The Art of the Riddle | Inception, Plato, and Jonah
Inception ends with a riddle. The movie is about dreams and reality. And each character has an object, called a totem, that works differently in the real world and in dreams. Cobb, played by Leonardo Dicaprio, has a spinning top that works normally in the real world but never stops spinning, never falls over when he’s in a dream. The top tells him what’s real and what’s fake.
Through the movie Cobb never sees his children in real life but would see him them in dreams, but only their backs, not their faces. In the last scene, Cobb enters a house and sees his children playing in the yard, they turn around and he sees their faces for the first time in the film. But before he runs to be with them, he spins the top to check that he’s in the real world. But Instead of waiting for the top to fall, he changes his mind and goes to embrace his children.
The camera then moves to the top but cuts black, ending the movie, before we see the top fall. There have been many analyses of this scene but the problem with many of them is that they focus on whether the last scene was a dream or not. And while that’s an important question, the more important question is why did Christopher Nolan choose to cut before we saw if the top would fall.
First, this is a riddle. That is, an intentionally opaque, narrative tool. Nolan designed something that would take intellectual work to figure out.
Whenever you are writing, every word, every sentence and scene can be placed on a spectrum from clarity to opacity. Authors are always choosing what things to make plain and what things to make opaque. And for skilled authors, they make those decision based on reasons, reasons that move forward the story and its main theses and themes.
For instance, if you have a man and woman and you want to communicate love between them you could write dialogue where the woman says “I love you”. A super clear communication of that affection. Or, you could write a simple glance across a table at a work lunch. Much more opaque. Or even more opaque, you could use visuals and have her wear light blue, only to find out later that that is her prospective lover’s favorite color. You may have wondered or guessed why she so frequently wore blue, but it wasn’t clear until later.
And whether you opt for one or the other for a scene or image or dialogue depends on the purposes of the plot.
Riddles are on the side closer to opaqueness, they intentionally hide. But they also invite. Riddles are particularly intriguing because they are often written to stand out, to not fit into the story, to block the regular narrative flow so that the reader or watcher will be jolted into deeper levels of thought.
So why the riddle at the end of Inception? Well, before we understand the purpose of the camera’s point of view we must understand the main character’s action. That is, Cobb spins the top but then changes his mind. Why?
This entire time the thing that Cobb uses to distinguish between reality and fantasy has been a top, a mere top, a chunk of metal. But when compared to the face of a person, his own children, that totem has no power. If the human face cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy, nothing can.
Nolan is a consummate humanist (in the medieval sense), believing that human personhood is at the heart of reality, not materiality, non-personal stuff.
So then why does he cut to black. Here is where the genius is. When the movie cuts to black it literally forces you to look away from the top, to look away from the movie. That is you are forced to do the very thing that Cobb did, you are forced to do the final climactic action as the viewer. The viewer must also look to persons in their life for reality. This is the meaning of the riddle. On the first level it encourages engagement with the film, forcing the viewer to ponder. But more importantly the answer to the riddle drives the thesis of the work down much more deeply. And when you can combine Deeper more strenuous thought with the deeper meaning you have a beautiful work of art.
Riddles in Plato
Plato also uses riddles. For instance a number of his dialogs finish unresolved. That is the main question of the discussion is not answered. These dialogs are called aporetic from the Greek word aporia which mean an impasse or puzzlement. But Plato did this for a reason, he wanted this conclusion to feel unfinished to feel strange and difficult, it is a riddle.
For instance in one dialogue the main character cannot finish the argument and so’s says that he will go sacrifice to the gods. Plato ends the dialogue unfinished because he wants to force the reader to finish the dialogue for himself. The reader has been trained in the first part of the dialogue about how to conduct a proper argument, so by the end they are prepared to finish The argument. By ending without concluding the argument and providing an example of a character who is too lazy to finish, Plato is offering us an option: will we be like this character or will we be intellectually, philosophically virtuous and complete the argument. Once again the riddle forces the reader into thought and action.
Riddles in Jonah
Now to the Bible. The Bible is full of riddles but we’re going to look at the riddle at the end of the book of Jonah. If you remember, Jonah was a prophet whom God called to go preach judgment to the wicked city of Ninevah. Jonah doesn’t want to so he goes the opposite direction, getting into a boat and traveling west. He is then thrown overboard, swallowed by a fish and repents. He then goes to the city of Ninevah where the city repents and God has mercy on the city. In the last scene Jonah is angry that God relented against Nineveh and goes outside the city. Without any shade in the scorching sun, God makes a plant grow and shade Jonah. Then God removes the plan and Jonah is infuriated. In the final and climactic speech, God says to Jonah, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Did you hear the riddle? The weird thing that didn’t fit? It was the last phrase, “and also much cattle.” Now you may think that it is a language thing, if we were Hebrew and understood the language it would not seem weird, but that’s not true. This was just as strange and arresting then as now. And the author intended it to stop, to break the regular story. He wanted the reader to puzzle over why did the author add “and also much cattle” into a perfectly complete sentence without it.
To understand why our author added it, we must understand some things that he has been doing since the first chapter.
Think about this. Where have you heard this story before. God raises up a prophet who travels on a boat to proclaim judgment. That’s right, Noah.
The author is alluding back to the Noah story. Jonah is another Noah. Our author includes other details to fill out this parallel. In the Noah story the rain falls for 40 days and in Jonah, his message is that in “40 days” the city will burn. So also God said with Noah that humanity had 120 more years to live while in Jonah there was 120,000 persons in the city. So our author is paralleling the two stories. But if you look a little closer, there are also some differences, discontinuities.
In the Noah story, Noah was on the boat because he was listening to God’s call. In Jonah, Jonah is in the boat because he was not listening to God. So if jonah's boat is not exactly parallel to Noah’s boat, the place of salvation, what is? Let’s keep reading because the author provides more clues.
In the next chapter, Jonah is in the city of Nineveh and we are told about its length, that is, it takes three days to walk through it. Similarly, one of the first things we are told about Noah’s Ark is it’s length, 300 cubits long and 30 high, notice, also multiples of three.
When we get to that last phrase in the book, all of the subtle details come alive. The narrator tells us that that there were thousands of people in Ninevah “and also much cattle.” With that one phrase he reminds the reader of one of the most characteristic features of the Noah story, the Ark and it’s animals. And what the narrator is telling us is that the parallel to Noah’s ark was not the boat in chapter 1, but the city of Ninevah. That was the place where God was saving his people, that was the place where the animals were spared. The very place that Jonah wanted and thought was the the place of judgment was actually the ark.
And that is the riddle of Jonah and the art of the riddle.