The Synecdoche of Prisoners of the Ghostland

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The best way to describe the experience of watching Prisoners of the Ghostland is to imagine trying to watch Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, The Last Temptation of Christ and Yojimbo simultaneously on one TV set such that the images and sounds of all three rise and fall in a strange discordant melody.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is a 2021 film starring Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella and directed by Sion Sono in his first release outside of the Japanese market. Some people have referred to it as Sono’s English language debut but that’s somewhat deceptive as a full appreciation for the script of Prisoners of the Ghostland would depend largely on an understanding of English, Japanese and Mandarin. The film includes substantial dialog in all three of these languages and no subtitles were furnished at least in the version I watched. Considering some elements of the production I suspect this to be intentional.

Sono is a name that is likely at least familiar to people in the horror scene as his previous works like Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table and Cold Fish have attracted significant critical attention. Sono’s work fits very much into the auteur / small-group collaborator mold with their hallmark being a surrealist sort of dream logic: particularly a regular breaking of classical convention regarding unity of place and unity of time. This is certainly the case in Prisoners of the Ghostland but in general what’s striking about this film is its fundamental incompleteness.

Now this might be a strange thing to say about a movie with the complicated and stunning props, practical sets, costumes and action direction of this movie. The entire thing is a maximalist feast for the eyes as every frame drips with artistry. Blocking is, much like in Dune, quite formal but where Dune provided a very operatic blocking this one is more akin to a Dionysian ritual as characters crowd the frame. Choruses cluster around the the coryphaeus like anxious birds, workers haul ropes, roaring and grunting in the background. Cowboys and samurai surround Hero and Yasujiro weapons creating an inward-pointing circle. Every scene is a cacophony of sight and sound as characters speak, chant, shout over each other and snarl like animalistic beasts – often such that the various languages of the film can become garbled and indistinct until you realize the madness has settled into a comprehensible chant. “It stopped. Short. Never to go again when the old man died.”

Every manner undertaken by every person excepting our five principals (Hero, Bernice, Psycho, Governor and Yasujiro) is deeply ritualistic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with as much chanting, even Koyannisquatsi pales compared to this one, and the only films I’ve seen with more time spent on dancing were musical theatre. But even with all this… stuff… people, dialog, dance, swordfights, Nicolas Cage making funny faces (come on you knew he was going to do that), the movie feels like a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

It seems as if this entire lush film was itself a vast synecdoche for some grander story in which its myriad elements become metaphorical referents to… something else. Something outside. As I’ve hinted at before, this film is orgiastic. I don’t mean in some sort of vulgar sense of “containing orgies” which is perhaps good considering how this film problematizes a triangular formation between sex, power and exploitation. Sono conjures such discomfort from the brush of a red-gloved hand on a child’s head that I’m unsure I’d want to see an actual orgy from him. This movie is one of the most libidinally charged works of art I’ve ever seen. Everything is fully sexual.

But, no, this movie is orgiastic in that it plays out its actors in the process of a vast expenditure of jouissance. The chanting, rhymes, choruses and dancing all serve to bring forth a sense of frenzy in the film that bubbles maniacally beneath even its quietest moments. This is a slow burn of a movie. Prior to the climax it deploys violence carefully, in micro-doses. We are allowed to know that Hero and Yasujiro are strong fighters but we see remarkably little of them fighting – especially Hero. Early fight scenes are tinged by a strange reluctance for Yasujiro wherein it seems the death that surrounds him is as much part of the vast life-ritual this film comprises as the dance and chanting. On many occasions other men will attempt to lay the swordsman low without any apparent motive or warning. In one scene a drunken swordsman calls Yasujiro out to fight in the street. An entire gang joins him. The man has no prior history with Yasujiro and the dialog is in Japanese and remains closed to an English speaking audience – a remarkable choice for a pivotal character moment in a putatively English language film. In another scene Yasujiro is called upon to demonstrate his prowess by killing another of the Governor’s men, as a threat to Hero, he does so efficiently and with minimal fuss like he’s taking out the garbage or washing the dishes. The men he fights seem like furies in a frenzy in comparison.

This is all very Dionysian. The camera treats swordfights as every bit as ritualized as dancing and as chants. There is as much menace in memories of women slowly throwing balls up and down as in the samurai’s sword and as much of the rite in his blade as in the chants of the titular prisoners. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche starts by picking at what Dionysos should be taken to mean in the arts, saying of his name, “here spoke—people said to themselves with misgivings—something like a mystic and almost mænadic soul, which, undecided whether it should disclose or conceal itself, stammers with an effort and capriciously as in a strange tongue,” and there is, in this film, an indecision about disclosure. We are brought to understand that Hero suffers under an overabundance of guilt. There was a robbery that went wrong and people died.

Nietzsche situates the birth of the tragic chorus in Dionysos and via Chimera this film includes just that. Chimera is one of the leaders of the titular prisoners who seem to have coalesced around her and Enoch. These are portentous names. Enoch presents as a preacher. He is a bespectacled man with a book he always carries with him, like a holy text. Enoch, of course, was a very holy man, one who walked into Heaven alive.

Chimera is a wildcard among the prisoners. She walk about the place dressed in funeral robes with a haughty air of a queen or a priestess. She speaks exclusively in Mandarin but she is followed by a chorus who translate everything she says into English. Their voices are slightly discordant and this sometimes muddies all but the most perfunctory of questions: “你看什么 – what did you see? 你看什么 – what did you see?” (你看什么? perhaps better translates to “what are you looking at?” and in the moment of the question Hero is lost in reverie of a vision received in a dream. This collapse of temporalities is common in this film. He is looking at / he did see / he will see all at once.) A chimera is a creature composed of many animals, like a coryphaeus surrounded by her choir, but a chimera is also a monster. Bellerophon heroically killed one. Things didn’t go too well for him afterward though.

At this point we might ask whether Prisoners of the Ghostland is a tragedy with the way it deploys both the formal trappings of Greek tragedy and so much allusion to tragic and divine figures. The initial reaction might be to say no. Hero wins! The prisoners are freed! Bernice shoots the governor! Hero slays Yashujiro! But let’s return to Nietzsche and how he, in the frame of the Dionysian, defines tragedy.

Tragedy is, “The highest art in the yea-saying to life.” Nietzsche describes how the flourishing of a situation of over-abundance, of jouissance, gives birth to the need for the Dionysian. Largely fueled by his frustration surrounding the limitations of Wagner, Nietzsche proposes a new flourishing of the Dionysian within music – and this as a new flourishing of tragedy. This moment has yet to come – tragedy remains trapped at the periphery of the arts. Sometimes it is allowed to bleed back in but at best we simply get anti-heroes. And half these are afforded a reprieve from any truly tragic ends, allowed to retire and enjoy a time of peace after the conclusion of their trials. Most everything is tragicomedic these days. But all this seems to propose that Prisoners of the Ghostland is a tragedy. But if that is so it’s certainly not an ordinary one.

The value of tragedy is in its ability to capture the entirety of the human experience; and this entirety includes measures of triumph, abjection and nothingness. The standard format of tragedy as we generally receive it now is a work that orders these elements of the human condition in precisely this pattern. First MacBeth succeeds then he suffers then he dies.

But Prisoners of the Ghostland lurks at the boundary between life and death. The eponymous prisoners are trapped in their zone not by the guns and swords of the Governor but by some quirk of metaphysics – you cannot leave.

Patrolling the border is Psycho, Hero’s one-time partner in crime. Psycho is either a ghost escaped from hell or a man scarred and mutated by a nuclear accident. He may ultimately be both. He materializes and disappears in haze and blinding light. He seems very real until he vanishes. It seems as if Psycho and his followers are the wardens keeping the prisoners in but if they are then their motives are as obscure as the as the way in which they’re persuaded to stand aside.

The first time Hero meets Psycho at the border he is attempting to return to the Governor with Bernice.

She’s lost her voice due to the trauma she’s suffered and this presents a problem for Hero as the Governor has given him only five days to collect Bernice and return with her. He’s wearing a suit covered in bombs and they will explode if he’s late. But her voice can unlock two extra days to return and he desperately needs the time.

The bombs are at his throat (and will explode if he attempts to take the suit off), his arms (and will explode if the sensors in the suit detect that he intends to strike a woman), and his testicles (and will explode if he becomes aroused.)

Hero nearly sets off one of the bombs on his arm in a moment of frustrated pique that Bernice won’t speak but he is able to rein in the impulse to violence fast enough to avoid losing the arm. Soon after the still non-verbal Bernice indicates she’s thirsty and he gives her water. She drinks greedily, taking in too much, and the water begins flowing in rivulets down her chin and neck. Hero becomes aroused (this movie is very libidinal and almost every movement in the film is already invested with a sexualized charge) and the warning on his suit chimes. He leaps away from Bernice but his erection proves harder to subdue than his anger. One of the bombs at his testicles explodes, cleanly severing it, Hero raises it up in his hand and then collapses at the precipice of death.

He has an incomplete vision and returns to encounter Psycho. In his vision we see that partway through a bank robbery Psycho decided, seemingly without reason, that he would rather commit a massacre. Hero fought him and the brawl spilled out into the street but not before Psycho killed several people including a child. In the street police were waiting and Hero tried to surrender but Psycho decided to fight the cops. Hero ran and the police shot wildly into the crowd, killing several bystanders including Bernice’s mother. Bernice was wounded and was selected by the Governor to be one of his “granddaughters” in this moment. Hero discovers that the guilt he’s been feeling is not for having killed but rather for having survived as innocent people died in his stead.

After Hero returns from his vision Psycho’s followers try to separate Hero from Bernice and in the chaos of the melee the suit misinterprets his attempts to protect Bernice as an intent to strike her. The moment the bomb on his arm explodes Psycho shoots it off and Hero is still injured but not as badly as he might have been. It’s actually quite unclear from the action whether Hero’s wound is made better or aggravated by what Psycho does and while he doesn’t lose the limb he does lose use of the hand on it.

This moment of excess pain pushes Hero into the completion of his vision and he returns with a sense of purpose he didn’t have before. He returns to the Ghostland settlement and rallies the Prisoners. He returns to the boundary and he confronts Psycho – and they reconcile – Psycho forgives Hero for fleeing and Hero seems to absolve Psycho for his misdeeds in light of the misfortune he’s suffered since. Psycho permits the Prisoners to leave the Ghostland and departs, clearing the path for Hero and Bernice to return to the Governor.

Now it’s very unclear in this movie precisely where the boundary between life and death is. While it does seem on the balance that the prisoners were living people trapped in a strange situation there is an equal textual argument that they are ghosts and dead already.

With this in mind it’s not entirely clear during Hero’s two near-death ecstatic experiences whether he’s actually alive and suffering abjection or dead and suffering damnation. The line between abjection and damnation is as blurred as the line between life and death.

Hero is half a martyr. Two half-deaths to equal a whole. Loss of one arm. Loss of one testicle. Rendered half a man. But he replaces his wounded hand with a very phallic metal cylinder out of which his crushed and pulpy hand extrudes obscenely and which is topped by a sword. While not every sword in every movie should be interpreted as a penis this one almost certainly should be.

We find then in Hero this collapse of all things in life inward toward him – he experiences oblivion and returns – twice. He experiences abjection, suffering two symbolic injuries that stand in for a division of the man. He then experiences triumph. As such this film contains that same complete experience that a tragedy provides, “the same thing in a deceptive form,” without tragicomic blunting. Prisoners of the Ghostland is not a classical Greek tragedy but with its wild Dionysian excess and with the completeness of being of its protagonist it may as well be.

But this raises the question of why one would go to the trouble of inverting a tragedy? Why would one go about creating a tragic story – not a tragicomedic one – and then allow its Hero to prevail? To what end?

The other prison in Prisoners of the Ghostland is called Samurai Town.

A few plot summaries refer to Samurai Town as being in Japan but I find the textual basis for this weak at best. Samurai Town contains many Japanese people but they’re all caught in a strangely anachronistic Western gaze of Japan. Bits and pieces of the Western idea of Japanese identity – the Samurai, the Geisha-as-prostitute, smartphone photography and modern cars – all collide in Samurai Town along with a bizarre infusion of the Wild West. There are cowboys who can posse up behind a Sherriff and there are Samurai variously deferential to or homicidal toward Yashujiro. The ruler, the Governor, is like a fetish version of an Antebellum plantation owner. Most, if not all, of the subjects of Samurai Town appear to be his slaves or his enablers. Bernice starts the movie fleeing Samurai Town and into the Ghostland. Hero’s rescue is a recovery of a run-away slave. The Governor doesn’t just demand obedience, he demands familial love and ritualistic centrality. When he drives his sedan down the street it’s slow enough that a crowd of women can surround the black car, walking and clapping as they call out, “Governor,” over and over. Every element of his interaction with the public is ritualized. Clapping is mandatory.

And so this movie is certainly staking a position on a discourse of exploitation and subjectification and it is one that is situated in the historicity of American exploitation of Japan. However Governor’s exploitation extends beyond the construction and subjugation of a racial other and into misogyny – the women in Samurai Town are all his explicit property. They may be his prostitutes or they may be his “granddaughters” but this simply means those women who he’s taken the most perverse interest in. The Governor seems desperate to break the incest taboo but so incapable he has to create slave-relatives in order to fulfill this perverse desire.

The Governor also exploits the men around him in hierarchies of dominance. He forces Hero into the bomb suit and sets boundaries about what Hero can do to Bernice, his property. Her opinion on the matter is not considered by the Governor, just his right of ownership. He also keeps one of Yashujiro’s children as one of his grand-daughters and yet Yashujiro seems resigned to this exploitation. His position is infinitely precarious; the Governor takes no efforts at all to protect Yashujiro from the regular attempts on his life he experiences. But despite his precarity, Yashujiro seems at peace with the situation. Certainly he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about all the killing. It is never clear why he stands for any of it.

Hero does not return to rescue Bernice but to deliver her. Once in Samurai Town and in the face of her “Grandfather” Bernice suddenly knows how to fight with a sword and with a gun. She cuts a bloody path through the Governor’s bodyguards and guns him down. What Bernice does isn’t just revenge though; it’s a signal for a total desertion. One of the Governor’s other prisoners, Susie, helps Bernice and is wounded in the process. Bernice takes her aside and guides her to remind herself that she is not a prisoner. None of them are, the second they choose not to be. Before he dies, the other women the Governor exploited break into his house, steal all his shit, and call him a looser. The prisoners in Samurai Town and the Ghostland alike are free in the moment they choose to be.

Hero’s half-martyrdom allows him to be Bernice’s psychopomp. With him able to navigate the boundary between life and death he can help guide her to her life of liberation. He achieves his liberation from his guilt and grief and the revelation of that liberation helps him show others the path to freedom. But just as Hero could not force Bernice to speak, she had to find her own voice, so too Hero cannot give Bernice her revenge. He can just guide her to where she can take it for herself.

In short this inverted tragedy does what Kill Bill set out to do but, where Tarantino and his team failed, Sion Sono and his team succeeded. What is somewhat more ambiguous then is the way Hero’s fight with Yashujiro unfolds.

Dramatically, Yashujiro is far too much Chekov’s gun not to be fired. An entire movie is set up establishing he is a master swordsman, the greatest killer available to the Governor. It’s unclear why Yashujiro consents to serve this awful little pervert. Certainly he could easily dispatch the Governor. It’s not like the Sheriff or his men pose any threat. Hero, who is Yashujiro’s equal in combat, dispatches half the constabulary in the first thirty seconds of the melee. But where Bernice peels off to help Susie and then hunt down the Governor, Hero stays and fights with Yashujiro.

It’s a gorgeous fight. Well blocked, well lit, well performed. Tak Sakaguchi has such wonderful poise. Every movement is deliberate, every emotion controlled. It’s never really clear what Yashujiro wants except possibly to be left alone for just a minute. Perhaps he is not much more than a death drive – a man who seeks silence, killing and the possibility of oblivion. He dies beautifully and seems at peace with it.

There’s this vastness within Prisoners of the Ghostland. Samurai Town stands in for the way America exploits other countries, how it feels to be perceived via an orientalist gaze. It stands in for how men objectify the people around them, enforce hierarchies of dominance along lines of gender, race and status. It stands in for how a creeping fear for the other can create a situation of much greater actual disorder than that caused by the chaos you try to keep out and it stands in for a chance to have a samurai and a mad max clone enter a life or death battle against a posse of cowboys. Figures like Hero and Governor are given declarative names that assigns them a function in the world more than an identity. Hero is the agent of change. Governor the agent of control. When change brings revelation, control is swept away. Every character and every action unfolds and unfolds into an overabundance of meaning, an overabundance of desire, an overabundance of life. This film is the revitalization of the Dionysian in the form of the tragic but it is a tragedy that postulates that it isn’t enough for our hero to triumph, suffer and die. He must return reborn with new ecstatic energy to point in the direction of universal freedom.

The Matrix Resurrections proves a better blockbuster is still possible

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I cannot assume that a review for a major movie that came out literally yesterday is going to be read only by my regular audience so before I get into the meat of the review I should mention that I regularly discuss incidents from the plot of my subjects of critique, including climactic events, in the course of review. I have strong and somewhat idiosyncratic views on the concept of the “spoiler” and its place within criticism and film discourse but I also know there will be a lot of people who want to experience the surprises and reversals of this movie fresh. I loved this film. It’s funny and heartfelt, achingly sincere in that so-very-Wachowski manner, and, as one less favorable critic said, it’s full of “philosophical mumbo jumbo” (would we want it any other way?) and has a “woke agenda” (in that it recognizes patriarchy and misogyny as foundational poles of social control). So this is your warning. If you don’t know how the events of the film transpire and would prefer not to learn about them in a review you should stop here and wait until you can watch the movie. The legal choices currently are either to go to a cinema or watch it on a streaming service that is technically only available in the United States, which is unfortunate but this is, alas, the world we live in here in the closing days of 2021. I don’t personally council going to theaters right now, there was a public exposure site at one of the showings of that other blockbuster movie here on my remote island. But if that’s the choice you make please take precautions, wear a well-fitted three-layer mask, sit away from others, avoid eating in the theater and make sure your vaccinations are up to date.

So let’s dig in.

The first act of The Matrix Resurrections starts with an apology for the making of The Matrix Resurrections. In this part of the film Neo is once again living as Thomas Anderson: a successful video game designer whose game, The Matrix, won substantial critical acclaim. But Thomas is a mess. His studio is owned by Warner Brothers and they’ve insisted that the studio begin work on a sequel to the long-completed trilogy of original games. Thomas’ partner in the company confides in him that WB will be making the sequel with or without him and that if he refuses to participate he can be easily removed as an obstacle to its creation. The choice before him is a non-choice. He can make another game, guide how it’s shaped to an extent and take his share of the profits from its eventual success or he can step aside and get nothing while somebody else does whatever they want with his career-defining creation.

I am very fond of the tendency of Wachowski movies to be entirely unsubtle but this remarkably on the nose.

There are two possible ways to read this early sub-plot. Either it’s a sincere apology that a sequel was made for such a definitively finished work, possibly even a recounting of the conversations Lana Wachowski had to have surrounding the production, or it’s a sly joke winking at the possibility of the same. From any other creative team I’d assume the latter but considering how Wachowski sister movies traffic in sincerity here I lean in the direction of the former.

During the discussion, Thomas, showing obvious signs of extreme anxiety begins to see his partner’s mouth seal shut in precisely the way Smith had once done to him in the first film. Later Thomas talks to his analyst who reassures him about the indications of progress evident that he could even articulate this hallucination freely. His analyst calls the discussion an ambush and suggests his hallucination was a transference; Thomas felt his voice was taken away by the decision to make a sequel over his wishes so he imagined his partner’s voice taken instead. The analyst offers Neo a refill on a prescription he’s been using. Bright blue pills the same shade as the analyst’s smart jacket and fashion-forward glasses frames.

This setup comfortably introduces a lot of the key themes that run through the movie simultaneous to its work as a piece of critical apologia for the sequel-driven state of Hollywood blockbusters in general and for the decision to make this movie at this time in particular. The Matrix is a film very concerned with identity – specifically with the divide between the self-gaze and the gaze of the other. Thomas sees himself as we, the audience, see him: Keanu Reeves with long hair and a beard. But we catch glimpses of another man in a reflection. An older man, balding, with a face that looks ground down by a life described later by the Analyst as a combination of yearning for what you don’t have and fear of losing what you do. Other such circumstances apply to the other characters introduced in the first act. Thomas’ partner displays many of the mannerisms of Agent Smith but looks nothing like him and he seems friendly even if the Analyst is wary of his intentions. In another early sequence, somewhat disconnected from Thomas’ story, a new character, Bugs, enters a part of the Matrix that looks like the opening sequence of the first film. But it’s different. Trinity has a different face. It’s similar, hauntingly familiar, but it’s not her. And in this node of the Matrix Agent Smith is there but he’s also Morpheus this blending of identities carries with it a new face in the form of Yahya Abdul-Mateen – who brings an off-kilter humour to his performance that lands many of the best jokes in a surprisingly funny film.

In this retelling of the opening scenes of the first film, Trinity doesn’t escape; she is surrounded by agents and they’re beating her down. Bugs interferes and is pursued by Morpheus / Smith. She escapes into Thomas Anderson’s apartment from the first film and there encounters Morpheus / Smith who is an agent and a program but who is also certain that he is, in fact, Morpheus. Both Bugs and Morpheus are sure Neo is still alive. She saw him. He awoke her. Morpheus shares the same story.

A Neo who is Thomas Anderson again. A Smith who isn’t Smith. A Morpheus who is Smith. A Trinity named Tiffany and another Trinity who isn’t. The first act of this film introduces us to all these fragments of identity that carry with them the signification of others. These are characters who are split between how they see themselves and how others see them. When Thomas looks at his partner and, for a moment, sees Smith we are invited to ask whether it is, in fact Smith, or whether it’s a remnant of the significance Smith had on his life.

There’s a principal question regarding self the film attacks early on rooted in the question of memory and narrativization. Thomas has created a fiction of his memories of the Matrix. He has written it into a video game. In the process of doing so he’s creating a narrative frame out of his past. But the film asks whether this frame is a fiction or whether it is an authentic reflection of the becoming of this man at this time.

The Matrix plays out Thomas’ struggle with what constitutes his reality for far longer than the first film. There’s an extended montage of him mainlining blue pills and sleepwalking through his painfully unfulfilling life, work, gym, pining after Tiffany (Trinity) in the delightfully named Simulatte coffee shop as she nips in and out with her children but saying nothing.

Tiffany is a mother to a whole gaggle of kids. She’s got a doting husband (Chad) and doesn’t understand either why her life feels a little bit empty. She tries to exorcize the ennui by building motorcycles as a hobby and fantasizes about kicking Chad, “not too hard, just maybe hard enough to break his ribs.” A work colleague of Thomas forces an introduction because he’s tired of seeing his buddy mooning after Tiffany from afar and they form a slightly remote friendship. Tiffany can’t help but notice how much Trinity in the Matrix video game looks like her. But she is anxious about the affection she feels for Thomas, the familiarity she has to him because she is a loving mother and wife.

Morpheus forces a confrontation. He reveals that the node of the matrix Bugs found him in was, in fact, a construct created by Thomas with the express purpose of gestating an AI. He is a fusion of Smith and Morpheus because these two people were the most formative on Neo’s life and Neo needed them both to forge his escape from this new prison he found himself trapped within. He offers Thomas a red pill but Thomas refuses. Police invade and chaos ensues. Thomas’ partner stumbles into the bloodshed as Morpheus battles the police and picks up a pistol. In that moment he becomes Smith again, bellowing, “Mr. Anderson” at Thomas rather than Tom and immediately trying to kill him. There’s a discontinuity, a cat named Deja Vu, and then Thomas is back with his therapist who is very concerned for his wellbeing.

Bugs and Morpheus must make another attempt before they can free Neo from the prison of the identity of Thomas Anderson that has been forced upon him. Of course, despite spending an hour with our anxious and emotionally fragile depressive Thomas trying to navigate a disintegrating reality, the Matrix Resurrections must eventually pivot back to being a Matrix movie – it cannot prevaricate endlessly over what is the Matrix and what is the Real. I know many fans had hoped for some revelation that the Real was itself another Matrix, that reality was a nested set of simulations but this is not the case. In fact, in a film that exists specifically to upset binary divisions in so many ways, the division between the Matrix and the Real is the one it leaves unbroken. There are different nodes, different places, within the Matrix. Bits of old code get slotted in. There are constructs and there are sandboxes. But ultimately these are all part of the Matrix which is just as much a prison as it ever was.

There is a hint of an abolitionist critique here. The Tiqqun phrase I’m so fond of is apropos. “But evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison. Properly speaking, there is no individual desertion. Each deserter takes with him a little of the group’s fighting spirit. By simply existing he is an active challenge to the social order: and all the relationships he enters are contaminated by the radicality of his situation.” Neo’s compromise with the Machines left the Matrix intact but unstable. There was a civil war among the Machines. The losing side of that civil war joined with the survivors of Zion to create Io – a new city ruled over by an ancient and cynical Niobe. The victors created a far worse Matrix. By failing to break the prison of the Matrix entirely, Neo left his job only half-done. The change he brought created a difference. The society of Io is different in so many ways from Zion – some better, some worse. But the revolution never ended. The world remained at war, even if the sides of the conflict changed, and Niobe has grown bitter and fearful because of it. Niobe fears that the return of Neo will spark a new front in the war. But this film isn’t a war movie at all. It’s a rescue mission.

The Neoliberal Matrix

Stepping back for a moment it’s significant to situate this as an auteurial movie. And, happily, it’s learned one lesson that separates effective auteurial projects from failures. An auteurial film requires a singularity of creative vision, not of creative control. Tells such as the presence of many, many Sense8 actors in the cast along with David Mitchel and Aleksandar Hemon who have both previously collaborated with Wachowski on the script, cinematographer John Toll who has been the Wachowski cinematographer since Cloud Atlas, Joseph Jett Sally as editor (previously an assistant editor on Speed Racer) and Lindsay Pugh in costuming – another Sense8 alum – indicate that a cohesive creative team has built up around Lana Wachowski. This construction of the team is so fundamentally important to the creation of that unified vision that makes auteurial cinema stand out from more studio fare. And this is critical because of how this film answers the apology in act 1. In The Matrix Resurrections irony, sarcasm and emotional distance code directly onto villains. Our protagonists are achingly sincere, painfully vulnerable. This is a long-standing theme in Wachowski films. It’s notably present in the original Matrix sequels and in Sense8 – a show almost entirely about the power of sincerity and emotional vulnerability. This puts this film directly at odds with the quippy ironic distance of blockbuster fare like Red Notice, Deadpool or anything directed by Joss Whedon and also at the cold and clinical distance of blockbuster directors like Nolan and Snyder. We get multiple close-ups of Thomas rubbing the fabric of his jeans to ground himself, touch has power. After Thomas and Tiffany shake hands for the first time the sense memory of her hand conjures powerful memories of his life as Neo in him. In the Matrix, as in much of the Wachowski ouevre, love is a force of real power. The bonds people form, the way that they live through the other via love is central to their ability to overcome the challenges before them. This film problematizes this by redesigning the Matrix. This isn’t the old Matrix where the main mode was an enforced somnescence and where love merely had to be a powerful enough clarion call to awaken the sleeper. The Architect, who scorned human emotion as being something irrelevant to the grand algorithmic balance of his construction is gone and in his place is the Analyst – who has built his prison explicitly out of love.

Specifically the Analyst, finally revealed not as Thomas’ therapist but rather as Neo and Trinity’s jailer has built his new matrix out of the frustrated potential of Neo and Trinity’s love unrealized. When the Matrix was destabilized following the end of the war with Zion, the Analyst instituted a project to restore Neo and Trinity from death. And once he’d done this, he bound them together as the processing core of the new Matrix and as a psychological template for its systems of control. Neo and Trinity are bound into their prison by what he describes as their yearning for what they don’t have coupled with their fear to lose what they do. He keeps them close enough they can almost touch while constantly frustrating their efforts. He creates for Trinity a husband, children. For Thomas a high paying job in the creative industry. The choice exists for them both. They can see each other. And the Analyst cannot fully erase the meaning they hold for each other because the whole Matrix is literally powered by their frustration. And so they must be separated by emotional and psychological obstacles: her family, his mental health problems. In the process of imprisoning Neo and Trinity thus he has also bound Smith who was forced into the role of Neo’s partner and artificially kept from being who he truly is. The Architect makes Neo and Trinity choose their own subjugation. When Neo is freed he threatens Trinity and promises to kill her if Neo will not return of his own volition.

This film has inherited the complicated discourse the first three movies wove around the issue of choice. The question of choice is omni-present. Sati reminds everyone during the rescue of Trinity that she must choose to be freed or the mission will fail. But simultaneously many characters including Morpheus, Bugs and Smith comment on the illusory nature of choice. Smith-the-partner presents Thomas with the sequel fait accompli. He could choose to refuse to participate but that would basically just mean cutting his own input out of an unhaltable process. When Bugs offers Morpheus the red pill choice they both admit there’s no choice there and he already knows which pill he will take. This ties into the idea of the Eternal Return which was central to the original sequels. And, sure enough, this film plays with the ideas of difference and repetition a lot. It’s present in the gestating simulation Thomas uses to create Morpheus. It’s there when, during the second act, Neo and Smith fight and the entire fight is an echo of their past encounters.

There is intercut footage from the original film series throughout this movie. When Smith speaks the image will momentarily cut to a time from the first movie when Hugo Weaving’s Smith said the thing. When Morpheus confronts Neo during his rescue he does so in a cinema playing footage from Thomas’ game – of the scene in which Fishburne’s Morpheus originally gave Neo the red-pill choice. When Thomas struggles with his memories of being Neo we see them as fragmented images from across the original trilogy. This, combined with some excellent sound editing makes for an often unnerving experience, especially as Wachowski has maintained the original, highly aestheticized look of the original footage but has used entirely different and far broader-spectrum colour grading for the new Matrix.

The Analyst, and most of the rest of the cast other than Bugs and Morpheus, see the Matrix as an inevitability. There is no alternative. They tried to shut it down and doing so just fragmented the Machines, created new factions but no peace and no end to the Matrix. The Analyst believes that most of the “coppertops” prefer their subjugation. They’re too afraid to lose what little they have to step out of line. The unequal power structures that define the contemporary moment exist because the victims choose them.Hang on tight and spit on me,” is the mode of the Analyst’s Matrix.

Niobe is an old revolutionary lost to pessimism. She’s seen too much death and pain and she’s sick of it. She sees no alternative to the Matrix because they tried once and it didn’t work. She’s deeply bitter toward Morpheus (the original Morpheus) who never stopped believing that the revolution could never be defeated. The Analyst sees no alternative because he doesn’t want an alternative. He doesn’t even want a rollback to an earlier version of the Matrix, one that isn’t dependent on keeping two resurrected heroes in a state of immortal purgatory. And Smith isn’t beholden to this Matrix or that – he just doesn’t want to be put back in prison.

And to a certain extent there’s some honesty to the Analyst’s defense of the new Matrix. A rollback would not, on its own, be anything even resembling enough. Mark Fisher puts forward a left-accelerationist read of Lyotard in Postcapitalist Desire that, “that there’s no possible retreat from capitalism – there’s no space of primitive outside to which we can return, we have to go all the way through capitalism.” Likewise there’s no return to Zion and the war with The Machines. In fact nobody would want that. The dissident Machines are a loved and valued part of the society of Io. Morpheus (the program), Cybebe and Lumin8 are valued and beloved allies of the Resistance, nobody wants to go back to the absolute binary of Neo’s era. The only way out is through.

But the other thing nobody really wants is another front in the war. And this is the final really significant formal structural detail I want to draw out here – the plot of the Matrix Resurrections isn’t a bildungsroman like the first nor is it a war movie like the original sequels. This is a rescue movie. The new Matrix, the one powered by the double-bind of yearning and fear, only functions by keeping the object of desire always just out of reach of the subject. They can see it, the thing they want, right there but they can’t quite reach. But if they stay in the system, if they don’t make waves, maybe they can get just a tiny bit closer – a perverse Xeno’s paradox at play that the film depicts clearly during Neo’s first true confrontation with the Analyst in which the program fires a gun at Trinity and holds Neo back just long enough that he thinks he might still power through and rescue her while knowing he almost certainly will have to watch her die again.

The Analyst wants Neo to return to his cage willingly and so he holds Trinity up as a hostage. Neo is faced with another choice-that-is-not-a-choice: he can escape at the cost of Trinity’s life or he can return to a prison where he will, forever, look but never touch. But Sati proposes a rescue – with the only catch being that Trinity must choose to be rescued and during his attempts to win Trinity over she reveals to Neo that she has been having prophetic dreams much like his from The Matrix Reloaded; they end badly. By the moment of the confrontation the story has laid the groundwork that “Tiffany” is as unsatisfied in this half-life as Neo was when he was compelled into the persona of Thomas. But even so it’s terrifying to let go of what she had: a husband, children. The Analyst engineers a crisis at home to drag Trinity away from Neo at the last moment, to skew her to staying in his simulation in hopes a failure of the rescue mission will also compel Neo back under his domination. But Trinity turns back on her way out the door, sees Neo getting pressed to the ground under a horde of cops and something snaps and she breaks free. She decides the simulated family isn’t worth sacrificing the truth. She becomes tired of Chad grabbing her by the arm and leading her where the Analyst wants her. She is tired of building bikes rather than riding them. She leaps.

The Leap

Love, in the Matrix, is always a matter of faith. It’s power is ineffable and irrational. This is why the Architect failed – he disregarded love as nonsense and the love Neo and Trinity had for each other was enough to overturn his plans. The Analyst, instead, wants to pervert love into a weapon to use against the lovers. He knows that love is a desire and that he can use the productive force of desire as a real source of energy if he can only keep the lovers just the right distance apart. The Analyst doesn’t underestimate love qua love. He doesn’t underestimate love as an emotion. But he does understand love as an expression of faith.

There had always been hints of this idea in the Matrix. As early as the first film Morpheus showed Neo how far he could jump if he only freed his mind. In this film the Leap and its expression of the concept of faith takes center stage. Bugs tells Neo that she awakened when she saw him jump off a building and he never fell. The analyst, meanwhile, refers to “Thomas” as a suicide survivor and attempts to make Neo’s faith, his belief that he could be free, into a matter of shame and anxiety. “The doubt that saves doubts only itself,” Kierkegaard says. He means this as a challenge against the idea of dialectical skepticism in the context of theology. Hegelian theology was popular at the time of Kierkegaard’s career and he pushed back against the ability to approach religion from the direction of doubt. He would rather doubt the doubt itself.

There is some power in this position. I’ve often remarked that the biggest failing of Rational Skepticism is the unwillingness to turn the tools of skepticism inward, to doubt the bases upon which they build their skeptical responses to the external phenomena they doubt. There is a danger in self-assuredness that creates blind spots the anxious may see. Kierkegaard put forward this paradoxical position of anxious self-doubt as the basis for authentic belief throughout much of his body of work and his solution was to leap over the leveling scythe of reason and into faith. Kierkegaard counseled an irrational response to matters of faith as being the only true avenue for the expression of real faith. What faith is there in biblical proof?

In the film, Neo has lost the ability to fly. In fact, he spends much of the movie rusty – an old soldier who thought his days of fighting were over – and whose hesitance to re-enter the fray manifests in a reduction of his powers. He’s still strong enough to toss enemies around and to stop bullets with his will. He’s still fast enough to dodge bullets and to observe their path through the air and he’s still robust enough to survive being thrown through a concrete pillar but he is not the man he once was.

Neo is plagued with self-doubt. He begins the film with crippling self-doubt. He doubts even his own life story, a doubt that the Analyst is all to eager to help along with a delightful display of Wormtoungery. Neo wants to make a leap but his doubts plague him. And he can’t just start flying from the ground because his faith is insufficient. It isn’t a leap of faith to jump up when there’s no risk. You have to put everything you are into a moment of irrational devotion. Only there does an authentic leap of faith lie.

On the other side of the leap is the Knight of Faith and Kierkegaard cautions us that this is an incommunicable state of being. It’s impossible to know for sure if a leap is genuine harder still to communicate the essence of such a genuine moment.

After they escape from the Analyst, Neo and Trinity flee through the streets of the Matrix pursued by a horde of zombies. (The Analyst feels this “horde mode” is a more effective solution than the agents of the previous iteration.)

This whole sequence is interesting in that it puts the threat of stochastic terrorism and mass violence front-and-center where once it was just cops. Furthermore it shows how cops and stochastic terrorists operate together for the maintenance of the status quo. And so the zombies chase Neo and Trinity onto a roof where helicopters wait to gun them down. But they agree that they will not return to their prison and they jump. It should come as no surprise to anyone watching this film that it is Trinity who has a moment of authentic faith and discovers the ability to fly although I’m certain it will upset all of the worst members of the audience to no end.

Patriarchy and Societies of Control

In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish he describes an epistemological regime called the “disciplinary society.” This is a system of subjectification wherein a subject enters into a space where their body is trained before exiting that space and, as Deleuze put it, starting from 0 again in that new space. Disciplinary societies are best reflected in disciplinary institutions such as the school, the hospital, the factory and the prison. Now it’s important to note that these epistemic systems are not complete and impermeable. The principal work of Discipline and Punish was to show a genealogy of how previous epistemic systems led to the production of the disciplinary society as a mode of subjectification. A feature of the disciplinary society was a focus of power on the individual subject, specifically a focus on shaping the individual subject into an ideal citizen – a perfection of the soul through the rigors of training and a sort of inherited monasticism. He remarks upon how the design of the prison cell and the work-house cell of the early factories was modeled rather explicitly on the monastic cell. But while these epistemes leave marks they do not remain the dominant systems of subjectification forever and in the Postscript to Societies of Control, Deleuze proposed that, by the 1990s the disciplinary society was already being supplanted by a new episteme – the society of control.

The principal difference between the disciplinary society and the society of control was a spatial one – the disciplinary society is made up of a series of distinct spaces you move within. You go to school, advance through grades, complete school. Then you move to the new enclosed space of the factory. If you get sick you go to the hospital and go through triage, observation, treatment. If you fall afoul of police you go through arrest, trial, sentence. In all these cases there’s a focus on specific delineated corrective spaces.

The society of control is modular. Access to this module is granted or removed. Guattari, who Deleuze cites in the essay, proposed this as being like a city divided into zones in which the gates were operated by a key card. At any time a subject could be admitted to some zones and excluded from others. Deleuze took this observation even farther and suggested that the singular subjectivity of the disciplinary society – that focus on a perfectible singular being upon whom discipline could operate – had been replaced by a modular subject. Distinct schools were replaced with training modules. Professional memberships and licensing organizations could assign or withdraw various rights. A perfect genealogical precursor to this power relation is the driver’s license: you have permission to operate a motor vehicle contingent on not being found to do so in an unsafe manner. This is not the disciplinary power relation although it was not, alone, sufficient to manifest as a new episteme. The original Matrix was released nine years after Deleuze’s postscript, seven years after its first translation into English. While Deleuze believed that the society of control had already become the predominant episteme at that time, per both Deleuze and Foucault, no episteme erases the marks of the one before and the transition from one to another can only ever be discovered genealogically. We recognize we are in a new episteme when we can recognize the completion of the old order. This period of transition is visible in the first Matrix movie. Knowledge is modular. Put in a disc and know kung fu. But the authority of the agents is still disciplinary. Smith takes Thomas Anderson out of the space of the workplace and into the interrogation room. There he engages in an attempt to correct Mr. Anderson, to return him to a life of productive service to the extant power structure. This is fundamentally a disciplinary power mechanism.

In contrast the Analyst implements measures of control. Identity is treated as modular. Neo is allowed to be “Thomas Anderson” he’s even allowed to have a personal history with the Matrix and an awareness of his past but he is denied access to his own face. Trinity features similar dividuality of her being, buried under the disguise of Tiffany. Access to spaces is also modular. An alarm rings in Thomas’ workplace and lets everybody know access is now forbidden. The enforcement of authority that comes after is not an attempt to correct a defective soul but rather a purge of all subjects who have failed to depart from the denied zone.

The granting and denial of the object of desire in various forms is central to the Analyst’s Matrix, very much in contrast to the Architect’s disciplinary one. And this also shows in the difference between agents and the horde mode. The agents are aware singular subjects who can appear and remove a subject for correction. They take people like Neo and Morpheus and put them in rooms to reshape them to suit a purpose. The horde mode is a modular area denial tool. They can be activated in this zone or that to force subjects to move into this space but not that one.

Control, much like the related but distinct Foucauldian concept of the biopolitical order is not concerned with individual subjects so much as it is with modules, aggregates, clusters and categories. And this traces into how the Analyst deploys misogyny. Because, oh boy, but the Analyst is the most misogynistic robot I have ever encountered. In the denouement, when Trinity has proven Smith correct in his statement that “anyone could be Neo” by achieving an equivalent level off awakening, and Neo and Trinity both confront the Analyst to warn him that they will be remaking his world, Trinity takes the lead while Neo hangs back. She repeatedly kills the Analyst and restores him and all the while the Analyst begs Neo to control his woman. This same pattern of misogynistic subjugation is clear in the differential treatment of Neo and Trinity by the Analyst in their imprisonment. Neo is defined by his career. Trinity is defined by her family.

And we are invited to see her discomfort with this when she says to Neo that she isn’t certain whether she had children because she wanted them or because it was expected that she would. Trinity is given a history, as Tiffany, that includes these children who she loves, because in the modular self the Analyst has created for her includes these children. She is, in this film, entirely correct to question whether her having children, feeling like she wanted them, is a compulsion put upon her by an outside force. And the love for a child is the emotional cudgel the Analyst uses to try and dissuade Trinity from choosing her own freedom.

Because this film is ultimately too existentialist to treat this dividuality of the self as fully real. The Matrix posits that there is, in fact, an authentic subjective core to being. There is a Neo underneath who is the authentic Neo. There is a Trinity who is the authentic Trinity. This authenticity is reflected through the love these two have for each other.

Importantly that same access to authenticity is also applied to Smith who insists Neo freed him and whose whole motivation is doing whatever he deems necessary to avoid being imprisoned away from his own authentic self again, to avoid being treated as a modular being. Considering how the old Smith desired to make everything the same, like him, this pursuit of an authentic self is an interesting direction to take Smith but not an inappropriate one. His core of authenticity is also relational. His bond with Neo plays very much into the Spinozist sense of the proximity of love and hatred.

The tension of this film is the idea that power will shape people not by taking them, one at a time, into a room and making them conform but by creating a social field in which they will move themselves into controllable relations. Trinity will be a home maker. Neo will be a careerist. Smith will be a defanged antagonist rather than the trickster he desires to be. They will not be these things because they were trained to be but because the social field was manipulated to move them into these spaces. This deployment of misogyny specifically in the case of Trinity is particularly telling and points toward how reactionaries deploy nostalgia for the nuclear family to exercise control over men and women alike. Patriarchy is at much in play in making Neo an alienated worker as it is in making Trinity a dissatisfied homemaker but special cruelty is applied to Trinity. She is allowed less of her authentic self by dint of being a woman and being compelled into situations of inauthentic love.

This movie is a rescue mission. It’s not the triumphant return of the hero. Neo barely spends any time in Io and he’s seen there more as an inconvenience than as a hero. But Trinity being rescued from the Matrix is the one thing, the lynch pin. That is the only thing the Analyst cannot countenance, that will break his Matrix entirely.

This is a delightfully kind reminder that revolution must not only be a matter of giving a different set of men the power and control over society but should instead recognize and destitute all axes of control that prevent people from realizing their authentic relationships. This is where they break from Kierkegaad because he thought that everybody must make the leap into faith alone but the Matrix Resurrections knows that the leap can only ever be made together. Authenticity exists, we can discover a core to our being, but it isn’t some hard kernel alone from all others. It’s a shining web of loves and hatreds, of lives touched and of differences made. We must all leap together into an uncertain future if we want to paint the sky with rainbows.

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.

Nostalgia and the metastasis of regret in Masters of the Universe: Revelation

Masters of the Universe: Revelation Debuts Killer New Poster
(Ok you had to know there was a non-zero chance I’d do this.)

Here be spoilers if you care about that sort of thing.

I was honestly and pleasantly surprised by Masters of the Universe: Revelation. I didn’t have high expectations for a He-Man cartoon run by Kevin Smith. In general I’m not a huge fan of Smith. I quite liked Dogma but haven’t had anything positive to say about his work in the 22 years (oh god it’s been 22 years since Dogma) since. I suppose his autobiographical stand-up routine was alright.

And the truth is that this cartoon series contains some of the hallmarks of Smith’s worse tendencies. The script is prurient. It assaults viewers with atrocious accumulations of arbitrary alliteration. What isn’t composed in this strangely (and unpleasantly) poetic recall of 1980s cartoon writing is either straight up call-backs to the cartoon (protective bubble) or just clangs.

The voice actors do their best. Mark Hamill is, as always, an absolute delight and casting him as Skeletor was the right call. Sarah Michelle Gellar also accomplishes the astounding feat of elevating Teela above the clunky script and injecting actual pathos into her portrayal. Her pairing with Leena Headley as the principals in the show was another strong choice, as Headley has been on a roll of moving from strength to strength for years, and Evil-Lyn conjures so many of the morally dubious schemers that have become her bread and butter. However good voice acting alone is not enough to elevate a script as truly and fundamentally atrocious as those in the five episodes Netflix released. But, despite the acutely painful dialog and over-abundant call-backs to a 40 year-old toy commerial, Smith’s Masters of the Universe series actually accomplishes quite a lot, and manages to utilize its own weaknesses to create something actually worth watching.

Now I should note that I am not talking exclusively about the way this series sidelines He-Man in favour of concentrating on Teela and Evil-Lyn. Of course this, alone, is what has led to the coordinated campaign of typical online CHUDS to review-bomb the show. As fun as it is to point and laugh at people like Jeremy Hambly exclaiming that the show is, “a WORSE betrayal than The Last Jedi,” the attempt by the show to admit that Teela was poorly treated as a character in the original cartoon wouldn’t, in and of itself, be particularly remarkable. After all, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power already dug into what would happen if one were to invert many of the gendered assumptions of these stories. It would hardly be new ground. But instead, remarkably by keeping the story within the continuity (such as it is) of the original Masters of the Universe cartoon, Smith has managed to dig into a heartfelt and remarkable dissection of nostalgia and how it connects to regret.

Magic and childhood

The first episode of Masters of the Universe: Revelation opens the series as Skeletor takes advantage of a court ceremony to commemorate Teela’s promotion to the to the position of Man-at-Arms to raid Castle Grayskull. Using disguise and decoy he is able to slip through the outer defenses and then uses superior numbers to overwhelm the sorceress and achieve access to a hidden inner sanctum.

However an alarm is raised and the forces of the Eternian monarchy rally to the castle. Once inside things proceed largely like a particularly well-animated episode of the older show right until the moment that, during the fight with Skeletor in the inner sanctum, Sleketor brutally murders He-Man’s ally Moss Man. This understandably upsets He-Man, who until then seems to live in the sort of magical child’s world where the people always jump off the floating tank before it explodes and nobody ever dies.

So he runs Skeletor through with his sword, pinning him to the obelisk in the center of the sanctum. Skeletor’s last words are to congratulate him on finally using his sword as it was intended – as a key to said obelisk – and it opens revealing an orb containing all the magic in the universe. However the orb explodes and the only thing that prevents the immediate destruction of the universe is He-Man channeling the power through his sword. This act splits the sword into two constituent blades and kills He-Man. The swords vanish, returning to Subternia and Preternia – which the show reveals are afterlives analogous to heaven and hell, and are the wellsprings of magic.

Randor is so distraught over the death of his son that he banishes Man-At-Arms from court and orders him executed if he ever does man-at-arms type things again. This show is generally not kind to monarchy, which is refreshing in a fantasy landscape that so often wants to treat royals as somehow redeemable. Teela, grieving the death of her friend and ally and suddenly discovering that said friend deceived her for their whole lives together, resigns from the Eternian court and takes up work as a mercenary.

There is a time-jump and after that we discover that magic is dying in Eternia. Without the orb and the sword all the magic is returning to its sources in the afterlives. And this is killing Eternia. What’s more, should Eternia die, it will herald the extinction of every world in the universe. Eternia, the oldest planet, is critical to universal wellbeing and Eternia cannot survive without magic.

Now it’s important to note how magic is mapped onto childhood by the series. The sorceress ages dramatically when the magic fades and aside from her the most magical creatures, notably Orko, Cringer / Battle Cat and Adam / He-Man are all the most childish (or at least child-like) characters in the show. When Adam is encountered in Preternia he remains in his “young prince” form – something which is quite textually a choice he made and one that amuses the small cadre of heroes who also occupy this Elysium. And the Smith rendering of Adam vs He-Man makes Adam look all the more like a child with the over-sized stature that He-Man has even compared to the other hulks in this muscle-bound show. Orko and Cringer are the most unchanged characters in this new version. And, while we see little of the cat, it becomes readily clear that the loss of magic from the world is killing Orko far quicker than anyone else. He cannot live without magic. The moment that magic is banished from the world is also one that is inaugurated by the introduction of death with the killing of Moss Man, of Skeletor and the heroic sacrifice of He-Man. This awareness of mortality entering into Eternia, the effective end of eternity, also indicates a crossing of a threshold from childhood into maturity. This show is not the first one to forge these bonds between death, magic and the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Famously Hogfather by Terry Pratchett was built entirely on the premise of a child-place being one where death could not go, and of the belief of children being a particularly potent magic.

Perhaps this is where the sense of betrayal from childish Jeremys arises more than even their unexamined misogyny. Smith’s He-Man understands that you have to grow up. Staying a child forever is stunting. We see this in a coarse fashion through Orko’s arc in which he comes to terms with his sense that he’s failed to fulfil the expectations his parents put on him. We see it with more nuance in Teela’s arc, in which she discovers that living in the shadow of He-Man has limited her from achieving all that she otherwise could. Teela starts the show being given the mantle of adulthood but she never really assumes it. A monarch asks her to, as her first act, remove her own father. (How very Oedipal.) And she refuses this call and instead goes galavanting off to make her own way in the world. But this isn’t maturity; rather maturity arises when she’s forced to confront that people who she loved dearly and who loved her hid parts of themselves from her. It comes from her recognition of her own capacity for growth and her ability to forge an identity not built around following in her father’s footsteps or running after He-Man but rather of doing her own things in her own way.

Modernity and techno-cults

One of the odder insertions into this show is Triklops and his technocult. In Skeletor’s absence Triclops has taken control of Snake Mountain and staffed it with only the most cybernetic members of the former cadre (such as Lockjaw). He’s established a cult devoted to the Motherboard and is feeding dronification potions to apparently willing supplicants who are thus transformed into technological monstrosities. Triklops is trying to destroy any remnants of magic that remain. He hates magic because he believes Skeletor’s reliance on magic is the reason for their repeated failures in the past. This is largely to serve as a foil to Teela who also detests magic at this point in the story for what it did to her and the people she cares about. So we get this sense that if magic is tied to childhood then technology, cold and practical but unable to nourish, is bonded to adulthood and the putting away of childish things.

Of course this loss of magic is also killing the world. And so we see this delicate balance that Smith attempts to pull off between knowing the magical world of kings and heroes is a childish fantasy to grow beyond but also recognizing that the alienated modern sense of adulthood is sterile and ultimately deadening. Triklops can’t be allowed to win because his focus on technology is literally toxic; he is hastening the end of the world with his acts. And this is before the show gets all cosmological.

Subternia and Preternia

The afterlife depicted in this show is wild. This is, in part, because of how sparsely populated it is. Subternia is really just where Scare Glow hangs out alone despite characters repeatedly calling it “hell” and while Preternia gets called “heaven” on multiple occasions it is, as I alluded above, far much more akin to Elysium: a reward where select heroes, blessed with immortality, engage in athletic feats that would have been remarkably legible to Pindar. Rather than punishment and reward, Subternia and Preternia represent fear and happiness respectively. The grinning and contesting heroes of Preternia want for nothing while Scare Glow feeds on the fear of the unlucky who stumble into his chthonic domain.

But there’s a third emotion that lurks in both of these afterlives and it’s the thing that ultimately binds all this strangeness together: regret.

Regret is, in fact, the thread that ties everyone together in this show. Teela regrets so much. She regrets the secrets kept from her and she regrets the fight she had with her father. She regrets ever getting mixed up with He-Man in the first place and she regrets that he’s gone. Man-At-Arms is regretful too, regretting his failure to protect Adam and his banishment. Orko regrets failing his parents. Evil-Lyn regrets living in Skeletor’s shadow and Triklops regrets this too, though his regret manifests differently. After Adam is encountered in Preternia he regrets his enjoyment of his elysian reward and chooses to follow Teela back to Eternia even with the repeated warning that he will not be granted entry to the garden a second time. And this is where we finally find the meat of the theme here: Smith takes all the trappings of nostalgia – a deliberately anachronistic script, a childish view of life and death, and a yearning for an inaccessible past – and he demonstrates how it is all rooted in regret.

Nostalgia as a Haunting

Regret is one of the most hauntological emotions. It conjures a state of searching for an absent agent in that you are looking back at the choices you made and considering what you might have done differently. Of course the past is inaccessible to us. There is no returning to childhood. We can allow the strata of our childhood development to rupture to the surface but this is no more the childhood we had than Mount Everest is the floor of the ocean.

Nostalgia is what happens when we allow regret to boil over into a sickness. The nostalgic is like Orko wasting away in his bed for lack of magic to sustain him. This nostalgia drives Triklops to his world-destroying actions. After all, “A Nihilist is the man who says of the world as it is, that it ought not to exist, and of the world as it ought to be, that it does not exist.”1 Triklops’s technocultic nihilism is thus rendered intelligible by the desire to reconcile the world as it is with the world he believes ought to be. And bringing about this world fundamentally requires the destruction of the world that is. These characters regret that they made this choice or that in the past. They regret that they served Skeletor or that they allowed Adam to deceive them. They yearn to return to the simple world of magic but they know they can’t. A nostalgic cannot possibly recover what is lost. There are only two courses out of the sickness of nostalgia: to lean into their nihilism and obliterate themselves or their world or to let go of their regret and move forward into the future.

Honestly it should come as no surprise that the most nostalgic of fans felt betrayed in a fundamental way by Smith’s interpretation of this material. They were promised a return to childhood and the fulfillment of their nostalgic urge. But as nostalgia is rooted in regret for the irretrievable this would never be possible. As much as the toxic fans of the world would like to return to a kind of palingenetic childhood they never will. Even if their childhood passions rupture forth into the present in their spasmodic reactions to a cartoon, they are still unable to retrieve their childhood. This is why they so often believe that reimaginings of childhood media are destroying their childhood – these reiterations put the fan into direct contact with the irretrievable nature of his own past. He reaches for his childhood but it slips through his fingers like the Power Sword falling from Adam’s grasp in the fifth episode.

Smith leaves off the five-episode run with a warning. The Eternal Return lurks over the proceedings and raises the risk that, even in attempts to move to the future, we might find ourselves falling into atavistic patterns. Evil-Lyn serves an excellent foil for Teela in this. Teela still hasn’t fully moved into her future at the end of episode five. The sorceress has already told her that she is the one who has to wield the Power Sword but instead she gives it back to Adam. And by opening the door to the return of old patterns, Skeletor is able to re-emerge too, and drag Evil-Lyn away from her own confrontation with the limiting impact of her nostalgic affect. The victory of nostalgia is the victory of Skeletor. He can only be vanquished by moving forward into an uncertain future. We are, of course, not at the end of the first season. We have seen only the first act of this story. However in establishing both that these characters all feel nostalgia and that nostalgia is harmful to their development and growth, Smith has established a clear and explicit thematic message that belies the childishness of the premise. In 2019, Smith said, “Used to be happy, now I’m vegan.” But, of course, he is also still alive and able to grow because of his lifestyle changes – changes necessitated by a heart attack that could have killed him.

It seems as if this brush with death has provided Smith with the impetus not just to change his diet but to re-examine his life-long connection to childhood media. It’s not enough to be Silent Bob larping Batman in a mall anymore. The past may come around again in some form or another but when it does, it is something that must be resisted. Preternia is an empty heaven. Growth occurs in Subternia, where we confront fear and the specter of death. Death always lurks in the future but clinging to the past just draws it closer via sickness. We must imagine a Prince Adam who must not be He-Man any longer. We must imagine a Teela who has grown beyond the soft sisterly figure of the 80s cartoon or the sassy girlfriend of the 2002 revival, a Teela who has a life and regrets of her own but the will to rise above those regrets. We have to consider the idea that the past is gone and we must grow and change into the future.


1: Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 585

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.

(Not exactly) Kid’s Stuff: A Wizard of Earthsea and the question of being

Alone among authors in the 20th century, only Ursula Le Guin could have possibly written a book like A Wizard of Earthsea. Technically it’s a children’s book.

And I mean, on the surface, there’s certain qualities that A Wizard of Earthsea shares with children’s lit that make the categorization almost fit. It’s a short novel, barely 56,500 words long, and the edition I read (with the cover featured as my image) features large, clearly printed type to aid in ease of reading.

It’s a novel that focuses on a single subject and with a very minimal cast of characters. Le Guin is, excepting one notable adventure, very parsimonious with her deployment of characters, and very few figures of note arise in the first half of the book who don’t play a role in the second. While told in third person, the narration is very centered on Ged and we understand the story almost entirely from his singular point of view.

And, of course, it is a coming of age story. Although here we see Le Guin’s restlessness with convention as she pushes against the Campbellian structure of the coming of age story, featuring a protagonist who never refuses a call and who returns home half-way through his quest only to leave again.

However, despite these hallmarks of children’s fictions, this is a book with a density of theme and topic that could prove challenging for an undergraduate university student to fully disentangle. While I have positive things to say about some of the very inventive structural and pedagogical things done in modern children’s lit, for instance, Elizabetta Dami‘s use of modified type to emphasize key words is a very interesting artistic choice, and one with an obvious pedagogical benefit, I don’t think there’s a single voice in children’s literature in the 21st century who would tackle the very abstract topics like the ones that are at the center of Le Guin’s book. Because instead of taking readers on an exciting adventure, of creating a mystified simulacrum of a child’s social milieu, Le Guin digs into central ontological questions: What is the significance of a name? How do we address the being of death? What, ultimately, is it to be?

Perhaps we can say that Le Guin has more trust in children to grapple with problems that are difficult to hold. Or perhaps Le Guin, aware as she was of her singular intellect and talent, was arrogant enough to say that a Le Guin Children’s book shouldn’t deal with small, concrete, things but should rather aim in the same direction that any work of powerful literature does: toward the ineffable. Perhaps these things are inseparable, and Le Guin’s certainty in the ability of kids to keep up comes directly from her own intelligence, and the pride and will that come with it. Regardless, we can say, with certainty, that A Wizard of Earthsea presents a powerful standard against which much of children’s literature cannot compete.

The question of being

Since no thing can have two true names, inien can mean only "all the sea except the Inmost Sea". And of course it does not mean even that, for there are seas and bays and straits beyond counting that bear names of their own.

Le Guin comes to the question of being via the name. This is integrated into the story at a fundamental level. Names are important to people. They have a name they are given in childhood. This name is then discarded in a ritual during which a figure of ritual significance (in the case of Ged it’s his master Ogion the silent) will give a person a true name which is known only to them, their namer, and anyone they choose to tell. Such a disclosure is considered one of the greatest signs of trust a person can confer to another, as a person’s true name allows a magic user to do some pretty frightening things to a person. For general use, characters will have use-names: effectively nicknames that don’t carry the metaphysical tie to being that a true name has.

All this matters because a true name is a fundamentally unique thing and it is through the inhabiting of this unique address that a being is differentiated from all other beings. This largely derives from the thread of Taoist metaphysics that runs through the book. And this helps inform some of the limits of magic. A wizard can use the true name of a category of animal to transform themselves into that animal. This being is seen as false, or at least as not true, as it is a form of being assumed, the placement of a mask upon the unmediated being of the wizard. But this falsehood is in tension because wizards work their spells in the Old Tongue with which men can only speak truth. If a person says truthfully, “I am a hawk,” to become one his true being and the assumed being of the hawk are in tension. This leads to the risk that one could become lost in the transformed form. A wizard who transforms too often into a dolphin might end up becoming one in truth and not just in seeming. Of course this raises the question: if “I am a hawk” is a true statement but if it is also not true being, what differentiates the character of true being from that of assumed being? The text provides an answer, suggesting that true being lies in the continuous flow of identity, the process of a life lived taken whole. Or, as Ogion says:

At the spring of the River Ar I named you, a stream that falls from the mountain to the sea. A man would know the end he goes to but he cannot know it if he does not turn, and return to his beginning, and hold that beginning in his being. If he would not be a stick whirled and whelmed in the stream, he must be the stream itself, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.

And so we get this idea that being is an enunciation of difference, signified in a name, but that this isn’t all of being. Rather this is the shape of being. But what gives it thickness or truth is that it is a whole thing. Of course this is tricky because the nature of what constitutes a whole thing is vague. When Ged takes the form of a hawk he doesn’t become, in truth, this or that individual hawk. He becomes Ged, the hawk. The being he shares in when transformed is the category of being a hawk. But the category of hawk is not an individual category. It can be split into species of hawks. Families of hawks. Individual hawks. The wing of a hawk. the feather of a wing. Just as the name of an entire ocean must consider the name of every bay within it, so too is being fractal unless it’s given a final shape. It must have limits. One limit is when a thing begins, and the text is very clear about where things begin. “Years and distance, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together.” Every true name is, to Ged, a syllable of the great word and as such is spoken in turn. But just as the syllable of a word has a definitive start, so too must it have an end. And, of course, that means that death is a definitive cutting off of being. To know one’s self is to understand every moment of a life between being named and the extinction of that name in death.

But names persist in memory, and so a thread of being exists even in death. This dialectically introduced ambiguity, which refuses to fully deny being to the dead in the same stroke that it refuses to fully define the being of the living, creates the central tension of the book. Because Ged is much like Le Guin: sharply intelligent, deep in lore, powerful and arrogant.

Death

In Human All-Too-Human, Nietzsche provides a genealogy of revenge. He categorizes two principal forms of revenge one can commit. The first is an act of self-preservation in which the only thought is to escape from a source of harm. The second form of revenge, rather, is a premeditated one in which the person seeking vengeance doesn’t care even if they are harmed so long as they are able to do harm to their target. Nietzsche describes it thus:

This is a case of readjustment, whereas the first act of revenge only serves the purpose of self-preservation. It may be that through our adversary we have lost property, rank, friends, children—these losses are not recovered by revenge, the readjustment only concerns a subsidiary loss which is added to all the other losses. The revenge of readjustment does not preserve one from further injury, it does not make good the injury already suffered—except in one case. If our honour has suffered through our adversary, revenge can restore it. But in any case honour has suffered an injury if intentional harm has been done us, because our adversary proved thereby that he was not afraid of us. By revenge we prove that we are not afraid of him either, and herein lies the settlement, the readjustment. (The intention of showing their complete lack of fear goes so far in some people that the dangers of revenge—loss of health or life or other losses—are in their eyes an indispensable condition of every vengeful act. Hence they practise the duel, although the law also offers them aid in obtaining satisfaction for what they have suffered. They are not satisfied with a safe means of recovering their honour, because this would not prove their fearlessness.)

While Ged is at school he has a bully. This bully isn’t as clever or as talented as Ged and both of them know it. But the bully is older than Ged and has access to higher level instruction. The bully is also from a wealthy family, while Ged is quite proudly a rural goatherder. Ged resents the bully for his unkind barbs and provocations and things come to a head one night when Ged tells the bully quite straightforwardly that he is a superior magic user to the bully. Ged and the bully (Jasper – a precious stone, but not too precious) agree to a duel of magic power and Ged asks Jasper to set a task for him. “Summon up a spirit from the dead, for all I care!” Jasper tells Ged, and Ged replies, “I will.” As Ged and Jasper proceed to the place where Ged will summon a ghost, the text tells us, “Jasper was far beneath him, had been sent perhaps only to bring him here tonight, no rival but a mere servant of Ged’s destiny.”

What Jasper offends is Ged’s honour. His presence, his ability to, on the basis of wealth and age, lord anything over Ged is an affront to Ged’s dignity. And so he takes his revenge and he does so in a way that is deeply harmful to himself. Ged, in this act, unleashes the gebbeth, and suffers terrible wounds that take the better part of a year to recover from physically. The spiritual injury of this moment represents the principal conflict of the book. Ged is telling Jasper, by taking up any challenge Jasper can propose to him, that he has no fear of Jasper, and he is restoring his honour in this self-destructive act of revenge.

Ged succeeds in calling forth a ghost – that unifying thread that dialectically ties death to living and that gives the dead just enough being to still be differentiated from all the other things that can be named is enough for him to grasp on and bring forth the being that is named. But in the process something else comes through. The nature of this other thing then becomes something of a central concern of the book. The Archmage speaks to Ged after his recovery and says, “Evil, it wills to work evil through you. The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?”

And of course, the Archmage is correct and gives Ged good council here, but Ged hasn’t the understanding of himself to see the answer there. So later when a dragon and when Ogion both insist that the shadow has a name, Ged treats this information as at odds to his teacher’s instruction. But here’s the thing. In Nietzsche’s genealogy of revenge, he ultimately concludes that the two modes of revenge cannot be disentangled from each other. In the judicial act of punishment, a public desire of social self-preservation is combined with a private desire to see honour restored. Sometimes these competing modes of a thing get bound up with each other, entangled in complicated ways. The archmage tells Ged that the shadow wants to inhabit Ged and do evil so he runs from it and in running he gives the shadow power. Eventually Ogion tells Ged that his flight gives the shadow power so he hunts it and in hunting he weakens it. Ged is tied up with the object created by his revenge in such a way that he cannot be disentangled from it. But how he knows it and what he knows of it help to define it. It is gebbeth – nameless – a shadow – his shadow – named – him.

But we get ahead of ourselves. There are two incidents that come before the flight and the hunt. In the first, Ged fails to save a child from death by sickness. In the second he kills five dragons and mortally wounds a sixth. Le Guin handles this juxtaposition easily. Ged is able to bring an ending to the stories of these wyrms simply. He binds their wings and pulls them from the sky. He transforms to a dragon himself and burns them to cinders. He binds the eldest dragon with its true name and commands it not to threaten the settlement under his protection. The whole encounter has an uneasy sense of ease about it. It is narrated in a way that makes it seem easy. But to outsiders this looks hard. The smallest dragons are the length of a forty-oar boat.

Before he kills the dragons he fails to save the child. The kid is the son of a fisherman who Ged befriends. Ged works together with the fisherman, his neighbour, regularly. He casts spells of protection on the fisherman’s boat and in return the fisherman teaches him how to sail without magic – a talent that will serve Ged well later. The child falls ill with a fever and Ged tries to save him but he’s too far gone before Ged arrives – his spirit is slipping into death. Ged is so concerned for the wellbeing of his friend’s son that he follows the child’s spirit into death and barely escapes himself. The shadow is waiting at the wall between living and death and finds Ged there. This is the incident that sets in motion Ged’s need to flee it.

Ged flees and the shadow becomes powerful. He is manipulated, in the fear of his flight, into a perilous adventure and barely escapes, having to flee again, pursued again. He returns home, and there learns from Ogion what he needs to know. That he never should have run from it.

Completeness in being

Ged chases the shadow and it weakens.

He catches up to it and it tricks him into a shipwreck. He rebuilds his ship and continues his chase and he catches it – it has begun to look more like him. He tries to grab hold of it but it’s a shadow and there’s nothing to hold. “The body of a gebbeth has been drained of true substance and is something like a shell or a vapour in the form of a man,” we are told, and like vapour the shadow slips through Ged’s fingers. Later he encounters rumours that he passed by before. People he meets see him as an uncanny doubling – they’re troubled by this man who fled across their lands and who afterward chased himself.

Ged chases the shadow until it runs out of world to be chased through. He finds himself in an abstracted plain where the sea has turned to sand but which is also still the open sea. There he finally catches up with the spirit.

Aloud and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow's name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: 'Ged.' And the two voices were one voice.

Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self  that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined and were one.

The archmage was right that the gebbeth is the shadow he casts. Later in Human All-Too-Human, there is a dialog between the Wanderer and his shadow. In it, the Wanderer says, ” Now I see for the first time how rude I am to you, my beloved shadow. I have not said a word of my supreme delight in hearing and not merely seeing you. You must know that I love shadows even as I love light. For the existence of beauty of face, clearness of speech, kindliness and firmness of character, the shadow is as necessary as the light. They are not opponents—rather do they hold each other’s hands like good friends; and when the light vanishes, the shadow glides after it.”

Ged is the arrogant young man who seeks revenge when his honour is slighted by a man he sees as inferior. Ged is the man who wades into death to save a child and fails. Ged is the man who drags dragons from the sky and who gives a well with clean water to two mute exiles on an abandoned sandbar far from home. Ged is the light and the darkness and the only thing that gives his shadow power over him, the only thing that allows his shadow to harm him, is his unwillingness to face it. In the world of A Wizard of Earthsea every thing that is is that which can be announced to be different from all other things. The gebbeth lacks a name because that cannot be announced – it is merely a part of Ged as surely as the feather on the wing of the hawk – and it waits for Ged patiently at the boundary between life and death because one of the aspects of the shadow is death.

Ged is the wellspring of power that rises out of the primordial origin of all things. He is the doer, the agent of action in the story. The gebbeth is the un-doer, the reactive, the end of things. Ged, to come into an understanding of himself, must see his end as clearly as his beginning. He must be as aware of the ways in which he un-does as the ways he does. Unexamined, Ged’s shadow-self seeks revenge against Jasper and it is let loose, it rampages. It kills. It hounds Ged from crisis to crisis. But when faced, when Ged points to his own darkness and calls it with his name, it comes; it becomes; it comes into being. But by coming into being it is done away with because it becomes nothing but the awareness Ged has of his own potential toward death. There is no other here. There isn’t a wanderer and his shadow – there is a river, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.