Inception: The Art of Paying Attention in Books and Film

By Debra Dean Murphy 07-26-2010

I've been reading Paul Harding's debut novel, Tinkers, which was this year's surprise Pulitzer Prize winner. It's a modest tome -- slim of build, light in the hand. Numerous agents and editors rejected it early on as too "slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet." They may have also resisted the book's prosaic subject matter: a dying man, in a hallucinogenic haze, recalls his own father -- an itinerant peddler of household wares in the backwoods of Maine.

In telling the stories of George and Howard, Harding explores memory, desire, dreams, and time. George was a repairer of clocks. Now dying, he's unbound by time as he drifts in and out of the present and past, in and out of consciousness and lucidity. Howard suffered from epilepsy, and Harding's prose crackles as he describes the "cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure."

Tinkers is the kind of book that requires a deep attentiveness, something the reader is happy to give because the book itself is about paying attention -- to the arc of a human life and to the intricate workings -- gear ratios, pistons, and pinions -- of a Viennese regulator or a carriage clock. It's a book about craftsmanship (how to build a timepiece or fix kitchen pots) that is itself an exemplar of fine craftsmanship.

Earlier this week I saw Christopher Nolan's new film Inception. In many ways it is the antithesis of Tinkers: an action-packed thriller with enough explosions, gunfire, and car chases to easily earn admission to the summer blockbuster boys' club. Leonardo DiCaprio plays an international thief whose specialty is extracting valuable secrets from the sedative-induced dreamworlds of important people. (The new millennium's white-collar thievery: stealing from the subconscious).

There's a surface similarity between Inception and DiCaprio's last film, Shutter Island. Both create worlds within worlds that are not as they seem; both center on troubled men and their even more troubled wives. Both fit easily into the category of science fiction, though, in the case of Inception, the hip, new term "speculative fiction" seems more appropriate.

But for all the cinematic hijinks, Nolan's film ultimately is a meditation on memory, desire, dreams, and time. It's a profoundly human drama. Whatever science can or cannot tell us about the deep subconscious, we are wired for love and relationship, and we are haunted when we fail at these most basic human endeavors.

Like Harding's beautiful book, Inception demands sustained attentiveness. As AKMA Adam wrote in an insightful blog post earlier this week: "I don't remember the last film I saw that made me work as hard as Inception to keep on top of what was going on around me." Also like Tinkers, Nolan's film requires attentiveness because it's a movie about paying attention -- to the complexities of memory and desire; to the mysteries of our dreams; to what we can and can never know about our deepest selves.

What might be some of the theological implications of all this? Without forcing any tidy comparisons between religion and art, I think it can at least be said that the life of faith -- of worship and discipleship, of theology and witness -- is a sustained effort in paying attention: to words, to beauty, to ugliness for that matter, to everything around us.

Paying attention makes liturgy possible; it grounds social critique; it is the source of praise and gratitude; it legitimizes despair and doubt. But a dying Christendom is so busy trying to save itself with marketing strategies and capital campaigns and church-growth initiatives that it has lost the skill and art of paying attention, of seeing such work, in fact, as central to the Church's mission in the world.

Nor do we seem to know how to invite others into a life of sustained attentiveness where there's no glamor, no instant gratification, but where -- by divine grace -- we remember who we are and what we want; that is, where memory and desire are transformed and chronos time is redeemed by kairos time.

A quiet work of fiction and a Hollywood blockbuster have given us a glimpse of the art of paying attention. Do we have eyes to see?

Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.

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