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.
The film was made first by filming live action with a digital video camera, then transferring the video to computers, and rotoscoping (colouring over) the images to turn them into animation. Thirty different artists were involved in the process, all with different styles. Rotoscoping has been used before – as early as Disney’s 1937 Snow White, and several decades later in Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings and American Pop. It gives a flowing, surreal, dreamlike quality to much of the film, surely Linklater’s intention. And although the film is divided into 34 more or less distinct shorts, they’re linked together by the constant presence of the “dreamer,” Wiley Wiggins, who also acted in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. In addition, the shorts are linked by most of them taking place in Linklater’s home town of Austin, Texas, and by thematic links between the ideas presented in adjacent scenes.
To understand the structure of the film and to keep track of what’s happening in each of its scenes, I’ve named and outlined each scene in the following chart. Each scene has been titled (using those provided by the DVD track list where feasible), briefly described, and situated in terms of the main philosophical ideas found in them. I’ve also indicated which ones I consider to be axial scenes when it comes to a philosophical understanding of the film along the lines set out in this essay.
|Scene in Film||What It’s About||Philosophical Themes|
|1. Dream is Destiny||Wiley Wiggins dreams of playing with origami fortune teller (“dream is destiny”), then floats away, touching a car handle.||Dreaming vs. Reality|
|2. Anchors Aweigh (The Boatisattva)AXIAL SCENE||Bill Wise picks up Wiley in his boat car, telling him to go with the flow. He’s in a state of constant departure. Random choices are important. Linklater is with them.||Buddhism
|3. Condemned to be FreeAXIAL SCENE||Philosopher Robert C. Solomon defends existentialism against the socially constructed, fragmented self of postmodernism: “it’s your life to create.”||Existentialism (especially Sartre on freedom)|
|4. Signifier and Signified||Kim Krizan tells Wiley that words are inert, dead symbols. At first they were survival tactics. They try to help us transcend our isolation, allow for spiritual communion.||Vedanta
|5. Neohuman Evolution||Eamonn Healy, a chemistry professor, predicts the evolution of a neohuman manifesting truth, loyalty, justice, freedom.|
|6. Self-Immolation||Journalist J. C. Shakespeare rants about human self-destruction & the media making us passive observers; he sets fire to himself like the Vietnamese Buddhist monk in 1963.||Situationism|
|7. Collective Memory||Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke muse in bed about dreaming and multiple consciousnesses, death, collective memory, and the simultaneity of scientific discoveries.||Taoism
|8. The Prisoner||Prisoner swears revenge against his captors. He’s trapped in his self-created hell, like Sartre’s characters in No Exit.||[Existentialism]|
|9. Free Will and Physics||David Sosa, physics professor, discusses free will in Augustine & Aquinas, and how it’s compromised by modern physics.||Existentialism|
|10. Systems of Control||Alex Jones, radical broadcaster, rants over a loudspeaker about how political systems of control turn us into slaves.||Situationism|
|11. Say Yes to Existence||Otto Hoffman, a Quaker, wants us to be free from nothingness, to say Yes to one instant, and thus to all existence.||Buddhism
Existentialism (Nietzsche’s love of fate)
|12. Liminal Experiences||Aklilu Gebrewold, African-American writer, speaks of liminal experiences, radical subjectivity, and the great moment.||Vedanta
|13. The Aging Paradox||Carol Dawson, novelist, and Lisa Moore, English professor, speak of feeling freer as they age and of the fiction of personal identity.||Buddhism|
|14. Noise and Silence||A chimp speaks of subversive micro-societies and the possibilities of art while screening a rock performance and a showing of Kurosawa’s film Dreams.||Situationism|
|15. The Overman||Louis Mackey, a philosophy professor, laments people’s fear and laziness, their inability to reach their true potentials.||Existentialism (Nietzsche on the Overman)|
|16. What’s the Story?||Violet Nichols asks Alex Nixon what’s the story he’s writing; it’s just gestures, moments, fleeting emotions, he says.||[Postmodernism]|
|17. The Right to Bear Arms||Steven Prince tells a bartender how he treasures his right to bear arms. He shoots the barkeep, who shoots him in return.|
|18. Lucid Dreams||Clips on television: a man talks of flawed reality of the present; Mary McBay of lucid dream state reached by sorcerers, shamans; man talks of narrowness of the single ego.||Dreaming
|19. Dreamers Muse||Three men: Jason Hodge identifies waking & dreaming perceptions; Guy Forsyth wants to combine waking & dreaming abilities; John Christensen says “fun rules.”||Dreaming|
|20. The Holy Moment||Caveh Zahedi talks about film allowing us to see holy moments (Andre Bazin saw God as reality, film as presenting God). He and David Jewell have such a moment.||Bazin
|21. Society is a FraudAXIAL SCENE||Adam Goldberg, Nicky Katt, two others want to rupture the spell of the consumer society, interrupt continuum of everyday life. “Mr. Debord” discusses not working.||Situationism|
|22. The Train Arrives||A man pops out of a train car, tells Wiley he’s a dreamer, and that it’s the most exciting time to be alive: don’t be bored.||Buddhism
|23. One Thousand Years||Ryan Power, an autistic kid, tells Wiley that 1000 years is but an instant, to build beautiful artifacts, feel joy, sorrow, etc.||Vedanta
|24. The Human Ant ColonyAXIAL SCENE||Tiana Hux, performance artist, compels Wiley to communicate with her, rejecting the “ant” autopilot most of us use everyday. In lucid dreams we’re in control.||Situationism
|25. The Ongoing WowAXIAL SCENE||Mad poet/tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch speaks of the ongoing wow, Lorca’s poems, that we’re the authors of our lives, that life understood is life lived.||Existentialism
|26. Dream Self||Short scene: Steve Brudniak, artist, says the person you are in a dream isn’t your real self – you haven’t yet met yourself.||Dreaming|
|27. Channel Surfing||TV: Catholic puppet speaks of heaven & hell; Steven Soderbergh tells joke about Billy Wilder and Louis Malle; Mary McBay discusses post-death dream body.||Dreaming|
|28. Swept Along||Short scene: man on street says that as pattern gets more intricate, being swept along is no longer enough.|
|29. Exploding Burritos||Bill Wise returns as convenience store clerk (denies other role) bemoaning customer who explodes burritos in his microwave.|
|30. Every Moment is Magical||Mona Lee, actress, sees the self as a logical structure. Life was raging all around her, and every moment was magical.||Buddhism|
|31. Garden and Portrait||Short scene: an elderly woman draws Wiley’s portrait in a garden.||Taoism|
|32. Sweep Me Up||Short scene. Passing man: “Kierkegaard’s last words were, ‘Sweep me up'”.||Existentialism|
|33. The Tango of YesAXIAL SCENE||Orchestra from earlier in film plays a tango, dancers dance. Linklater plays pinball, tells Wiley about Philip K. Dick story coming true in his life, dream of Lady Gregory: there’s only one instant, it’s right now. God invites us into eternity. There’s only one story: moving from the No to the Yes.||Dreaming
|34. Wake Up!||Wiley wakes up, walks down street on beautiful day, begins to float again.||Dreaming, Vedanta, Taoism|
As I’ve said, the central issue in the film is dreaming. The idea of lucid dreaming, of knowing that you’re dreaming and thus being able to exert some control over your dreams, has been explored by dream researcher Stephen Laberge of the Lucidity Institute, whose ideas are alluded to in the film. The first scene of the film, Dream is Destiny, features Wiley as a child playing with a young girl outside a house. They’re making an origami fortune teller, which when they open it up tells them “dream is destiny.” Wiley then walks over to a car, grabs its handle, and starts to float away. We return to this locale in the very last scene in the film, when Wiley floats away once again. We get the sense from the way the film is framed by these two scenes that in the dream world time is an illusion – Wiley’s present and past mix together fairly seamlessly. More obviously, we realize from these scenes that the whole film is a lucid dream, one which Wiley can control only in part.
In Scene 24, The Human Ant Colony, Wiley is stopped by performance artist Tiana Hux, who engages him in a fairly long conversation on a variety of subjects (I’ll return to this important scene a couple of more times). Notably, the animator has given the scene the look of a Picasso or Matisse painting – the characters have oversized eyes as in Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon; the background is primitivist and abstract. Wiley asks her directly, what’s it like to be a character in a dream? She avoids answering the question, but does tell him that given the fact that he’s dreaming, he can do whatever he wants. “You have so many options, and that’s what life is about,” she says. So from discovering the fact that Wiley is dreaming, Linklater brings up the question of human freedom, and indirectly that of authenticity. “It’s up to you to choose what you want to do with your life,” he in effect says, “so don’t wait around for others to make your choices for you.”
We get further evidence of the power of the dream state in Scene 19, Dreamers Muse, where Wiley visits three men in a white room. The first one, Jason Hodge, explains to Wiley that our brain chemistry inhibited hallucinations early in our evolutionary development so that we didn’t confuse images of predators with real ones. But in dreams this inhibition is lifted, and we’re free to have “hallucinations,” which from point of view of brain chemistry are no more or less real than our waking perceptions. This becomes important when the second man in the white room, Guy Forsyth, explains that “the trick is to combine your waking, rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams, because if you can do that, you can do anything.” Once again, dreaming in related to freedom and creativity. But this time, there’s an evolutionary imperative mixed in to explain the limitations of waking life as compared to the freedom of the dream world – to survive, we had to learn to distinguish the dream from the waking worlds.
The actual idea of lucid dreaming is briefly mentioned by an elderly lady seen on a television show Wiley watches briefly in Scene 18, Lucid Dreams. She links lucid dreaming to a “venerable tradition of sorcerers, shamans, and other visionaries,” who were able to control their dreams. Scene 27, Channel Surfing, finds Wiley back in front of his television. The woman reappears, suggesting that perhaps after we die our consciousness continues in a dream body, never again waking. This suggestion is followed up in key Scene 33, The Tango of Yes, where Linklater plays pinball as he talks to Wiley. He reveals a dream he himself had of Lady Gregory, W. B. Yeats’ patron, in the Land of the Dead. In the dream he learns that God poses a question to all of us when we dream: do we want to join him in eternity, or return to waking life? We live our lives constantly saying “no” to God’s question, until we eventually say “yes,” and shuffle off the mortal coil. Yet it’s important to note that Linklater is eager to leave the putrid-smelling Land of the Dead, to say no to eternity at least this time, to return to waking life. He also tells Wiley that it’s easy to wake up, waving his hands over his eyes in a sort of sorcerer’s spell. Yet Wiley winds up waking into just another level of his lucid dream, ending the movie.
2. First Wake-Up Call: Vedanta, Taoism, Buddhism and the Reality of the Now
Our first wake up call is that from attachment to the past, to the ego as an individual and unconnected entity, and to material things over the spiritual unity of the universe. This call awakens us to our connection to everything around us, and to a meaningful life. (1)
The first of three themes taken from Eastern philosophy has to with Vedanta, by which I mean ancient Indian thought first presented in the Upanishads and later systematized by thinkers like Shankara. (2) The Vedantists argued that Atman is Brahman, and Brahman is Atman – the soul is the universe, and the universe is contained in every soul. There is only one reality, which we can call God if we like, and which is represented by Aum, the sacred syllable. They also believed that bad karma can trap us in the senses and the physical body, and that we must seek release from a narrow view of the self as physical and individual, to enlighten our consciousness to our connection to all things.
The Upanishads argue that there is a higher self that watches over the more mundane self caught up in the world of the senses and the cycle of rebirth. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad puts it this way:
It is said of these states of consciousness that in the dreaming state, where one is sleeping, the shining Self, who never dreams, who is ever awake, watches by his own light the dreams woven out of past deeds and present desires. In the dream state, when one is sleeping, the shining Self keeps the body alive with the vital force of prana, and wanders wherever he wills. (Easwaran 44-45).
More systematically, the ancient writers of the Upanishads argued that there are in fact four levels of consciousness, and that the dream state is higher than that experienced in waking life (though there are two higher states still). The Mandukya Upanishad (Easwaran 60-61) argues that these four levels of consciousness are (1) our waking awareness of the external world, (2) the dream state, (3) a dreamless sleep, and (4) a superconscious state where we use neither our senses nor our intellect. This fourth state, Turiya in Sanskrit, is where we are one with Brahman. It is the shining self referred to above.
Shankara argued that Brahman is the one absolute reality which underlies all external appearances. Further, he noted that just as dream objects seem unreal only when we wake up and experience them with our waking consciousness, when we wake up to the higher reality of Brahman, we see ordinary sense experience as a sort of dream. Only Brahman is real. We might see a rope at a distance and think it’s a snake, but when we view it close up, we realize our ignorance. Our belief in the ultimate reality of normal waking life is a similar sort of ignorance (Kollers 77).
We see these ideas in several scenes. Most fundamentally, Wiley’s dream self “wanders wherever he wills,” to quote the Upanishads. He floats in and out of new situations, meeting a wide variety of people in his dream wanderings. We also get a clear sense of how ordinary consciousness puts off communion with the whole – our Atman is under normal conditions unaware of Brahman. In Scene 4, Signifier and Signified, Kim Krizan (co-screenwriter of Linklater’s earlier film After Sunrise) argues that words were designed to transcend our alienation from each other, but are in reality dead and inert symbols. Yet if we can use them to truly communicate, to achieve spiritual communion, we can free our consciousness. She says that this sense of spiritual communion is what we live for. This could well be the Vedanta notion of Turiya, the highest state of consciousness.
Hints of unity with Brahman appear in several other places in the film. In Scene 12, Liminal Experiences, Aklilu Gebrewold speaks of liminal experiences becoming more frequent, and of a radical subjectivity opening itself to a vast objectivity, a moment which contains the whole universe, a very Vedantist turn of phrase. In Scene 23, One Thousand Years, Ryan Power, an autistic 13-year old, says that 1000 years is but an instant, implying that time is unreal seen from some higher perspective. And Scene 20, The Holy Moment, although ostensibly about André Bazin’s theory of the cinema, echoes Vedantist ideas: when the camera captures a moment of reality, it is capturing God, since God is in all things. If Shankara were a film director, this is surely something he would have understood.
To clinch the connection, in Scene 33, The Tango of Yes, Linklater himself says that in his dream of Lady Gregory she told him that “there’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity”: in other words, Atman is Brahman. And there’s only one story – do you say No or Yes to God’s invitation to enter eternity? Here is yet more evidence for the presence of the Vedantist idea of cosmic monism in the film.
Our second Eastern philosophy, Taoism, is powered by its belief in the Tao, or the Way, which is natural, spontaneous, and balanced. It is a mysterious universal force underlying all of nature which cannot be precisely named. Lao Tzu starts the Tao Te Ching with an attempt at describing it:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery. (Tao Te Ching 1, Feng translation)
Water is an important Taoist metaphor: though soft, it can wear down the hardest rock. The metaphor of water wearing down rock is part of the general Taoist idea that suppleness and not striving can overcome strength over time:
Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water,
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal. (Tao Te Ching 78)
The softest thing in the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe. (Tao Te Ching 43)
Taoists advocate wu wei, which is literally “non-action,” but means more generally spontaneous or natural action. Following this principle allows us to live in peace with nature and to find tranquillity.
The Taoists see the universe as held together by ch’i, breath or Life Energy. It is in constant flux, balanced by the Tao. The self has no fixed identity – as in Buddhism, it’s constantly changing, constantly flowing. We should live in the moment, and not be overcome by our desires. Too much attachment breeds unhappiness:
He who is attached to things will suffer much.
He who saves will suffer heavy loss.
A contented man is never disappointed. (Tao Te Ching 44)
Also connected with Taoism is the I Ching, or Book of Changes, which contains a method of divining the future, and the idea that the universe is balanced between Yin and Yang, the female and male principles.
We see Taoism in several places in Waking Life. Scene 2, Anchors Aweigh, the “Boatisattva” Bill Wise advises Wiley to “go with the flow,” a Taoist metaphor rendered into modern language. In fact, the whole oddness of the image of a boat driving down a city street reinforces the watery nature of the start of Wiley’s journey. The scene also evokes the I Ching when Bill Wise tells Wiley that even if he makes a random choice as to his destination, it will determine his fate. Wiley’s choice isn’t too natural, for after he debarks from the boat car he gets run over and wakes into another dream.
Scene 7, Collective Memory, finds Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in bed. Delpy says that she sometimes thinks she’s observing her life from the perspective of an old woman, looking back on her life. Hawke muses that a second of dream consciousness could be equivalent to whole minutes of waking life. These musings hint at the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu’s paradoxes concerning appearance and reality and his notion that perspective is always relative – the way something appears to you might be quite different from the way it appears to me. He illustrated this idea with a story: he once woke up from a dream of being a butterfly, but couldn’t decide whether he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Similarly, this scene poses the riddle: is Delpy the old woman dreaming of her lost youth, or the young woman dreaming of some future state?
Scene 31, Garden and Portrait, is a wordless one where see a small waterfall flowing over rocks emptying into a peaceful pool of water. In the pool we see goldfish. A cat prowls around its edge. In this very harmonious Taoist garden an old woman is drawing portraits, showing Wiley a sketch she’s done of him at the end. This brief scene is doubly Taoist: it pictures natural harmony, and does so without naming it, without words.
The main Eastern influence on Waking Life is Buddhism. The Buddha was the Awakened One. He believed that all life was suffering, but this could be limited by limiting our cravings or desires. We suffer because we are too attached to the past, the future, others, material things, and our selves as unchanging entities. Buddhism asks us to wake up from our false belief in and attachment to the permanence of things, including the permanence of the individual ego, and to embrace the reality of the now.
A key Buddhist concept is interdependent arising, sometime referred to as dependent origination. It means simply that everything is connected. One of the reasons we experience dukkha, or suffering, is our refusal to see the interconnected and ever-changing nature of things. The self is always in flux. Nothing is permanent: it is empty, sunyata, to borrow Nagarjuna’s term. Enlightenment, nirvana, can only come once we let go of our attachment to the permanence of the self, at least the self as a fixed entity. One way to do this is by practising mindfulness, by being aware of the reality all around us. This is especially important because our karma is always ebbing and flowing, so being mindful of the effects of our actions on others is especially important for the Buddhist. Mahayana Buddhism later introduced the idea of a Bodhisattva, or spiritual guide, to help us reach enlightenment. The Bodhisattva compassionately puts off nirvana so he or she can remain in the world of the senses and help others.
Waking Life starts with a Bodhisattva helping Wiley on his way. In Scene 2, Anchors Aweigh, Bill Wise appears in his boat car to act as Wiley’s “boatisattva”, his spiritual guide at the start of his lucid dream. Interestingly, Linklater himself is also in the car. Wise is in a state of constant departure, always in flux, always ready to ship out. Naturally, the idea of being in a state of constant departure is the Buddhist notion of the self: never fixed, always in flux.
In Scene 11, Say Yes to Existence, Otto Hoffman, a Quaker, asks us to liberate ourselves from the negative and to say Yes to one instant, and thus to all existence. In other words, we should live in the now and not be attached to the past or possible futures. This point is reinforced in Scene 22, The Train Arrives, when David Martinez debarks from a train and tells Wiley not to be bored because “this is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive.” The reality of the now comes up a third time in Scene 25, The Ongoing Wow, where Timothy “Speed” Levitch, a wild and wacky New York poet and tour guide, tells Wiley that the “ongoing WOW is happening right now,” and that life understood is life lived. This scene is rotoscoped with psychedelic colours and patterns, stars floating in the air, and an exploding hairdo on Levitch that reminds one of a 1960s Bob Dylan poster. It’s an important scene because all three of our major themes – Buddhism, existentialism and situationism – are mixed together in Levitch’s mad rant. Be that as it may, we get repeated reminders from Linklater’s characters of the need to be aware of the reality of present instant, the ongoing wow of the now, a central tenet of Buddhism.
Throughout the film Wiley is asked to pay attention, to be mindful, of the swirl of experience going on around him. This is perhaps indicated by the appearance of a beautiful young woman in the bus station at the beginning of Scene 2, then again in Scene 26, when she asks if he remembers her (he says he doesn’t). Her kind face is a reminder to Wiley to focus his compassion on his immediate world, and not on distant people and things.
Scene 24, The Human Ant Colony, follows up on this theme. Tiana Hux confronts Wiley with the need to be awake to the reality of all encounters, to practise mindfulness. She tells him that she doesn’t want to wander around on “ant autopilot” all the time, but wants instead some real human moments. Wiley confesses that he has been on zombie autopilot a lot lately, recounting the D. H. Lawrence story of two people meeting on a road and deciding to “accept what he calls the confrontation between their souls.” So the reality of the ongoing wow requires this sort of confrontation, a mindfulness of the existence of the other.
In Scene 13, The Aging Paradox, two women – Carol Dawson, a novelist, and Lisa Moore, an English professor – discuss the aging paradox. As they get older, they feel they have more time, not being attached to the rigid goals of their youth. As young women they felt an eager desperation to reach a plateau in their lives somewhere in their thirties. Yet when they got there, this desperation evaporated, and they felt a greater freedom. They also discuss how we have to use things like old photos to construct an identity which links our present to our past selves, even though this identity is essentially a fiction. In fact, our cells regenerate every seven years, so we shed off the skin of several selves in the course of a lifetime. Moore and Dawson have seemingly thrown off their attachments to an illusory future and to the fixed nature of their selves.
We see further Buddhist themes in Scene 30, when Mona Lee says our self is just a logical structure, a “place to momentarily house all the abstractions,” and that in times past life was raging all around her, and “every moment was magical.” Lastly, Scene 7 makes a brief allusion to the ideas of reincarnation and collective memory found in Tibetan Buddhism. Julie Delpy dismisses reincarnation as a real metaphysical possibility due to the fact that with so many “new” people in the world over the last forty years, it’s difficult to figure out where all these new souls came from. However, she sees reincarnation as a poetic expression of something that is more substantial, collective memory. Ethan Hawke offers as evidence of collective memory a study that showed when people were given day-old New York Times crossword puzzles, their collective scores went up 20%, even though they had never seen the puzzles before. Why? Because others around them had seen these puzzles, and had somehow communicated their solutions to the test group via some sort of collective consciousness.
So our first wake-up call ends with the Buddhist notions of the reality of the now, of the changing self, and of the need for mindfulness. Ironically, the Buddhist idea of a self constantly in flux contradicts the much more substantial Vedantist self, which is one with Brahman. Yet Linklater has allowed this contradiction to stand in his film, seemingly embracing both sides of the dialectic at once.
3. Second Wake-Up Call: Existentialism and the Call to Freedom
The second wake up call in Waking Life comes from existentialism, especially Jean-Paul Sartre’s notions that we are condemned to be free, and that if we make excuses for our not having this freedom, we are living in bad faith. Sartre distinguished in-itself physical being, like that of rocks, which have no consciousness and thus no freedom, from for-itself conscious being, which we human beings have. As in-itself beings, we are fundamentally free to make our own choices, to chart our own course in life. Brute matter may frustrate our plans, yet we always have a choice. We are thrown into this world, and it’s up to us to do the best job we can at creating our selves, much as an artist strives to paint an evocative painting, or a sculptor chisels away at a mass of rock to create a compelling statue.
For Sartre, every time we make an excuse for not doing something we desire or feel obligated to do, we are living in bad faith. On the other side, if we blindly follow the dictates of social custom or the commands of others, and refuse to take responsibility for our actions, we are once again in bad faith. Since we are responsible for creating our own actions, we are responsible for creating our selves. We need to wake up to the reality of this act of creation, of our personal freedom. So the wake up call here is to freedom, to the acceptance of a transcendent being-for-itself that isn’t enchained by the grimy materialism of the body or by the slightly less grimy socialization of our economic and social roles.
The key scene here is Scene 3, Condemned to be Free, when Wiley Wiggins, our hero, visits Robert C. Solomon, an important commentator on and champion of existential thought. He doesn’t like the socially constructed and fragmented self of the postmodernists: this just opens up a whole world of excuses. What we do in our lives does make a difference. In Solomon’s own words:
[Solomon in the classroom]… The reason why I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion, or historical curiosity, is that I think it has something very important to offer us for the new century. I’m afraid we’re losing the real virtues of living life passionately, in the sense of taking responsibility for who you are, the ability to make something of yourself and feeling good about life. Existentialism is often discussed as if it’s a philosophy of despair, but I think the truth is just the opposite. Sartre once interviewed said he never really felt a day of despair in his life. The one thing that comes out from reading these guys is not a sense of anguish about life, so much as a real kind of exuberance, of feeling on top of it. It’s like, your life is yours to create… [Solomon and Wiley walking] I’ve read the post-modernists with some interest, even admiration. But, when I read them I always have this awful, nagging feeling like something absolutely essential is getting left out. The more that you talk about a person as a social construction, or as a confluence of forces, or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses. And when Sartre talks about responsibility, he’s not talking about something abstract. He’s not talking about the kind of self or soul that theologians would argue about. It’s something very concrete; it’s you and me talking, making decisions, doing things and taking the consequences. (Waking Life, Scene 3)
Solomon’s monologue hints at the idea of everyday life held by most people, including the postmodernist ideological justification of this life: the idea that we are pushed and shoved by large institutions like corporations and the state, or are trapped in our roles as members of a given sex, race, or religion. The existentialists critique this idea as radically underestimating our personal responsibility for our actions. Given a Whiggish theory of history, one might think that the more recent (historically speaking) postmodernists, with their socially constructed view of the self, would trump the “old-fashioned” existentialist view of the self as transcendental and fundamentally free. But not so for Solomon, and one would imagine Linklater. The fat lady has yet to sing in the arena of personal responsibility. Matter and social roles are tests of our freedom: can we transcend them, or do we surrender to in-itself being, becoming moving blobs of flesh and bones animated by nothing more than custom and habit?
Existentialist freedom arises again in Scene 25, when Speed Levitch waves his hands like a sorcerer, excitedly informing Wiley that:
We are all co-authors of this dancing exuberance, for even our inabilities are having a roast. We are the authors of ourselves, co-authoring a gigantic Dostoevsky novel starring clowns. This entire thing we’re involved with called the world is an opportunity to exhibit how exciting alienation can be. Life is a matter of a miracle that is collected over time by moments flabbergasted to be in each others’ presence. The world is an exam, to see if we can rise into the direct experiences. Our eyesight is here as a test, to see if we can see beyond it. Matter is here as a test for our curiosity. Doubt is here as an exam for our vitality. Thomas Mann wrote that he would rather participate in life than write a hundred stories. Giacometti was once run down by a car, and he recalled falling into a lucid faint – a sudden exhilaration as he realized at last, something was happening to him. (Waking Life, Scene 25)
Here are some all too familiar existentialist themes: we write our own lives, the self is made over time through experience, and physical matter is a sort of test for our willingness to live in good faith, to exert our freedom. Of course, Levitch’s existentialism is mixed in with some jolly Buddhism and some self-affirming situationism: the gigantic Dostoevsky novel that is our lives stars clowns, not Raskalnikov or the brothers Karamazov. Yet it is an existentialism all the same. Alienation is exciting, doubt a test of our vitality. Perhaps one-third Sartre, one-third Nietzsche, and one-third Camus in one of his happier moods.
As a counterpoint to all this freedom, in Scene 9, Free Will and Physics, philosophy professor David Sosa brings up a central criticism of existentialism, the idea that we live in a pre-determined universe. He starts by discussing a basic problem faced by medieval Christian thinkers like St. Thomas: if God is all-powerful and knows everything that will ever happen, how can human action be seen as free? This is the same question posed by modern science, transferring the power to determine events from God to natural laws. In his speech Sosa in effect asks, “how can we have free will if we’re just bundles of matter and energy determined by physical laws?” It doesn’t do any good to bring in quantum mechanics with its probabilistic account of the random swerving of atomic particles – this hardly preserves human dignity. Sosa prefers a “deterministic physical machine” to such swerving. He concludes without a real solution, insisting that we can’t ignore the problems of choice and of freedom, since our very notions of responsibility and of individuality depend on our understanding this problem.
A second major more-or-less existentialist thinker hinted at a number of times in the film is Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche argues that all life is will to power. Yet the will to power of some is weak and dyspeptic – they follow a slave morality which celebrates pity, physical illness, and servitude. Those bursting with a more positive will to power can master both themselves and others. They revel in creativity, struggle, and self-mastery. They embrace master morality. Nietzsche was no democrat – he saw the greater mass of humanity as bleating sheep whose chief preoccupation was avoiding marauding birds of prey. For him, they invent slave morality to enslave their enemies in mind-forged manacles of self-renunciation and self-pity. The true test of the presence of master morality was the amor fati, or love of fate. What if the universe eternally recurred, eventually repeating your life just as it is now? Could you embrace this fate? Live your life over again just as it is now? If you say “yes,” then you love fate, and are indeed a master.
We’ve already seen how in Scene 11 Otto Hoffman asks us to say Yes to all existence. Seen from this point of view, his claim that the essence of the human quest is to be “liberated from the negative” parallels Nietzsche’s own attempt to escape from the nihilism that he saw engulfing European civilization all around him. Hoffman’s “Yes” to existence can also be seen (in addition to its Buddhist connotations) as evoking Nietzsche’s amor fati, love of fate.
A more aggressive Nietzschean can be seen in Scene 15, which I’ve called The Overman. Here Louis Mackey says that there are two types of people in the world, “those who suffer from a lack of life, and those who suffer from an over-abundance of life.” These roughly parallel Nietzsche’s master and slave moralities. Mackey goes on to suggest that the distance between the average person and Plato or Nietzsche is greater than that between a chimp and an ordinary human. So few of us reach our real potentials, become great artists, saints or philosophers. Why? Mackey says that the answer to this simple question can be found in another – what’s the more universal human characteristic, fear, or laziness? However we reply to this second question – one assumes that the true answer is “a mixture of both” – Mackey’s short monologue hints strongly at Overman, the higher type of human being who embraces master morality, who overcomes all obstacles to achieving his full potential. Even the most dedicated Nietzsche scholars debate over who are the best examples of Nietzsche’s Overman. He himself seems to suggest Napoleon and Goethe, diverse human types to be sure, one a military conqueror, the other a poet. Whichever pole we think more accurately reflects Nietzsche’s Overman, we can be sure that most of us are neither Napoleons or Goethes. At the end of our lives, we are probably closer to being animals that Overmen – we eat, sleep, have babies, go to work, watch television, but produce nothing great. Our names are erased from history with the millions of others who have led similarly humdrum if not slavish lives. Sadly, most of us are Nietzsche’s bleating sheep, ever watchful of the circling birds of prey, the truly “evil” masters of their own fates.
Finally, Scene 33 returns us to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. Linklater, speaking of his dream of Lady Gregory, talks about how there is only one story, moving from the “No” to the “Yes,” embracing eternity and the unity of things underneath their phenomenal differences. With a bit of a stretch we can see this once again as Nietzsche’s rejection of nihilism and his challenge that we embrace life and fate, even if it eternally recurs. So whether it’s Sartre’s clarion call to freedom, or Nietzsche’s demand that we become masters of our own selves and destinies, Waking Life oozes existentialist ideas out of its many cracks and fissures. There remains one more major philosophical theme on display in the film, a theme which, historically speaking, was very much a continuation of existentialism.
4. Third Wake-Up Call: Situationism and the Consumer Spectacle
Our third theme is the situtationism of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, French thinkers and activists whose work culminated in two major theoretical statements, both published in 1967: Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life. The situationists see modern consumer society as a society of the spectacle where our selves are absorbed into the mass entertainments provided by film, TV, pop music, advertising, and consumer goods. Authenticity is swallowed up by the passivity encouraged by absorption in the spectacle. In Debord’s own words:
[The spectacle] is the sun which never sets on the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory. (Debord, paragraph 13)
The economic system is a circular production of isolation. The technology is based on isolation, and the technical process isolates in turn. From the automobile to television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of “lonely crowds.” (Debord, paragraph 28)
We live in a world so dominated by consumer goods that even our social relations are commodified. We relate to others through cars, stereos, mass-produced music, TV shows and vacation packages. We live in a world of illusions created by our endless pursuit of commodities: for Debord, we are literally “consumers of illusions” (P47). The spectacle breeds isolation, and alienates us from meaningful work, play and communities. We are caught up in false choices between spectacles in a society which offers us spectacular abundance, yet at the same time separates us from each other and from active resistance to the cultural alienation this society represents. These commodities fight epic battles as “vaporous qualities” empty of substance, lacking the reality of even mythical heroes such as Achilles and Hector (Debord P62, 66). Yet they easily slip into our emotional lives by means of the Trojan Horses of advertising, television, movies and other agencies of the society of the spectacle.
The situationists had a number of interesting ideas about how to deal with the society of the spectacle. They said “never work,” a solution that many of them acted out in their lives. They proposed creating everyday “situations” to make everyday life more than a manufactured consumer spectacle; they supported “détournements,” the rearranging, mocking, or defacing of important cultural object to subvert their meaning; and they suggested we drift around town (they called these drifts dérives), soaking up the atmosphere of each quarter. Their explorations of the contemporary urban environment led them to speculate about its “psychogeography,” arguing that a revolution in everyday life required a more liveable architecture, one that encouraged desire and play. Although much of the situationist program crashed and burned after the failure of the May 1968 anti-Gaullist revolt in France, punk rock and the more recent culture jamming movement, with Kalle Lasn and his magazine Adbusters leading the charge, keep them alive.
Situationism is explicitly referenced in Scene 21, Society is a Fraud, when four young men (including Nicki Katt and Adam Goldberg, Linklater regulars) go on a dérive, eventually visiting “Mr. Debord” (played by Austin shopkeeper and poet Hymie Samuelson – the real Debord committed suicide in 1993). On the way there they exchange situationist-style jargon like wanting to rupture the spell of the ideology of consumer society to open up ourselves to authentic desires, to interrupt the continuum of everyday existence, to pursue intensities of love and hate, to live as if something actually depended on one’s actions. One of them proclaims that “society is a fraud so complete and venal that it demands to be destroyed beyond the power of memory to recall its existence.” Another wants “an affirmation of freedom so reckless and unqualified, that it amounts to a total denial of every kind of restraint and limitation.” The situationism of these four wanderers is uttered with an intense earnestness. Yet Linklater throws in some humour at the end of the scene to lighten the situation: they see an older man stuck up a telephone pole who doesn’t know why he’s there. One of the situationists comments that just as he’s all action and no theory, they are all theory and no action, a chronic problem with the avant-garde Left.
Scene 4, with Kim Krizan, is about how we can overcome alienation through spiritual communion, understanding each other through words like “love.” This is evidence of the more poetic, positive side of situationism, of Vaneigem’s idea that we could build a cathedral of poetry and love in which to carry out our everyday lives.
Scene 14, Noise and Silence, hints at the roots of situationism in avant-garde artistic movements such as Dada, surrealism, and the Lettrist International (the immediate precursor of the Situationist International, from which it emerged in 1957). A chimp pronounces a monologue into a microphone as a series of film clips (including Kurosawa’s Dreams and a punk rock performance) play on a screen behind him. He talks about how art can be used to create subversive micro-societies, which open up new possibilities. Anything is still possible, the talking chimp tells us, even though the world seems empty and degraded. True communication is the key. In a true situationist gesture, he eats his script at the end.
The difficult path to authenticity is made more specific in Scene 20, The Holy Moment, when filmmaker Caveh Zahedi describes André Bazin’s theory that since God is in all reality, films are really attempts to capture God. When Zahedi and poet David Jewell try to have such a moment, they are partially successful; yet Jewell confesses that he slips in and out of the moment, becoming aware of the layers of reality embedded in such an attempt at real communication.
Two scenes in Waking Life speak to the need for direct action to overcome the passivity and isolation of consumer society. In Scene 6, Self-Immolation, journalist J. C. Shakespeare douses himself with gasoline and sets himself on fire, just like a Buddhist monk in Vietnam in 1963 who was protesting the treatment of Buddhists by the Diem government. Before doing so, Shakespeare speaks of how the media uses images of death and destruction to turn us into passive observers, and how the only real freedom we’re offered is the purely symbolic act of voting. Human beings want chaos: we want strife, riots, murder, and war. The trick used by the media is to paint a sad face on all these catastrophes, to pretend that they’re avoidable tragedies. Yet behind this sad face is an attempt to pacify us, to turn us into puppets of the spectacle. We sit in our living rooms shedding metaphorical tears for the deaths of thousands in Bangladeshi typhoons or massacres in Rwanda, yet ten minutes later drive to the shopping mall for our daily fix of fast food and maybe a shiny new commodity or two.
Radical broadcaster Alex Jones picks up this theme in Scene 10, when he rants from over a microphone and loudspeaker from the front seat of his car of how corporate and political systems of control turn us into slaves. These systems turn loose greed, hatred, envy, and insecurities to control us. They “make us feel pathetic, small, so we’ll willingly give up our sovereignty, our liberty, our destiny.” Political parties are just different management teams taking turns exercising this control. Jones urges us to realize that we’re being conditioned on a mass scale, and that we have to “start challenging the corporate slave-state.” He concludes that we’ve got to get fired up about the things that really matter, “creativity and the dynamic human spirit that refuses to submit.” Jones’ rant has a distinctly American flavour in its libertarianism and distrust of traditional politics. Yet its connection of individual freedom to creativity, and his suggestion that systems of control use our own insecurities against us, is also situationist in spirit.
Tentative solutions to the problem of the alienation of consumer society are offered in Scenes 24 and 25. In 24, Tiana Hux says that all communication winds up just keeping our “ant colony buzzing along in an efficient, polite manner.” Mocking everyday babble, she asks Wiley, “Paper or plastic?”, Credit or debit?”, “Do you want ketchup with that?” Wiley goes on to quote the D. H. Lawrence story about two strangers meeting on a road who decide to accept a confrontation between their souls, saying that this is like freeing the “brave, reckless gods within us all,” a comment that seems out of context for the sedate character played by Wiggins (even though it’s just a dream!). Hux’s solution to our everyday lack of true communication is artistic: she wants to produce a soap opera where the characters are the fantasy alter-egos of the actors. Yet whatever the potential for such a project to open up avenues of authenticity for more than a handful of literati, Tiana’s cynicism about the flatness of everyday life, coupled with Wiley’s idea that we can actually have authentic, meaningful encounters with others, is once again situationist in spirit. Everyday life can be a cathedral of our own making, if only we try hard enough.
Lastly, in Scene 25, Speed Levitch speaks in favour of the ongoing wow and of direct experiences, quoting Thomas Mann to the effect that it’s better to participate in life than write a hundred stories. Towards the end of his speech he says that he wants to make love to the paradoxes that bug him, and on romantic evenings of the self to go salsa dancing with his confusion. Indeed, the wild graphics of the scene and Levitch’s flamboyant manner, not to mention his concrete ideas and the fact that the scene takes place on the Brooklyn Bridge, all suggest some heavy psychogeography going on in the background. New York City is to Levitch what the Paris of the 1960s was to Debord and Vaneigem, a city full of exciting possibilities, the site of many a romantic drift.
So the final wake-up call is away from the consumer spectacle, with its passivity and alienation, toward individual freedom and creative activity (in both art and politics). When we look back over the first two wake-up calls, we can see how they are all connected: the Vedantist idea of the need to realize the unity of all things, the Taoist call to live naturally and spontaneously, the Buddhist sense of mindfulness and rejection of attachments to a hard unchanging ego, and the existentialist reminder that we are responsible, free beings who should live in good faith with our decisions. Natural, mindful, responsible thinking can also help us to dissolve at least in part the spell of the society of the spectacle, to emerge from our immersion in false needs and the spider’s web of illusion spun by advertising and the media. Waking Life thus does good service not just as a sort of proto-philosophy class for the faint of heart, but also as presenting us with a triad of wake-up calls for the self and its relation to society and the world as a whole. Its didacticism aside, it reminds us that dreaming is something higher than everyday life – something that causes us to emerge from a quotidian common sense into a sharper awareness of the human