.  Yet if you look at the entire history of religion, media, philosophy, mythology, and art you will find that this has been the goal all along.  While it would be more accurate to say that this is only one goal, there is no denying that Jesus, Walter Cronkite, Socrates, Zeus, and Salvador Dali have all entered people's minds and served as guides and mentors.  The narrator in Doctorow's story and many of the people who carry images in their minds of the men listed above have done so to help themselves try to be better people.  Cobb has kept his "ghostly" wife around simply because of guilt.

Guilt is the most complex and corrupting idea implanted in men's minds.  No one has to break into our minds to put it there; we create it ourselves.  No one else can convince us to let go of it; we hold it to be a badge of honor and a scarlet letter at the same time.  We want everyone to know how guilty we are as a confession of our love while at the same time we believe ourselves to be more capable than we really are.  We create guilt because we believe that not only could we have done more we should have done more.  There is a vast amount arrogance in such a belief; we who cherish our guilt overestimate both our ability to do and our ability to foresee the future.

The wife of Cobb's dreams becomes his refuge from what he perceives to be a much harsher reality.  C. S. Lewis cautions against not accepting the facts.  "Will nothing persuade us that they are gone?  What's left?  A corpse, a memory, and (in some versions) a ghost.  All mockeries or horrors.  Three more ways of spelling the word dead.  It was H. I loved.  As if I wanted to fall in love with my memory of her, an image in my own mind!  It would be a sort of incest."  It is Cobb's own mind recognizing this "incest" that causes his memories of his wife to turn on him.  He knows he has to let go of the guilt but this guilt is the strongest connection he has left with his wife.

I hadn't thought about the process of grief enough to have actively set out on a path different than Cobb's.  I have had my moments (hours, days, weeks) of reveling in grief, guilt, and pain.  However, I also believe that I am forming a healthier response to my loss than Cobb did.  I have confronted those negative emotions head on.  I have been trying to recognize the lessons that Colleen shared with me as I have been trying to honor her memory and the time we had together.  Hopefully I can be a better person with my own little Jiminy Cricket like version of Colleen in my head.  Thank you to everyone who has been there to help guide me, share with me, and tell me it is okay to "only be as strong as I have to be."

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