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Daily Lit: Waking up in Waking Life

on December 2, 2011

Buddhists, Existentialists and Situationists: Waking up in Waking Life


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?

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