[I haven't had a chance to see Interstellar yet, but Nolan's work has always interested me, and I'm reposting a piece I wrote in 2010 about Tarkovski's Solaris, his response to Kubrick's 2001, which I saw for the first time around the time I first saw Nolan's Inception. I think the post makes sense even if you haven't seen either film. I'm posting it now because it relates to what I wrote "Sacramental Semiotics", and sets up a post I'll probably be writing about Interstellar. Wormhole as metaphor? ]
In the past week I've watched both Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris and Christopher Nolan's Inception. Both in very different ways try to grapple with the question: What is the human unconscious? First, a little riff on that question, and then maybe I'll get around to the movies.
We all heard when we were children that that the human brain is underutilized, that we humans are using only a minuscule percentage of its potential. I remember when I first heard that as a kid I thought that if I could just figure out how to increase capacity a little I could get my math homework done more quickly--I thought about it in terms of IQ and as having underutilized content. Later I wondered what it would mean to have !00% utilization, and I believe now that there is no 100%, that the brain has no content that can be measured in terms of whether it is being well or underused.
It is, rather, a mirror-like tool developed for human use so that Nature might become self-aware. But a mirror has no capacity of its own; it's empty and its value lies in its being in good working order: clear and clean rather than cracked, dirty, and warped. Its content is completely dependent on what comes into view. And when the brain is the mirror what comes into view is potentially limitless because it emerges out of the human unconscious, and the human unconscious is a fathomless, limitless, transpersonal sea of possibility. There are dimensions of the Real of which we are unconscious, but that doesn't mean that they don't exist, only that our awareness of them lies outside the current "consensus reality" or social imaginary.
Carl Jung's understanding of the collective unconscious comes close to what I'm talking about here, but Jung suffered from what Owen Barfield called RUP--Residue of Unresolved Positivism. [Peirce, Heidegger, Barfield are better, if less accessible, guides for our thinking about this.]
So when people talk about how we humans use only a small capacity of our brains, I think they really mean to say that we humans are only conscious of a small percentage of the Real, that most of reality is hidden from us--because it is unconscious. But the task is not to use more of the brain's capacity, but rather to find ways of bringing into awareness that which is now outside of it, because submerged in the limitless sea of unconsciousness. If we find ways to bring it out from where it is hidden, the brain as mirror will see it, remember it, and give the viewer something to think about and make sense of. "Making sense" means making it fit within the frame of the existing social imaginary, or if it doesn't fit, expanding the social imaginary to accommodate the new 'data'. Science is certainly one area where this deepening of awareness is the task, but so is art and spiritual practice.
Owen Barfield in Saving the Appearances says that all Nature is the human unconscious. In other words, it's wrong to think of the Unconscious as yours or mine--its ours; we are all swimming in it, and we are all connected in it. But in the same way that childhood memories are forgotten or repressed, in the same way we cannot bring those forgotten experiences into awareness at will, so too are we unable to bring into felt awareness our connection to the Real beyond the husks that is Natura.
We experience, if we are true moderns and postmoderns, mostly our being cut off from it. We think we are over here and that nature and other people are over there because we have forgotten how we all emerged out of this deep network of interconnection. Our embeddeness in that deep network is a repressed memory. And every once in a while we might have an experience, a moment of recall, so to speak, and we feel that we understand something we once took for granted, but because it is so out of tune with the way everyone thinks and behaves around us, we soon forget what we've remembered and reabsorb into the surrounding social imaginary.
Holding on to the memory is the main discipline in what I think of as 'faith'. Having these moments of recall are moments of grace, and everything depends on whether they are taken seriously and remembered, whether they are seed moments that fall on fertile ground or fall on ground that is barren or where it is trampled under foot.
Of the two movies, Solaris interests me more. And there is more to be said about it than I have the energy to write about it right now--I think I need also to watch it again. But it was developed by Tarkovsky as a response to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think the biggest difference in their respective mythic imaginations lies in that for Tarkovsky reality, the part of it that we have "forgotten", is at its root interpersonal. The Kubrick vision of the Star Child and of Bowman's Odyssesy is suffocatingly disconnected and isolating. They mythic grandeur and ambitions of Kubrick's film are admirable, but it is still very much the product of an imagination that is circumscribed by RUP. Tarkovsky was working in another, very different neighborhood. I'll leave it there for now, but someday I want to come back to that. Or in comments if anybody wants to explore that angle.
And Inception interests me more about what it has to say about our conscious world than what it says about our unconscious. This film isn't about exploring an unconscious dream world; it depicts more an imperial colonization of the unconscious by the conscious. It's not about discovering and entering into a relationship with what's there, but rather a pushing back, as the white man pushed back the Indian, and imposing its old-world structures and habits of thinking in this strange and unfamiliar new world.
And that's fine for the purposes of the movie. Because isn't the real point that what we think of as the real world is pretty much the same kind of construct as the dream worlds? Isn't the ending with the top spinning meant to suggest that it's not clear whether Cobb is still in a dream world even though he thinks he's in the real world? And isn't the point then that what we take for real, really isn't, that it's just as much a construct and just as much a prison as the so-called Limbos? This story tells us nothing about the unconscious and its mysteries, only about the ephemeral, fundamentally unstable nature of what we take to be conscious reality, or the so-called "real world".
But I find Nolan's fascination with the role of memory in this movie--as well in his earlier Memento--as interesting and important, and explored in ways that need more exposition than I can do now and here. But the takeaway for now is that remembering, correct memory, is one of the most important things we can do that connects us to the Real, and that improving our capacity for remembering is a critically important spiritual discipline. We are our memories, and the quality of who we are in large part depends on the quality of what we remember.