What is the distinction between dream and reality? This question, which goes back to far before Descartes, is brought to our attention by the movie Inception. In this movie, the first ‘reality’ we see turns out to be the deepest level of a dream, and the whole story revolves around the question how we can tell which is which.
Dreams are private, so one theory goes, and reality is common to all; moreover, dreams are irrational and outside of our control, unlike reality. I have tried to find adherents of this theory to engage them in dialogue, but they were in Yusuf’s basement, busy constructing a shared dream. Their custodian asked me, ‘Who are you to tell them what is real?’ And Eames said, ‘It’s all the flow of information, darling, just like the real world.’
Perhaps there is a flaw in the idea that dreams and reality are like two different houses, so that you are either in one or in the other. On the contrary: when I am in a dream, I am still in reality, or I would have to go out of existence. Moreover, not only the dreamer but also the dream is real (it’s a real dream). In a dream we may see places, people or events which we have seen or will see when awake. And even the more whimsical dreams can express real desires or traumas.
In reverse: people can live in a dream world while being thoroughly awake and caffeinated. Like the dictator who believes the people love him – or the people who believe they love the dictator, while actually loving a shadow and a dream, an image and idol of their own making. This occurs not only in dictatorships. We may have wide-eyed dreams of being respected, skilled, right, or even of being a no-nonsense, down-to-earth kind of person.
Yet there is a distinction between dream and reality; we know this through the experience of waking up. In waking up, we discover that our dreaming imagination was unconscious of that which enabled it: human brains in a sleeping body with senses made for the outside world, and all sorts of previous impressions.
The ancient Greeks called reality en-ergeia, ‘in-working’, that which determines what a being is and does. Energeia admits of degrees: one being is capable of more than another precisely because it is more, because it has a deeper reality. Thus, a human has a deeper energeia than his shadow or dream, which are completely dependent on him. These are unreal when compared to humans, but yet have their own reality. Their existence indicates the presence and activity of a higher or deeper existence. Think of people running away from a shadow, not because they fear the shadow but the presence it points to. Similarly, dreams can move armies (Iliad), create royal stewards (Genesis), confirm marriage plans (Gospel of St. Matthew), or cause conversion (Le prix à payer). Dreams can be at the basis of therapies, poems, philosophies and stories. And movies.
In all these cases, a single person’s dream impacts the lives of many. In Inception, however, the dream is consciously constructed by a team of people. It very carefully distorts reality to make the dreamer see it differently. Is such shared dreaming possible?
Let us first ask another question: how real are the makers of the dream, busy with planning, escaping and realizing their desires? According to Mal, they themselves are dream images; real reality, the energeia forming the dream, would be a higher plane of existence. In that case, the dreamers themselves would be the dreamed. But who could be their dreamer? I have come across a number of theories, suggesting Dom Cobb, Mal, Saito, Ariadne…but the possibility that immediately seemed obvious to me is that Inception is a ‘dream’ of Christopher Nolan, the director. He is using a screen as his dream machine to suck us in.
1) Dreams in Inception have been carefully constructed by one or multiple human minds.
2) People from outside the dream, who know the design, participate in it.
3) Dreams are not copies of reality, but neither are they detached from it.
4) Dreams can even cause actions in the real world, like splitting a business or suicide.
5) Dreams are not pure technology: even the most experienced dreamer cannot prevent his desires, doubts and guilt feelings from intruding, because his mind creates the dream.
1’) Inception has been carefully constructed by script writers, the makers of the set, etc.
2’) Actors who know the plot become characters in the movie.
3’) We can relate Inception to our own experience, despite the imaginary elements.
4’) Inception can cause blogposts. It really can.
5’) (I’ll leave this for Christopher Nolan.)
So the dreams within Inception tell us something about Inception itself as a work of art. The possibility of levels within a dream may alert us to the fact that characters like Arthur and Dom only sleep and wake within the dream Nolan has shared with us. Nolan is thus much more real than they are, for he is as real as all of us.
Which means what exactly?
If there are gradations in reality, who guarantees that the world in which Nolan lives and moves – our world – is not a dream world in comparison to a world on a higher plane of reality? Are we dreamed and dreaming, artists and artworks both? A pragmatist would consider this question unanswerable and irrelevant. Yet its irrelevance is not self-evident. As the discovery of various sources of energy has been highly conducive to human welfare, so the discovery of a higher energeia or reality at the basis of our world might be similarly beneficial. As for its unanswerability: well, here is an attempt to answer it reasonably.
Limbo City is dependent on Dom Cobb, yet Dom, in constructing it, depended on his own experiences and memories, things he had not invented; thus Dom cannot be the highest reality. Dom is dependent on Nolan, but Nolan himself depended on experiences, filming apparatus, actors, crewmen, things and people he had not thought up; thus Nolan is not the highest reality. Neither are we.
We have not invented the world, nor has the world invented us. Still we coexist in interaction with each other: let us say, on the same narrative level. Therefore, there must be a higher reality or energeia, a ‘greater realness’ which has invented our composite world as one story. The material components of our world could no more create the unity and coherence of our world than a DVD could produce a movie; matter, like a DVD, is a carrier of information. But who provides the information? Only a mind could do that. There must be a thinker more real than our world put together, because our whole world exists in his mind; that is to say, we are like a dream image of his. We may be real, but only with our own degree of reality, like the characters we invent.
The most real reality lies higher (or deeper). More could be said: Inception shows us that lower levels depend on higher levels for their content. Limbo City contains many elements from Dom’s normal surroundings; these in turn are derived from Nolan’s world. Since our reality is a composite whole, we deduced that it must depend on yet another. Yet this chain of dependence cannot stretch back indefinitely: if there is no first provider of information, nothing will ever be given form. But this means that the first ‘informer’ cannot live in a world with other things, previously formed, which could shape his mind. He does not live on the highest level – the highest level is simply who he is. He does not live in a world; the worlds live in him. The most real being is a master of dreams.
No doubt these are abstract speculations – ‘abstract’ meaning ‘drawn out’ and a ‘speculation’ something seen in a specula, a mirror: that is, a coloured shadow. Yet the highest reality cannot be so thin and tenuous. After all, all the inspiration for all things in all worlds comes from him: all beauty in our world, all height, depth, power, profundity and worth will have to be present in this form-giver, this super-energeia, though in a more real and vivid way than we encounter them. Which makes the highest form-giver simultaneously the top model, delightful and lovable. A certain Aurelius (not the Stoic emperor) sought to put this into words:
‘Not material beauty or beauty of a temporal order; not the brilliance of earthly light, so welcome to our eyes; not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace … And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace: but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away by the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfilment of desire. This is what I love…’