Probably because of the director’s philosophical background, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life explores existentialism, free will, and even the favorite topic the lie of reality. This post, however, will focus only on the bedroom scene with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, both frequent collaborators with Linklater, and its relation to another favorite topic, the death of the author.
To summarize briefly, the topic is influenced by Roland Barthes’ seminal post-structuralist essay “The Death of the Author.” It argues for a new approach in literary criticism that focuses more on the reader-responsive analysis of literature, rather than the classical criticism focused on the author’s intent and context. The essay’s implications, however, go beyond literary criticism and explore the inability to originality, multiple discovery, collective unconscious, and the nature of creativity.
In the scene from Waking Life, the conversation between Hawke’s and Delpy’s characters refers most obviously to multiple discovery and collective consciousness. The multiple discovery theory examines independent discoveries. One of the most well-known example is probably the idea of natural selection by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin was well into writing the Origin of Species, when Wallace sent him a letter in which he was describing similar observations.
In short, multiple discovery purports that ideas are not “created” or “invented,” but rather simply “found” or “reached,” often by numerous people simultaneously. Discoveries are therefore not unique creations, but rather an accumulation of previously existing ideas.
Waking Life Scene with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
The scene appears about 21 minutes into the film. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are having a conversation in bed. Here is the part of the conversation pertaining to the death of the author:
I’ve been thinking also about something you said.
Just about reincarnation and where all the new souls come from over time. Everybody always say that they’ve been the reincarnation of Cleopatra or Alexander the Great. I always want to tell them they were probably some dumb fuck like everybody else. I mean, it’s impossible. Think about it. The world population has doubled in the past 40 years, right? So if you really believe in that ego thing of one eternal soul, then you have only 50% chance of your soul being over 40. And for it to be over 150 years old, then it’s only one out of six.
Right, so what are you saying? That reincarnation doesn’t exist, or that we’re all young souls like where half of us are first round humans?
No, no. What I’m trying to say is that somehow I believe reincarnation is just a – a poetic expression of what collective memory really is. There was this article by this biochemist that I read not long ago, and he was talking about how when a member of our species is born, it has a billion years of memory to draw on. And this is where we inherit our instincts.
I like that. It’s like there’s this whole telepathic thing going on that we’re all a part of, whether we’re conscious of it or not. That would explain why there are all these, you know, seemingly spontaneous, worldwide, innovative leaps in science, in the arts. You know, like the same results poppin’ up everywhere independent of each other. Some guy on a computer, he figures something out, and then almost simultaneously a bunch of other people all over the world figure out the same thing.
They did this study. They isolated a group of people over time, and they monitored their abilities at crossword puzzles, right, in relation to the general population. And they secretly gave them a day-old crossword, one that had already been answered by thousands of other people, right. And their scores went up dramatically, like 20 percent. So it’s like once the answers are out there, people can pick up on ’em. It’s like we’re all telepathically sharing our experiences.
The conversation is consistent with Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and archetypes. According to Jung, the collective unconscious is an accumulation of past feelings, thoughts, and behavioral patterns derived from social and historical influence. The collective unconscious is the phenomenon of common experience shared unconsciously between humans.
Mainstream culture seems to oppose the theory of collective unconscious, and especially the multiple discovery theory. Ideas of copyright, plagiarism, and source-attribution oppose the theory of no original creator or author. Copyright issues are especially prominent in Western culture, while Eastern culture seems to be more accepting of the collaborative attribution of ideas. The characters in Drew Christie’s recent animation Allergy to Originality discuss originality, but cannot “talk originally” about it and quote passages from Wikipedia’s page about originality. One of them states originality is culturally contingent and became prominent only in the eighteenth century.