The Greek word catharsis, heard in Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception, was unfamiliar to me. The authors I read usually translated it by purgation (same in French and English), or used other words to convey the idea. Nolan applies it to the relationship between Fischer (the “inception” target) and his father. Reading some reviews afterwards, I came upon Bishop Robert Barron’s YouTube commentary of Inception, where he dwells mostly on the spiritual Christian meaning of catharsis.

Bishop Barron says how he was taken aback by the “relentlessly secular” aspect of the movie, and the “mercenary purpose” of the “inception.” He then proceeds to describe the “old venerable spiritual practice” of Catholic contemplatives on their “inner journey to discover God.” This type of catharsis is quite expectedly absent from Nolan’s movie, as it is applicable to ascetic and mystic theology. The film author used the term rather in the second and third meanings, related to literature and psychology, respectively.

Four meanings

The first meaning of catharsis is medical, and retains its original Greek literal sense of bodily purgation in an attempt to cure an illness. A cathartic substance is a purgative one.

The second meaning, in classical literature, is the emotional release provided by an artistic or theatrical experience, such as a Greek tragedy. Maritain alluded to this in passing in his book Three Reformers, and quoted it as “the purgation of passions by tragedy.”

The classic metaphor probably mutated into the psychoanalytic contemporary meaning of liberation from repressed feelings and traumatic experiences. This third meaning is especially obvious in the movie when Nolan appends it with the word “reconciliation” while speaking of Fischer’s relationship with his father.

The spiritual, traditional Christian meaning of catharsis Bishop Barron spoke of is a fourth meaning. This is a technical theological term, thus not mentioned in general dictionaries. Bishop Barron’s example of the Christian traditional purgation of the soul practice is Merton’s book Firewatch.

Nolan’s characters speak of the third, psychological meaning, but the second applies also to the movie as a thought provoking drama, even if it ends rather well. The two men who die in the dream are successfully woken up, instead of being trapped in limbo for the rest of their life. And the spinning top begins to topple in the very last moment, meaning that Cobb is reunited with his children in the real world.

Fischer’s catharsis

The purpose of the “inception” (planting an idea) is to bring Fischer to see the relationship with his father in a better light, because “positive emotion always trumps negative emotion”, Cobb says. A positive idea is more likely to be adopted by the subject as his own. The “inceptors” hope that Fischer will then act in a way that he personally sees fit, which is to break up his father’s empire, instead of just trying to be an alter ego of his old man.

Implanting an idea in a person without him knowing is a crime more reprehensible in a way than killing, because it amounts to insidiously killing the soul. Moreover, this is for mercenary as well as illegal purposes: Saito, Fischer’s competitor, recruited and pays the team.

The probable result that Fischer will be happier in life if the inception succeeds (“We should charge Fischer more than Saito”, Eames says) may render the thing less repellent, but it is a troubling statement about the moral state of our society, where treating others like commodities is not abhorrent to so many people. Bishop Barron is perfectly right on this count in his negative analysis of the external story arc of Inception. Good intentions, circumstances or expected good consequences cannot change the intrinsic and objective value of a morally evil act; they can only affect its imputability, in some cases.

Dom Cobb’s catharsis

The external arc of Inception is obviously a crime in progress, but the external events are also a set for the main protagonist’s arc, which is precisely the dealing with the consequences of an inception that proved lethal in real life. The most important catharsis described in the movie is the one Cobb goes through. How is he to purge guilt and regret, and return to the sane, normal family life he desires in the real world? And what is real, what is illusory? Will he be able to tell the difference?

Steven D. Greydanus aptly called Cobb’s projection of his late wife, Mal, his “nightmare foe.” It is of note that in French, the mother tongue of both the character and the actress, “Mal” is the exact word for evil. The evil foe, then, asks Cobb: “You keep telling yourself what you know. But what do you believe? What do you feel?” Greydanus comments: “Mal is the part of Dom that would like to bury itself in feelings, to live forever in a dream.” Is this part of Dom’s subconscious right or wrong? In any case, “he is up against his own subconscious” and must find a way to confront his darkest dreams if he is to change things in real life. Ariadne, the youngest member of the team, will help him do that, in an effort to protect the others from the dangerous projections coming from Cobb, added to Fischer’s protective militarized projections.

Christian and missionary science-fiction?

If most Christians know nothing about spiritual catharsis, a science-fiction filmmaker who may not be a believer is not likely to allude to the theological understanding of the word, like Bishop Barron would have perhaps preferred.

On the other hand, ascribing a directly Christian meaning, and even a missionary intent to Nolan’s work, is a contrary exaggeration I have seen. Inception is a science-fiction movie, not a sermon. Even if the author was a Christian – which we do not know – attempting to give “inklings” of the faith, like Tolkien or Lewis, the last thing he would do would be preaching, as it would utterly defeat the purpose.

Christopher Nolan is a good writer, telling a well-crafted tale he worked on by periods over ten years. His tale is appealing to the yearning for love and family life, and the catharsis of psychological trauma. We can also read in Inception the descent of our society into unreality, as an ever-expanding number of people make some variety of limbo their reality. There is an unmistakable concern about keeping track of reality and not escaping in death, like Mal, or seeking a quasi-permanent dream state, like the customers of Yusuf the chemist. All this is a worthy moral and philosophical reflection, but not in itself a religious view, let alone a missionary agenda.