Waking Life and Plato's Republic Richard Linklater's Essay

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Waking Life and Plato's Republic

Richard Linklater's 2001 film Waking Life explores the nature of reality and its relationship to dreaming, and in particular the way in which the worlds of dreaming and reality intersect and cloud each other. At one point, as the main character essentially walks through his dreams, interacting with a variety of characters engaged in philosophical discussion, he comes upon a man playing ukulele who espouses and interpretation of dreaming very similar to Plato's allegory of the cave in his Republic. The ukulele-playing man describes the notion of lucid dreaming as a means of truly "living," and his description of lucid dreaming can be interpreted as the enactment of the goal in Plato's allegory. By comparing the scene with the ukulele-playing man in Waking Life with Plato's allegory of the cave in The Republic, it will be possible to see how the former reinterprets the latter by elevating the gap in knowledge and misperception of reality to the difference between a waking life and dreaming, instead between a tribal animism and reasoned analysis. Thus, the solution is found in lucid dreaming, which allows for the application of reason and conscious thought even in the sleeping world.

Before examining Waking Life's treatment of theories from The Republic, it will be useful to describe Plato's allegory in more detail. Plato begins his description of the cave in book VII of the Republic, explaining "how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened" by describing a scene of "human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open toward the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood," chained so that they are unable to see anything except for what is right in front of them. "Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette-players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets" (Plato VII.514a). The people in the cave are only able to see the shadows cast by the fire, shadows of "men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall." The combination of a restricted perspective and the unclear origin of sounds in the echoing cave make it so that "the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images" to the people living in the cave, so the closest they could ever come to truly understanding the nature of reality would be an understanding limited to the interpretation of the shadows themselves, rather than the physical objects casting them.

Plato describes the transition from this state of being to an ascendant reality, reached by leaving the cave and heading out into the sun. Although initially this transition is difficult and bewildering, eventually the person who leaves the cave "will require [growing] accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves," before becoming accustomed to the light, after which, "he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven [and] last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is" (Plato VII.514a). Plato goes on to describe the difficulties one has in attempting to return to the cave after having seen the sun, as well as the dangers of only partially leaving without fully realizing the truth of reality. The meaning of Plato's allegory is clear; especially when he states it directly by mentioning that "you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upward to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world," and it holds a favored place in conceptions of consciousness and reason.

Although all of Waking Life deals with the complex interaction between reality, dreaming, and consciousness, one scene in particular approaches these concepts from what appears to be a robustly Platonic perspective, albeit translated into the characteristically early-2000s bohemian angst pervasive throughout the film. The main character, whose name is never revealed other than the epithet of "the Dreamer," approaches a man strumming a ukulele, who proceeds to tell him about the benefits of lucid dreaming in a world where dreams and reality are very nearly similar.

The ukulele-playing man begins by stating "I had a friend once, who told me that the worst mistake that you can make is to think that you are alive, when really you're asleep in life's waiting room." He claims 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." These lines require some analysis before moving on, because they represent the crux of the film's statement, with the rest of the scene providing anecdotal evidence for this. The first line should be immediately apparent as a version of Plato's argument in The Republic, except in this case the cave and the open, outside world are represented as dreams and reality, respectively. A complication arises, however, because what is generally considered to be "reality" is described by the ukulele-playing man as "life's waiting room." Thus, the film seems to suggest that something more is needed to escape from the limitations of perception than metaphorically "going outside" and that "something more" is the practice of lucid dreaming.

As a concept, lucid dreaming is very well defined by the ukulele-playing man himself when he states 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." Essentially, lucid dreaming is result of conditioning oneself to be relatively aware of a dream while dreaming, so that the rational, "waking" mind can be brought to bear on the malleable reality of a dream, thus experiencing the "infinite possibilities of your dreams" without being hoodwinked into believing those dreams to be life. While in reality lucid dreaming requires practice and varies in its effectiveness, in the film it serves as the solution for the problem of thinking "you are alive when you're really asleep in life's waiting room," because the realization of sleeping precipitates waking up.

In order to better understand how Plato's allegory is interpreted by Waking Life, one can consider the example the ukulele-playing man gives following his description of lucid dreaming: "You ever have a job that you hated, worked really hard at? Long hard day of work, finally you get to go home, get in bed, close your eyes, and immediately you wake up and realize that the whole day of work had been a dream." Although the example given here is far more banal than Plato's somewhat dramatic image of humans chained up in a cave, the fact that the ukulele-playing man chooses to use work, and dreams of work, as an example shows a kinship between the two texts.

Firstly, although Plato does not describe in detail the actions and behaviors of the people in the cave, their chains and limitations are somewhat analogous to the work described here, because this work permeates both the waking life and dreaming, so that the two are indistinguishable from each other. "It's bad enough that you sell your waking life for minimum wage, now they get your dreams for free," the ukulele-playing man states, demonstrating the oppression possible when the distinction between waking and dreaming cannot be ascertained. This detail is important to note, because presence of labor and difficulty in both dreams and the waking world complicates what would otherwise be a straightforward connection between Waking Life and The Republic. In short, dreams and waking life cannot be considered directly analogous to the cave and the sun-lit world, for reasons that must investigated in more detail.

With that in mind, it is possible to fully explicate the relationship between the allegory of the cave and lucid dreaming as described in Waking Life, because the ukulele-playing man's dialog is enough to formulate a new, adapted interpretation of Plato's work. As mentioned before, the connection between Plato's allegory and the ukulele-man's first statement is rather obvious, but it requires a second look in order to understand the nuance of Waking Life's application of the allegory to modern life. At first glance, there would appear to be a direct correlation between dreaming or sleeping and the state of the humans who remained chained in the cave, because just as the cave-dwellers only ever see the shadows of reality, so too does the dreamer only ever see the unconscious…

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