Taoism, Buddhism and Dasein – Monk Comes Down the Mountain

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In 1946 Heidegger and the Chinese academic Paul Shih-yi Hsiao collaborated on a translation of the Tao Te Ching. Hsiao withdrew from the project after translating 8 of the 81 stanzas of the classic citing anxiety over Heidegger’s departures from the text. Carman and Van Norden remark that this was somewhat usual behaviour from Heidegger who felt little need for textually loyal interpretation of any texts. Heidegger, for his part, expressed exceptional love for and philosophical affiliation with D. T. Suzuki and said he felt this Zen theologian and philosopher captured the essence of his philosophy.

Considering these two different accounts we should be careful with mapping any sort of one-to-one relationship between existentialist thought and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Taoism but likewise we cannot ignore that parallels exist.

I also want to briefly discuss why I’m talking about Buddhism and Taoism together here. Principally this is because both Buddhism and Taoism are essential to an understanding of Monk Comes Down the Mountain. He Anxia, the protagonist, is a Taoist monk. His principal moral guides throughout this film are a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot and a Taoist recluse. Buddhism and Taoism are different but not necessarily opposed. They are different but non-contradictory and have had an influence over each other. Particularly you can see a Taoist influence on the writings of the Chán patriarchs such as via the focus on formlessness in the Flower Sermon. The Chán focus on the insufficiency of language to communicate the dharma largely echoes the Tao Te Ching when it says,

“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

Whether we look at the Buddhist sense of Dharma or teaching or the Taoist sense of tao or way of being we encounter this fundamental argument that the absolute thing being taught is not entirely communicable from within language – it’s insufficient. However the Flower Sermon is not a universal Buddhist text – it is, in fact, rather explicitly restricted to Chán and its successor Zen. Here it’s important to reflect on how Buddhism, in specific, is non-monolithic. Rather Buddhism has always been rather syncretic, responding to and interacting with local intellectual life. Chán is one of two principal schools of Buddhism that arose in China (along with Pure Land Buddhism) and both were in deep dialog with Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Folk Religion from the moment they arrived on the scene.

In the 2015 Chen Kaige film Monk Comes Down the Mountain this interrelated nature is brought front and center as it plots the journey of a junior Taoist monk who, after being asked to leave his monastery, goes on a search for teachers who include a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot, a Taoist recluse and an opera star.

This is a strange film. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising as Chen has a history of writing and directing movies that make unusual choices. A strong prior example is the critically divisive 2005 fantasy film The Promise which contained stunning and irrealist costuming and set design to frame a story that remains focused on Chen’s perennial topics of sexual desire and its relationship to masculine friendship. These topics are present in Monk Comes Down the Mountain in spades but with an added twist of a focus on and exploration of the master-student dynamic that is central to the Chinese monastic experience and, via a transitory action from that monastic setting, martial arts fiction.

Some of the strangeness comes from a deeper-than-average formal adherence to wuxia structure. Wuxia novels were often quite episodic as a result of their golden age being dominated by newspaper serials. Each episode in a character’s story had to both fit into the overall arc and also be a cohesive tale about that character that could fit into the column inches available for it. But setting a wuxia story in Hangzhou in the 1930s is an interesting deviation since the mid-20th century period that marked the greatest output in the genre was also marked by a desire to look back into the pre-Republican past while most contemporary kung fu stories either followed this same trend or were set in the present. The period between the end of the Zhongshan Incident and the 1970s is at best a loose sketch with a small number of portrayals of Ip Man, Huo Yuanjia and his fictional pupil Chen Zhen standing in for the breadth of the jianghu during the early 20th century. In fact the premise of the Once Upon a Time in China films was largely that Wong Fei-hung‘s generation was the last blossoming of the age of martial arts heroes. But this movie does away with that and suggests, instead, that the heroes were all still there, secluded in temples, performing in operas and playing at gangster just as they had always done just somehow rendered almost invisible by modernity: just acrobats, monks and gangsters in the eyes of the world. Diminished.

In the world of this film no amount of neigong will protect a hero from a bullet in the back.

Another avenue for strangeness is the singular performance given by Wang Baoqing as the protagonist He Anxia. Wang characterizes his monk as a figure whose emotional map is dialed up to eleven. When he is happy (and he is a happy sort so this is often) he grins with his whole face, capers and laughs maniacally. When bored his whole body sinks into objects, his face droops, eyes almost shut. When angry He Anxia is outright and effectively homicidal in his wrath. Wang’s characterization of He seems to be hinting that being raised since infancy in a monastery has left He without normal emotional filters. He is unable to restrain these impulses of various passions because he never experienced enough to even realize he had them. This impulsivity extends into the script.

He’s first mentor upon leaving the temple is another former Taoist monk who abandoned the clergy and became a doctor out of lust. He was so desirous of a beautiful woman he encountered that he changed his whole life to be with her. He’s an older man though and so to support his desire he pays his younger brother, an apothecary, for aphrodisiacs. He isn’t aware his wife is having an affair with his younger brother but He Anxia spies on her while out on an errand and sees her in tryst with the younger brother; he confronts her, tells her she should tell her husband.

She assumes he has told the doctor and comes clean only to learn that He Anxia, just as impulsively as when he’d chosen to follow her, has not told the doctor a thing. The doctor persuades her to break off the affair with her brother which she does but the brother gives her a poisoned aphrodisiac which kills her husband before resuming his affair with her.

The film is clear the wife doesn’t realize the medicine is tainted.

He Anxia murders them both, locking them together in a boat and sinking it to the bottom of West Lake. He watches the light fade in her eyes as she drowns and then flees to a Buddhist temple seeking some understanding of whether what he did is good or evil.

Later he is drugged by the son of a gangster who believes his father has murdered his own best student (he has) and who believes He Anxia has information (he does). The drug loosens He Anxia’s tongue and he tells the other man, “I want to fuck my master’s wife.”

Later in the film He Anxia comes into the orbit of Zhou Xiyu – a recluse who lives alone in an abandoned Taoist temple. It transpires that Zhou is the former martial brother of the pupil-killing gangster and He’s actions reveal to the gangster that his xiongdi is still alive. The gangster, played by the delightfully hammy legend of Hong Kong cinema Wah Yuen is obsessed with maintenance of the family line and the martial line in one. He has never forgiven his father for teaching Zhou a powerful martial art and not him and so he goes to beat the secret out of Zhou. He fails; Zhou is by far the stronger fighter. But after he leaves Zhou is shot in the back by an unknown assailant. He hovers at the border between life and death. He Anxia brings his new teacher to the same abbot whose advice he sought after killing his last teacher’s unfaithful wife and begs the abbot to aid his teacher with his passing. The teacher reveals he needs to see one man before he dies and the abbot reminds him he can see him in his heart. Zhou agrees and sees a man who is a stranger to the audience smiling beatifically down at him before dying.

This man is the opera star Boss Zha – who is revealed to be Zhou’s former lover. The two met as soldiers some years previously and Zhou saved Zha’s life during a beautiful scene in which they embrace on a bridge as shells explode around them. They retreated from the world together to practice kung fu and when they eventually departed vowed eternal loyalty. Zha finding justice for his lover’s death marks the conclusion of the final episode of the film and brings He Anxia’s story to its conclusion. The film ends by saying in a voice-over narrative, “Only by experiencing good and evil can you truly appreciate the way… The true heart can hold all things, the mountains, plains and rivers and an eternal cosmic universe.”

It’s really only in this moment that all this strangeness, this lumpy, uneven and deeply odd narrative of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, selflessness and selfishness becomes clear. He Anxia’s moral development depends not just on a naïve man learning to do good things but rather of an empty vessel filling up with all the thickness of the world. He has to experience everything. And now we’re ready to talk a bit about Taoism, Buddhism and Existentialism.

In Return to Tipasa, Camus says, “In the difficult hour we are living, what else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point? In everything I have done or said up to now, I seem to recognize these two forces, even when they work at cross-purposes… But if one forgoes a part of what is, one must forgo being oneself; one must forgo living or loving otherwise than by proxy. “

The true heart can hold all things; learn how to braid with white thread and black tread a single cord stretched to the breaking point. There is an echo here. Taoism recognizes that the world is absurd. Certainly this film does. In a minor episode a beautiful young woman approaches He Anxia and tells him he is her savior. It transpires she has been unable to bear a child – the husband is probably to blame but nobody wants to admit that. She has been praying to Guanyin at the temple for a son and the goddess used to grant sons but in the last several years the goddess has stopped and nobody knows why.

On the strength of this chance encounter with a stranger He Anxia goes to the Abbot (the same one who guided him through his guilt over his murder, the same one who will later ease his teacher’s passing) and asks why the goddess has stopped granting sons.

The abbot tells him that during the tenure of the previous abbot the monastery allowed men to hide in a secret room beneath the temple to Guanyin. When women came there to pray for a son one of the men would bring her down and help her to conceive one. The abbot says he didn’t think this was appropriate decorum for temple and he locked the secret room. This is why the Goddess stopped answering those particular prayers.

He asks the abbot for the key and the abbot asks why. He says he wants to help a woman and the abbot says yes. He Anxia promises the woman never to see her again after helping her solve her heir-problem. It’s all absurd. The woman is a stranger. She comes to He Anxia by chance. She is the first (and in the film only) person he is physically intimate with. She leaves his life just as suddenly as she entered it and then she becomes an absence in his life.

Sartre situates nothingness in absence. In Being and Nothingness he brings forth the example of a friend to be met at a restaurant. “I say, ‘he is not here.’ Is there an intuition of Pierre’s absence, or does negation enter in only with judgment? At first sight it seems absurd to speak here of intuition since to be exact there could not be an intuition of nothing and since the absence of Pierre is this nothing. Popular consciousness, however, bears witness to this intuition. Do we not say, for example, ‘I suddenly saw that he was not there.'” Sartre says that the absence of his friend is marked as an aspect in the fleeting faces of all those people who are not Pierre. Being is composed of all these absences marked by the sudden and shocking intrusion of presence when the absence is negated. “the negative judgment is conditioned and supported by non-being.” For Sartre, these early pages of Being and Nothingness are built around the argument that the being of a thing is ontologically primary. That our ability to assign appearances and essences to a being depend first on the presence of the being which is composed of an infinite series of all appearances and dis-appearances of it. The nothingness that marks the absence of a being is also part of that being.

It is bottomless; the very progenitor of all things in the world.
In it all sharpness is blunted,
All tangles untied,
All glare tempered,
All dust smoothed.
It is like a deep pool that never dries.
Was it too the child of something else? We cannot tell.
But as a substanceless image it existed before the ancestor.

The Tao Te Ching interprets the Tao as an empty vessel, an uncarved block, a void to be filled. The Way is a being that contains within it all its own nothingnesses; it is, in fact, a nothingness from which all things emerge. For the Tao Te Ching this aspect of being fruiting out of nothingness isn’t merely an ontological process whereby our understanding of what an object is not is a unified part of our understanding of what an object is. Instead it’s a metaphysical nothingness that gives birth to all things. Nothingness is within all things because all things arose from nothingness.

There’s a sense, in the phenomenological existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre that the presence of other objects to a being is an intrinsically shocking thing, almost hostile. But at the same time a subject cannot help but encounter other beings. We are within the world. This is Dasein – this sense that to exist is to be tossed about in a maelstrom of becoming and of appearances. In Nausea, Roquentin describes sitting under a Chestnut tree and says, “I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me.” This direct encounter with the being of the other shocks him but at the same time it digs into the ground against which the word, “tree” or the description of the root, “black,” rests. There is this rupture of the tree being too much, too solid. But being-in-the-world is inescapable. We are not cartesian mind-imps observing everything through a screen. We are buffeted about by being and the vicissitudes of life. Language fails Roquentin in the face of a true encounter with the tree. As Zhuangzi says, “those who understand, do not say. Those who say do not understand.”

This idea – that language creates a barrier to an encounter with the real – remains the point where Heidegger breaks from Taoism and from Ch’an. Both of these older ontologies look at the inability of language to capture the paradoxes and contradictions of being in the world and say that language is the problem; an object must be taken in whole and no words can carry enough meaning to communicate even the smallest object in its entirety. Heidegger, instead, ties himself in knots attempting to describe these phenomenological problems.

Sartre gets closer at times and more distant to this anti-linguistic frame. In Nausea, under the Chestnut Tree, he captures the inability of language to describe being in a true sense. “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” as Laozi puts it. But even then he returns to the complex formulae of phenomenology in a vain attempt to describe the eternal Tao.

Monk Comes Down the Mountain is a story about the absurd and paradoxical nature of life. Its character, in his wild irrealist mood swings and strange, twisting, life story lives a life every bit as absurd of that of Roquentin, refusing to write his book in a coastal town that doesn’t exist. But being a Taoist work, Monk Comes Down the Mountain understands that the only way to truly and fundamentally apprehend being in all its paradox is to take it all in, to recognize the completeness of being and of the failure of language, even filmic language, to represent it in its wholeness. Recognizing its insufficiency to the task the film, instead of tying itself down in a complex phenomenology, allows its story to drift to metaphor and parable that is purposefully inadequate but is beautiful and strange nonetheless.

Heidegger failed to translate the Tao Te Ching and for all he tried to insert himself into the lineage of Zen he failed at that task too. No nazi can understand the sermon present in a smile and a plucked flower. Nausea fails too and so does Monk Comes Down the Mountain. Nothing can represent being; no work of art can present an essence to being in all its thickness. The essence is contained within the object of being along with its absence. It is but a part of a far greater whole. But where Heidegger’s Dasein gestures in the direction of the field, and where Nausea brushes against its surface, Monk Comes down the Mountain capers and dances, flashes a manic grin and throws itself about in acrobatic maneuvers. Camus said we need to braid with white and black thread stretched taught to the point of breaking and so must the Monk but even this misses the mark. He Anxia doesn’t braid with white and black thread; he is the white and black thread. His heart contains an eternal cosmic universe.

The (un)reality of fiction

This year has seen a lot of discussion of the nature of fiction within genre communities. There is a tread that has run through conversations related to what enjoyment of certain media might say about an audience’s moral character, the justification for artists to explore difficult topics and the question of what information should be made available to an audience prior to engaging with an artwork.

A lot of this discussion has largely fallen into two apparently opposed camps: on one side are those who make the argument that fiction can engender real harm and as such must be treated through a lens of moral instruction. An audience’s selection of media is a window into their soul and an author has a moral duty not to harm their audience through exposure to information hazards. Opposing this is the argument that fiction isn’t real. The events contained within a fictional work have not occurred and nobody has been harmed in creating it; an audience can just put the work down if it discomforts them.

Recently Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story came to the Confederation Center for the Arts. The show’s authors state that the musical / concert hybrid is inspired by the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees who came to Canada in 1908. The story focuses on the chance meeting and subsequent marriage between a young man whose family was killed in a pogrom and an older woman whose husband died of disease and whose child died of malnutrition while escaping Romania for Russia during the winter. They meet at a screening point in Halifax and meet again in Montreal at which point they begin courting.

The show is narrated by Caplan’s character, “the Wanderer,” a figure who is simultaneously a nod to the anti-Semitic stereotype of the wandering Jew, a metaphor for the refugee experience and the difficulties of cultural and linguistic integration, a rabbi to Chaim and Chaya and a fourth-wall breaking interlocutor who teases and challenges the audience directly. At a point near the climax of the show, during a dramatic shift from the ribald humour that preceded it to a dark and somber reflection on mortality and trauma, the Wanderer confronts the audience and asks them if they regret coming to the show. Are they upset to learn that they were given something unexpected with this sudden shift to somber reflection? This fourth wall break is meant to cut the tension, of course, and to reassure the audience that the light-hearted musical about love and sex will come back from its dark night of the soul. But, of course, what he says is the opposite. As the Wanderer is fond of saying throughout the show, “that’s a lie.”

There’s an existentialist thread running through Old Stock. In his essay, Return to Tipasa, Camus says, “In the difficult hour we are living, what else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point.” This interpretation of amor fati informs the central theme of Old Stock that requires that the audience take the good and the bad together. You can have a song about the Talmudic “minimum intervals” that a husband must offer his wife between carnal encounters and also a tableau about his failure to save his younger brother’s life during the aftermath of the pogrom, how his father committed suicide rather than carry on in its wake, leaving him alone. Chaim’s life, and his love for Chaya comes from both – he is both – and a clear understanding of his truth isn’t possible without recognizing both the lovesick young man anxious about pleasing his more experienced wife and the haunted victim of genocide.

Old Stock is based on a true story. But is it real? Is truth more real than a lie?

Certainly if we look at the material impact of a statement, its veracity has little impact on its materiality. A politician can put forward the most ridiculous fabrications and yet people will act upon those statements, share his lies, denounce them, split hairs about whether this or that statemen is truly a lie. They might even take more concrete action – hurt someone, other a group of people, engage in genocide.

It’s self-evident that lies are very real; there is a historically visible material impact to deception. People have been killed because of untruth. The concept of the blood libel underpinned many pogroms. Jewish people were massacred because of the story that they killed children. These stories still crop up in the present day via conspiracy theories such as the pizzagate conspiracy theory or the ravings of Qanon. But these conspiracy theories and the harm they cause are separated from unambiguous fictions because their truth is disputed. Nobody believes you can date an anthropomorphized sword but there are people who sincerely believe that Democrats are secretly assaulting children in the secret basement of a Washington DC pizzeria. So this gives rise to another question: is belief a vital force? Do we make stories real in the act of believing them. Terry Pratchett confronted this question directly in Small Gods. In it the last true believer in a god (Om) carries his object of worship on a quest to revitalize his faith and, in the process, to create a new covenant with the god – one which was more in keeping with Pratchett’s humanist sensibilities than the blood and thunder of the old way. Pratchett carefully divides the trappings of religion from that of belief. Vorbis and the Quisition are quite willing to use the story of Om for their own material interests – to maintain their position of power in their society and to project force into the world. But this materialist relationship to the divine doesn’t nurture the god. There’s no vital spark to it. Brutha, on the other hand, has given himself wholly over to Om. In fact Om has difficulty persuading Brutha that he is who he says he is specifically because Brutha is so completely given over to his belief that the disparity between Om’s material condition and the god that lives in Brutha’s head is almost irreconcilable.

By undergoing a process of education Brutha and Om learn to reconcile the material conditions of the faith with the authentic interiority of the faith – that subject of the leap that Kierkegaard deemed essential to true belief – and in doing so revitalize the god. In this case we’re presented with a kind of dialectical vitalism. Reality can be granted or withdrawn from Om through the power of authentic belief assigned to him. Om is a kind of fiction. Pratchett makes the fictive nature of the gods increasingly clear in later books such as Thud! in which a mine sign is presented as being simultaneously a kind of minor god and also a word in a language. The power of the Summoning Dark is a linguistic one. It presents itself as a message and what it does to dwarfs who believe in it is as much a function of their belief that those words have power as it is any sort of supernatural activity. But for Pratchett that belief which nourishes and empowers a fiction can be withdrawn. It’s only real when it’s believed. What then if we choose to take reality as immanent?

In a way, Pratchett’s gods are immanent – they are active in the world and accessible to the people therein. Om can appear to Brutha as a tortoise, the Summoning Dark rides as a mark on Vime’s arm and as a thought within his mind. The ultimate victory of Vimes’ own Watching Dark over the Summoning Dark doesn’t withdraw the power and belief that the Summoning Dark has but rather demonstrates how Vimes too can manifest that aspect of belief, his belief in his own self-policing, in a manner that allows him power akin to that of the gods. Vimes’ fiction of the Watching Dark is no more nor less real than the Summoning Dark. That’s how they are able to contend. And yet, the material effect of this fictive struggle is visible in the story as he thrashes through the dark fighting with the dwarfs whose conspiracy he interrupted. The dialectical sense of a divide between the real and the story collapses in much the same way that Walter Benjamin described the motivations of André Breton to break, “with a praxis that presents the public with the literary precipitate of a certain form of existence while withholding that existence itself.” The stories are real, all of them, they broadcast their own immanent being. Or, as Garak from Star Trek Deep Space Nine might say, “They’re all true, especially the lies.”

Returning to Old Stock we can then look at the Wanderer’s frequent asides of “that’s a lie” as communicating a form of truth. He’s highlighting the contradiction between a proposed fiction and the materiality of a situation specifically to highlight the reality of the former. The lies are true and fiction is very real. But if fiction is real, and if fiction has a material impact on the world, what of the artist’s moral responsibility? Can an artist do harm to a person through their work?

The answer is both yes and no.

An oft-presented example of harmful art is The Turner Diaries. This racist novel, written by an avowed Nazi, is a favourite of notorious terrorists. It has been read, shared and used as a basis for the formation of tactics and plans by some of the most vile people in the United States during the half-century since its publication. If you consider how it might have inspired Timothy McVeigh with regard to specific tactics one could very well say that it is harmful. Except the book didn’t blow up a building – a man did who enjoyed that book. As for the idea that the book created the man the counter-question could be raised of how anybody who didn’t already have a germ of belief in the ideas within that book might be influenced by it to do harmful things. If we treat the Turner Diaries like the summoning dark, an immanent demon able to, through the manipulation of language, manipulate people into doing terrible things then we, each of us, have a Watching Dark too. We are each able to look at the contents of that book and go, “this is awful, cruel and I don’t like it,” and we can then discard of it into the trash, where it belongs. The investment of desire into the artwork allows it to channel the harm a person might do along specific paths but the desire to do harm still belongs with the person who does it. In the case of the Turner Diaries we can certainly look at the harm William Luther Pierce has wrought. He was a politically active Nazi who deliberately used his fiction to distribute thoughts on tactics and strategy to other Nazis. But this is hardly a normal case. Most artworks are not created explicitly to allow terrorists to clandestinely share tactics. And in the case of Boyfriend Dungeon that’s not the nature of the harm proposed. Rather the complaints there were that the artist had a moral duty to inform the audience about certain themes that might cause them discomfort.

And here we return back to Pratchett’s dialectic of the Summoning Dark and the Watching Dark. Art is akin to language in that it is explicitly communicative. And language has an immanent power; there is a vitality that arises out of a person’s belief in the art. Furthermore, much like in the case of Vimes this isn’t an either / or situation. He doesn’t have to fully believe in the Summoning Dark to be influenced by it, especially when other people, the audience of the Summoning Dark believe in it. But that vitality isn’t confined only to that one mark and Vimes does not need to be beholden to an idea. He has the ability to self-police, to employ the Watching Dark to say, “this idea isn’t right for me.”

Nobody is going to force you to play Boyfriend Dungeon, to read Manhunt or to watch Old Stock. In each case you have the ability to say, “I don’t want to braid with these threads,” and to set aside the art, to go about your life. Perhaps this artwork will haunt you. Vimes doesn’t jail the Summoning Dark in his soul without challenge. But he is ultimately the captain of his own ship and able to make the choice to be affected by this word or that. If an artist has imbued their art with sufficient vitality to haunt a person this is to be lauded, not decried as a moral hazard and it is the responsibility of an audience to choose whether to engage with the artwork or to set it aside. Old Stock is an excellent musical, an excellent work of art, because it recognizes that the being of art needs to take in the good and the bad – universally cozy art is dull. Universally miserable art is, at best, off-putting. Writing a story in either of those modes is akin to painting with just one colour.

Art is very real. There is a vital materiality to art that cannot be denied because it is a part of the world, and the world is itself a material, real, place. Nietzsche councils us to be only a “yea sayer,” and this may, in fact, be the best thing he ever said in that it gives us a frame to deny nothing: neither the ability of art to affect the world nor the power of an audience to overcome the effect of an artwork within them. The duty of an artist is to create something that communicates powerfully and sometimes what is communicated will not be fully pleasant. Most good art, let alone great art, braids with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point. The Wanderer in Old Stock reminds us that Chaim and Chaya’s life is made true because it isn’t just the happy bits. It isn’t the duty of the artist to warn an audience that there might be uncomfortable themes in their work any more than it’s the duty of a painter to warn an audience their painting will contain both red and yellow pigment. This doesn’t absolve an author of all moral responsibility. Clearly attempting to create a manual for white supremacist terrorists disguised as a novel is a morally repugnant act. But I think some clarity on the part of critics and audiences is necessary in recognizing that this is a rare exception and not a universal rule. Even art that takes on morally repugnant themes, such as Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card or The Horror at Red Hook by H.P. Lovecraft don’t harm the audience directly. Nobody says, “I’m going to go out and conscript child soldiers,” because they read Ender’s Game, and it’s likely only a bigot would look at a Lovecraft work and see permission for their bigotry. What many of these controversies about the moral duty of the author are, in fact, doing is attempting to absolve the audience of their moral responsibility. These claims on the duty of the author want the work to be like the conception of the Summoning Dark as this all-powerful linguistic demon that bends minds to its will but, as Pratchett makes clear, this isn’t all. The power of communication exists between parties and each audience member has their own Watching Dark. The moral duty of an audience to be alert to the effect of fiction upon them cannot be withdrawn.

The problematics of the Matrix sequels

Me, dismissing the haters

This is not a defense of the Matrix sequels. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to argue that The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) were good, actually. In fact, so much effort has been made to disprove the detractors that the question of what exactly the Wachowskis were attempting to accomplish in these movies has been left fallow when compared to the endless stream of essays regarding the themes and ideas underlying the first Matrix movie.

So we are going to start from the position that the Matrix sequels, which I will be treating as a single text, are good, actually. The question is not, “can we vindicate our fondness for these strange films,” but rather, “what were the Wachowskis trying to say with these strange films?”

The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded presents a series of problematics around a central theme. We encounter the original setup for these problematics first when Neo talks with Councilor Hamann early in the film. His dreams are keeping him awake. “These machines are keeping us alive while other machines are coming to kill us,” Hamann says before digging into what it means to control something. Neo wants to suggest control is the power to destroy a thing.

Hamann disagrees, believing that control isn’t so simple. Sure, Zion could destroy the machines that keep it alive. But that would destroy Zion too. Is it self-control to smash the machinery of state or is it self-control to keep it running? Hamann doesn’t present any answers, in fact he’s very clear he doesn’t have the first clue how to answer that question. But he does manage to establish a linkage between three associated topics: the nature of control, the nature of choice and the nature of time. These are interconnected because it becomes evident as the story goes forward that an understanding of time is as fundamental to understanding volition as volition is to understanding control. As such, a failure to understand time creates an obstacle for understanding control.

Time is funny in this movie. The film starts in Neo’s dream in which Trinity in all her alien glory drops out of the sky in the midst of an act of beautifully outrageous violence divorced from any context. He experiences a disjunction depicted as a flow of code between two surfaces and then witnesses Trinity falling backward out a window somewhere elsewhere, pursued by an agent and in the midst of a gunfight. She is shot in the gut and he awakens.

However this is in tension with a structural formalism to the film that establishes a temporal cycle of violence and discourse. In the matrix there will be a moment of action. This action will lead Neo to a new place where he will have a conversation on those three topics: time, control, volition. Then there will be another outbreak of action and a transportation to a new location. It is likely this strict and anti-realist structural motif is largely responsible for the tepid audience reaction to this film. It’s as if William Burroughs used an action manga and a copy of Intelligence and Spirit to create one of his infamous cut-ups.

The Rave

The moment of action in Zion that leads before Neo’s dialog with Hamann is particularly interesting in its difference from the others. While his future forays into this recursive cycle of talk and action take the form of violence, in Zion the cathartic action that moves Neo into the discussion comes in the form of religious ritual. I think the Zion “rave scene” is perhaps one of the most centrally misunderstood moments in the trilogy of films. Specifically it is misunderstood as either a party, (and we know that Lana Wachowski likes filming parties so we can perhaps forgive this position) or as an orgy (which again we can link forward to Sense8 and its deployment of the orgy motif.) But it’s not precisely either, or rather, while it is a moment of orgiastic intensity it is so in a specifically Dionysian context of religious ecstasy.

Of course this hints at a kind of a pagan relationship to ecstasy and the transpersonal. A lot of the framing of the dance part of this scene frames people incompletely. We see bare feet on stone and sand. We see a roiling mass of bodies rising and falling to a percussive beat from a distance. Back to close-up panning across chests – clothes translucent with sweat.

In these scenes Zion is transformed into a single transpersonal being. The ego of any given person is absent the second Morpheus’ prayer ends. Instead there is just the community – and Neo and Trinity apart from it. Because we should consider that they leave. They make love as Zion makes love to itself, as Zion commits its act of worship, but they are apart from it. They’re framed distant, alone together. Just the two of them. The film doesn’t have to say that Neo feels disconnected from Zion but that he feels connected directly to Trinity; but later the Architect will draw attention to this difference while failing to recognize the significance of that change between a generalized sense of goodwill to one’s fellows and an intense love shared with another.

The Oracle’s compatibilism

The action sequence that bridges the Zion portion of the film with Neo’s visit to the Oracle isn’t particularly revelatory other than reminding audiences that Yuen Woo-Ping was still involved in blocking the fights and thus establishing some of the strangeness that will follow in the action of the film as being in the realm of choice rather than incompetence. Of course Yuen has been clear since that he was unhappy working with non-fighters and working with too much CGI and this vocal dissatisfaction was one of the things that soured audiences to the Matrix sequels. Notwithstanding his discomfort with elements of the Hollywood system, it’s clear when Neo fights Seraph that he stayed involved.

Seraph, for his part, only says that you can only truly know somebody by fighting them. This hints at Seraph being an agent of a dialectic understanding and primes the audience to treat the Oracle’s discourse as being fundamentally compatible with Hamann but this is a grace note more than a contribution to the discourse.

And here’s where things get interesting because the Oracle has some strong words on the nature of choice.

Neo: D’you already know if I’m going to take it?
The Oracle: Wouldn’t be much of an Oracle if I didn’t.
Neo: But if you already know, how can I make a choice?
The Oracle: Because you didn’t come here to make the choice, you’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it. I thought you’d have figured that out by now.

the Oracle tells Neo he’s already made a choice and that what matters is that he understand why he made it. She will later tell Neo a bit about the boundaries of her ability, that she cannot see past choices she doesn’t understand but the important thing is that she believes Neo can (and in fact does) possess something of her prophetic ability. This is because the Oracle is very interested in time.

I’ve talked before about Minkowski and the idea of a geometric understanding of time. To recap briefly, Minkowski and Einstein’s General Relativity concept of space time treats time as being a fundamentally positional relationship. All things that have an will happen coexist; the boundaries of being enclose time. In such a case every decision that you can make has always already been made. The Oracle is very clear that this is her position on time, telling Neo, “You have the sight now, Neo. You are looking at the world without time,” to describe his prophetic visions. Neo cannot see if Trinity dies because, “We can never see past the choices we don’t understand.”

Essentially the Oracle is introducing two problematics into the question of control, and they’re problematics that work very well with Hamann’s past arguments about interdependence. She’s pointing out that decisions are made but they’re made outside of a specific frame. A person always already has made every choice they will. However just as time is positional so is understanding. Neo from the position of the present cannot understand why he made/will make the choice he has/will made/make. This raises interesting problems for the question of will. Specifically, there’s the question of where choice is inserted into a process. If a choice has always already been made and the only question is understanding the circumstances that give rise to that choice is that a freely made choice? This is why proponents of absolute free will are uncomfortable with these fixed concepts of temporality. Creating a positional temporality as opposed to a flowing temporality challenges the ability of people to act freely. But the Oracle is clear choices have been made by subjects. In the conclusion of The Invisibles, Dane McGowan breaks the fourth wall and says “There’s no difference between fate and free will. Here I am; put here, come here. No difference. Same thing. Nothing ends that isn’t something else starting.” This is essentially the position the Oracle is taking, has to take as a result of the intersection of her opinion of time and her opinion of choice. There’s no fundamental difference between destiny and choice. A person chooses, has always chosen. They are fated by their choices because all the choices a person makes can be seen laid out, inscribed across the dimension of time. The relevant question is not, “did I choose this?” nor is it “what will I choose,” but rather “why did I choose this?”

In the previous discourse, Councilor Hamann says, “There is so much in this world that I do not understand. See that machine? It has something to do with recycling our water supply. I have absolutely no idea how it works. But I do understand the reason for it to work. I have absolutely no idea how you are able to do some of the things you do, but I believe there’s a reason for that as well. I only hope we understand that reason before it’s too late.” Ultimately for Hamann the question of “why?” is the principal question, the one that keeps him awake at night. The Oracle explains that this is because in understanding why you also produce an understading of what and how. The why contains these other questions.

The Oracle ends the conversation in a hurry. She gives Neo the location of the Merovingian and warns Neo the Merovingian just wants power. “What do all men with power want? More power,” she says before expressing her belief in Neo and escaping before the arrival of Smith.

The Burly Brawl

Smith: Our connection. I don’t fully understand how it happened. Perhaps some part of you imprinted onto me, something overwritten or copied. That is at this point irrelevant, what matters is that whatever happened, happened for a reason.
Neo: And what reason is that?
Smith: I killed you, Mister Anderson, I watched you die… With a certain satisfaction, I might add, and then something happened. Something that I knew was impossible, but it happened anyway. You destroyed me, Mister Anderson. Afterward, I knew the rules, I understood what I was supposed to do but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was compelled to stay, compelled to disobey. And now here I stand because of you, Mister Anderson, because of you I’m no longer an agent of the system, because of you I’ve changed – I’m unplugged – a new man, so to speak, like you, apparently free.
Neo: Congratulations.
Smith: Thank you. But as you well know, appearances can be deceiving, which brings me back to the reason why we’re here. We’re not here because we’re free, we’re here because we’re not free. There’s no escaping reason, no denying purpose – because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.

Smith is the ultimate paranoiac machine. This is a term from Anti-Oedipus. It describes the reaction of the Body Without Organs – a state of 0-intensity, of undifferentiated potentiality – against the attempts of “desiring machines” (the material process of desire) to penetrate it. Michael Hardt says, “While the schizophrenic follows desiring-machines everywhere on its errant walk, the paranoiac is hypersensitive, it suffers from desiring-machines, and wishes it could turn them all off. Desiring-machines are torment to the paranoiac,” in his reading notes on the book. Smith has always been distinguished with his revulsion for humanity. He “can’t stand the smell.” He has to disconnect from the Matrix and take out his earpiece to describe all the ways in which he cannot tolerate humanity. His progression from agent of the system to free-floating virus is one of continuous refusal to tolerate, of pushing back against desires, of refusal.

Smith’s multiplication of himself is the paranoiac screaming of, “Yes me. Me, me, me!” His hatred of freedom, of desire, of the movement of humanity off in all directions, is to push back, to homogenize and level everything out. He wants to make everything into Smith because that would give him some relief from the stink. Of course this anti-desire arises as a form of desire too. Smith wants because he wants an end to wanting. But Neo is not ready to understand his conflict with Smith, nor has Smith been positioned for his own resolution yet so their conversation is cut short and they have their first fight.

The Burly Brawl, the fight that results from this, is the moment that a lot of audiences believed the Matrix sequels lost the plot. The fight escalates and escalates to a bizarre degree as Neo and smith go from wrestling, boxing and rugby scrum to increasingly unlikely movements and behaviours. Neo’s appearance becomes increasingly digital, the artificiality of the scene becoming increasingly clear.

The initial read a person might give here would be to propose that the Wachowski’s reach exceeded their grasps. Remember that 2003 was the same year that Ang Lee’s Hulk came out. Spider-Man was one year old and its sequel would not come out for another year. Live-action comic book movies with CGI action sequences were in their infancy and the Wachowski sisters, in their hubris, attempted to put together a fight where a person with all the power of Superman has a martial-arts brawl with hundreds of identical clones of his nemesis. An attempt of a fight scene with this scope of digital manipulation didn’t become a significant part of the visual lexicon of action cinema until nearly a decade later. The idea of the empowered hero battling off waves upon waves of identical enemies may now be something of a cliche – but that is more a testament of Marvel to run a good idea fully into the ground than of any sort of extended history. However, despite the reasonableness of this proposition regarding the Burly Brawl this doesn’t quite fit with the action.

There’s a moment in the Burly Brawl when Neo pulls a signpost out of the ground to use as a staff. It comes out with a huge cap of concrete attached to it and this whole moment is fully a break from the real. There is no way a person could rip a pole out that way, there’s no way a person could do so especially with a neat cylinder of concrete ready to shatter in a special effect. Once Neo takes the staff up his motions become uncanny. This is the moment where the fight seems to go off the rails. But it also represents an increasing escalation in the action. More smiths. More flying. More slow-mo. More everything. The fight gets excessive to the point of cartoonishness quickly enough, and then keeps going, even inserting the infamous bowling pin noise into the audio when Neo uses one Smith to knock over a crowd of other Smith.

Neo’s increasingly unnatural movement, the way his clothes fail to act like clothes in the scene, all of this could be written off as the limits of CGI in 2003. But that sound? It’s a tell. And characterized by Neo literally uprooting a signpost at the start of the uncanny sequence seems too obvious a tell to disregard. We should perhaps view this fight instead through the lens of what the Oracle told Neo in the scene prior. The question isn’t did the Wachowskis choose to make this fight deliberately artificial so much as why was this fight so artificial?

I think the Wachowskis are trying to do, with Smith, what Seraph does with Neo in the fight prior to the Oracle conversation and identify the person in the fight. You don’t truly know somebody until you fight them Seraph says. This is a trap for Neo because Smith in the sequels is categorically not the Agent Smith of the first film. Neo might think he knows Smith but until they fight he would be wrong. And Smith is uncanny – he fits into Fisher’s definition of the weird. He is an unexplained presence, a presence that should not be present. Making Neo’s interaction with Smith so explicitly uncanny is a reinforcement of the impact he has on the world. Smith makes the world feel wrong, reality warps and bends around him because of his wrongness. This echoes the Matrix Revolutions when we see the following exchange regarding Smith’s impact on the Matrix:

Sparks: Yeah, that’d be swell. You can clean the windshield while you’re at it. Uplinks are in place, I’m bringing her back online. Looking good, except, uh… something wrong with the Matrix feed.

(Hammer: main deck)
AK: No, there’s not. You’re looking at what we’re looking at.
Sparks (v.o.): What the hell’s going on in there?
Link: Whatever it is, it can’t be good.

This sense of unreality doesn’t just pervade the fight between Neo and Smith though. It’s present throughout Neo’s depictions within the Matrix. His clothes never move quite right, they seem more like the idea of clothes than like actual clothing. This strange costuming extends to Morpheus and Trinity. Trinity looks alien throughout these two films when she’s within the Matrix. As a person in the real, she’s got emotion, passion, humanity. But her residual self-image is not this. She has a static blank-faced expression, severe, calculating. Her glasses are too big and too dark, her leather outfits too reflective. Morpheus also becomes a reflecting surface with clearly CGI-enhanced patterns constantly gleaming off his sunglasses. This strangeness clings to these three and does not infect the other rebels. Niobe, her crew and all the rest seem human within the Matrix. Neo, Trinity and Morpheus do not. They seem out of place. This seems to hint at a kind of gnostic sense of reality, as if proximity to the One is contagious. If Smith has become Weird it is in part because Neo is.

The Merovingian

The Smith fight acts as the transition to the meeting with the Merovingian. This is the powerful man who wants more power – he is a program who presents himself as a king, a gang boss, a god of death. His wife is Persephone. He owns two properties: Le Vrai (The True or, in a Baudrillardian sense, The Real). The Merovingian challenges the idea of choice in his discourse on the issue, saying:

 Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without. Look there, at that woman. My God, just look at her. Affecting everyone around her, so obvious, so bourgeois, so boring. But wait… Watch – you see, I have sent her dessert, a very special dessert. I wrote it myself. It starts so simply, each line of the program creating a new effect, just like poetry. First, a rush… heat… her heart flutters. You can see it, Neo, yes? She does not understand why – is it the wine? No. What is it then, what is the reason? And soon it does not matter, soon the why and the reason are gone, and all that matters is the feeling itself. This is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it, we fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense, it is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the `why.’ `Why’ is what separates us from them, you from me. `Why’ is the only real social power, without it you are powerless. And this is how you come to me, without `why,’ without power. Another link in the chain. But fear not, since I have seen how good you are at following orders, I will tell you what to do next. Run back, and give the fortune teller this message: Her time is almost up. Now I have some real business to do, I will say adieu and goodbye.

The Merovingian remains close to the Oracle in his position. He positions understanding of “why” as the root of power. Where he mostly differs from the Oracle is in his understanding of time. There’s a cyberneticism to his idea that positions everything as a causal sequence of events. If you can disentangle the cause of one of these causal chains you have power. Without that knowledge of the cause you are powerless – simply another step in the sequence. The Oracle recognizes that, materially, the Merovingian has power. He controls buildings, he controls people, programs. He collects useful things. He wills things and they are done. But because the Merovingian doesn’t understand time he misses the significance of understanding. Instead he divides the world into the powerful and the unimportant. The Merovingian’s causal mono-directionality might allow for feedback to occur – we see that in the games he plays with Persephone – but that’s all volition can ever be: the games of the powerful.

Neo gets trapped in one of these games as Persephone promises to help him get the Keymaker in a minor act of vengeance for the Merovingian’s manipulation of the “beautiful woman” – who he’s manipulated into a sexual encounter via his example of control. Persephone is also a powerful person. She understands exactly why she is helping Neo. She’s doing it to anger her husband. This works on multiple levels in the story, both acting as a reinforcement of the Merovingian’s thesis on control, advancing the action of the plot and introducing a commentary on the games that the powerful play with the lives of the powerless. It’s not entirely untrue that Neo doesn’t have power when he approaches the Merovingian. The Oracle has explained that Neo doesn’t understand why he has always already decided whether to save Trinity and that he must come to that understanding to progress. The Merovingian merely denies Neo will ever have the opportunity to understand; he creates a form of class privilege on understanding wherein only power can attract power.

The Architect

The final discourse on control, choice and time comes between Neo and the Architect. There is another action sequence prior to the conversation. It admirably shows us that Morpheus has grown as a person – that he has become more like Neo by being with Neo. It also gives us the opportunity to see the Wachowskis realizing cliches like the katana that can cut through a tank (or at least an SUV).

This action scene also brings us back to the initiatory action from Neo’s dream: we see Smith interfere with the plans of Neo and his team and we see Trinity forced to descend like an alien in black leather to the situation that will lead to her possible doom. With Trinity thus engaged in her fated moment, Neo opens a door and encounters the Architect.

Before we talk too much about the Architect I think it’s important to clarify a misconception about his discourse: The Architect is textually wrong. Every prediction he makes is incorrect. By the end of The Matrix Revolutions he is thoroughly repudiated and as such I don’t think we can take anything he says, about the capability of the Machines, the history of the world, any of it, as absolute truth. The Architect exists to be wrong. But Neo doesn’t know that when he first meets the program. The Architect is deeply focused on the inevitability of determinism and everything he says is viewed through that lens. While the Architect’s argument is important to the story, and is significant, the significance of it lies in Neo’s rejection of it. I believe what caused the misunderstanding of the Architect’s role has to do with a conversation Neo has later in the film:

Morpheus: I don’t understand it. Everything was done as it was supposed to be done. Once The One reaches the Source, the war should be over.
Neo: In 24 hours it will be.
Morpheus: What?
Neo: If we don’t do something in 24 hours, Zion will be destroyed.
Link: What?
Trinity: How do you know that?
Neo: I was told it would happen.
Morpheus: By whom?
Neo: It doesn’t matter. I believed him.

The first thing to keep in mind is Neo’s qualification, “if we don’t do something.” What he believes is that the Machines have the capacity to destroy Zion and have made a choice to initiate the destruction of Zion. However if Neo believed in the determinism of Smith or the Architect then there’d be not talk of doing anything. The die would be cast. It would be destiny.

However I think it’s also important to remember that Neo is not a character who operates as an authorial insert. There isn’t any one character in The Matrix who exists to address the audience on behalf of the author. Because The Matrix Reloaded is structured as a series of discourses in which Neo talks to a person and learns something, even expository characters are complicated here. We have Hamann, the Oracle, Smith, the Merovingian and Persephone and we have the Architect. Each of these characters (much like Rama Kandra, Sati, the Oracle, Trinity and Smith in The Matrix Revolutions) contributes to the audience’s understanding and to Neo’s understanding simultaneously. Neo may be checking in with the audience here to encourage the audience to believe the Architect in the moment but he has no authority to make the claim. He’s learning, just like us.

So the question becomes what wrong-path is the Architect leading us down, and why might he be leading us in this direction?

Architect: Denial is the most predictable of all human responses, but rest assured, this will be the sixth time we have destroyed it, and we have become exceedingly efficient at it.
The function of the One is now to return to the Source, allowing a temporary dissemination of the code you carry, reinserting the prime program. After which, you will be required to select from the Matrix 23 individuals – 16 female, 7 male – to rebuild Zion. Failure to comply with this process will result in a cataclysmic system crash, killing everyone connected to the Matrix, which, coupled with the extermination of Zion, will ultimately result in the extinction of the entire human race.
Neo: You won’t let it happen. You can’t. You need human beings to survive.
Architect: There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept. However, the relevant issue is whether or not you are ready to accept the responsibility of the death of every human being on this world. It is interesting, reading your reactions. Your 5 predecessors were, by design, based on a similar predication – a contingent affirmation that was meant to create a profound attachment to the rest of your species, facilitating the function of the One. While the others experienced this in a very general way, your experience is far more specific – vis a vis love.
Neo: Trinity.
Architect: Apropos, she entered the Matrix to save your life, at the cost of her own.
Neo: No.
Architect: Which brings us at last to the moment of truth, wherein the fundamental flaw is ultimately expressed, and the anomaly revealed as both beginning and end. There are two doors. The door to your right leads to the Source, and the salvation of Zion. The door to your left leads back to the Matrix, to her and to the end of your species. As you adequately put, the problem is choice. But we already know what you are going to do, don’t we? Already, I can see the chain reaction – the chemical precursors that signal the onset of an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason – an emotion that is already blinding you from the simple and obvious truth. She is going to die, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.
Hope. It is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength and your greatest weakness.

The Architect experiences choice as the remainder of an unbalanced equation. However he also believes that the function of the One is to bring that equation to balance. The One is “both the beginning and end.” We can see that in the infectious artificiality that surrounds Neo. Trinity and Morpheus aren’t just stronger, faster and more capable of superhuman feats than they were before. Morpheus fights an upgraded Agent to a stand-still during the highway chase and what Trinity does when she engages her doomed raid is straight-up impossible. But it goes beyond their capabilities and into the way their residual self images have become more abstract. When Neo first awakens in the Matrix, he becomes coated in mirror-stuff but Morpheus and Trinity have become like mirrors in their appearance. There’s a reflectivity to them – Trinity’s leather suit gleams, Morpheus’s glasses are far more reflective than they should be. This digitally affected costuming echoes the abstraction of Neo’s almost-clerical garb.

Notice how the second costume is like an abstraction of the first.

That these changes are most evident in those people who are closest to Neo, his lover and his mentor, is important here thematically. But it goes beyond this – it is increasingly hard for the sleeping people of the Matrix to remain ignorant of the artificiality of their world when Superman in Jesuit drag is rocketing around all the time. Harder still once Smith starts his campaign of assimilation. But the Architect attempts to resolve this via a rigid dialectical negation. Neo will do these things because he must. The only choice presented is to allow the lover to die or to risk extinction one day later. The logical decision is obvious.

And Neo doesn’t make it. Instead he reinserts himself into the Matrix without obeying the Architect and he rescues Trinity.

Trinity: I’m sorry.
Neo: Trinity. Trinity, I know you can hear me. I’m not letting go. I can’t. I love you too damn much.

Neo is not able to make the logical choice the Architect expects because he loves Trinity. And he explicitly says that he cannot. Not that he doesn’t want to: he can’t let go of her. This idea, that Neo is constrained in his choices by love will become a very important key to how the Matrix Revolutions addresses the problematics laid out by The Matrix Reloaded.

All in all the structure of the Matrix Reloaded as a series of dialogs presents us with a clear matrix of ideas regarding interlocking themes: choice, time, control, consequence, love and hope are forced into a series of interactions. Is time a sequence of actions and reactions or a geometric substrate to being? If time is this or that what does it mean for choice? What is the nature of control, is it a relationship of domination and subjugation, or is it something of a mutual relationship? How does love affect choice? Is there reason to ever hope? This film can be seen as frustrating because it ultimately defers the answers. There is a line of compatibility that ties Hamann to the Oracle, that ties the Oracle to the Merovingian, that ties the Merovingian to the Architect and the Architect to Smith. Certainly we see where our alliances are supposed to lie – there is a variance in the hostility of the dialogs that goes from the mutual fondness Neo and Hamann hold for each other, the tenuous regard Neo and the Oracle have for each other, the grudging respect the Merovingian and Neo hold for each other through the threats Neo and the Architect trade to the outright violence of his encounter with Smith. But the multifaceted nature of the dialogs makes it difficult to say, “this is the right answer to this problem.” This is what leads to the confused interpretations of the conclusion of the film wherein audiences side with the Architect and believe him, as Neo does, of the existential threat that faces Zion. But ultimately we don’t know. We cannot know. We’re provided with a lot of opinions but no textual answers. You cannot look at the Matrix Reloaded as any more complete a film than Alita: Battle Angel. The only difference is that the Wachowskis, unlike Robert Rodriguez, had the opportunity to finish the movie when they released The Matrix Revolutions.

The Matrix Revolutions

At the end of The Matrix Reloaded Neo tells Morpheus that the One is just another control mechanism. This is largely derived from his encounter with the Architect who is persuasive in his argument that Neo is just that on the basis of a snooty attitude and Neo’s own doubts about what the Oracle is really attempting to do. We’ve established throughout the first two films in the series a few interconnected concepts: in the first film Trinity helps Neo survive being killed by Smith through her declaration of love. In the second, Neo saves Trinity because he loves her, with a declaration of that love, even though this might be dooming the human race to extinction within a day.

We have also established that there were at minimum one One prior to Neo and possibly as many as five depending on how willing we are to accept the narrative of the Machines over that of Zion. We have established that the Machines have decided to destroy Zion even though doing so would likely destroy the machines when the Matrix failed thanks to the meddling of Neo and Smith in it. It is worth noting though that the situation established at the start of The Matrix Revolutions calls back to Hamann’s problematizing of control in the first film. Certainly Zion could smash the machines that run the city but it would kill everyone. The Machines could kill Zion knowing that the Matrix is failing, but it would kill everyone, including the Machines.

The machines expect an eternal recurrence – that the One will arise, that the One will obey the Architect and reset the Matrix but now Neo has done something different. Furthermore the presence of Smith is, “not exactly,” how it went before. Neo discovers his abilities to interact with the code of the Machines has bled out of the Matrix. His encounter with the Architect has given him access to “the Source” – the central network of Machine communication distinct from the Matrix. But his use of the Source to destroy a Sentinel renders him unconscious and he awakens in a subway station in time for yet another piece of the discursive buildup to the conclusion of the Matrix movies.

Sati

Sati and her family are one of the most perplexing additions to The Matrix Revolutions. Her father, Rama-Kandra, is briefly seen leaving Le Vrai in The Matrix Reloaded but he’s a fleeting presence, a background character.

He’s waiting in the subway station with his wife Kamala and his daughter Sati. They expect a servant of the Merovingian, the Train Man, to come for them soon and Rama-Kandra explains that this was why he was speaking with the Merovingian in the previous movie. His daughter is a program created without a purpose. Lacking a purpose, she will be deleted and escape into the Matrix is the only way he can prevent the destruction of his daughter, who he loves.

Neo: I just have never…
Rama-Kandra: …heard a program speak of love?
Neo: It’s a… human emotion.
Rama-Kandra: No, it is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?
Neo: Anything.

For Rama-Kandra, “the power plant systems manager for recycling operations,” Neo’s love is a plain and visible fact. And he sees love not as an emotion but as a symbol implying connections, ties that bind. It’s unnecessary for Rama-Kandra to feel emotions as a biochemical response for him to understand what love is because he understands that the connection love represents matters and he will take lengths to protect it. Neo continues talking with Sati and her family and Rama-Kandra remarks that the Train Man is uncharacteristically late. Neo speculates that it might be something to do with him and we get the second significant part of this dialog:

Neo: You know the Oracle?
Rama-Kandra: Everyone knows the Oracle. I consulted with her before I met with the Frenchman. She promised she would look after Sati after we said goodbye.
Neo: Goodbye? You’re not staying with her?
Rama-Kandra: It is not possible. Our arrangement with the Frenchman was for our daughter only. My wife and I must return to our world.
Neo: Why?
Rama-Kandra: That is our karma.
Neo: You believe in karma?
Rama-Kandra: Karma’s a word. Like ‘love.’ A way of saying ‘what I am here to do.’ I do not resent my karma – I’m grateful for it. Grateful for my wonderful wife, for my beautiful daughter. They are gifts. And so I do what I must do to honour them.

When he announces that he does not resent his karma, that he is instead grateful for the things in his life, including his wife and daughter, Rama-Kandra explicitly ties purpose, previously tied to fate, determinism and causality directly to love. He doesn’t hate his fate – it’s a gift to honour. And yet the object of Rama-Kandra’s love is a being without purpose in Sati. It’s clear that a choice has been made, but it’s a choice that paradoxically venerates doing what one ought.

In The Joyful Wisdom (often also known as the Gay Science), Friedrich Nietzsche said, “I shall thus be one of those who beautify things. Amor fati: let that henceforth be my love! I do not want to wage war with the ugly. I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers. Looking aside, let that be my sole negation! And all in all, to sum up: I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!” This concept, Amor Fati, literally means love of fate. Nietzsche believed that in an infinite time span all things would eventually repeat an infinite number of times. In his view we were each fated to live out the same life an infinite number of times – to make the same choices and to do the same deeds. It was not that we were compelled by a creator to do this. It was simply a property of the endless expanse of the universe, the endless bounds of time. This has much the same consequence as the Infinite Improbability Drive of the Hitchhiker’s Guide stories except extrapolated farther. Not only is the specific improbability of a sequence of events something that never will reach ∞ but also as that improbability will always be finite within an infinite universe its frequency thus become ∞ too. Faced with such absurdity the best hope one has for sanity is to affirm that one lives the life one has. After all you’re going to be living that life in exactly the same way over and over again anyway. You might as well enjoy it.

But let’s return to Rama-Kandra’s dialog because his love of his fate isn’t sufficient to resolve the paradox of a program without a purpose if Rama-Kandra’s satisfaction with existence is Amor Fati how can a being without a purpose contribute to that. Is she not without a fate?

We could consider the possibility that Sati has a purpose and that Sati’s purpose is to be an object of love but considering the role she plays at the end of the film I don’t think that’s right. After the action of the movie is all over Sati is there at the end and she repaints the sky of the Matrix, replacing the overcast green haze with a glorious technicolor sunrise. Sati has a purpose and that purpose is to inject change.

This is a consequence of Nietzsche’s eternal return that plays interestingly with the Oracle’s compatibilism. Because if the universe is infinite and this is the basis for the infinite repetition of the same life, there will also be an infinite number of recurrences that are different. We are fated to live the same life over and over and also every one of its possible variations. This time Sati paints the sky.

An accompanying concept to the eternal return and to Amor Fati within Nietzsche is the Will to Power. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche says, ” philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to “creation of the world,” the will to the causa prima.” The will to the causa prima – the first cause. Will to Power is for Nietzsche a natural condition of living. It’s the basis from which Deleuze later proposes an affirmative difference. The will to power is the emergence of being out of nothingness. It is the first mover before all other causes that creates itself.

And if this is what Sati represents – this cause – then we are binding love not just to love of fate and resignation but to causation. With Sati we see the first hint of a solution to the questions of choice, determinism, and understanding from the prior film. Perhaps these connections, these manifestations of love, are what arise timelessly to initiate causal chains. Perhaps there hasn’t been one prior One nor five. But an infinite chain of Ones stretching forward and backward in all directions, bound to their fate to awaken humanity and to destroy humanity by the tension between love of fate and the will to power.

Zee and Link

Zee: They’ve called for volunteers to hold the dock.
Cas: *to the kids* Kids, you stay here. *to Zee* I know how you feel, Zee, but you can’t do that.
Zee: I have to.
Cas: Why?
Zee: Because I love him. [I love him the same as] he loves me. And if I were out there and he were here, I know he would be doing the same thing.
Cas: But you’re gonna get yourself killed. It’s crazy, Zee.
Zee: Maybe it is. But ask yourself, if it were Dozer, and you knew the only chance you had to see him again was to hold the dock, what would you do?
Cas: Make shells.

Zee is similar to Rama-Kandra in that she is another character who existed on the edges of The Matrix Reloaded. She was more present than him, the home and hearth to which Link returns for a painfully brief respite, a chance to understand who he is and how he connects to the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar. But, along with Link and Kid she becomes a central character in The Matrix Revolutions. Zee remains behind when Zion is evacuated. She makes shells. Then she serves as the loader in an infantry team – plugging the shells into an rocket launcher for Charra to fire. She’s the one who loads the shells that fell the digger mech and she’s the one who survives when sentinels finally kill Charra. Zee is animated by the singular goal of love. Everything she does: staying on the dock, rescuing Kid, opening the gate, is for the chance to be reunited with Link.

Zee has no deep philosophical dialog with Neo. There’s no moment where her opinions are put into a point and counter-point model. But even so her purpose in the story is clear. She is a living and breathing exemplar of the will that underlies love. Zee isn’t a warrior. She doesn’t serve on a rebel ship. She has no special training in combat. She goes into a meat grinder of a battle that kills countless people. We Charra and so many other infantry soldiers carried off by sentinels, impaled or cut to pieces. We see Captain Mifune and his squad of power-armor anti-materiel units cut to pieces. There is so much death. And yet Zee is untouched. She is propelled by her love, armored by it.

Zee demonstrates precisely how powerful the Wachowskis see love in the context of this discourse just by her lived example. Rama-Kadran and Sati might be able to comment on what love means but Zee shows how it feels. And it isn’t all good times. She’s reunited with Link at the end of the world. All her fighting, all the trauma she goes through, seeing Charra die, seeing the fall of the dock and the vast army of the Machines it’s all so that she can die together with the man she loves instead of apart. It’s all so that she can see him one last time. And she does! And they live! But imagine being Zee in that moment. Imagine seeing all that horrible monstrosity arrayed against you and knowing you were very likely not going to live another day. Imagine, despite all that, spitting in the face of despair and carrying on because even the smallest time with the one you love is worth the whole world. There’s an echo of Amor Fati here too. As Camus said, “What else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord?” Love exposes one to terrors and opens one up to pain. Zee lives not for herself but for Link. She throws herself into the face of death because she loves him. All that terror and pain is a black thread that she must bind to the white thread of her love. She can exclude nothing. If her only chance to see Link again, even just to see him a last time, is to make shells and hold the dock then she will make shells and she will hold the dock.

Trinity

Trinity: You want to make a deal, how about this? You give me Neo, or we all die right here, right now.
Merovingian: Interesting deal. You are really ready to die for this man?
Trinity: *cocks gun* Believe it.
Persephone: She’ll do it. If she has to, she’ll kill every one of us. She’s in love.
Merovingian: It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.
Trinity: Time’s up. What’s it gonna be, Merv?

Trinity loves Neo. If there is one thing the Matrix trilogy is universally consistent about, that is never doubted and never challenged then it’s that Trinity loves Neo. Cypher saw it when he commented that Trinity never brought him dinner during the second act of The Matrix. Trinity affirmed it moments before Cypher is shot by Tank, whispering that, yes, she believes Neo is the One, fully aware that the Oracle told her she would, “fall in love, and that man, the man that I loved, would be the One.” Trinity’s enunciation of her love is what allows Neo to awaken into his power and defeat Smith. Love is a connection of course and so the reciprocation of that love, Neo’s love for Trinity is why he rejects the Architect’s instructions and returns to the Matrix to save her.

So it’s no surprise when Neo announces his suicide mission that Trinity insists on coming too. ” I know. You don’t think you’re coming back. I knew it the moment you said you had to leave. I could see it in your face. Just like you knew the moment you looked at me that I was coming with you.” There’s no doubt there. Like Zee, Trinity needs to weave the black thread and the white together into a single cord. The Merovingian calls love something like insanity. It’s an irrational choice but it is a choice that Trinity makes again and again, it is a choice that Neo makes. It’s the choice that Zee makes and this choice, this decision to love, to open oneself to love in all its beauty and terror is both the resignation to fate and the causa prima of all choice. The will to love is an irrational choice to bind yourself to another no matter the cost.

Trinity dies in the mission to the Machine city. But before she does, she sees the sun and it’s beautiful. As she lies dying she gives her final words to Neo:

Trinity: Do you remember… on that roof after you caught me… the last thing I said to you?
Neo: You said: “I’m sorry.”
Trinity: That was my last thought. I wished I had one more chance, to say what really mattered, to say how much I loved you, how grateful I was for every moment I was with you. But by the time [I knew I’d] said what I wanted to, it was too late. But you brought me back. You gave me my wish. One more chance to say what I really wanted to say… Kiss me, once more. Kiss me.

As in the case of Rama-Kandra’s dialog about love, karma and gratitude, Trinity talks about how grateful she was to have the chance to tell Neo what she really wanted to say. She follows her love into a death that she sees coming but she’s grateful because she was doing it out of love. Love is simultaneously a power that moves mountains, that paints the sky in many vibrant colours and a surrender. Kierkegaard understands love as a surrender, in Works of Love he says, “The emotion {love} is not your own expression but belongs to the other; its expression is his due since you in your emotion belongs to him who causes the emotion.” And so Trinity gives herself over to Neo in her love. Zee gives herself over to Link. When Nietzsche or Camus talk about Amor Fati – this affirmation of the life you have lived and will live – love fits within this perfectly in its form as surrender.

All the travails that Zee and Trinity go through are given over to another. One lives the other dies but neither has reason for anything but gratitude: not to a god, Kierkegaard might have sought that but Nietzsche and Camus did not, but to the object of love – the beloved person. Trinity gives herself over to Neo in love – but doing so is her choice. It will always already be her choice to surrender to love because she loves Neo. Love then becomes a principal expression of the Will to Power – the causa prima – that is eternally inserted into being and in doing so creates the possibility of difference within the tyranny of the infinite.

Smith

Smith: The great and powerful Oracle. We meet at last. I suppose you’ve been expecting me, right? The all-knowing Oracle is never surprised. How can she be, she knows everything. But If that’s true, then why is she here? If she knew I was coming, why didn’t she leave? *sweeps plate of cookies off table* Maybe you knew I was going to do that, maybe you didn’t. If you did, that means you baked those cookies and set that plate right there deliberately, purposefully. Which means you’re sitting there also deliberately, purposefully.
Oracle: What did you do with Sati?
Smith/Sati: Cookies need love like everything does.
Smiths: *laugh*
Oracle: You are a bastard.
Smith: You would know, Mom.
Oracle: Do what you’re here to do.
Smith: Yes, ma’am.
Smith/Oracle: *laughs maniacally*

Smith doesn’t understand love. He mocks the Oracle when they come face to face about love, about the Oracle’s statement to Sati that cookies need love. His way of showing that he has taken Sati and made her like him too. “Yes me, me, me, me,” is all Smith knows and because of that inward look he fails to understand love even to the extent of the Merovingian. The Merovingian, obsessed with causality, is unable to see the irrationality of love as being the cause at the root of things, and so it looks insane to him. To Smith even that level of awareness is impossible. There’s just that paranoiac reaction against sensation, against desire. Paranoiac machines are the producers of anti-production, the reaction against the injury desire does to the surface of potentiality. Love is bound up in desire, in the tangle of lives. The stink of the human is all over love and he can’t stand it. Smith is incapable of self-love any more than he is of loving another. Love demands surrender and there’s nothing of surrender in Smith, just the monomaniacal desire to level everything out, to make things quiet, to get rid of the smell.

He confronts Neo twice in the film. During the first confrontation he is wearing the rebel Bane:

Bane: Yes.. That’s it, Mr. Anderson. Look past the flesh, look through the soft gelatin of these dull cow eyes and see your enemy.
Neo: No.
Bane: Oh yes, Mr. Anderson.
Neo: It can’t be.
Bane: There’s nowhere I can’t go, there’s nowhere I won’t find you.
Neo: It’s impossible.
Bane: Not impossible. Inevitable. Goodbye, Mr. Anderson.

His hatred of flesh and his obsession with inevitability continue to define him. Neo is shocked to see Smith wearing flesh but the code within is all too clear to him. He sees Smith. But Smith cannot see Neo. Not really. He can’t understand him just as he can’t understand the Oracle. The Merovingian tells Trinity that the eyes of the Oracle can only be given, not taken by force. And yet when the Oracle tells Smith, “do what you’re here to do,” he doesn’t blink. He just takes without considering why what he took might have been given. Because Smith cannot understand love, because desire is injurious to him, he cannot ever become the prime mover. The Paranoiac machine is a reactive apparatus. So while Smith is able to remark that this time is different, he is unable to be the mover of change. The Merovingian sees those with power as being those who understand the first cause of a chain of events and Smith, absent an understanding of love, cannot come to that understanding. Smith cannot see past the decisions he does not understand any more than Neo or the Oracle could. As such his iron-clad certainty in inevitability is missing the complex topography of fate and choice for the trees.

Smith falls into total nihilism as a result of this fundamental failure of understanding. “The purpose of  life is to end,” he says, but he is ignorant of the other side of the equation of the eternal return: that all death leads to life. Bone meal helps flowers grow. Nothing is ever still and the paranoiac machine will eventually be syphoned off by another machine that will in turn link back to desire. It’s cyclical – a revolution of a different sort in the turning of a wheel. Smith and Neo fight and Smith believes with iron certainty that he will win. He’s seen it: “we already know that I’m the one that beats you.”

But even so Neo keeps fighting. No matter how often Smith knocks him down, Neo gets back up.

Smith/Oracle: Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why, why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something, for more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is, do you even know? Is it freedom or truth, perhaps peace – could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson, you must know it by now! You can’t win, it’s pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson, why, why do you persist?
Neo: Because I choose to.

Here at last Will to Power is laid bare. Neo makes the choice to get back up. He takes the pain and the fear, the love and the striving, the beauty and terror of the world, he takes it all and he chooses to affirm it. He will not say no. He will be only a yea-sayer. Choice arises out of the facticity of our situation. We may be fated to make the same choices again and again across the aeons but now, within this frame, we can choose. We have that terrifying freedom to irrationally disregard the bars of our cage and say, “yes.” Neo’s last line in the Matrix trilogy is, “You were right, Smith. You were always right. It was inevitable.” He denies nothing. He affirms everything: the choice and the inevitable, causality and irrationality. All of it is true, all of it is compatible. It is an absurd resolution to an absurd premise but it is also an inevitable end. The Matrix trilogy describes the Oracle making a great wager against the Architect – that the human and the irrational matter: that there is purpose in the purposeless. Sati is the future for the machines. She’s created without a purpose and so she creates her own. She creates beauty out of love. A gift for Neo. Sati asks if Neo will return and the Oracle says she suspects so. She doesn’t know. The eternal return exists and we must learn to love fate in order to make any sort of peace with our facticity but that’s not the whole story. People make choices, difference arises. The same infinity that demands the eternal return also demands transformation. The wheel of being turns but we are not crushed beneath it. We can choose to get up, to affirm it all, to weave our cord of white and black thread and have gratitude for our surrender to love.