Like all of Christopher Nolan’s movies Inception (Nolan, 2010) is about self-deception (self-inception?, being the beginning of oneself?), particularly the self-deception involved in giving meaning to your life after a tragic and life-shattering event. I’ve only seen the movie once, but I suspect future viewings will support the interpretation that the entire movie was an elaborate hoax that the protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dominic Cobb) played on himself in order to make himself think the ending of the movie was real when in fact it is a dream.
Then again the movie is also about the corrosive power of skepticism, the fact that once it is suggested to you that your world may not be real, you cannot disprove the idea and the boundary between real life and dreams breaks down. So I also suspect that the movie will be carefully crafted to be undecidable. If Nolan succeeds, we will never be able to know whether the movie is a dream or not. And in that case, perhaps we can, as Cobb’s wife suggests in one scene, forget about what we know and go with what we choose to believe. We must choose our own defining idea, the idea which will change everything and shape our identity.
If Cobb is to construct a meaningful life for himself, he must put himself in an undecidable position. He must create a false reality and then make himself doubt any clues that suggest his reality is false. In other words, he must use the power of skepticism against himself. He must doubt even the idea that his world may not be real.
Here skepticism is necessary for a self-deception is in the service of meaning. One interesting question here is what we are supposed to think about all this. All of Nolan’s previous films end tragically. (The possible exception is Batman Begins, but the epilogue in which Batman learns that his methods have lead to copycat super villians like the Joker suggests that we should see this film as tragic as well.) In fact Memento has a remarkably similar ending to Inception. In the earlier film, the protagonist creates “a puzzle you can’t solve” in order to give his life the only kind of meaning possible for him given his mental illness. Yet the ending of Memento seems shocking and somewhat sad. Inception, however, seems to have with a classic Hollywood happy ending. Is this simply away to help preserve undecidibility, a refusal to explicitly acknowledge Cobb’s self-deception? The final shot of the spinning top does cast some doubt on the Hollywood ending while leaving its interpretation open.
Or is the ending Nolan’s suggestion that self deception can sometimes be good (as discussed in my post on The Invention of Lying)? Nolan’s films argue that, at least for a certain kind of person (i.e., victims of tragedy), meaning is only possible via self-deception. But why would this sort of self-deception necessarily be bad? Isn’t it possible that all meaning is an illusion, a product of self-deception? The meaning of words is an illusion: the scribbles on the page and the noises in the air don’t really mean anything apart from what we choose to tell ourselves they mean. Likewise the meaning of artworks is an illusion: the scribbles on the page aren’t really faces or whatever, unless we choose to tell ourselves that’s what they represent.
All linguistic and artistic meaning is a kind of collective dream. But these dreams can be good. They allow us to communicate and create beauty. The illusion of art makes it possible to create, as Cobb says in the film, “cathedrals” of the mind, works of beauty that “could never exist in the real world”. From this perspective, why not also think of the meaning of life could be a beautiful illusion or a good dream? Perhaps Nolan is suggesting that whether Cobb’s world is real or not, as long as it is beautiful and meaningful to him, then it is worth living.
On the other hand, Nolan is also aware that there is something in human nature that craves non-illusory meaning. We don’t want to think that our meaning might be self-created. That’s why Cobb’s self-created world couldn’t be meaningful for him and his wife. That’s why she had to hide away the spinning top which could signal her world’s falsity.
And, above all, that’s why Cobb’s self-deception has to be undetectable and the movie must be constructed so as to be perfectly undecidable. In order for Cobb’s world to be meaningful, we must never be able to know whether the spinning top is going to fall or not. But perhaps it shouldn’t matter one way or the other as long as the dream is beautiful.