What’s Christopher Nolan’s new movie Inception about? As a piece of science fiction, Inception sets forth its own laws governing the nature of dreams, and dreams in the movie conform to the movie’s laws, not those uncovered by Sigmund Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams. (Spoilers ahead, of course.) There are touches where Nolan’s dreams correspond in nature to those described by Freud and experienced by all people nightly. When, for example, the dream-chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) has one glass of champagne too many just before going under, the dream extractors who enter his dream find themselves rained upon, thanks to the pressure on the sleeping Yusuf’s bladder. (A dream “with a urinary stimulus may lead [the dreamer] to a foaming stream,” Freud comments, in what might be considered a parallel passage.) Similarly, when the van containing the dreaming Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) swerves, gravity in Arthur’s dream of a hotel shifts sideways. As “the guardians of sleep,” Freud writes, dreams often try to explain away sensations that manage to impinge on the dreamer’s consciousness.
In a number of important ways, however, Nolan’s dreams are unlike actual dreams. A real dream, of course, can’t be shared while it is being experienced, though that may be chalked up to the movie’s poetic license. More important, in a real dream, problem-solving is impossible; there are usually jump-cuts far more Godardian than anything attempted by Nolan; spacetime is much more fungible, if not irrelevant; and crucially, there is a wish, or rather, a congeries of wishes, governing the structure of the dream.
In Nolan’s movie, the arch dream-thief Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) warns Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young dream architect that he has recruited, never to construct her dreams from personal memories, lest she lose track of the distinction between dreams and reality. In Freud’s understanding, though, dreams are made of nothing but personal memories, and a dreamer always knows that he is dreaming, even though that awareness may not always be a part of the dream. (That sounds more mystifying than it is. Another way to explain it: it’s only because what’s going on in the mind is a dream that the managerial part of consciousness allows something so disorganized to happen at all.) Cobb further warns Ariadne that beneath all the layers of constructed dreams lies what he calls limbo—the raw unconscious—where a person could become lost and spend an eternity. Freud, too, thought of the unconscious as existing at the deepest layer of a person’s mind, and he, too, thought it had an eternal character (“In the unconscious nothing can be brought to an end, nothing is past or forgotten”), but Freud believed that every dreamer dropped into exactly such a limbo nightly. The intricacy of Nolan’s action sequences depends on his notion that dreams within dreams exist on separate physical levels and are structurally fragile ways to go deeper into a person’s mind. Freud, however, considered a dream within a dream to be no more than semantic shorthand. He thought a dream within a dream worked more or less the way a double negative does:
To include something in a “dream within a dream” is . . . equivalent to wishing that the thing described as a dream had never happened. In other words, if a particular event is inserted into a dream as a dream by the dream-work itself, this implies the most decided confirmation of the reality of the event—the strongest affirmation of it.