"The labyrinth of Inception"

September 6th, 2010 by

H/T to Josh James for finding this. A wonderful analysis of Inception from a Jungian perspective courtesy of MindHacks. Some extensive excerpts:

But for those familiar with the theories of Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst and dissenter from Freud’s circle, the film is rich with both implicit and explicit references to his work.

As with all psychoanalysts, Jung was concerned with the subconscious mind and believed that it contains powerful emotional processes that, when malformed or disturbed, can break through and cause immense distress to our conscious lives. To protect us, the subconscious tries to hide these forces behind symbols, which appear, most vividly, in dreams.

This is why Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious” and Jung’s work is also based on this core assumption.

Similarly, in Inception, dreams are a way of accessing the subconscious of the dreamer, to the point where they can be used to steal secrets. This dream invasion work is not easy, of course, primarily because the subconscious mind of the dream attempts to defend against invaders (a defense mechanism in psychoanalytic terms) and the dreamspace needs to be explored and interpreted by the invaders to get to the secret itself.
This is not the only challenge, as other people in the dream are projections of the dreamer’s subconscious where, in line with the definition from psychoanalysis, personal feelings are perceived as residing in other people.

In the film, the young architect, Ariadne is hired to build dreams in the form of mazes, and the labyrinth forms one of the central symbols in the film (the name, Ariadne, by the way, comes from the Greek legend where she leads the Minotaur out of the labyrinth – Jung referred to being lost in life as ‘losing the Ariadne thread’).
In Jungian psychology the labyrinth is one of the most powerful symbols of the subconscious. In his book ‘Man and His Symbols’, he explains its meaning:

“The maze of strange passages, chambers, and unlocked exits in the cellar recalls the old Egyptian representation of the underworld, which is a well-known symbol of the unconscious with its abilities. It also shows how one is “open” to other influences in one’s unconscious shadow side and how uncanny and alien elements can break in.”

Ariadne is hired because Dom Cobb can no longer create dreams, owing to the fact that the subconscious representation of his ex-wife, who killed herself due to Cobb’s dream work, appears and attempts to violently stop him. Cobb names her his ‘shade’, directly referencing the Jungian concept of the shadow where we are haunted by the parts of ourselves which we are most ashamed and which we most try to repress.

While Cobb’s main objective is to get back to his children, his main challenge is to overcome his shadow that causes conflicts in his subconscious. Normally, if you wrote a sentence like that about a film you would be using a Jungian interpretation, but in the case of Inception this is also the literal state of affairs.

I hit on the Jung angle over a month ago with this post:

I’ve seen Inception twice and won’t be able to make a more detailed analysis until it comes out on DVD, so I can break it down scene by scene, and read the script (which becomes available on September 1). However I do have an initial take on the movie which is this: Inception is Carl Jung’s wet dream.

Projections. Talismans. Symbols. Consciousness. Unconsciousness. Subconsciousness. The Collective Unconscious. Memories. Archetypes. The Shadow. Psyche. Transformation. Individuation. Synchronicity. Anima. Animus. Self.

Oh, yeah… and dreams.

All of those concepts that Jung worked with and championed for decades are present in Inception, many of them obliquely so, but some as clear as day. There are even lines of dialogue — “Downward is forward… the shore of the subconscious… why is it so important to dream” — that sound like Jung-speak. So I feel confident in saying that Carl Jung would have been absolutely enthralled by this movie.

Jung was a fan of cinema:

The cinema, like the detective story, makes it possible to experience without danger all the excitement, passion, and desirousness, which must be repressed in the humanitarian working of life.

As viewers, we go into the story, experiencing vicariously what the characters do, especially the Protagonist. This is similar – in function – to dreams. Jung even noted that dreams have a narrative structure:

The dream begins with a statement of place, next comes a statement about the protagonist. I call this phase of the dream the exposition. It indicates the scene of action, the people involved, and also often the initial situation of the dream way.

The second phase comes the development of the plot. The third phase brings the culmination of peripeteia, a sudden change of events, a reversal of circumstances, used by Aristotle. Here something decisive happens if something changes completely.

The fourth and last phase is alysis, the solution or result produced by the dream work.

This division into four phases can be applied without much difficulty to a majority of dreams met with in practice, an indication that dreams generally have a dramatic structure.

Sounds like story or screenplay theory, doesn’t it?

The great events of world history are, at bottom, profoundly unimportant.In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual.

This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals.

In our most private and most subjective lives we are not only the passive witnesses of our age, and its sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch.

With Inception, we are witness to two individuals who make their own “epoch”: Writer-director Christopher Nolan in making the movie, and Cobb in his response to personal tragedy.

A key theme in the movie is one of Jung’s fundamental tenets — the psychological process of an individual moving from disunity to unity. Indeed Jung believed that a chief calling of the human experience is to engage all aspects of the psyche and move toward wholeness.

So as opposed to delving into the complexities of the plot and all the other much-discussed issues re the movie, I will focus my comments here on the psychological drama of three main characters: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), Mal (Marion Cotillard), and Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), as each has their own journey from Disunity to Unity, yet each of their journeys is distinct in theme and substance, creating a textured emotional core at the heart of this most entertaining and elaborate heist movie.

For the rest of my post, go here.

I don’t know if Christopher Nolan has studied Jung or whether this is simply an example of synchronicity, but it seems to me impossible to deny that the movie is infused with Jungian ideas as the MindHack’s post strongly suggests.

By the way, here is how I break down Inception per character archetypes:

Protagonist: Cobb
Nemesis: Mal
Attractor: Cobb’s children
Mentor: Ariadne
Trickster: Saito

And I would put the Cobb-Fischer relationship as an oblique Protagonist-Mentor one where Cobb learns, albeit indirectly, the necessity of confronting that which he most fears, just like Fischer had to enter into the painful area of his father’s disappointment in him.

Read the rest of the MindHacks post here. Terrific analysis that hits on things I didn’t in my OP. Also a great site for anyone interested in neuroscience and psychology.

One thought on “"The labyrinth of Inception"

  1. Caitlin says:

    I enjoyed Inception enough as I was watching it, but the more I read stuff like this, the more I've come to kind of hate it. Because it just highlights everything that the movie could have been, and that I wanted it to be, but that it didn't actually ever truly achieve in a (for me) satisfying way.

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