More thoughts on “Matrix”

Note of explanation: The Elfquest blog isn’t set up as many others are, to allow instant and untrammeled response to whatever Wendy or I may post. We decided upon that course well before we put up the page, hoping that new tidbits on the site would bring visitors more frequently, but also knowing that neither of us has the time to get into an extended dialog about what we’ve written. (Once in a while, I’ll stick my nose into this or that discussion on one of the other EQ forums, just to keep things lively, but neither Wendy nor I want to make a habit of it – and it can be habit forming! I’ll touch on that in another blog. Maybe.)

But email works, and recently I received a reply to my thoughts about “The Matrix” and its sequels, that I found delightfully thought-provoking. So I asked the writer – one “” – if I could quote his letter and make my own replies. He said yes, so here we are. (I don’t know for certain that this person is male, but years of reading letters, stories, comments and so on from both genders has, I think, trained my editorial ear. This letter feels very stylistically “guy-like” to me. I’m sure I’ll hear back if I’m wrong!)

If you haven’t yet read that earlier blog, it’s here.

I’m not particularly familiar with the many exegeses of the trilogy on the internet, but this is my take: How the theme of belief was expanded, I think, is at the root of the “psychobabble”. Knowledge was achieved in the first film, the demiurge was revealed, so the “power of belief” became a kind of situational fact in the sequels, a part of the mythological landscape rather than a quest item, so to speak.

Ah – this is good. I like this. When I saw the first film, I felt very much at home with its apparent message. That message is made available not only to Neo – who indeed at the movie’s conclusion has chosen to become a powerful creative force arrayed against “the Matrix, whatever it may be – but also to us, the viewers. We are given the gift of the question, “What do you believe the world to be?” Or more to the point, “What do you want your world to be?”

But I was put off by what seemed to me to be a squandering, in the second and third films, of that powerful premise in favor of the same noisy and pointless posturing that killed “Aliens” 3 and 4, and “Terminator” 3. I felt that the introduction of the Architect, who is both of the Matrix yet also its creator, was a cop-out. We’d been shown that there was a curtain – the illusion of a “real” world imposed upon billions of minds – so now it seems we must have a wizard behind the curtain. But I accept now, given that the power of belief has evolved from spiritual goal to “situational fact,” that it must become less ethereal and more like, well, a traditional superpower. (Neo, with his new abilities, is in fact more than once slyly compared to Superman.)

Neo’s objective becomes instead victory over a defined foe. How to put his powers to purpose? He must decide not just which world is real, but the nature of the real world he has found.

Even though I’ll agree that Neo’s objective has changed, I still ask “Just who is the defined foe?” Is it the machines who are the generators of the Matrix? Is it the Architect, whoever he is and wherever he truly resides? Is it Agent Smith, the rogue program who wants to take over the Matrix (and then, apparently, extend his domain out into the physical world of the machines)?

It appears, in Matrix 2, that the differing characters are novel archetypes, each representing varying types of philosophical determinism for Neo to choose from: Morpheus’ holistic fatalism, the French guy’s causal determinism, and the Architect’s more malign, willed-and-imposed fatalism. Neo chooses free will over all these, but not before we’re bamboozled by lots of lectures on the nature of agency. The first movie’s clarity is there, buried in it all, only occasionally allowed to shine amid the bigger picture the Wachowskis decided to explore.

Waaaay too many lectures… But I like the metaphor of “characters as menu items.” For me, it adds weight to the power of choice – which, when applied to our own beliefs, becomes the single most potent faculty we possess.

So where does belief fit in — why is it important to make two big loud movies after its power is secured? One thing I’ve become convinced of: It is to avoid comparisons with traditional western and eastern philosophy. More important, I think, is postmodern epistemology, like that of Jean Baudrillard (Mr “Signs” and “Simulacra”), who phrases the gnostic paradox not as a conflict between a real and false world, but in terms of signs and symbols competing with real experience for the attention of our perceptive faculties.

In this view, instead of having experiences, people observe copies of the real filtered through “control screens”. Instead of the real, we have belief-simulations comprised selectively of the real and placed in our heads by our own manipulated senses – by own own beliefs. If so, maybe Neo’s victory is to empower free will not only over the simulation, but over “belief” itself, as belief is the manipulable and corruptible part of humanity that the simuation thrives on to begin with.

The merely enlightened “believed” in the real deal, but it took The One to grab the real deal and will some change into it.

Which, I think, begs another question or six. If by the “merely enlightened” you’re referring to folks like Morpheus and the inhabitants of Zion who’ve escaped the Matrix into (what’s left of) the real world, then what you say makes a certain sense. There’s the world of the Matrix, within which most of humanity exists in a dream state, thinking it reality. And then there’s the “real” world where the machines dominate the blasted Earth. Morpheus made the point – at times, overmuch – that he believed in the victory of humanity over the machines (and the Matrix) but as you say, his was a passive faith. Yes, he found and nurtured Neo, but it was still Neo who was set up to be the active player.

But what of the billions who dream their waking dreams? Among all those, certainly there are many who hold beliefs of one sort or another – after all, the illusory world of the Matrix is supposed to be a cautionary mirror of the world as we know it in our everyday lives. The dwellers in the Matrix simulation believe they are other than what they are; they believe they are walking about, doing jobs, going to church, fighting wars, trusting friends, loving family… None of which is “real” if it’s all “manipulable and corruptible” as you say. It’s almost like there are layers to the world of the Matrix. The first layer contains the population’s universal belief that the world is real. Beneath that come all the varied beliefs of individual souls. If I am a denizen of the Matrix world, I live my life in the (ultimately unreal) belief that I am free to choose my own path – and more, I never know that I live, that I am an illusion, a dream.

It’s here that I draw my own line in the sand. There is (I believe) a rock-bottom foundation of reality, and I am in it. Within it, I have choice, and that affords me the power to build a happy life upon beliefs that, yes, are malleable. I have the ability to increase my happiness. I can do that, if I choose to – and I do make that choice. Can such an idea exist within the dream world of the Matrix? I don’t know, though it’s easy enough to imagine that the simulation is so seamless as to allow it. On the other hand, if it were so perfect, no one would ever have “awakened” from it, would they? Someone had to be the first to break out; Morpheus speaks of a man who did just that, and who awoke others – including Morpheus himself. The illusion is thus flawed, and “there is no spoon” if you do not choose to see it. There are forces in the world who would love nothing more than to try to manipulate our every sensory input – there’s a bunch right here and now that we call the current Administration – but we each have the power to (as the Moody Blues put it) decide which is right, and which is an illusion. And then “will some change into it.”

(I really didn’t intend this go in a political direction, but it’s difficult to avoid the analogy. I don’t give too much of a fig for the postmodern sensibility – if that’s not an oxymoron – but the country does seem to be heading more and more toward a condition of heightened ideological fragmentation and meaninglessness. In a way, it is becoming its own little “mini-Matrix” – people accept more uncritically than ever what is put before them. “I heard it on the teevee, I read it on the internet, it must be true!” Here’s an intriguing question: Would we recognize a Neo if we saw him – or her?)

One last question that’s sticking in my craw: What is up with the revelation that the Matrix has been created and, apparently, overcome half a dozen times – so far? What’s the message here? Since at the trilogy’s end the Oracle tells the little girl that she expects Neo will return – are we to infer that we’re doomed to ride the wheel of cyberkarma forever? Or will his reappearance signify that we’re slowly notching our way up the ladder of enlightenment until we are all made free? The Architect’s snippy implication that it’s all going to happen over and over puts the same sort of sour taste in my mouth as those cheesy 1950s atomic-era monster movies that go to black with a big white “THE END” … followed by the fade-in question mark. Thanks for the hairball, bros!