Obsession

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“Obsession” – A Review of Inception and The Great Gatsby

Everyone is obsessed with something. But then, what does the word “obsession” actually mean? If we take a look at Oxford English Dictionaries, we will see that it is defined as “an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind”. But when we are in a state of obsession, we are experiencing something far more than simply having an idea that resides in our mind. The elusive force of obsession incites a powerful craving within each of us. It can be a longing for romance, a yearning for wealth, a guilt-ridden wish for redemption, or a ravenous desire for vengeance, you name it. For that, many of us are willing to make irrevocable decisions and forgo manifold possibilities of life. In other words, obsessions lead to actions, and they can completely change our life. Hence, it is important to understand our obsessions if we want to live an authentic life and make autonomous decisions. In this issue, we will take a look at two different texts that offer us provocative reflections on obsession. They are Christopher Nolan’s Inception and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.


What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.”


Inception is a movie about thought manipulation and how it leads to obsessive behaviours. In the film, the Director Christopher Nolan invites the audiences to imagine a world in which one can sneak into others’ dreams to implant an idea into their subconscious. The protagonist, Cobb is an extractor who steals secret information by intruding into others’ dreams. Cobb is given a special mission by Saito, a business magnate, to incept an idea into the mind of an heir of a business empire, manipulating him to dissolving his father’s company.

As the story goes on, it reveals that this is not Cobb’s first attempt to implant an idea. He was once trapped in a dream with his wife Mal. In vain have they tried different ways to return to reality. As time goes by, Mal begins to get used to the dream and starts feeling content with the illusions that she dwells in, while Cobb still persists to find a way back. Mal’s complacency and Cobb’s futile attempt in persuading Mal to confront the reality impel Cobb to use the last resort – to invade Mal’s subconscious and implant an idea. It is, as Cobb says, “a truth that she had once known, but had chosen to forget… that her world was not real.”And this has forever changed everything. Although they successfully return to the real world eventually, the idea that the reality is not real still lingers in Mal’s mind, and it begins to grow like a cancer. And she commits suicide.

Though we will certainly be appalled if such sci-fi plot were to be actualized in reality, it is not remote to us at all. In fact, Inception resembles the way in which mass media operates. The partnership between Cobb and Saito has subtle similarities with that of marketers and big corporations. While the former partnership entices someone to make a decision that he will not otherwise make, the latter pair joins hand together to convince people to purchase excessive goods that they do not need. When you switch on the television or browse the Internet, you will see myriads of commercials about consumer goods. They seem ubiquitous. In spite of the prevalence of commercial advertising, many of us may believe that we always have the power to make rational decisions. But do we?

As Cobb points out, inception is a subtle art. It is impossible to plant a complex idea. If an advertisement simply tells us a bunch of information directly, we will be consciously alerted with it, and hence rendering it difficult to affect our subconscious. Instead, Cobb suggests, “you need the simplest version of the idea – the one that will grow naturally in the subject’s mind.” A sophisticated advertisement can achieve the same purpose by associating a product with a potency that can make our life better. The marketers can thus forge alluring gold-plate surfaces for their products and magnify marginal differences, prompting irrational consuming behaviours. In a more macro dimension, the capitalistic system as a whole makes us define ourselves by the materials we possess. Consumer goods become the embodiment of success. Materialism enjoys a monopolizing triumph.

The maniacal obsession of materialism in a thriving metropolitan has been splendidly illustrated by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his magnum opus – The Great Gatsby. The story is set in two extremely affluent areas in New York – New York City and Long Island. They are frantically obsessed with material enjoyment, indulging in their lavishing hedonistic lifestyle. However, their happiness is built upon the misery of others. Just between the two shores of Long Island, there is a place call the Valley of Ashes, in which there lived an extremely poor population, working abjectly every day to maintain the prosperity of New York. They represent hopelessness and impossibility to alter their fate.

Borne in a poor family, the protagonist Jay Gatsby represents the American Dream – the idea that everyone has the opportunity to live a prosperous life. Americans from all walks of life have the chance to pursue their own conception of happiness. Despite all his effort of taking control of his life, Gatsby is under the illusion of making an autonomous decision. He is just a slave of his shame and grief, trapped in an imaginary past and unable to move forward.

The book explores obsession in multiple levels. On the appearance, the novel seems merely be about the obsession of love, about an ambitious young man who strives arduously to re-embrace his old lover and build a bright future for them. Gatsby used to be a penniless young man. But he always has a grand vision for himself, seizing every opportunity to forge a glorious path. During his military training, he meets Daisy. She is the girl who is desired by all men, Gatsby is the fortunate guy who wins her heart. Unfortunately, their romance is brief since Gatsby is soon sent to the battlefield. He is well aware of the fact that Daisy is everything that he is not. She has wealth, fame, and status. She is simply the living embodiment of American Dream. In light of this, Gatsby decides not to return to Daisy upon the end of the war, and to make something of himself first. He has made a staggering amount of wealth, but Daisy is already married a billionaire called Tom. Nevertheless, this does not deter his five years of unwavering devotion. Daisy is deeply moved by Gatsby’s romance and sincerity when they meet again. And they soon fall in love.

But deep inside his heart, what Gatsby is truly in love with is only the idea of loving Daisy, the idea that holding her tightly in his arms can fulfil his American Dream. It seems that the ideal of American Dream is truly his object of obsession. Being deeply discontented with his birth, he believes that by dint of perseverance and determination, he can transcend the class boundaries and enjoy wealth and happiness. Shamefulness is a sentiment that recurs in Gatsby’s mind. He perceives that there is something about his past self that was wrong. In the later part of the novel, it has been revealed that Gatsby’s real name is James Gatz. His changing of his name into Jay Gatsby is a symbolic act to live up a new identity. The name – Jay Gatsby is more than a linguistic sign that denotes himself. It is a representation of his conception of a new self – a God like figure who can take absolute control of his life, liberty and happiness. Nevertheless, he, being the son of a poor farmer, is a fact that no one can alter.

Hence, his shamefulness becomes his prime motivation to venture relentlessly. For his dream, he is willing to use all necessary means to acquire a fortune, including engaging in illegal business such as bootlegging. His lavish displays of wealth and his making up of all sort of lies about his past are just ways to conceal his deep sense of inferiority and insecurity. All the things he did are just to fulfil his longing of being a member of the upper class. Soon, he accumulates his wealth and reputation. But his memories of Daisy never stop lingering in the bottom of his heart. Though Gatsby barely understands her, her mesmerizing beauty, upper-class background and desirability make her the symbol of ultimate happiness that weights even beyond wealth and reputation. A strong sentimental attachment to Daisy is firmly ingrained in Gatsby’s heart.

The grief of losing Daisy is another reason that prompts Gatsby into engaging in his obsessive behaviour. Even though she is married, Gatsby is unable to move on, longing to recapture the lost time. Overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia, he repeatedly mentions that he wants to repeat the past. Although it is incredible to see how a man can cling to a brief romance with such an arduous faith and devotion, irrational and fanatical obsession seems a better description of his behaviour. Immensely obsessed with his grand vision of the future, Gatsby possesses a somewhat delusional picture of reality. This can be reflected by his inability to understand why Daisy does not leave Tom immediately and return to him right after she learns that he becomes equally wealthy. He also has an unrealistic expectation of Daisy, believing that she has no affection towards his husband at all, and he is the only person that Daisy ever loved. In Gatsby’s idealisation of Daisy, she is nothing but a pure and innocent girl. He is completely blinded to her flaw as well as the flaw of their relationship.

As the story goes on, Daisy’s true nature has been revealed by a tragic car accident in which she crashes someone to death. Cold-hearted, she lets Gatsby bear the crime for her and flea with Tom immediately. This shows that she is a selfish person and she does not place romance as high as Gatsby believes she would. What truly matters to her after all is material comfort and a luxurious life. And readers should not be surprised because she has already made a choice to marry Tom and stop waiting for Gatsby five years ago. After knowing that Gatsby acquires his wealth illegitimately, her affection for Gatsby is hugely shaken. This is probably because she knows Gatsby cannot provide the security and comfort that Tom can bring.

Meanwhile, Gatsby is still naively waiting for Daisy’s phone call. What he does not know is that the victim’s husband is approaching him with murderous rage. The head of the bullet in its fury crosses through Gatsby body. The vengeance is done, but it is the scapegoat who bears. Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy eventually costs his life.

Gatsby is detached from the reality because his mind resides in an idealized past. He constantly wants to actualize his joyful memories with Daisy into the present but in vain. He fails to return to the past yet unable to move on. This is the tragedy of Gatsby. He is immobilized by his obsession. He is a victim of a fundamental flaw of human cognition. Human mind is prone to conflate idealistic memory with actual past. In the case of Gatsby, his irony is that he strives so hard for something that does not actually exist.

The fall of Gatsby also marks the disillusionment of the American Dream. To Gatsby, marrying Daisy, a girl from the upper class who is desired by all men, has become the symbol of success ever since their first encounter. Gatsby superficially idealizes Daisy, clinging to this alluring siren who possesses the irresistible charm that blinds men from unveiling her true self. His obsession to this selfish, materialistic, cold-hearted and yet enchanting creature is not based on love and understanding, but a false idealization. One can draw a parallel between Daisy and capitalism, which gives rise to extreme egoism, materialism, and dehumanization. While Gatsby blindly devotes unconditionally to Daisy, many of the modern metropolitans remain uncritical to the ideology that incites them into making many important decisions of their lives. Materialism sends an invitation to all of us, enticing us to follow the norms without questions and strive merely for a comfortable and hedonistic lifestyle. It invites us to believe that life is all about materialistic pursuit.

But of course, this does not reflect the true nature of reality. Little of us are aware of the fact that human slavery is still prevalent today. We enjoy a comfortable life at the cost of the misery of millions of people. There is still a tremendous amount of people is living under extreme poverty. At times, people make donations to the poor, but without any attempt to understand how the money will be spent, and without any reasonable expectations that it can make a true impact. Many of us have never even heard of diseases like malaria and schistosomiasis that drag millions of young souls to abyss. We keep calm and enjoy our Starbucks coffee at our little “heaven”. We are drenched in our obsession with material goods. We live in a fantasy that we create, an illusion that does not truly represent reality.

Want to explore more? Here are my film recommendations:

Bateman Begins (Christoper Nolan 2005)

In this cinematic masterpiece, Christopher Nolan presents the journey of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman, exploring the internal struggles of this superhero with his complementing yet conflicting desires for vengeance and justice, and how it leads to his obsession with bringing law and order to Gotham.

Stood in a stark contrast with the mainstream superhero films, Nolan presents to the audience a secular hero who is full of weakness. A traditional superhero story usually comes with religious undertones. The hero is born with superpower and the absolute ability to discern right and wrong. The hero is the incarnation of justice.

Bruce’s path to justice, however, arises from his personal trauma. When he was a child, he saw his parents being murdered in front of him. He blames himself for the death of his parents, and his life is shadowed by guilt and his desire for avenging his parents. However, he eventually transforms discontent into his driving force to bring justice to the city. As Aldous Huxley once said, “Experience is not what happened to you, but what you do with what happened to you.” This movie vividly illustrates how pain and misfortune can transform into an enormous willpower, and how his guilt-ridden longing of redemption and raging desire to revenge have been sublimed into his moral persistence to uphold justice.

Requiem For A Dream (Darren Aronofsky 2000)

Requiem for a Dream is a psychological thriller that draws parallel between psychotropic drugs and media, exploring the relationship between addiction and obsession. The movie starts by revealing how the main characters in the film are trapped in their addictions of drugs and television. While Sara is constantly watching television shows, his son Harry is a drug addict. But this is not an ordinary movie about addiction. As the movie goes on, the impact of their addictions penetrates deep within their psyche. They begin to indulge in dreams. While Sara wants to regain her youth, Harry tries to start his own drug trading business. However, reality shatters their fantasy. They both fail abjectly, leading to nightmarish consequences.

The core theme of the movie is about the human tendency to fantasize reality and the extreme to which people strive for their illusions. Through the use of different dramatic effects, the film shows how obsession can blur the line between illusion and reality.

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