The Matrix, Part 1 – A Metaphor For The Unconscious

The Matrix - Part 1

When examining the popular film The Matrix, which was released fifteen plus years ago, most people understand the role philosophy plays in the movie. It’s not surprising that all actors were required to read Jean Baudrillard’s publication of Simulacra and Simulation prior to auditioning for their role. [1] However, I’m more interested in how psychology, philosophy’s oft ignored younger sister, can be viewed through the lens of The Matrix. Another philosopher is referenced in the words inscribed above the Oracle’s kitchen doorway — “Know Thyself” is the famous instruction given by the Greek philosopher, Socrates. Self knowledge is not something that can merely be willed, but it is the quality which best predicts entrepreneurial, relational, and personal success. [2] When viewed as a journey toward self knowledge the message portrayed by The Matrix is not cynical and foreboding as some believe, but rather uplifting and encouraging.

While we know little of Neo’s, or you could say Thomas Anderson’s, life prior to our first encounter in which his computer which seems to be talking to him, we have a few clues. By day he works for a software company under a boss who demands punctuality and doesn’t seem to care much for negotiation. By night he is a hacker who goes by the alias Neo. This ambiguity in how he lives his life, kowtowing to authority on the one hand and acting to dismantle it on the other is an clear early sign that he is not very in touch with inner self.

Neo’s unconscious, even though he cannot access it, is guiding him and has been for a long time. Morpheus and Trinity are really just parts of his unconscious. [3] Neo is looking for answers to the questions he has about the Matrix like an itch he can’t scratch and Morpheus is looking for Neo who he believes in The One. When Morpheus first makes contact with Neo, Neo knows exactly who it is. There is a sense of danger and urgency, however Neo does not fully trust Morpheus yet. He says to himself “Why is this happening to me? What did I do?” and thinks that maybe he is crazy. Neo backs away from the ledge and resigns himself to the custody of the Agents.

The Agents are also aspects of Neo, but they are not original to his self — a kind of false self if you will. They have been imprinted on Neo like the Matrix itself. They are like the viruses which Agent Smith later projects on to the entire human race. They know how to manipulate Neo: make him unable to speak, track his whereabouts, and make him feel extraordinary pain. [4]

Now slightly more aware of the danger he is in, Neo accepts Morpheus’s offer to meet. The symbolism in this scene points toward the unconscious dream realm — on a stormy night he is picked up underneath a bridge and taken to a decrepit old building, led up a winding black and white staircase, to meet with a man who wheres sunglasses at night and offers him a choice which will affect the rest of his life.

Right before Neo chooses the red pill, Morpheus puts forward a disclaimer: “Remember, all I’m offering is the truth; nothing more.” Everyone desires answers to problems in our life. That’s why religion, politics, and self-help are so incredibly sought after in our present society. It’s so much less anxiety evoking if you believe someone else can sell you answers to your internal problems. But this is fundamentally untrue. You always have the answer deep within you — you’re own personal Morpheus. Other people can help you get there as we’ll see but when you realize that you already know every truth you need to know it’s a liberating and shocking feeling.

Neo soon experiences that very feeling when he wakes up in the real world, a world covered by barren desert landscape and a sky of perpetual storm clouds. For anyone familiar with The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, this habitat is not so different from ‘The Dark World’ in which harmless shrubbery and peasantry have been replaced by thorny brambles and evil guards. At this point Morpheus explains that the Matrix is a mere representation of a previous era packed into a virtual computer program that our brains have been plugged into. Thus the Matrix is the past, but it’s not the past as it actually was but rather a simulation of a former reality with the ability for others to manipulate the program at will. “Control,” to borrow Morpheus’s own word is the Matrix’s purpose.

Who wants to control you? In the movie it’s the machines. This metaphor could apply to our society as a whole. I won’t dispute the analogy, but I think we often blame society as a way of avoiding holding accountable people who directly impacted our lives, those who once had complete control over us: our biological family, and to a lesser extent our teachers and peer groups.

For evidence of this within the film you need only look at the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, which according to this working theory is really Neo’s unconscious mind. The crew has been at war for decades and thus it’s no wonder the relationships aboard the ship are strenuous and follow a strict chain of command. Like soldiers returning from battle, Morpheus’s crew suffers from a PTSD style concept of danger. The EMP detonation is a last resort method of dealing with perceived enemies. In psychological terms this is akin to shutting down or dissociating from your experiences.

Now that Neo has arrived there is hope. He is supposed to be The One, the person who will unite them and lead them into action. So begins the journey of healing. Neo’s muscle, which have atrophied over time, are regrown and he begins to take in an enormous amount of information and skills which he was previously never exposed to. This is the first stage of the therapeutic process, involving intense introspection and study. It also involves challenging the mythologies in our head. “You think that’s air you’re breathing?” Our unconscious can be a very powerful teacher. A person who is ‘awake’ will spar with these voices in order to get to the truth. When you’re first starting out your unconscious will naturally feel smarter, faster, stronger than you. Over time, as you learn empathy and curiosity, you will become more confident and even be able to beat him in your duels. The goal is not winning but to mutually arrive at the truth. We practice this martial art first with ourselves so that when we’re ready we can perform the same exploration with others.

Next, we go to the Oracle. The second stage is psychotherapy. When we have been through war, as any human who has been imprisoned and fed the stale juices of his own species would rightly say they have, we need outside help. We need someone to show us that which is an appropriate response given our traumatic history — sympathy and assertiveness. The Oracle is someone we can trust, she is a therapist who has mastered her own self and can fill the missing void of a positive authority figure, absent as it was for us as children. For Neo, the sympathy comes in the form of a cookie and the assertiveness comes in telling him he is not The One. If Neo were to believe because of the opinion of others that he was The One, his vanity would interfere with his ability to transform into the hero that his inner parts need. The prophecy is self-fulfilling; if you believe you are The One, then you’re The One. But no one outside yourself can make you believe it.

“There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” The final stage of the journey to self knowledge is putting all the theory you’ve acquired into practice. This is always the hardest part. There are no more training programs or pills. You just have to know it’s possible, and to believe in yourself. At this point in the film, we’ve seen a lot of infighting. Cypher has betrayed Morpheus and killed Apoc and Switch. Morpheus has allowed himself to be taken by the Agents in order to protect Neo. And finally Trinity has said she isn’t going to let Neo save Morpheus alone.

How is it that Neo and Trinity are able to do all those cool spin moves and at times dodge bullets? It’s because they are armed with the truth that the Matrix isn’t real. Notice that if we take the story literally, then Neo and Trinity are morally responsible for killing all those guards in the lobby entrance. But if the Matrix only exists for Neo, then these people are all just distractions, figments of ancient mythology inflicted on him for the purpose of control. To use another crude gamer metaphor, the Matrix exists not as a massive online multi-player game but as an RPG where everyone else besides the human player is a computer-generated bot. Those bots are mere reflections of other humans playing in their own fantasy world.

One major reason for the film’s commercial success is that it simply feels true. There are so many people who live in their own little fantasy worlds. Almost always these worlds involve morality because that’s the most effective way to control a human soul — my country is automatically good, my religion is automatically good, my family is automatically good. Of course, these worlds will overlap because there is no originality, no authenticity, in aggression. There are only variations of evil. This explains why all the Agents look more or less alike. As I mentioned early on in this essay, the Agents are parasites which latch on to our unconscious and attack the true self. They are the voices from our past we have internalized as a way of protecting others’ harmful mythologies. Without them we surely would have suffered an even greater threat when we were children. Imagine if Neo had managed to wake up when the machines were still growing him in their fields. He wouldn’t have stood a chance in hell. That’s how great the power disparity is when we’re children.

In the end it is Trinity’s love for Neo, translation – our love for ourself, which revitalizes him. Once he has reached a state where all his inner parts show compassion for one another, he can begin to rid himself of the toxic false self parasites known as Agents. His actions are almost effortless and he destroys the Agents by jumping through them and inhabiting their bodies — in effect, empathizing with them. Afterwards the hallway around him bends to his very movement and he can defy gravity, as we glimpse in the film’s memorable final seconds.

Neo’s final dialogue is a universal declaration of war on machines everywhere. “I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world … without you… A world where anything is possible.” That is the optimism of The Matrix. That with curiosity and a dedication for deep, personal truth each can become his own version of ‘The One’. Each can dispel the shadowy fantasies that exist within the mind and unite his separate parts into a single whole. “Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.” The next chapter in the journey is about helping others who will go through the same painful but blissful journey of the self. Will the world change because of it? That choice depends on the courage of the world.

[In part 2 I will talk about some of the parallels between The Matrix and other epics such as the Greek poem The Odyssey by Homer, Dante’s Divine Comedies, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, as well as examine the Hero’s Journey described by Joseph Campbell in it’s relation to the psychological journey of the self.]

[1] If you’re not a Matrix fanboy / fangirl you’re excused from knowing that this is the book Neo pulls from his bookshelf to store his cash wads.

[2] Link: http://99u.com/articles/30437/its-all-our-fault-self-awareness-as-a-secret-weapon-for-habit-change

[3] Morpheus is also the name of the Greek god of the dreamworld. The unconscious is responsible for dreams and thus it’s not a giant leap to imagine that Morpheus is one of the voices in Neo’s head. Trinity can also be interpreted as the trifecta of Greek goddess: Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena. Love, matriarchy, and wisdom, respectively, are all influences which Trinity has on Neo throughout the film.

[4] In terms of a Freudian structural model, Neo analogizes well with the Ego, Morpheus and Trinity are parts of the Id, and the Agents belong to the Super-Ego.

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