The wife and I recently (re)watched the Matrix Trilogy (she’d only seen the first, and several years back), and I have to say: I like these films better now than I did when I first saw them years ago, and I think it’s because I’m more sensitive to the ideas they play with and the questions they propose (as well as the answers they presuppose).
(obligatory spoiler alert)
Much (much) has been written on The Matrix and philosophy. The movies make an effort at trying to ask questions that relate to epistemology (the nature of knowledge) and ontology (the nature of being and existence), not to mention religion and of course—simulation and simulacra à la Jean Baudrillard.
no place for old philosophers (?)
One of the interesting things sci-fi has done as a genre where others maybe haven’t is preserve a space for the philosophical poem (I use “poem” in its broadest literary sense as an imaginative artistic work): a work that has something overtly philosophical to say or some question to pose.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because the wife and I have been reading The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde, 1890), a decidedly philosophical novel. The book begins with a preface by Wilde, a series of aphorisms—basically a short essay on the philosophy of art, which concludes:
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. … We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
After which the novel (at least as far as we’ve gotten—about half way) makes its case through fiction. Lord Henry, the antagonist, could be seen as Wilde’s spokesperson, expanding on the arguments laid down in the preface (with no shortage of “delightful” cynicism, I might add).
As a result, you get long passages embedded within moments of dialogue like this:
[Lord Henry:] “There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view.”
[Dorian Gray:] “Why?”
[Lord Henry:] “Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. his virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self. Of course, they are charitable. They feed the hungry and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion—these are the two things that govern us. And yet—…”
(And he goes on in this vein, an epicurean individualist Ayn Rand could only have wished her Übermensch John Galt might’ve been…)
It seems like the philosophical novel has gone out of style (and, you know, maybe not without reason…). Overt philosophizing, after all, is usually unnatural to the speech of the everyday, and I think the demands of modern notions of literary mimesis (ha, speaking of influence) has had a large effect on fiction in many genres, including sci-fi.
And of course, mimesis, mimicry, reflection, the representation of capital “N” Nature, that is, reality, seems to be one of the driving issues in The Picture of Dorian Gray. If, under someone else’s influence, we are not thinking our natural thoughts, burning with our natural passions but rather borrowing, becoming “an echo of someone else’s music,” as Lord Henry argues (rather ironically, since he is constantly, deliberately influencing the young Dorian), then the question must be asked: what are our natural thoughts? And we could also ask, how can we possibly know if our thoughts are our own or someone else’s before us? Does that make those thoughts any less…real?
Is art(ifice) no less real than nature?
When Lord Henry says,
“I love acting. It is so much more real than life,”
it gives you pause: is he being serious?
When Dorian Gray falls head over heals for actress Sybil Vane, he is brought up short by her bold rejection of the artifice for the supposed reality of his genuine love:
“Dorian, Dorian,” she cried, “before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. I thought that it was all true. … You taught me what reality really is. To-night, for the first time in my life, I saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which I had always played.”
Of course, Dorian’s aesthetic love is in some ways no more real than her acting. Her emerging trust in what she comes to believe is reality leads, in turn, only to his cruel rejection of her. Later, Lord Henry puts her into perspective when he consoles him that she was less real to Dorian than the fictive parts she played.
welcome to the ecology of the (hyper)real
Which brings us to The Matrix.
[Neo:] This isn’t real?
[Morpheus:] What is “real?” How do you define “real?” If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then “real” is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.
Both Portrait and The Matrix deal with the dividing line between reality and unreality. The Matrix appropriates lines and ideas from Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981), in which he argues that we live in a world of simulation, of simulacra: copies with no originals:
It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.
But Baudrillard has criticized the films’ use of his theory: in a truly hyper-real world (leaving aside the debate over whether Baudrillard is right about ours), he argues that there would be a fundamental impossibility of discerning between the real and the hyper-real. The line is simply blurred beyond recognition. “Never again will the real have a chance to produce itself,” he writes.
And so of the Matrix, Baudrillard reportedly said,
The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.
The way I see it, what The Matrix took from Baudrillard doesn’t even belong to Baudrillard, but rather to Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges: a fiction called “On Exactitude in Science” (“Del rigor en la ciencia”; 1946), which goes like this:
… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
The map—that which is supposed only to refer to or signify the territory—actually becomes the territory. The map becomes more real than the ground it represents.
The map is the matrix.
In Borges’ fictional Empire, the people become dissatisfied with the hyper-real, and give it up in the end; and you would be too hasty in saying, “Yeah, the people rise up and cast off the matrix, too.” But by the end of The Matrix trilogy, it’s not so simple; the hyper-real has become such that destroying it would be cataclysmic. To stop the war between man and machine, the matrix must remain; in these films, the simulation has become real enough to necessitate its continuance for the sake of peace, order—for the sake of human survival. And this state of affairs at least, I would say, approaches Baudrillard’s intractable state of affairs, for even though in The Matrix “real” and “unreal” are clearly able to be demarcated, they nevertheless have become so entangled, so interdependent that they cannot separate without catastrophic consequences. What results is a seamless, virtual ecology of the (hyper)real, all parts symbiotic, even if manipulative.
The Matrix Trilogy (particularly the first two movies, The Matrix and The Matrix: Reloaded) is a philosophical poem. It shares with The Picture of Dorian Gray a substantial interest in questions of philosophy and inserts characters—like Lord Henry and Morpheus, for example—who, however flawed, nevertheless are given space to not merely engage in plot-moving, character-developing dialog, but also to propose theses on the world and the nature of being. Within the texts, these theses are tried and, depending on the author’s own beliefs on the subject, played out.
a splinter in your mind
No doubt one of the reasons the philosophical poem has gone out of style is the fact of its inherent tendencies toward the didactic; characters like Lord Henry in Picture or John Galt in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged eject the reader from the flow of the poem ( being that which is removed from history, the fictive) and seem to become crude megaphones for the author. (Don’t get me wrong, this can be done effectively; Lord Henry is probably more subtle and nuanced than John Galt on his best day.)
But sci-fi, as part of a long tradition of philosophical fiction, is perhaps one of the few remaining genres that allows and even encourages the tendency for more or less overt philosophizing, whereas in other genres—even fantasy, unless you count the aphorisms of the Game of Thrones TV show—it’s usually frowned on. Maybe it’s because of its speculative nature. The Matrix posits a possible world and structures the artifice in such a way as to put its characters into the existential conflict(s) that most easily expose the reader to the intended philosophical questions: Can we be sure that what we experience is real, and can reality be multiplicitous? Are we really free to choose, or are our choices predetermined? Can sheer belief alter reality, or does it even have any basis in it at all?
In the end, The Matrix Trilogy is as much an action-epic as it is a philosophical poem. But perhaps that’s for the best: whereas some philosophical fiction comes down as didactic, telling the reader how things are and brooking no argument (*cough*Atlas Shrugged*cough*), some of the most intriguing sci-fi—and I think The Matrix fits this category—provides a thrilling narrative while providing just enough space to philosophy to make the whole thing serve as a sort of conversation starter, leaving, in the words of Morpheus, a splinter in your mind.