I went to see Inception last night and, apart from being as good as everyone says it is, one thought struck me as I negotiated the complex layers of plot and subplot, of dreams within dreams: that psychology, and not science or religion, provides the universal mythology of our time.
Not that there was any doubt. The psyche and its contents, the ego and unconscious, are as real to us as Olympus and Hades were to the Ancient Greeks. We are so fluent with these concepts that the premise of Inception needs hardly any explanation in the script. We know how to access the unconscious – through dreams or imagination; where it is – downwards or below; what we’ll find down there – fathers, mothers, lovers, children – angels and demons all; and that redemption will be found if only we have the courage to open the scary bunker at the bottom of the basement.
Were it possible to whisk some great mind from the past to show them the film, some Dickens or Twain who could ride the culture shock of the intervening years with a curious glee, Inception would nevertheless make no sense to them whatsoever. We stand on the other side of an unbridgeable ontological shift. As W.H. Auden observed, we are all Freudians now.
Or are we? In keeping with one of the film’s themes – that of standing up to, and finding resolution with the father – it is the Jungian version that has the upper hand. Jung famously and irrevocably broke with his mentor, Freud, and like Fischer, the film’s unwitting protagonist, tore down his ‘father’s’ empire and rebuilt it afresh. In the process he saved the gods from science, and Freud, by giving them new life in the interiority of the self. It proved his masterstroke, and a gift to Hollywood.
Had they been given a special screening, these two rivals – there’s a biopic here, surely? – would have reacted quite differently. Jung, nodding sagely, would have greeted the film with that wry smile of his, safe in the knowledge that ‘his work here was done’. Freud would have stormed out in a rage.
For if the monster in the basement had turned out to be Freudian, Inception would have been as shocking as it is gripping. As the bogeyman’s bogeyman, Oedipus remains as horrific to us today as ever he was in those far off days before psychology reigned.