Saturday, August 07, 2010

Lord of the Subconscious

What Inception had over its peer Zeitgeist-defining films such as The Matrix and Avatar was that the camera tricks were for the most part in service to the film's guiding idea.  This idea was, in my opinion, a promising one that was at least technically realized.  I pity the jaded souls unable to be genuinely delighted by this film (or unable to at least admit that they were).  The film displayed a sort of imaginative virtuosity that merits sincere appreciation, even gratitude.

And yet, Inception's pop Dawkins ("memes" show up in the first minute) and hand-me-down Freud (daddy issues are the guiding theme) left much to be desired.  Which is to say, the film constructed the architecture of the subconscious, but seemed at a loss as to how to properly fill it.  The fine Times reviewer A.O. Scott grasped this, complaining that director Christopher Nolan did not give his characters "a rich enough inner life."  Yet the same reviewer suggests that such an enrichment might have been achieved with the unruliness of a more thoroughgoing Freudianism.  Not by a long shot.  We have more than enough cinematic ids already.

As he did for Avatar, C.S. Lewis anticipated the better components of Inception.  Not in the Space Trilogy, of course, but in The Great Divorce.   (The somewhat parallel themes of The Matrix, incidentally, were not anticipated by Lewis, seeing that they weren't worth anticipating.)  All this is to say, navigating the subconscious, and the hells we create therein, was a Christian theme long before it was a Freudian one, and Inception suffers from chronologically stunted conceptual poverty.  How much more interesting - indeed richer - might the film have been had Nolan gone beyond Borges to read Lewis' medievally-inspired limbo, some Augustinian depth psychology, or just some Dante.  We needed a Virgil or (even better) a Beatrice; we got an Ariadne instead.

Christian "apologetics" is not enough to respond to a film like Inception.  We might therefore put down Atheist Delusions for the time being (exquisite as it is), and pick up some different writers instead.  Don't get me wrong, it's not that hard Christian thinking is without pastoral function: As Ellen Charry has explained, it very much is.  But an aboriginal error of the Christian life is to think that an intellectual grasp of grace is tantamount to its experience.  Hence the seventh-century Maxiumus' maxim that "the purpose of theology is to safeguard against misunderstandings that frustrate a Christian life of prayer."

When it comes to Christian navigation of the subconscious, there's always the classics such as the not entirely user-friendly, and somewhat risky, Philokalia.  (When an Orthodox nun saw me with it one summer, she raised an eyebrow and commented, "We need a blessing to read that.")  More accessible in the contemporary sphere is Morton Kelsey who has long been cultivating Christian approaches to dreams and the general subconscious.  Nevertheless, I've found the less Jungian Jacques Philippe - a new Nouwen we might call him - to be a more consistently trustworthy guide. Philippe's writing are a needed antiserum for overeducated Christians (start with Time for God, though his best may be Interior Freedom).

Taking a cue from Inception, here is Philippe's answer to what should be contained in the safe of our deepest subconscious, and it's a truth that need not be guarded by the G.I. Joe snow crew:
This is why humility, spiritual poverty, is so precious: it locates our identity securely in the one place where it will be safe from all harm. If our treasure is in God, no one can take it from us.  Humility is truth.  I am what I am in God's eyes: a poor child who possesses absolutely nothing, who receives everything, infinitely loved and totally free.... Our treasure is not the kind that moths or worms can devour.  It is in heaven in God's hands.  It depends on God alone, his good will and unfailing goodness to us.  Our identity has its source in the creative love of God, who made us in his own image and destines us to live with him forever.
Such is the leaven, a.k.a. the gospel, that the Holy Spirit incepts in our deepest subconscious, one that leads to the freedom that permits real actions of disinterested love in physical reality that we - mercifully - do not create.  Paternal issues are of course important; but largely because they are an image of the far more determinative interrelation described by Philippe. Paraclete and Comforter have long been his.  But Lord of the Subconscious might be a twenty-first century name we should consider bestowing upon the Holy Spirit in light of the themes popularized by Inception.  Hell having been harrowed, the third person of the Trinity can effortlessly navigate the impossibly complex terrain of our own psyches (provided he is granted access). 

Please, by the way, spare me the eye-rolling for Christianizing Hollywood.  I paid close to $10 for the film and I'll do whatever I want with it, thank you.