folklore, mythology, cultural studies and related disciplines
The Matrix as metamyth
'The matrix is everywhere,' informs Morpheus, 'It is all around us. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth . . .'
'Reality' is some kind of ontological silly-putty.
The Matrix, released Easter weekend 1999, is a remarkable film in a number of respects. More so than any comparable film, the script and details of the set design are informed by many different stories and myths. Perhaps even more remarkable is how quickly the film generated numerous articles in academic journals, and an impressive number of books from scholarly imprints devoted to the film. This article is based on reading many of these books and a selection of the articles. However I am not seeking to provide an overview of the scope of often quite diverse 'cultural studies' approaches.
Instead this article draws together the way the mythic themes of The Matrix can be regarded as 'metamyths'. In other words, how the script of The Matrix implicitly – and, at times, almost explicitly – engages with the underlying creation of mythic themes, especially the way cinema creates the illusion of reality and how, for the last fifty or more years, what nearly everyone in the Western world thinks of as reality has increasingly been created by mythic fragments disseminated by cinema.
My somewhat overly-focussed approach is not intended to diminish other ways of spontaneously 'relating to' or less-spontaneously analysing mythic themes in The Matrix. However this overly-specific way of looking at The Matrix fits in quite closely with some of the ideas about myth in the modern world being promoted by foamy custard, notably the ideas about 'mythic fragments' (see cosmologies as 'deep structures' and the politics of culture).
recognising The Matrix as metamythAlthough all three films in The Matrix trilogy have now been released, the key issues I want to address can all be illustrated by examples from the first film alone. While I am temped to explore how the subsequent two films have (or have not) 'developed' and added to the mythic motives in the first film, this would add greater complexity to topics which are already rather difficult to summarise in an article.
I have been mostly inspired by writers who have their roots deep in cultural studies and/or cinematic studies, and only 'sampled' – in a rather arbitrary way – the vast amount of writing about The Matrix which is less academic. Of these Jake Horley's The Matrix Warrior (published with considerable promotional activity by the publishers in 2003) starts off quite promisingly with a number of pertinent observations. Horley notes that the plot of The Matrix can be seen as a journey of Jungian individuation. He also considers that the apotheosis of the film can be regarded as a form of enlightenment. Horley also specifically states exactly the approach I am taking with this article, that is The Matrix is not such much a modern myth as a metamyth – 'a myth about the eternal processes by which myths, and humans, are made. It reveals the world as a myth…' (Horley 2003: 6–7) Sadly, the rest of The Matrix Warrior is a rather shrill and ultimately quite hollow attempt to explore the implications of taking the premise of The Matrix literally – we are indeed inhabiting a virtual reality composed by oppressive machine-intelligences – and that the film is a 'genuine message' intended to 'wake us up'. Oh dear…
Horley was certainly not the first to recognise The Matrix as metamyth. The previous year John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett had published The Myth of the American Superhero, a majestic study of the impact of Joseph Campbell's ideas about the 'monomyth' of heroes on both cinema and American culture (and the post-publication actions of George W. Bush would provide plenty of examples for an extended sequel!). Lawrence and Jewett discuss The Matrix in several sections of this book. Indeed, on the third page of their introduction Neo and Trinity are held up as conforming to the long tradition of cinematic superheroes who are 'lonely, selfless, sexless' (Lawrence and Jewett 2002: 5).
Lawrence and Jewett note that, not only is The Matrix rich in 'significant' imagery and symbolism, but that much of this is 'flirtatiously' polysemic, by which they mean that a given image is assigned with ambiguous and indeterminate meanings (Lawrence and Jewett 2002: 295) [See also foamy custard's introductory guide to pluralism and polysemy.] They draw attention to the observations by Slavoj Zizek that fans of The Matrix eagerly attempt to 'control ownership' of the film's ideas according to their own preferred vision (Jake Horley's The Matrix Warrior might be regarded as one of the more heavily-promoted examples).
The Matrix as a powerful polysemic pasticheAs examples of the way The Matrix is informed by many different stories and myths various writers have noted references to the philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the psychologist Jacques Lacan, to Buddhism and – above all – to Christianity. These diverse allusions form a powerfully polysemic mix, enhanced by the subtle cleverness of how the ideas are manifested in the film.
Such subtly can be seen in the names of the main character. He begins the film as Thomas Anderson but is 'reborn' as Neo. This is the Greek word for 'new', suitably evocative for a reborn hero. More subtly, 'Neo' is a double anagram for both 'eon' (suggesting 'new eon') and, more significantly, for 'one' – and Neo is explicitly perceived as 'The One'. Neo's original name, Thomas Anderson, associates with the Biblical 'Doubting Thomas' (and, as Neo, he constantly doubts that he is 'The One'); furthermore Anderson etymologically derives from andr- ('man'), suggesting he is the 'Son of Man' (Bassham 2002: 112).
The Matrix as a Messianic mix-and-matchNeo is obviously intended to be recognised as a Christ-like hero, following a precedent well-established in sci-fi adventure films by Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Early in the film he sells some illegal software to a character called Choi, who says 'Hallelujah. You're my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.'
Other blindingly obvious parallels to Christianity include the heroine's name 'Trinity' (and the unexpected gender-flip of a somewhat androgynous heroine having the name of a patriarchal metaphor for God is explicitly alluded to when Neo says 'I always thought you were a guy'). The allusions to the Christian trinity extend to numerous instances of rooms being numbered '303'. More subtle references to Christianity include:
The Matrix, Buddhism, Hinduism and shamanismHowever the polysemic characterisation of Neo means several writers have recognised him as a Buddhist bodhicitta or bodhisattva (Stroud 2001: 432; Brannigan 2002; Ford 2003). Even without influences from Eastern spirituality, the violence in The Matrix is clearly influenced by eastern martial arts (although the frequent and often excessive 'over kill' of the violence can be regarded as antithetical to Buddhist ideals; cf. Ford 2003: 171–2).
The film's eponymous matrix may be thought of as analogous to Buddhism's samsara, with the 'real world' as the illusions of mara (Ford 2003: 164, 169). Hinduism also regards material reality as an illusion and uses the related word maya (Thompson 2003).
Overall we should look at the religious allusions in The Matrix as pluralistic and polysemic, as Gregory Bassham has discussed in detailed (Bassham 2002: 114–21), although he omits shamanism, even though 'Those who are not personally able to spend a few months with shamans in the Himalayas should watch the film The Matrix (1999). It is a film that should be required material for all budding ethnologists.' (Müller-Ebeling, Rätsch and Shahi 2002: 279)
The Matrix mythology, psychology, philosophy and politicsHowever the polysemic allusions of The Matrix extend beyond religion into mythology more generally. So the name of most important male protagonist after Neo, Morpheus, also encompasses suitable complexities. Morpheus is the Greek god of dreams – an entirely appropriate association for the overall themes of The Matrix – whose name derives from the Greek word morphé, meaning 'shape' or 'form'. This word is the linguistic root of both 'morphine' and 'morphing' (and Morpheus morphs between the 'real' world and The Matrix). (Schuchardt 2003: 13; and Griswold 2002: 129)
The polysemous references extend even further into psychology and philosophy. Several writers about The Matrix have seen links to the ideas of the influential post-Freudian psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (Zizek 1999; Lawrence and Jewett 2002: 296; Milutis 2003). Many have spotted the explicit inclusion of Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation – early in the film Thomas Anderson is shown taking a copy from his bookshelf, then opening it to take out the illegal software concealed in a hollowed-out cavity. However Andrew Gordon considers that The Matrix dilutes Baudrillard's ideas 'to the point that it doesn't reflect his thinking' and is not faithful to Baudrillard's conclusions (Gordon 2003: 119).
Joe Milutis extends the scope of the intellectual ideas even further when he suggests The Matrix makes one think of the 'Marxist meme from the "Theses on Feuerbach" about philosophy versus action [and the] Althusserian cunning of Agent Smith's greeting of "Mr. Anderton" (he's always trying to convince Neo that he's only human) opens up rickety anti-humanist debates.' (Milutis 2003)
The Matrix's 'godfathers' – Philip K. Dick and William GibsonAs if this were not confusing enough, in a well-established cinematic tradition, The Matrix alludes to a large number of previous movies. The earliest movie which is explicitly invoked is The Wizard of Oz when, immediately prior to Neo's 'rebirth' Cypher says 'Buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, 'cuz Kansas is going bye-bye.' (Although in The Wizard of Oz Kansas is the 'real world' and Oz is the world of illusion, 'so Cypher's evocation is completely upside-down… Cypher is a character who is always getting his dichotomies mixed up, and in the end finds himself on the wrong side of them.' (Milutis 2003))
Even within the genre of sci-fi the directors of The Matrix cast a wide net. This is in part because The Matrix derives key ideas from the seminal sci-fi novels of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, writers who have overtly and otherwise influenced most sci-fi action movies in recent decades. The most famous of the films based on Dick's stories span two decades – Blade Runner (1982) and Minority Report (2002). The Matrix is deeply rooted in this genre of sci-fi films influenced by Dick and Gibson.
Dick's highly individual relationship with reality also encompassed aspects of Gnosticism and Paul Di Fillipo has detected a Gnostic aspect to the Christian exegesis of The Matrix (Fillipo 2003: 80, 91).
William Gibson is equally significant as a precursor for The Matrix, as Dani Cavallaro has explored in a book-length study (Cavallaro 2000). Indeed Gibson uses the term 'matrix' as a synonym for cyberspace in Neuromancer (published in 1984, long before popular awareness of the Internet). This is exceptionally felicitous word-play as dictionary definitions of the word 'matrix' include:
The Matrix and cinematic precursorsThe first sci-fi film to consciously mix-and-match mythological motifs was the first Star Wars (1977), with no less an 'authority' as the contentious mythologist Joseph Campbell (see an overview of mythological theory and from psychoanalysis to cognitive lingustics) acting as advisor to the director, George Lucas. Of course, the biggest 'debt' the script of The Matrix owes to Star Wars is that the hero is an 'ordinary character' who discovers he has supernormal abilities and may be the saviour of the world. Sarah Worth and Andrew Gordon have independently made a lists of films from which The Matrix appears to borrow concepts and images (Worth 2002: 178–9; Gordon 2003: 112–3). Here they are, in chronological order:
This list of 'precursors' has been extended by other, more cinematically-aware writers, who have drawn attention to the films in which the key actors, especially Keanu Reeves, have previously appeared, and the more-or-less intentional 'assimilation' of characters. But perhaps this is less important than the way, as already noted, Reeves' character, Anderson/Neo, fits into the 'momomyth' of cinematic saviours (Lawrence and Jewett 2002: 5).
Despite having quite a different 'look and feel' from The Matrix, David Cronenburg's eXistenZ draws the viewer into similar, but more intensely perplexing, scenario. Firstly there is a more visceral sense of 'jacking into The Matrix' (Freeland 2002: 205–9). The ending of eXistenZ 'throws into question the very idea that there is a firm way of distinguishing between reality, virtual realities, and fiction.' (Worth 2002: 178). In contrast, the ending of The Matrix is especially disappointing and the closing platitudes barely disguise a crude attempt to leave plenty of options for the sequels.
The Matrix and literary precursorsThe scope of ideas included in The Matrix pastiche extends beyond cinema into literature. The debt to Lewis Carroll's Alice is explicit with the opening 'Follow the white rabbit' subplot and several instances of rabbit-hole-like changes in awareness. The red pill and other allusions to altered states of consciousness also bring to mind Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception. Morpheus has more than a passing resemblance to Captain Nemo in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea. Other writers see aspects of George Orwell's 1984 and even Sleeping Beauty (the human world has been forced into a twentieth century hibernation). The complex layering of seemingly arbitrary images and mythic motifs also evokes 1960s Bob Dylan lyrics and, by extension, his inspiration from the eclectic modernist poet T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) and his metaphysical precursor John Donne (1571–1631). But the oldest literary source, and the one most frequently borrowed by the scriptwriters, is undoubtedly the Bible.
The Matrix, mirrors and visual motifsThe writers and designers of The Matrix also draw upon visual motifs. For example, numerous key sequences involve mirrors. These certainly invoke cool fashion and design, and seem also an intentional reference to the Zen notion of 'polishing the mirror of the mind' (as with the boy in the Oracle's apartment dressed as a Buddhist monk and seated in full lotus position who is bending spoons – and the spoon reflects Neo's face as the boy pronounces 'There is no spoon.'). For those who want prompting, I have compiled a list of mirror imagery in The Matrix (based on Fillipo 2003: 84 and Brannigan 2002: 102–3)
The Matrix and mythic fragmentsBob Trubshaw has already contributed articles to foamy custard which develop the ideas of Lance Bennett (Bennett 1980) and Christopher Flood (Flood 1996) – see cosmologies as 'deep structures' and the politics of culture. One of Flood's observations is especially pertinent to this discussion of The Matrix, so I will repeat it here:
In a directly analogous manner, the extensive – but by no means exhaustive– list of 'mythic motifs' in The Matrix which have made up most of this article so far are excellent examples of mass media making 'fragmentary references' to wider mythic and intellectual ideas, although we rarely fully recognise, still less analyse, the connotations.
Bennett recognises that myths are difficult to analyse because they are intimately linked with our basic cognitive processes. He suggests myths 'are like the lenses of a pair of glasses in the sense that they are not the things people see when they look at the world, they are the things they see with. Myths are the truths about society that are taken for granted.' (Bennett 1980: 167)
In The Matrix the metaphor of lenses is replaced by the metaphor of The Matrix creating a simulation of 'reality' (and in addition we might regard the use of mirrors in The Matrix to be another counterpart to Bennett's lenses metaphor). This brings to mind Bob Trubshaw's metaphor in cosmologies as 'deep structures'
To a far greater extent than most people realise, over the last fifty or more years cinema and television have created what nearly everyone in the Western world thinks of as reality. In the 1950s Alfred Hitchcock picked up on a flawed understanding of Freudian psychology (and, as outlined in an overview of mythological theory, Freud's model of conscious is best regarded as deeply flawed, even when understood correctly) and brought to Hollywood an imaginary 'cause and effect' of human behaviour that has come to dominate not just cinema and television generally but, by extension, has become accepted by many people as the way people 'really think'. Because this grievously flawed popular psychology is now so pervasive few people who are not professionally trained as psychologists are aware of either the flaws, or even how recently it has become adopted as a 'model' of reality.
From Hollywood to soap operas, the mass media bombard us with assumptions of how society 'must be' – all the way from social structure, socially acceptable and deviant behaviour, consumerism, through to ready-made 'lifestyles', and so on and so on. The Matrix in large part conforms to this – how many in the audience think they too would look cool in an ankle-length black coat? Indeed there are times when The Matrix seems like a pick-and-mix sweet counter, as so many fragments of popular culture are alluded to, fashioning a pastiche of almost everything that the target audience might regard as 'cool'. Yet, as with the window-washing sequence already mentioned, the directors of The Matrix sees the film as part of a meta-narrative, a process of meta-mythmaking where mythic motifs reflect back on themselves.
Despite the apparent novelty of the central idea in The Matrix – what we think of as 'reality' is artificial – the many ideas brought together in the film have been around for some time, in many cases for a very long time. The actual novelty is perhaps more about the quantity of 'philosophical' and religious ideas which are brought into the script – almost always (apart from the central messianic character and plot) in fragmentary and enigmatic ways – and the original approach of the directors to the making of action sci-fi cinema. Above all, the directors are seemingly fully aware of cinematic mythmaking, and meta-mythmaking processes involved.
Unlike earlier self-consciously 'eclectic' and mythic sci-fi films (such as Star Wars), The Matrix has triggered many viewers to question their beliefs in the whole of 'reality'. While many films lead the viewer to reflect on aspects of the fictionalised events within the movie, few films provoke the viewer to start thinking about what is happening outside the film, least of all to ponder about deeply philosophical issues such as the nature of reality. This is supreme novelty of The Matrix and a key reason why it quickly seized the attention of more academic writers as well as 'fans'.
a passing final thoughtMorpheus famously says to Neo, 'Welcome to the desert of the real'. So perhaps this contribution to foamy custard should pick up on the culinary connection and welcome you to the dessert of the real. Perhaps not…
referencesBassham, Gregory, 2002, 'The religion of The Matrix and the problems of pluralism', in William Irwin (ed), The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the desert of the real, Open Court.
Beard, James, 1999, Rhetorical mapping of technological psychosis: A Burkean reading of William Gibson's Neuromancer', unpublished doctorial dissertation, Northwestern University, Evanston (cited in Frentz and Rushing 2002).
Bennett , W. Lance, 1980, 'Myth, ritual and political control' Journal of Communication Vol.30 p166–79.
Brannigan, Michael, 2002, 'There is no spoon – a Buddhist mirror', in William Irwin (ed), 'The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the desert of the real, Open Court.
Cavallaro, Dani, 2000, Cyberpunk and Cyberculture, Athlone Press.
Felluga, Dino, 2003, ''The Matrix – paradigm of postmodernism of intellectual poseur? part 1', in Glenn Yeffeth (ed), Taking the Red Pill: Science, philosophy and religion in The Matrix, Summersdale.
Fillipo, Paul Di, 2003, 'Literary influences on The Matrix', in Karen Haber (ed), 2003, Exploring The Matrix: New writings on The Matrix and the cyber present, ibooks.
Flood, Christopher G., 1996, Political myth: A theoretical introduction, Garland.
Flowers, Betty S., 2000, 'Practicing politics in the economic myth', in Thomas Singer (ed), The Vision Thing: Myth, politics and psyche in the modern world, Routledge.
Ford, James L., 2003, 'Buddhism, mythology and The Matrix', in Glenn Yeffeth (ed), Taking the Red Pill: Science, philosophy and religion in The Matrix, Summersdale.
Freland, Cynthia, 2002, 'Penetrating Keanu: new holes, but the same old shit', in William Irwin (ed), 'The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the desert of the real, Open Court.
Frentz, Thomas S. and Janice Hocker Rushing, 2002, '"Mother isn't quite herself today": myth and spectacle in The Matrix', Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol.19 No.1 (March), 64–86.
Gordon, Andrew, 2003, 'The Matrix – paradigm of postmodernism of intellectual poseur? part 2', in Glenn Yeffeth (ed), Taking the Red Pill: Science, philosophy and religion in The Matrix, Summersdale.
Griswold, Charles L. jnr, 2002, 'Happiness and Cypher's choice – is ignorance bliss?', in William Irwin (ed), 'The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the desert of the real, Open Court.
Haber, Karen (ed), 2003, Exploring The Matrix: New writings on The Matrix and the cyber present, ibooks.
Horsley, Jake, 2003, Matrix Warrior: Being the One, Gollancz.
Irwin, William (ed), 2002, 'The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the desert of the real Open Court.
Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett, 2002, The Myth of the American Superhero, William B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Milutis, Joe, 2003, 'Making the World Safe for Fashionable Philosophy!' CTheory, Vol.26 No.3 (16 Sept), www.ctheory.net
Müller-Ebeling, Claudia, Christian Rätsch and Surendra Bahadur Shahi, 2002, Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas, Thames and Hudson; (translation of Shamanismus und Tantra in Nepal [AT Verlag 2002] by Annabel Lee).
Schuchardt, Read Mercer, 2003, 'What is The Matrix?', in Glenn Yeffeth (ed), Taking the Red Pill: Science, philosophy and religion in The Matrix, Summersdale.
Stroud, Scott R., 2001, 'Technology and mythic narrative: The Matrix as technological hero-quest', Western Journal of Communication, Vol. 65 No.4 (Fall), 416–441.
Thompson, Richard L., 2003, Maya: The world as virtual reality, Govardhan Hill.
Wachowski, Larry and Andy Wachowski, 2001, 'The Matrix: The shooting script, Newmarket Press.
Worth, Sarah E., 2002, 'The paradox of real response ot neo-fiction', in William Irwin (ed), 'The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the desert of the real, Open Court.
Yeffeth, Glenn (ed), 2003, Taking the Red Pill: Science, philosophy and religion in The Matrix, Summersdale.
Zizek, Slavoj, 1999, 'The Matrix or Malebranche in Hollywood', Philosophy Today, Vol.11 No.26, 11–26.
copyright © Simon Danser 2004
Simon Danser's own Web site, Beyond Reality, also deals with how we construct our ideas about 'reality'.