Totem and Taboo: A Movie Review

 

Christopher Nolan (2010) Inception

Warren Beatty (2016) Rules Don’t Apply

What do these two films have to do with the series of blogs on the nature of the university? More particularly, what do they have to do with the transformation of the university from a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method? The overall theme of the essays on the university focuses on power, influence and authority. In my last blog, I used the material from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to explicate his thesis of power, influence and authority when offering a structural analysis of the Book of Exodus.

In his account, Sacks made reference to Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo to insist that in the chiasmic pattern linking the design of the sanctuary with the construction of the sanctuary in Exodus, the story of the Golden Calf was the pivot point. Most importantly, the story of the Golden Calf was not about idolatry, but about the longing for an absent father and, out of this longing, giving one’s allegiance to a tyrant as a substitute. As the reader will see, on this subject, I take a traditionalist stance and argue that the story of the Golden Calf is indeed about idolatry, is about taking a material valuable entity as a substitute for a spiritual entity.

Are the two interpretations mutually exclusive? I will return to answer that question, but I first want to show the link to the two films. I did not choose to watch these films specifically on Saturday night. Inception was just what was on TV when I entered the den. Rules Don’t Apply followed, so I stayed to watch that film as well. As it happens, a dominant plot element in each was about an absent father. A key prop in Inception was explicitly a totem. It is a wonder how serendipity can play a part in the understanding and explication of a position.

In Freud, a totem is a primeval prohibition as well as a protection. In contrast to Inception, a totem for Freud is not self-generated, but is chosen by another or adopted by a whole tribe. The source is characterized as an authentic authority. The totem protects the individual from his or her most powerful longings, but the desire to violate persists in the subconscious. Thus, the totem is both a prohibition against surrendering to temptation and committing a transgression, and a protector that provides boundary conditions.

In both films, at the centre of the plot is a key character who suffers considerably from his relationship with his father. In Inception, he is the son of a very rich man who recently died; the young man is in the process of inheriting the old man’s extensive corporate holdings. This is a psychological heist movie in which a usual heist team, each member with complementary skills, gets together, this time not to rob a physical safe, but a psychological one. The team plans to invade the subconscious of the young heir and influence him to believe that, on his own, he must dismantle his father’s holdings. That will serve the interests of a rival tycoon who hired the heist team because they have developed the techniques for getting inside the safe of memories of an individual in order to manipulate those memories and, thereby, control his mind.

In Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty plays Howard Hughes who is obsessed, not with rosebud (Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, 1941), but with his father, with ensuring the Hughes name is preserved on his father’s company which he inherited, just as bankers and shareholders of TCA close in on him as an eccentric incapable of managing a huge company. A subsequent psychological post-mortem argued that he was not so much driven to his madness by that obsession, but that his anxiety and retreat into isolation were yhe result of a very over-protective mother obsessed with the cleanliness of her child and protecting him from polio. The father is gone. Inception picks up the same theme. Powerful fathers who are absent from the films nevertheless play dominating roles.

Neither plot worked to support Jonathan Sack’s thesis about choosing tyrants to rule over you as a substitute for the longed-for father. In Inception, the son remains under the thumb of his father. The whole effort to “capture his mind” was to plant an idea that will hopefully dominate his conscious life that he needs to free himself from his father at the same time as he remains true to his father. This is to be accomplished by implanting the idea that the father was not disappointed in his son for failing to emerge as a strong leader in the mold of his father, but for failing to emerge as an independent thinker and doer who would not be under the thumb of anyone. With such a new mindset, instead of clinging to the assets he inherited as a way to cling to his father who showed him no affection as a child, he would dissolve the corporate assets to free himself and become an independent man.

Cutting across this theme is another father-child story, that of the role of the leader of the heist team, Cobb, who has mastered the art of penetrating a third level of depth to the unconscious. However, Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the absent father. He has been cut off from contact with his children as part of his mind remains stuck in the underworld of the unconscious attached and obsessed with his wife and mother of his children whom he used as an experiment to explore the very great depth of the subconscious, but in the experiment was unable to return to earth. Guilt submerges him. The only route back to his children is by going back, both to regain access to the United States, the government of which suspects that he killed his wife, and his children.

According to that narrative, guilt can operate in multiple dimensions and in different directions just as time and experience can. The key always to preserving one’s sanity is by possession of a totem, in this case, a dreidl, a spinning top, that can be grasped and used to prevent being sucked totally into the vortex of the subconscious and to test whether you are in the real world or a world of dreams. In “primitive” societies, a totem defines the perimeter of the tribe and identification with it ensures the protection of the member. In Nolan’s film, the threat is not simply another tribe, but an extinguishing of any spatial and temporal reference points altogether. The totem becomes the the protective marker of a boundary which guards the spirit of the tribe, this time, of the whole human species.

In Beatty’s film, the totem is not explicit, but it is Howard Hughes who serves as the substitute father figure for both Maria Mabrey, a devour Baptist aspiring starlet played by Lily Collins, and her unconsummated knight, Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich, another repressed Protestant type. Both are in thrall to Harold Hughes. He dictates that there is to be no sexual involvement of his employees. Both are tied to Hughes as the god who will deliver them into stardom or magnificent wealth as an entrepreneur. They reveal themselves to be both consecrated by Hughes but also dangerously passionate about one another. Hughes in the end is right. He does not simply have an obsession with cleanliness and a fear of being defiled. Pollution lurks everywhere.

Both films are about power and the use of wealth, of material influence, to affect the behaviour of others. Power as creative energy, as enterprise and innovation, is expressed through the heist team and particularly the DiCaprio character, who in scene after scene must fight off the apparitions of Cobb’s subconscious who are determined to kill the members of the heist team. Coercive power is used as a defence, but the core tool of the offence is influence, to gain control over the mind, not through drugs, but by entering the subconscious of the other. This is not influence via information, analysis and education. But neither is it simply about tyrannical coercive power, though that is a necessary ingredient in the mix.

The Golden Calf as both a real phenomenon and an idol that dominates the imagination and character identity to promise freedom to and deliver someone from bondage and slavery to a subconscious tyrant, in this case, a father, who controls behaviour even from the grave and reduces the heir to a puppet rather than an independent autonomous being. Warren Beatty’s Citizen Kane as Howard Hughes never achieves that freedom, even though his life appeared to be that of a star lighting up the heavens as it crossed the sky and burnt itself up in the quest for free expression.

The casting couch is not portrayed in Rules Don’t Apply as a fly trap but as a prison of the woman’s own imagination – in this case, a star-struck deeply Christian young lady – driven subconsciously by her own desires to be a star in the firmament.  And for her forlorn lover and satrap of Howard Hughes, it is much more clearly a dream of becoming the author of his own initiatives in wealth accumulation. Tyranny in the case of both films is more a problem of self-identity than one of external coercion, but the desire, the longing, is not narrowly cast as a pursuit simply for a substitute father. The problem in Inception is about cognitive dissonance, is about what is real and what is a product of one’s own imagination, is about what others should be held accountable for and what is your own responsibility. As in Exodus, freedom is only attained when you actually break free and construct your own sanctuary.

In both films, God is a visible absence. There is no source of divine authority, no source of authentic being, except, and in both films, the love of a parent for a child. That is the ultimate source of authenticity. This is the repeated pattern of the tale told in Genesis about the family rather than the making of nation in Exodus. The error in Inception is that DiCaprio left his children behind, not to climb to the peak of a mountain, but to get to the valley of the third level of the subconscious on the ocean floor. The route to freedom in this film is about self-making and freeing oneself from irrational ties – father, mother, wife – in order to bond with a child. It is a Rousseau fantasy. The issue is not so much freeing oneself from a father-figure who protects, guides and supports, as becoming a father figure who protects, guides and supports.

Becoming a settled nation with boundaries, with recognized authorities and rules, requires leaving behind the nomadic life, whether that roaming takes place in the heavens above, as in the case of Howard Hughes as a pilot, or in the subconsciousness of other lives. And that means accepting responsibility for accumulating wealth without succumbing to the worship of it. In the pastoral world, yearning and desire offer fatal attractions that lead to war and violence. The object is to construct an alternative settled world in which roaming will take place in the imagination and in intellectual inquiry rather than in a quest for riches.

The job of the university is to help facilitate that process. So why must it change all the time, change the idea behind it so that the idea itself creeps in to control the mind and prevent precisely what its purpose was intended to fulfil? Why must humans return to converting a rich and flowering institution into the fatal attraction of the nomad for the consolation of a desert? What lies behind the compulsion for self-destruction and all in the name of re-creation and renewal? How and why do the horizon-struck dreamers, whether in the arts or Hollywood, whether into the unconscious or nature, end up turning the rich life of a jungle into an arid place for both the mind and body?  Where and how does the parting of the waters lead to the construction of a Golden Calf, a treasured inert object without an ounce of spiritual creativity?

In the Torah, how do the Israelites overcome the heroic world of pastoral nomads to seek an oasis in a city of stone like Jerusalem (or Amman)? How did the Israelites, transformed by forty years of desert life from slaves into alert warriors with the endurance of camels, with wells of courage, loyalty, and openness both to strangers and to new ideas at the same time, become a nation that builds walls of stone within which they find a sanctuary? What role did the portable sanctuary of the desert play in that transition?

That is the key question. The university reinvents itself as a sanctuary, transforms itself from one type of sanctuary into another, only to eventually destroy its own walls. Why? And how? Why was it necessary for the university to leave faith behind so that both faculty and students are left bereft, feel it, but largely do not recognize what they feel? Is civilization necessarily intertwined with discontent and can salvation only come from an escape from hidebound institutions and well-defined roles to return to the clean air of the desert with waters lapping on an unseen shore?

Certainly, many of the prophets believed that corruption came with civilization and all effort must be made to engage in intellectual and imaginative nomadism where rules do not apply and the power of fire guides one towards the promised land which, when reached, has already revealed itself as a betrayal of its vision of clean air and an austere landscape guided on its path by a pillar of fire to an austere desert. Has the university waxed fat and gone a whoring as Hosea declared?

Settlers are governed by rules and laws as are universities that prepare people to live in a civilized culture. But the latest rebellion is all around. The people want to worship at the feet of a Golden Calf, even those strongly rooted in a religious tradition and, perhaps even more so, for they want to return to a world of faith rather than one grounded in scepticism, forgetting that the desert world is a place of discord and feuds rather than an imaginary place of magnificent calm at one with the peace of God.

 

To be continued: From the Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method

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