“It gets lost, it gets involved in the farthest out adventures; but in the end it always wakes up and comes back to itself. And when you’re ready to wake up, you’re gonna wake up. And if you’re not ready you’re gonna stay pretending that you’re poor little me.” –Alan Watts
by Doug Mann
1. Introduction: What if Life Were Just a Dream?
Richard Linklater’s 2002 film Waking Life is all about dreaming, and how we can sometimes lucidly control our dreams. Yet it’s also about some broad philosophical issues, including one of the oldest philosophical conundrums, the distinction between appearance and reality. When René Descartes sat at his stove and meditated on the world and on whether an evil demon controlled everything he perceived, he wondered, what’s more real, dreams or waking life? The diverse collection of characters in Linklater’s film ask the same question. Yet they ask it not just in a literal sense, but also as a metaphor for the nature of modern culture and for the human condition as a whole – in what ways do we fall asleep even while awake? How can we lead a life that is more awake, more aware of people and things, more authentic? The film provides the outlines of three wake-up calls to three more-or-less separate ways in which we sleep too easily.
This issue is not new. It goes all the way back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: what if you were chained in a dimly-lit cave your whole life where you saw only the shadows of real things passing by the entrance to your cave reflected on its back wall? Suddenly you’re free and come into the sunlight. Would you recognize this new world as more real than your cave world? And would you be able to convince those still enchained in the cave that there was a greater world outside their dwelling? Would you be able, in Plato’s terms, to wake up to reality?
This whole idea of “waking up” is a key idea in a number of philosophies explored in the film. In ancient Eastern philosophy – the Indian Vedanta philosophy of the Upanishads, Taoism, and Buddhism – the key to waking up is Enlightenment and a correct understanding of the relation of the self to the external world. In existentialism, we have to wake up to our personal freedom and our responsibility for creating our own selves and lives. And in the situationism of Guy Debord and others, we have to wake up from the sugar-coated spell of consumer society.