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INTRODUCTIONA woman’s blood flows freely as she lies in the arms of her lover, she has been shot andfatally wounded. Her lover holds her without regret. He ignores the pain from the stab woundthat she is responsible for, a wound she inflicted to make him begin to feel again and toconvince him that everything is real. He has neither support nor love to offer. ‘I have to letyou go’ he whispers, presumably feeling an immense sense of relief as he watches her die.This scene stands as the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction/thriller, Inception(2010). As described here, it may not seem a likely parting between two lovers, but whenunderstood in the context of the lengthy dream state in which the film’s plot unfolds, it isgoverned by a different set of interpretive rules that makes its meaning lie far beneath whatmeets the eye.Inception’s plot inhabits the world of the unconscious and the dream state. When viewedthrough the perspective of psychoanalytic dream theory, it becomes possible to betterunderstand the intricate dynamics of the film. Sigmund Freud’s pioneering work on theworkings of the unconscious in relation to dream theory is still relevant today. His theoreticalwork on the unconscious psychological dynamics of what he calls ‘Dream Work’ proposesthat dreams are the product of the dreamer’s unconscious attempt to explore or come to termswith experiences, memories and repressed thoughts and emotions within the safe confines ofthe dream state. He theorised that ‘Dream Work’, which includes the concepts ofsymbolization, condensation, secondary revision and displacement, is a process by which therepressed or latent content of the dreamer’s unconscious mind is transformed into the manifestcontent of the dream.Inception (2010) resonates strongly with ‘Dream Work’ theory through its formal andthematic elements and is an excellent contemporary example of taking Freud’s theoriesfurther in a different medium. This paper critically analyses the film in terms of the basicunconscious psychological dynamics of ‘Dream Work’ to allow a greater understanding ofthese for a contemporary audience, and examines the possibility that Inception (2010)simultaneously points towards different possibilities of understanding unconscious motives.Looking closely at the thematic and formal characteristics of the film in terms of Freud’sconcepts, this study will in effect peel away the layers of shadowy, incoherent dream imagesto reveal the corresponding unconscious motives that drive the plot and its characters, while atthe same time exploring ways of expanding this dream theory that are suggested in the filmtext.1. DREAM WORKAccording to Freud’s (1920) foundational work on psychoanalysis, broadly speaking, thereare two levels at which the human mind operates, the conscious and the unconscious,although he differentiates among the unconscious, preconscious and conscious in TheInterpretation of Dreams of 1900. The conscious state, constantly drawing on thepreconscious, is that which is used to navigate daily and waking life and is characterised bythe employment of reasoning, thinking and logic. Within this waking life, human beingsencounter thoughts, emotions and experiences that they unconsciously refuse to deal with at aconscious level, because these thoughts have usually been repressed. Freud’s theory on dreaminterpretation suggests that these repressed, unconscious thoughts and feelings find an outletfor expression during the dream state when the ‘censorship’ of the conscious mind isweakened – a censoring function which he regards as being indispensable for individuals tobe able to concentrate on the demands of waking life. These latent thoughts are then translatedinto the manifest content of the dream, but not without passing through the censorship of themind, which results in the modification or ‘disguise’ of the latent material to be able to appear
as dream images of some kind. This censorship is what results in the absurdity and chaos thatcharacterise most dreams. However, Freud believed that dreams were ‘phenomena whoseabsurdity and incoherence disappear as soon as we know how to interpret them with the aid ofa suitable scientific method’ (Robert, 1966, 120). Based on this idea, Freud developed atheory of what is called ‘dream work’ to explain the processes that the unconscious mindundertakes in attempting to express the repressed thoughts of the dreamer in an acceptableand bearable manner. For this reason he calls dreams the ‘guardians of sleep’ (). The mainprocesses elaborated in this theory are ‘condensation’, ‘displacement’, ‘symbolization’ and‘secondary revision’(). Once an understanding of these processes has been attained, Freudstrongly believes that dream interpretation becomes possible.1.1 CondensationFreud (1920, 17) describes ‘condensation’ as the process by which the dreamer unconsciouslycombines several dream thoughts to produce a single image or symbol (the contents of thesecompressed thoughts can extend to objects, people or locations). However, because thisprocess remains an attempt to unify thoughts that are distressing in waking life and thereforerepressed into the unconscious, the symbols produced are often ‘of composite form, hybridsproduced by the fusion or the superimposition of completely dissimilar features’ (Freud,1920, 18). In order to render these symbols intelligible, Freud suggests that the dream analysisshould take into consideration that condensation always gives prominence to the commoncharacter of the combination: ‘the dream says simply: All these things have an ‘x’ incommon’ and clumps them together. This awareness makes the unpacking of merged images‘one of the fastest ways to an interpretation of [a] dream’. For instance, a young woman whofears an impending marriage due to the presence of overbearing male figures in her fiancé’sfamily may in her dream state, encounter a dominating figure that she cannot readily identify,but is able to attribute various personalities to. In this case the process of condensationfocuses on the common characteristic of dominance in the male figures she fears in herwaking life and clumps them together into a less recognizable figure. Dreams in whichcondensation happens are usually ‘brief, meagre and laconic in comparison with the range andwealth of the dream-thoughts [that drive them]’ (Freud, 1920, 18). Through condensationcertain parts of the dream content that are peculiar to the dream life alone, and which are notfound in the waking state are rendered explicable and can be interpreted through analysis.1.2 DisplacementThe process of ‘displacement’ is inextricably tied to strongly felt desires, thoughts andfeelings on the part of dreamers that are repressed in their waking lives. Although during thedream state the level of censorship is weakened, displacement continues to work to defend thedreamer from confronting disconcerting thoughts. The main result of displacement is that thesignificance placed on specific dream thoughts is reconfigured. This results in a scenariowhere ‘what was strong and important in the latent thought of the dream is transferred to aweak, insignificant object’ (Robert, 1996, 123) in its manifest content or what is mostimportant is completely removed from the action of the dream. Displacement shifts thedreamer’s attention from threatening impulses to more inconsequential images. For example,the composite male figure in our young woman’s dream may take up a great deal of focus;however Freud (1920) suggests that it is also necessary to mention those things that are notgiven as much attention and relegated to the peripheral areas of the dream. In this case, thedream content also provides the image of the young woman and her fiancé walking hand inhand through a field of luscious greenery. Taken at face value, the dreams meaning remainsobscure, however, if one uses the principle of displacement to analyse it, it is possible toproduce a relatively sound interpretation. Taking into consideration the fact that the woman
comes from a background of farming which uses an agricultural discourse, for her, greenerywould invariably symbolize money, wealth and prosperity. Based on this fact, it can be arguedthat the scene is relegated to the periphery of the dream setting because the woman is in factafraid of marrying her fiancé for fears that he will be incapable of providing for herfinancially. The focus on the dominant character of the male figure effectively displaces thewoman’s repressed belief in her fiancé’s weakness. Theory does suggest that in light of thework of displacement one can interpret it as one of the many methods of censorshipunconsciously used by the dreamer to retain stability. In as much as the process aims to retainemotional stability by such reversals of significance, it can also be held responsible for thecomparative chaos that consumes the dreamer during the dream state, and the absurdity of themanifest dream content.1.3 SymbolizationThe process of ‘symbolization’ consists of ‘replacing of objects, people and situations byimages likely to delineate them in a purely analogical fashion’ (Robert, 1996, 123). Signs,images and language or even nonsensical occurrences are utilised by the ‘dream work’ toexpress a wish or desire, betraying the censor by making the wish slightly more intelligible.The symbol is the most important element of ‘dream work’ as it provides the content for allthe other processes that it utilizes (displacement, secondary revision and condensation) andfor the environment in which these processes unfold. Symbolization does this by providingthe setting for the action of the dream. For example, this principle can be seen with the imageof the luscious greenery which symbolises a number of thoughts or desires. In this case thegreenery may symbolise not only money but the fiancé’s perceived lack of strength as well ashis inability to provide financially for this woman, further explaining the immense sense ofdread that she experiences throughout the dream. Looking at this example one must admit thatdreams can work with symbols of the ‘narrowest individual significance which an individualhas built up out of his own material’ (Freud, 1920, 34). In this case it is necessary to restrictthe dream interpretation to the specific case of the individual. However, dreams also make useof symbols generated in broader shared contexts, cultures and discourses. Further, based onour common humanity, we share almost intuitively, certain associations which enable us toform universally recognised symbols. For this reason, Freud (1920) took the liberty tointroduce explanations for particular symbols which he argued could be used for standardinterpretation of dreams without consulting dreamers about their own impressions of theirdreams. At the most general level, Freud (1920) suggests that standard interpretations can becollected and ‘there are symbols of universal circulation, found in all dreamers’ (Freud, 1920,34). For example, the symbol of the king and queen are viewed as representing the dreamer’sparents, symbols of a phallic nature were interpreted to represent repressed sexual desires, andthese included tall buildings and knives or daggers. For the purposes of this analysis it isnecessary to presuppose the existence of these common symbols.1.3.1 Secondary revisionSecondary revision is typically the final step of the ‘dream work’ process and involves thereconciliation of the fragmented action of the dream to produce a logical narrative thatconnects all the various parts together. Dreamers, who at this stage are awake, often use theelements of ‘non-contradiction’, ‘temporal sequence’ and ‘causality’ to interpret their dreams.These elements characterise the secondary processes of conscious thought. Secondaryrevision is the process through which the recognizable identity and meaning of the dream areformed and dreamers can either remove or add elements to maintain logic and stability. Uponwaking from her dream, our young woman may attempt to understand the action of herdream. In doing so she may add or remove information that she thinks will allow her to
produce a coherent account. It is through this secondary revision that she is able to drawmeaning from her dream. However, Freud (1920) also suggests that there are someindividuals who possess the ability to guide their dream life. These are people who remainaware of the fact that they are dreaming throughout the action of the dream and are thereforeable to control it to a large extent; such dreams have come to be known as ‘lucid dreams’.1.3.2 Wish fulfilmentFreud’s (1920) work suggests that the obscurity of dreams and ‘the discrepancy between themanifest dream content and the latent dream content merely shows that what is involved is thefulfilment of a disguised or a hidden or a repressed wish’ (Robert, 1960, 122). Wishfulfilment can also be seen as the attempts by the unconscious to resolve a conflict that theconscious mind cannot or refuses to resolve during its waking state. Information that is in theunconscious remains repressed and even though censorship is relaxed during a dream state,this information is not permitted to completely surface. It emerges instead through symbolslike the greenery in the woman’s dream. Freud asserts that even unpleasant dreams are a formof wish fulfilment as they allow dreamers to unconsciously confront and work through issuesthat are worrisome in their waking lives to get some degree of peace and satisfaction.1.3.3 Primary and secondary processThe primary process works within the unconscious state. It is an associative process thatworks with image-thinking. All the processes of dream work function on the level of theprimary process except for secondary revision. On the other hand, the secondary processworks at the level of the conscious state. It is a process that utilises logic, thinking andreasoning. It utilises language and is characterised by linked lines of argument.