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Metalepsis and Metaphysics

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Perhaps the most interesting recent venture to exploit the narratological model of metalepsis is Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception. Three distinct narrative levels ‘down’ (the van chase; the tilting hotel; the snow-fortress/hospital) are presented as dreams and dreams within dreams, with a fourth, limbo or unconstructed dream space, below that. Metalepsis becomes a ‘diegetic concept’1 within the movie (and is visually represented as a cartoonish machine that, complete with large button, enacts the metaleptic jump). The orchestrator of these embedded narratives is Cobb, together with the team he has assembled, and the plan is, at the instigation of a business rival Mr Saito, to insert an idea (breaking up his father’s business empire after his death) into the mind of Robert Fischer within these dreams in such a way that it will seem to have occurred spontaneously to him as the right thing to do (‘inception’ in the movie’s terminology). The narrative frame for these embedded dreams is a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, during which Cobb and his team have placed themselves and Fischer in an induced sleep. The movie ends on arrival in LA with the apparent success of Cobb’s plan, and with Cobb’s longed-for re-union with his children, but at this point Nolan introduces a metaphysical conundrum characteristic of his plots: as Cobb goes out into the garden to see his children, the camera focuses in on the spinning top which he has used as a ‘totem’ to ensure himself that he is not ‘within’ a dream. Before we know whether the top will fall, Nolan cuts to black, generating a trope for the moment metalepsis gives way to metaphysics. Is this level, to use a crude term, Cobb’s ‘reality’, or is he within a dream (his own or someone else’s)? One could happily discuss the metaleptic strategies of Inception at length, but this is not my plan; it is rather to accept the movie’s challenge to relate metalepsis and metaphysics. Cut to black. For many (though the crucial question may be: for most…or for all?) who inhabit the world of empirical experience, that world is not ‘reality’, which rather lies at one level removed. Thus they might see themselves as characters ‘within’ some grander plot. The locus classicus for this is of course Virgil’s Aeneid, and (as in Inception), metalepsis is a diegetic concept, troped as particular manifestations of narrative: in telling the story of Rome’s history and empire, the Virgilian narrator seeks to descry the master narrative of Fate or History, personified in the figure of Jupiter the narrator, and accessed by the human characters through various modes of supernatural revelation (dreams, prophecy, oracles). But one might also see this (as I have argued in Antiquity and the Meanings of Time [2013]) in providential (personified) or quasi-providential (non-personified) explanation, such as Augustine’s City of God, Marxism, or Fukuyama’s ‘end of History’; or the ‘Invisible Hand’ of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, or Hegel’s Reason. If these can be accounted ‘metaleptic’, what about the Platonic appeal to the world of the Forms? The Forms that even Socrates himself can do no more than ‘dream’ of (e.g. Republic 533b6-c3, but often elsewhere; a metaleptic trope that will come in for close analysis)? There is, of course, resistance to such appeals to a ‘higher’ reality: Lucretius represents Epicurus as rebelling against a religion that ‘stands over’ (super…instans, 1.65) humankind, and many would raise their eyes and stand up against equivalent modern ‘superstitions’ that similarly enjoin unthinking submission and obeisance (the Market of neo-liberal economics, perhaps, though examples from across the ideological spectrum could readily be multiplied). However, Lucretius no less appeals to another level of ‘reality’, in his case troped as ‘below’ (nec tellus obstat quin omnia dispiciantur/sub pedibus quaecumque infra per inane geruntur, 3.26-7), the unconstructed space of primordial atomic motion visible only in ‘the mind’s eye’2— an Epicurean idealism of matter equivalent to the Platonic idealism of form, and accessible only through an equivalent metaleptic jump. But this brings us to the metaphysical crunch-point: are all attempts at explanation or understanding metaleptic in this sense, appealing to another level of ‘reality’, another world that in some sense exists beyond what ‘appears’ to be the case? How many of us have never uttered words along the lines of ‘This is really all about such-and-such’, appealing that other ‘world’ (and perhaps oblivious of the tropes we use to access that world, or – Inception-wise – of ideas and concepts that have been historically ‘planted’ below our conscious awareness and strike us as being, just, ‘right’)? [1] This term taken from Miklós Kiss, ‘Narrative Metalepsis as Diegetic Concept in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010)’, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 5 (2012), 35-54. [2] For all their familiarity, Daryn Lehoux has recently reminded us how unusual Lucretius’s appeals to visualize the unseen world of atoms and void are in ancient philosophical discourse: ‘Seeing and Unseeing, Seen and Unseen’ in (eds) Lehoux, Morrison and Sharrock, Lucretius: Poetry, Philosophy, Science (Oxford, 2013), 131-52.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Classical Reception Seminar Series series.

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