March 12, 2009

What Was The Matrix?

What are you telling me, that I can dodge bullets?

I'm telling you that when you're ready, you won't have to.

(Part 1 here: An Action Movie Fairy Tale)

No, no, it doesn't end like this.  Not like this. [she dies.]

With every passing day, you realize you will not fight bad guys, not join the CIA, not be in a band, not throw the winning touchdown. 

You will not know kung fu.

Your body sickeningly, boringly confirms it.  You breathe harder when you run.  You don't run anyway.  Hair missing, appearing.   

Women your age are better looking than men your age.  Wait, wait, what?

Hopes and dreams are now only dreams.  You start to care about office politics because nothing else is happening.  Clothes matter more because very little else does.

Drinking helps.  You don't know why, you aren't an alcoholic, but you need it.

"I will never be in love."  You love the sister you've married, but there's no hunger, no need.  There never really was.  This was supposed to be temporary until... she came along.  The woman with the dark hair tied loosely in a bun, wearing a scarf, glasses, stunningly beautiful (no one had noticed her but you, of course)-- lost-- needing to be saved---

But wait, you're still young.  Ish. You still have some time-- something could still happen.

What modern middle aged narcissist wants is to find a way to put one foot in reality and keep one foot in fantasy.  A solution that lets him keep fighting the traffic twice a day.  Providing just enough lack of self-awareness that he doesn't reach for a bazooka and blow his brains out. (If only he had even energy for that.)  To have just enough hope that one day the fantasies could come true that he keeps on going.  That a 30 something year old man could suddenly know kung fu.

Fortunately, we find ourselves at the tenth anniversary of just such a solution.

The Matrix: the natural, necessary end to the action movie generation, temporarily postponing  a tripling of the suicide rate.

What Is The Matrix?

No one can be told what the Matrix is.  You have to see it for yourself.

The Schizotypal State

It wasn't supposed to be like this.  By this age, things were supposed to have happened for you.  You were supposed to be somebody.  Someone was supposed to have fallen in love with you.

What is called the "world" doesn't seem like what you thought it would be.... there's a lack of emotional connection; a lack of highs and lows, of change, of either growth or regression.  No energy.  There's no real love.  Instead is trudging, boredom.... ennui.   There's nothing happening in your life; yet you feel like it's out of control.

Neo:  I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad...

You walk through life diligently performing the tasks assigned to you, automatically.  But always the thousand yard stare, the tiniest expectation that it is all about to change.  More than fantasy but less than delusion, you hold active the remote probability that you are more than your current appearance. You're not unfinished, you're undiscovered. 

matrix neo alone.jpg

If, in the preposterous situation of alien invasion or talent scout or ninja attack, you'd know exactly what to do.  You'd be able to do it.

It seems that you've been living two lives. One life, you're Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and you help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life... where you go by the alias "Neo"...  One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not.

It is the reverse of Nausea, it's Constipation.  You have a completely defined, detailed identity, but it never got a chance to come out.  The world wouldn't cooperate.  The problem is the world.

You know you don't really know kung fu.  You know ninjas aren't going to attack.  But you know a secret: that the impossible thing is a ninja attack, not that you would know kung fu if ninjas attacked. In a reality which would permit the existence of a ninja attack, it is inevitable that it would allow you to know kung fu.

What kind of a reality is it that blocks impossible scenarios,  but treats them as prerequisites? 

Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Boy: Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

matrix spoon.jpg

A reality that is still, partially, under your influence.

The Anchors of the Schizotypal State

You say: but no one seriously believes reality is fake, that we're living in a computer.  Correct; but the issue isn't the reality of reality, but under what circumstances would reality change for you?  What are the necessary requirements for you to suddenly know kung fu?

God is one.  God lets the world run as it is, but if ninjas attacked, God would make sure you'd know kung fu.  But there's no religion here, you don't need to go to church for this, you just need to believe that God is watching out for you.  This is why organized religion is in serious decline.   There's no way a Catholic God will upload kung fu when you need it.  Access to that kind of transcendent knowledge requires Buddhism, or agnosticism.  It requires you not to know who He is, so you can make Him into whatever you need Him to be.

You're not going to subject yourself to His rules; you're going to subject Him to yours.

Do you remember the movies that had the Devil as the bad guy?  The hero never had special powers; he had to perfectly execute Catholic rituals or incantations that exist independent of himself in order to stop the Devil.  That was back when we still believed in something outside of ourselves.  They don't make those movies anymore.

Credit is another one.  No, credit won't change reality, but credit solidifies your identity in preparation for a change in reality.    Credit says: buy this coat, it signifies that you could know kung fu.

Girlfriends are another.  Girlfriends say: I pretend to believe you when you say you know kung fu, because I love you.  The boyfriend says, not hearing anything she said:   I'll stay with you until either I know kung fu; or you realize I don't really know kung fu, and my shame makes me hate you.  What does it matter?  None of this is the real thing anyway.

Some Lessons of The Matrix

1. Information Is Knowledge.

After a gunbattle, Trinity and Neo need to fly a chopper.

Neo: Can you fly that thing?
Trinity: Not yet.   [Dials a phone.] Tank, I need a pilot program for a B212 helicopter.

Poof-- she now knows how to fly a chopper.

Fine: how did she even know that it was a B212 helicopter?

Presumably she learned it "on the job."  But knowing that fact is pointless: none of it is real anyway, and Tank "sees" everything, he would know what programs to upload, she could simply say, "I need to fly that thing over there."

It's the accumulation of trivia, the same as a guy who learns all the different kinds of handguns but never shoots one;  they know minute details of rock music, when something was performed, who produced it-- but never played an instrument.  It is the substitution of information, easily acquired, for knowledge.  Knowing about it makes you think you are so much closer to knowing it.  But, as any virgin on the internet will know, knowing about and knowing are different things.

2. Love Is Waiting For You To Become.

Trinity loves Neo, even before he becomes The One.  She's waited her whole life for him.  He doesn't (yet) know kung fu, but she knows he will.  And she does know kung fu-- and chooses him, saves him.  That's love.

But Neo doesn't return the love until he becomes who he has always known he is.  He has to know kung fu first.

Only then can could someone really love him.

3. Self-Identification Transcends All.

Agent Smith has Neo ("Mr. Anderson") in a chokehold on the train tracks; the subway speeds towards them.  Agent Smith is-- satisfied. 

Hear that, Mr. Anderson?  That is the sound of inevitability.  It is the sound of your death.  Good bye, Mr. Anderson.

Agent Smith has it figured right:  Anderson's life was a pointless struggle.  All the dreaming and all the expectation are doomed to end in failure, in death.

Faced with the absurdity and unintelligibility of life, but the inevitability of its end, there is only one answer that today's man-- the narcissist-- can give that makes his life meaningful, and he gives it:

My name is Neo.


That's all he needs to say to escape the inevitable.

II.  It's Just A Movie 

Someone says: oh, come on.  There's no real philosophy in The Matrix, it's homeopathic doses of Kant and Derrida.

HA!   What are you, German?  No one's read Kant, what the hell is the matter with you?   No one's even read A Christmas Carol.  There was more philosophy in those two hours than people had passed in a bookstore over their entire lives.

If you're 50, you say: really?  a movie is that powerful that it can affect the consciousness of people who didn't even like it?

I know, I know, such power is given only to the Beatles...  or Pink Floyd...  or the Dead... or On The Road.  All these things are the same.  They all say: stay young with me as your life washes away beneath you.

"But I didn't even see the stupid movie!"  Look around: they did.  It's enough.   Or did you buy an engagement ring because of three thousand years of tradition?

III.  Narcissism Beats Reality, Again.

The Matrix was the articulated solution to a growing existential crisis.  It gave us hope: "Unless there's solid reason not to, I'm just going to allow the possibility that there's more to reality than what I see, and so there may be a valid reason to hope that my real life will kick in any time.  And then someone will love me."

I know kung fu.
"No, but when I need to, I will."

The Matrix could have carried us, could have kept the Schizotypal state active, maybe for another ten years.  It gave Narcissism the strength to look reality in the face and say, "my identity is bigger than you, I don't care what you do, if I needed to, I could control you."

Two years after The Matrix, reality responded.