Inception and its Inspirations: Escher, Dali and Yoga Vasistha

Written by  //  February 2, 2011  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  22 Comments

‘He stole the idea from my subconscious.’ Just the sort of proposition you would have expected on the lips of a character from Inception. These words, however, are the legendary artist Salvador Dali’s; and he uttered them in all seriousness midway through the 1936 premiere of Joseph Cornell’s experimental film Rose Hobart while his hands were busy vandalizing the projector. Dali sincerely believed that he had conceived the whole of Rose Hobart down to the last detail- all in his head- but never committed it to script or discussed it with anyone; and that Cornell invaded his subconscious and stole the idea.  Never before or since has the claim of invading the subconscious and stealing an idea been made either in life or fiction, until Inception. The idea of ‘invading the subconscious’ isn’t the only connection between Salvador Dali and Inception.  Some of the themes in Inception are so evidently inspired by Dali, particularly his painting, ‘Flight of a bee’, that it comes to me as a surprise that the link between two has been hardly touched upon by commentators and critics. Whatever discussion there is invoking Dali and Inception in the same breath restricts itself to general observations of the commonality of an abstract theme: surrealism. While Dali, of course, looms large over the film, there are two other sources that Inception has been inspired by: M.C. Escher, the Dutch artist and master of illusions and Yoga Vasistha, an ancient Indian philosophical text discussing the nature of reality and illusions.

M.C. Escher

Escher was the most ostensible of Inception’s inspirations. Escher was a master of illusion. Most of his works on first glance look straightforward, but on closer inspection they reveal a deep paradox, depicting concepts that are logically and physically impossible. Escher played and twisted with notions of dimensions and space creating impossibly paradoxical, mind boggling works of art. In his Pulitzer winning Godel, Escher and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid  , Douglas Hofstadter says about Escher’s art:

‘…the viewer cannot help getting caught up in Escher’s implied chain of levels, in which for any level there is always another level of greater reality; and likewise there is always a level below ‘more imaginary’ than it is. This can be mind boggling in itself. However, what happens if the chains of levels is not linear but forms a loop?  What is real then and what is fantasy?’

Inception wears Escher’s influence on its sleeve. Scenes from the movie have been picked straight out of Escher’s works with little or no change. Let’s take a look at two sketches: ‘Relativity’ and ‘Ascending Descending’ and see how they recur in Inception.

In ‘Ascending and Descending’ (top figure) the outer ring of monks are all seen ascending a loop of stairs and the inner ring of monks are all seen descending the loop. The monks traverse the same steps, but no matter how many loops they complete they end up back at the beginning, and the journey repeats itself. Regardless of whether they ascend or descend, the monks tread the same ground, ad infinitum. But how could there be a closed loop of stairs all going upwards or downwards? The very thought is paradoxical. The idea was originally that of Roger Penrose a British Mathematician (1958) and hence the loop of stairs is also commonly known as the Penrose stairs. The Penrose stairs is seen twice in Inception.  We first get to see it when Arthur takes Ariadne on a tour introducing her to possible architectural models, right after she is inducted in their team. They are seen climbing the Penrose stairs which appear to be paradoxically, all ascending in a closed loop. Arthur also reveals how the paradox of the stairs is ‘dissolved’. If you want know how the paradox behind the Penrose stairs is ‘dissolved’ look here. Interestingly, Arthur also reveals the same solution.

In ‘Relativity’ (bottom figure) Escher plays with our orientation of dimensions. We just cannot be sure where the ground is and where the sky is. The feet of the characters in ‘Relativity’ could well be planted in the sky but one man’s sky is the other man’s ground: another paradoxical thought. ‘Relativity’ is portrayed extensively in a succession of scenes in which Cobb introduces Ariadne to the basics of creating architecture for a dream. When they are walking the streets of Paris, the ground folds up, and becomes the sky. Buildings are seen inverted. Roads with cars running on them are seen in the sky. When Cobb and Ariadne begin walking, they climb up vertical roads and walk just as they would on the ground, just like the characters from ‘Relativity’. So deep is the influence of ‘Relativity’ on Inception that even its promotional posters were influenced by it. See the poster of Inception at the top of the page.

Salvador Dali

Dali was a master of surrealist art and explored a number of metaphysical and psychological themes; but none more admirably than dreams.  Dreams were Dali’s favourite subject and his paintings revealed his fascination with them. As Dali never used drugs like LSD, he had to completely rely on dreams for inspiration. With practice, he learnt to dream lucidly and was able to stay in the hypnologic state between waking and dreaming. He was also a well-read follower of Sigmund Freud and was inspired by his works on dreams.

The one work of Dali that plays out repeatedly throughout Inception is ‘Flight of a Bee’. Unlike  Escher’s patent influence on Inception , Dali’s influence, is latent, even subtle, though no less significant than Escher’s.

“Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Awakening” (1944),

This painting represents how an event which causes us to wake up in the ‘real’ world appears to us in our dream just before we wake up.  The experience may be familiar to some of us. When the alarm clock  on the bed side tablerings, it may trigger a dream of birds chirping or someone pushing us or the like; the dream event that startles us, culminates in our waking up. The dream event in turn is triggered by some event in the real world.

Here in this painting the lady, Gala [Dali’s wife] is seen sleeping. A bee is hovering over a pomegranate lying next to her. The sound of the humming of the bee would eventually wake Gala. But that sound triggers a flurry of scenes in Gala’s dream. Tigers appear with a bayonet out of a pomegranate and it is the sting of the bayonet or the fear of the tigers pouncing on her, or possibly a combination of the two, that will wake up Gala. It is the sound of the bee hovering over the fruit that ‘actually’ wakes her up but sound manifests in the form of the pouncing tigers and the bayonet in her dream.

Dali explains the idea behind the painting :

“[It was intended] to express for the first time in images Freud’s discovery of the typical dream with a lengthy narrative, the consequence of the instantaneousness of a chance event which causes the sleeper to wake up. Thus, as a bar might fall on the neck of a sleeping person, causing them to wake up and for a long dream to end with the guillotine blade falling on them, the noise of the bee here provokes the sensation of the sting which will awaken Gala.”

Permit me a small digression from Dali here. In the opening passage of Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky explores the very same Freudian idea. She writes of how the noise created by a midnight air raid by the German Luftwaffe manifests itself in the dreams of the sleeping Parisians:

‘those still,  asleep dreamed of waves breaking over pebbles, a march storm whipping the woods, a herd of cows trampling the ground with their hooves until finally sleep was shaken off and they struggled to open their eyes murmuring, ‘Is it an air raid’?

Now what does ‘Flight of a Bee’ have to do with Inception? Inception is replete with scenes which depict this idea. In one of the early scenes when Arthur wants to wake Cobb up from his sleep, he pushes him into a bath tub. In his dream Cobb finds himself in the middle of a grand room with water gushing in from all directions and flooding the entire room. The event that triggers the waking up is Arthur pushing him into the tub. But this manifests itself in Cobb’s dream in the form of water gushing in from all directions and flooding the room. In another scene Cobb and his crew are in the van being chased by some armed men. It starts raining heavily and the driver of the van (Yusuf) is forced to drive the van precariously; swerving it violently and abruptly. This event manifests itself in the dream one level below. One level below in the dream, where Cobb is seated with Robert Fischer in a pub, it starts raining outside and the entire place starts shaking. These are manifestations in the dream of something happening ‘one level up’ in the van. The again when the van is falling off the river into the bridge, the fall manifests itself in the dream one level down. In the dream the fall manifests itself in the form of a contortion of gravity. Arthur is seeing fighting whilst defying gravity. In the dream two levels it manifests as avalanches.

Yoga Vasistha

The final inspiration for Inception is Yoga Vasistha: an ancient Indian philosophical text discussing the nature of reality and illusion (maya). The book is in the form of a dialogue between a young Rama and his spiritual preceptor, Sage Vasistha. Vasistha narrates several tales to Rama to emphasize the illusionary nature of the universe. Many of the tales focus on the subject of dreams.  They are paradoxical and tease the logical mind. One of the stories in the book is that of Lilavati. Vasistha narrates the tale of a lady taking several births and dying several times and then being a born as a queen. One day she goes off to sleep and dreams of living out her life and then dying and then being re born yet again as a holy man and living to a ripe age and then dying again. Vasistha then tells Rama that all of this was happening in a dream inside a dream inside a dream while the ‘original’ dreamer was a poor lady who was lying on a straw bed in her hut and had been asleep for only a few minutes. The starting point of the narration, it turns out was already inside a dream. The young Rama is thoroughly perplexed. He asks Vasistha how the lady could dream of epochs while she had been asleep for only a few minutes. Vasistha replies that in dreams time is distorted; in a moment of a dream an epoch can be dreamt of. Vasistha also says that while lying in a hut the lady dreamt of being a queen of vast kingdoms and then losing them all.

Inception has very similar ideas. First, it has the idea of levels of dreams, with dreams inside dreams of the sort that Yoga Vasistha talks of. Inception also explores the theme of distortion of time in dreams. They however, beat Vasistha at his game as they have ready reckoners for time distortion calculations: they are able to compute with confidence, one minute in real time is 5 minutes one dream level down and hour two dream levels down and so on and so forth.  The distortion reckoners aside, the idea is similar in nature to Vasistha’s.

22 Comments on "Inception and its Inspirations: Escher, Dali and Yoga Vasistha"

  1. Gautam February 3, 2011 at 7:08 am ·

    Great post. Another very clear inspiration is Philip K. Dick’s novel, “Ubik”. The last chapter there bears such a striking resemblance to the last scene with the spinning top, that it’s quite amusing. 🙂

  2. Sidharth Chauhan February 3, 2011 at 3:38 pm ·

    superb piece, Nolan should read this 🙂

  3. vidhu shekhat February 4, 2011 at 6:08 am ·

    loved it shiv!

  4. Shantanu February 4, 2011 at 11:35 am ·

    Great post Shiv!

  5. Genteel Levity February 4, 2011 at 12:10 pm ·

    Superb post. Thanks a lot!

  6. Aditya Shamlal February 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm ·

    Excellent Post, loved it!!!

  7. Vikas NM February 5, 2011 at 3:05 pm ·

    Very well written! Hardly someone who can read more than two paras worth… but this definitely had my attention all through! Links very well made.. Thoroughly enjoyed this.

  8. Suhrith February 7, 2011 at 7:11 am ·

    This is a truly excellent post. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  9. Danish Sheikh February 7, 2011 at 4:05 pm ·

    brilliant. great read !

  10. Ahish February 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm ·

    Wonderful post.

  11. Arunabh Satpathy February 7, 2011 at 5:24 pm ·

    the penrose stairs thing made me look into other ‘impossible objects’ like the devil’s tuning fork and the penrose triangle. Try mailing this link to Chris Nolan himself.

  12. Sowmya February 8, 2011 at 6:11 pm ·

    Absolutely wonderful post!

  13. Alok February 19, 2011 at 9:07 am ·

    Nope. It was inspired by Donald Duck!


  14. Arpit Sharma December 27, 2011 at 5:42 am ·

    Hey Shiv,

    Finally read it..and it is really good..had all my attention. And I spent a good deal of time going over the pics and their possible references to Inception! Just made me watch the movie again. Keep writing dude. And God, you are a a treasure chest of knowledge btw, I envy that. Cheers!!!


  15. Akhilesh February 28, 2012 at 5:39 pm ·

    Excellent work. Your blog is on my reader from now! Fantastic.

  16. Ram March 1, 2014 at 7:45 am ·

    Wow… what a great analysis… thanks for the post. The fact that the story line of the movie is already described in Yoga Vashista is illuminating !!

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  18. Susanne May 11, 2014 at 8:21 am ·

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  19. Julia June 29, 2015 at 7:06 pm ·

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