Is Reality Real? (Part II)
Originally published in Mental Contagion
The Wachowski brothers’ film, “The Matrix,” begins with Trinity’s descent into the world of the matrix. She is searching for “the One” by running code on a laptop, when she is interrupted by a group of policemen who she quickly overcomes in a display of supra-worldly fighting skills.
The next scene: Neo asleep at his computer. It (the computer) flashes at him, “Wake up, Neo.” (The name comes from neo- from Greek, neos, meaning “new.” Here, in his hacker name, there is the promise of something new, a rebirth. Also, the ritual of re-naming occurs in initiation rites symbolizing a passage from one realm of life to another).Thus begins Neo’s awakening to the realization that the “reality” in which he has been living is an illusory reality, fed to him and other enslaved (unenlightened or sleeping) humans through a series of computer cables (recall the “bio-port” of eXistenZ), while, in the “true” reality, they slumber in suspended animation, with their energies being used as battery cells for a race of AI machines that now control the earth. There follows a lot of special effects panoramas of shoot outs, chase scenes, and martial arts fights. Sounds like a far-fetched SF movie, right?
Yet, “The Matrix” is saturated with themes of Heroic Quest and references to numerous spiritual and religious traditions of the world. These are the elements in which I am interested, particularly the interesting ease with which the high-tech, SF narrative parallels ancient, low-tech spiritual narratives of enlightenment. This paper is thus a continuation of the examination of the nested layers of reality created by technology in Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” in the past issues of Mental Contagion.
The Christian elements of Matrix are obvious – “Trinity,” and the “One” who is a savior who dies and is reborn to teach others the way. There are also Gnostic elements– the world (matrix) is a creation meant to enslave humanity in delusion, true reality is attained by denying or “seeing through” the illusory reality. Also, reality/matrix is created by the evil and demented AI machines. This reality is invaded (see Philip K. Dick’s Divine Invasion and Valis) by the good spiritual elements, i.e. Trinity and Morpheus, to save humanity from delusion.
This view of reality/matrix as illusion will be my primary focus. It is my opinion that this question of the reality of reality is becoming more pertinent to a large number of people as a result of the tremendous advances in computer and communication technology. Yet, this question of reality is an ancient one, and can be traced back to Gnosticism (in the West) and Hinduism and Buddhism (in the East). (This view is expressed in Jungian analyst, James Hillman’s statement that the “real revolution going on in the individual soul is…a struggle for a wholly new (yet most ancient and religious) expression of reality,” Insearch, p. 79). Of particular importance is the Hindu-Buddhist conception of “maya.” The concept of maya is that the perceived phenomenal world of reality is a veil of illusion. In Hinduism, maya is a consequence of the dance of the feminine principle, “Sakti.” Behind the veil is the reality of “Brahman,” or the unitary element of existence of which there is no division, but out of whom emanates all things. Maya, thus “expresses the notion that there only seems to be a world composed of distinct conscious and non-conscious things, and rather than this seeming multiplicity there exists only ineffable Brahman,” or we could say, the One, (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy). Enlightenment, “(moksha) is conceived as seeing through the illusion,” of maya, (ibid.).
Buddhism, (Guatama Siddhartha, c. 563 – 479 B. C.) which grew out of the matrix of Hinduism in India, inherited the conception of maya, but did away with the idea of a deity behind the illusion. Instead, illusion is a consequence of our own perceptions. As Mahayana Buddhist thought maintains, “our sensory experience is not reliable, but rather it is systematically illusory,” (Cam. Dict. Phil.). Buddhism conceives of enlightenment as consisting of the realization that the phenomenal world is unsatisfactory, impermanent, and further, that there is no permanent self. This leads to the principle of non-attachment to the world and to one’s ego and body, which leads to a release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
The word, matrix, is defined as “1. Something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form…5 a) a rectangular array of mathematical elements (as the coefficients of simultaneous linear equations) that can be combined to form sums and products with similar arrays having appropriate number of rows and columns…from Latin, Mater: mother; matrix: breeding animal” (interestingly, the Buddha’s mother was named Queen Maya).
To return to “The Matrix,” Neo’s break from illusory reality, or maya, occurs through the intervention of the Anima (Trinity), the Shadow (Cipher, the traitor also, the Agents who are, in a sense, creations of the collective mind of humanity) and the Wise Old Man (Morpheus) who offers him to partake of the sacred herb (the red pill). (Morpheus: the Greek god of dreams, also, -morph: form, shape, structure…from the Greek, morphe: shape).
* The word, “cipher” is defined as, “1a. zero; 1b. one that has no weight, worth, or influence; 2a. a method of transforming a text in order to conceal its meaning; 2b. a message in code.” Cipher chooses the matrix/reality, or delusion, when he makes the deal with the Agents to betray Morpheus, he makes the statement, “Ignorance is bliss.” Cipher doesn’t even want to remember the deal he is making with the Agents, he wants his memory erased. This is the opposite of enlightenment and Cipher stands for all of those passing pleasures of the senses and body: wine, cigars, food, money, sexuality. So, his name is thus fitting, what he chooses is something which is irrelevant, or nothing, at least from a Buddhist perspective. Another interesting point about Cipher is his role in the development of the plot, of Neo becoming the “One.” (We thus have a struggle between “the zero” and “the one,” or the fundamental binary code). It is largely a result of Cipher’s actions which lead Neo to his realization. While he appears to be an “evil” or “negative” character, without him, Neo may not have reached a state of enlightenment. Another way to put it is that Cipher’s role was necessary for the fulfillment of Neo’s role. Recall Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, I am that “Part of that Power which would The Evil ever do, and ever does the good.”)
After meeting Morpheus, Neo experiences the “return to the womb,” and a second birth, a re-birth, into the world of true, ugly reality of post-apocalyptic earth. Neo is then swallowed by the whale/dragon of Morpheus’ ship, the Nebuchadnezzar. There, the following dialogue (more or less) takes place between Morpheus and Neo:
M: “Welcome to the Real World.”
N: “Am I dead?”
M: “Far from it…”
N: “My eyes…”
M: “You have never used them before.”
In this Real World, Neo’s body and eyes are weak, atrophied and he has numerous bio-ports on his body for computer interface. He is then hooked up to various teaching programs, Matrix-like virtual realities, in which information is downloaded (recall: gnosis, or knowledge, of the Gnostics by which the initiate sees through the veil of illusion to the true reality and obtains what Blake called, “double vision,” or the ability to see two realities at once. Also recall Horselover Fat’s phosphene beam that downloaded information into his brain, in Philip K. Dick’s Valis). Neo gradually learns that his limitations in the Matrix lie in his mind, imposed by himself, rather than in his body and environment. By changing his mind and expectations, he is eventually able to alter reality/matrix, e.g. bending a spoon with his mind, dodging bullets, and eventually seeing the computer code which creates the Matrix.*
*Joseph Campbell: “One has but to alter one’s psychological orientation and recognize (re-cognize) what is within. Deprived of this recognition, we are removed from our own reality by a cerebral short sightedness which is called in Sanskrit maya, “delusion” (from the verbal root ma, “to measure, measure out, to form, to build, denoting, in the first place, the power of a god or demon to produce illusory effects, to change form, and to appear under deceiving masks; in the second place, “magic,” the production of illusions and in warfare, camouflage, deceptive tactics; and finally, in philosophical discourse, the illusion superimposed upon reality as an effect of ignorance,” Oriental Mythology, 13. Recall Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which what is perceived is only the shadow of the real object or archetype, or Idea.
Here, Neo transcends reality/matrix and pulls aside the veil of illusion. This double vision allows him to see and manipulate not only objects in the Matrix, but even his own Matrix-body. In the words of the philosopher, Roberts Avens, he achieves a “vantage point from which the ego too can be seen as an image among other images,” (Imagination is Reality, p. 39). From this vantage point, “his powers of imagination extend far beyond the compass of nature,” (ibid., p. 22). The logic of this enlightenment experience can be diagrammed as a reversal of the usual process of perception:
Object Þ Sensory Perception Þ Psychic Image/Reality
Psychic Image/Thought/Belief Þ Sensory Perception Þ Altered Object/Reality
Then, thought, imagination, or belief determines reality.
Neo’s ability to perceive reality/matrix as computer code, allows him to enter into (infect) the Agent who just killed him. He then destroys the Agent from within by bursting through him (illuminating him with light energy). This completes a full cycle, for earlier, Neo was infected by a mechanical tracking device by the Agent.
To move back briefly to Neo’s death. He is surprised by an Agent and shot multiple times. As his matrix-body slumps to the ground, he hears the distant sound of falling empty bullet casings, and his “real” body (back in the ship) goes into cardiac arrest. Trinity then tells him her secret – she will fall in love with the “One,” and since she loves him, he is thus the “One” and he cannot die – she kisses him and he is re-animated. Here, again, we see the power of thought/belief illustrated in the movie. One can trace Neo’s achievement of being the One through a series of psychic infections by the belief of others.
When Neo is taken to the Oracle, he is told that Morpheus was told by her that he (M) would find the One. In talking with the Oracle, it is Neo who says, “I am not the One,” she never makes a pronouncement of whether he is or is not the One. She simply says, “You’ve got a gift, but it looks like you are waiting for something.” (Perhaps what he is waiting for is an external pronouncement that he is the One. Recall in Buddhism, every person is potentially the One, meaning the Buddha, but the realization must come from within, rather than without). So, Neo imposes his belief on himself that he is not the One. Morpheus, however, continues to believe.
When Morpheus is captured and is being tortured by Agents, Neo has a breakthrough, “I don’t believe this is happening,” (emphasis added). Here, Neo sees through the illusion of the Matrix and begins to have an intuition of the power of belief and thought over “reality.” He realizes that in believing he is the One, he actually becomes the One. As he battles the Agents he becomes able to bend illusory reality/matrix more and more, yet, even so, he is shot and killed. At this point of surprise, his conditioned mind took over and he believed himself to be killed. However, the power of belief and imagination again invades the Matrix with Trinity’s belief that Neo cannot die because she loves him and he is thus the One. With this belief and a kiss, Neo fully becomes the One and transcends the illusion of space-time in the Matrix.
Let us return to Campbell and notice how this next quote parallels the process in the above scene:
“One recognizes immediately the relationship of this Schopenhauerian concept of the will to the Indian idea of the brahman, which is identical with the self (atman) of all beings…The will as brahman, transcends the object-subject relationship and is therefore non-dual (nir-dvandva). Duality (dvanda), on the other hand, is an illusion of the sphere of space and time (maya): both our fear of death (mara) and our yearning for pleasures of this world (kama) derive from, and attach us to, this manifold delusion, from which release (moksa) is achieved only when the fear of death and desire for enjoyment are extinguished in the knowledge (Sanskrit, bodhi; Greek, gnosis) of non-duality (nir-dvandva: tat tvam asi [“thou art that”]). With that, the veil of delusion dissolves and the realization is immediate that ‘we are all,’ as Schopenhauer avers, ‘one and the same single Being,” (Campbell, Creative Mythology, pgs. 78-79).
When Neo realizes there is no difference (or separation) between life and death, between himself and the Agent, he can just as easily be inside the Agent as outside of him. (Recall the great scene in “Fight Club,” “If he is me and the gun is in his hand, then the gun is in my hand.”)
So, why all this fuss and analysis over a SF movie? I would like to restate my thesis that this movie (as well as the earlier discussion of “eXistenZ,” and a plethora of other recent movies) represents an attempt on the part of the collective consciousness to grapple with questions of reality/identity. The stimulus for asking these questions is the rapid advance in technology which is challenging our traditional views of reality/identity. Interestingly, these new questions mirror age-old questions from religion, philosophy, and mysticism. One is left wondering at the “goodness of fit” of the ancient questions with the current crisis of reality/identity. Does the fact that these new and old questions mirror each other serve to validate the utility of earlier spiritual/philosophical practices?
In closing, I will admit the cautionary statement that these movies could represent a spectaclewhich serves to hide from view the true process occurring in the non-movie reality. In this way, movies addressing questions of reality and identity that seem to lead to an “expansion of consciousness,” could actually serve to distract from a contraction of consciousness at another level. To state it another way, because it is happening up there on the movie screen, it doesn’t have to happen in here, in my head, and aren’t those special effects awesome! In this sense, watching a film about breaking through the veil of maya could serve as a veil in a practical sense in the non-movie reality.
As the Critical Arts Ensemble argue that “with the imaging systems…the goal is not to prepare a person for life in the virtual, but to specify, regulate, and habituate he/r role in the material world,” (Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, and New Eugenic Consciousness, p. 24). Or, again, that the “most significant use of the electronic apparatus is to keep order, to replicate dominant pancapitalist ideology, and to develop new markets,” (141) [have you seen the special platinum edition of “The Matrix” on DVD?]. And, lastly, that if “new consciousness is indicative of anything, it is the new age of imperialism that will be realized through information control (as opposed to the early capital model of military domination)” (155).
I wish to acknowledge these very valid caveats to the above discussion, and perhaps I will address Flesh Machine in a future column. I am basing the validity of these current questions of reality/identity on the basis of the mirroring of ancient traditions of philosophical and mystical investigation. However, just because something is ancient doesn’t mean it is necessarily true. A slightly different way of looking at this issue is that if something keeps repeatedly presenting itself (whether it is considered true or false), the fact of its repetition is some degree of validation. The question thus remains: why this recurrence of the theme of is reality real?