Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Red Pill

In the beginning of the film The Matrix we see the protagonist, Neo, slumped asleep in front of his computer screen. "Searching..." it says. Abruptly he is awoken by a knock on the door. "Wake up, Neo" says the computer screen.

Do you ever feel like Neo, searching for something, you know not what, but something, something so big and so pervasive that its clues are everywhere? A fruitless search, yet so compelling you cannot stop even when you are asleep? Don't worry, I'm not going to pretend that I've found it and you haven't, and I'm not going to tell you what it is. That would be impossible. What I will do is illuminate something of the process of being found, touching upon the allegorical movie, The Matrix.

In the next scene Neo, instructed by his computer to "follow the white rabbit," goes with some people (one of whom has a white rabbit tattoo) to a dance club where he meets Trinity. She tells him, "The answer is looking for you and it will find you." Here he has begun to follow the guidance of something from outside the world that he knows. Computers just don't start talking to you, and they don't know who is at the door. In our search, we may have experiences like this. They demonstrate that there is a larger reality out there; that even if we don't know what it is, our search does have an object; we are reassured that whatever it is, it is looking for us as much as we are looking for it. I call this encounter with Trinity "First Contact".

The next scene finds Neo, in his day-job guise of Thomas Anderson, late for work. His boss calls him into his office and bawls him out. "The time has come to make a choice, Mr. Anderson," he says. He is right. Once First Contact has been made, it quickly becomes impossible to continue searching and yet live in the old world. Very soon Neo must decide if his search was in earnest. He is about to be found -- will he allow it or not? And you, my friend: are your spiritual strivings just diversions, comforts to facilitate the maintenance and ease the dolor of life-as-usual? You will find out in the same way Neo finds out.

Powerful forces conspire to keep us where we are. They are the internalized forces of propriety, survival anxiety, guilt, and fear that prevent us from stepping outside the bounds of the conventional world. They conspire to keep us in ordinary jobs, ordinary relationships, ordinary lives. They are none other than agents of the Machine, agents of control, of repression and self-repression. In the film they are FBI-looking types who come for Neo after he returns to his cubicle. But before they get to him he receives a package, an envelope containing a cell phone. As soon as he opens it, it rings. "Hello?" The voice says, "They're coming for you, Neo." He sees the agents coming past the receptionist. "I can guide you, but you must do exactly as I say."

"Why is this happening to me? What did I do?" cries Neo. When the reality we intuitively reject actually starts to unravel, when we see what a transformation of life really means, we are frightened. But Neo trusts himself entirely to the guidance of the voice on the phone, which choreographs his every movement to make good his escape from the Agents. When this voice from beyond the world we have known calls to us, we do our best to follow this requirement of absolute trust, but the instructions we receive call for greater and greater courage. We "trust our guidance" as far as we can, until we come up against a limit that we are afraid to cross. So it is with Neo, who cannot navigate the skyscraper ledge. Retreating from the precipice, he falls into the hands of the Agents.

The Agents reiterate the choice offered by Mr. Anderson's boss. They lay out both his identities: the reputable software programmer, Mr. Anderson, and the hacker, Neo. "One of these lives has future and the other does not." He cannot go on living two separate lives. The time to choose has come. We all have an opportunity like this, to defy the Agents of normality irrevocably.

The internal and external Agents of our enculturation to the Machine, to the status quo of our hurting planet, are dedicated to the prevention of our transformation. But it will find us nonetheless. Morpheus, the Transformer or the Transformed One, brings Neo to his headquarters. "You may have spent several years looking for me, Neo, but I've spent my whole life looking for you."

Neo's search was impossible, and so is yours. The tools he was using were the tools of the system he was embedded in, and could reveal only more of that self-same system. It is like a two-dimensional person in Flatland searching for the third dimension. He looks north, south, east and west, but he cannot look up, or even conceive of up. Yet, the search is not in vain, even if it is impossible, because the search is what calls the attention of the Finder.

"You are here because you know something," says Morpheus. "You don't know what it is, but you can feel it. Something is wrong with the world."

Something is wrong with the world. Do you feel a chill when you read those words? Something about the world just doesn't add up. The seamless reality we are offered couldn't be real. It just doesn't make sense. The prescriptions for how to live, for how to be human, don't make sense. Something in us says, "That can't be right," but how can we envision an alternative if that is all we have known? At this stage, we try to make lifestyle changes, or even go live on a commune, but we find we have not escaped the Matrix; we have brought it with us. And what is the Matrix? Morpheus identifies it as "the world that has been pulled over your eyes that blinds you to the truth: that you are a slave." Later he shows Neo the world behind the facade, a wrecked, desolate planet with dusty gales howling across a scorched sky. It is a good picture of Hell, and indeed, behind the facade of normal life, the office parks and shopping centers, the phony affluence of plastic and convenience, lies a Hell in the making, for all of this is built upon the ruin of nature, culture, health, and spirit.

Morpheus continues, "No one can be told about the Matrix. You have to experience it for yourself." Now, you may have read plenty of material that justifies your feeling that something is wrong with the world. Yet, you are still trapped inside it, and you find that you cannot escape because there is nowhere to escape to. The problem is that yes, you can be told some of the things that are wrong, but these are all superficial manifestations of something deeper and vaster. That something is indeed so deep and so vast that it is beyond the reach of words. As Morpheus says, it must be experienced.

Finally Morpheus offers Neo a choice: the red pill or the blue pill. The red pill will show him the truth; the blue pill will take him back to his old life. "This is your own and only chance," he says. In reality we have infinite chances, repeated chances, and one day we will choose the red pill. The question is, will we choose it when we are young and have a lifetime of creativity in front of us, or later when time and youth are exhausted? Here is a paradox: each of the infinite chances we have to awaken from the Matrix is also our one and only chance. The urgency is real.

The red pill is something that rocks your world, an experience that changes forever who you are and how you see everything. Afterwards, things that had once seemed so real, beliefs that were once axiomatic, become transparent, unreal. For example, the fears that once bound us become absurd, and we are no longer controlled by fear of losing health insurance, or people disapproving of us, maybe even of dying. It is not an all-or-nothing affair: we might have many red pills in the course of a lifetime, and the biggest one of all is called dying. Each one, though, liberates us from some of the rules and beliefs that have bound us. As a result we gain new powers. Things that would have been impossible to the old self in the old world become possible. Morpheus' words describe our new relationship to the conventional rules that bind the majority: "Some rules can be bent; others can be broken."


At July 20, 2008 at 5:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did Neo start the search by himself or did Finder or something else impel the search?


At July 20, 2008 at 10:23 PM , Blogger Charles Eisenstein said...

Neo started the search himself. That is an important point. We are all born with the desire to transcend our world, but later we experience only the desire and do not know its object.

At July 21, 2008 at 9:07 PM , Anonymous Chris said...

I find it hard to relate to all this MATRIX-allegory stuff, to be honest. ASCENT is a wonderful book, but it seems like all these ideas were presented so much more clearly there than when you bring complicated allegories into it.

My problem with THE MATRIX, & the reason I'm not a huge fan (though I enjoyed it when I saw it), is that it presents these problems so fantastically that it doesn't help you identify how these situations occur in real life. Also, it's yet another tale of good guys vs. bad guys, whereas in real life, it's not so clear-cut Manichean.

Charles, you talk a lot about the double-edged sword nature of technological advance. I found your discussion of literacy particularly interesting, how it can leech sensous immediacy from our experience, how it can create phantoms in the mind, illusory conceits (like "racial purity" for example).

But once we've acknowledged that the medium is the message, I think we need to go back and look at the precise message of specific literary works. Isn't it possible that the modern world would be completely different, & much healthier if certain individuals - Zoroaster, Augustine, John Calvin - had never written? (It isn't JUST the fact of the written word taking away people's instinctual responses, it's also the fact that the texts with the greatest impact on world history are not always the ones humanists would like them to be.)

Isn't the specific content of Augustine's or Calvin's or (in certain problematic areas) Darwin's work very dangerous and disquieting in its implications? For they all set up an us vs. them dualistic universe, they all need an enemy, an Evil Force, to stand in Manichean opposition to The Good.

Did you ever read Harold Bloom's famous theory of THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE? Bloom believes that strong writers survive and become canonical because of their imaginative strength in absorbing precursor writers. So "bad" and "weak" writers get forgotten and become period pieces, whereas "strong" and "great" writers, like Shakespeare, absorb the influence of precursors (the Geneva Bible, Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES, Christopher Marlowe) & then produce enduring masterpieces.

But I think it would be very interesting to turn Bloom's scheme inside out. What if he's wrong? What if "the strong" (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Joyce) are NOT the writers who shape the future of civilization? What if their influence on future generations of readers is dwarfed by the influence of writers with a very heartless, cruel, cold, life-denying, misanthropic, reductive view of human beings - John Calvin for instance? What if Calvin has had more influence on world history & psychology & philosophy than Shakespeare? Bloom never really addresses this possibility. He presents literary history the way he WANTS it to be - with his idol Shakespeare the most influential writer of all time - not the way it actually has unfolded, in my view.

I don't think the world is in the mess it is simply because of an unfolding plan or paradigm. I think it is the way it is because Zoroaster's stark, cruel vision of universal strife dwarfed in influence that of the wonderful poet who wrote the beautiful (and deeply humane, life-loving, people-loving) epic of Gilgamesh. Because Augustine's rigid theology dwarfed in influence Ovid's playfully erotic myths and legends. Because John Calvin and Martin Luther, contra Bloom's assertions, did much more to shape modernity than the Trinity of Williams (Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth) ever did. The beautiful vision of human possibility contained in AS YOU LIKE IT or characters like Falstaff and Cleopatra, has helped us progress as a species, but simply has NOT had the impact that Calvin's monstrous theology has (dividing the human race into the fore-ordained "saved" and "damned," thus paving the way for biological determinism and 19th century "race purity" theories).

And to push this idea further, YOUR book is another masterpiece that is dwarfed in influence by loads of books and TV shows and movies with a pernicious vision of human possibility. This is the real problem with the invention of the written word I feel. Not that literacy automatically drains people's instinctual responses, but that the "wrong" texts have exerted the greatest influence on the largest number of people.

At July 21, 2008 at 11:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's an interesting POV, Chris. I just ran across Ashley Montagu's Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race and am going to try to scare up a copy. It's on line as a Google book.

I tend to think that Calvin's and other heartless, misanthropic ways of viewing the world have held sway because they resonate in human consciousness in a morphogenetic way or Jungian collective consciousness way. But now it seems truth is reaching more and more into the world, that there is greater welcoming of it into consciousness than in Calvin's or Augustine's time. I remember very little of his Confessions, but I do remember that he said one of the things he fought with himself to overcome was the enjoyment of blood sports!

About the Matrix and Manichean us-them division, I thought the same thing when I first read about the movie, but then I read what Charles wrote about taking many red pills throughout one's life, about it not being an all-or-nothing affair. Also, if we realize the Agent Smith beliefs are impersonal beliefs based on the separation of humanity and nature into random, isolated bits of conflicting interests, I don't think we see it so much as a good guy-bad guy kind of pro- and anti-humanity fight, but rather a universal yet individualized seeing through fallacy to the true ground of being. I think that can mean a peaceful resolution rather than traumatic or violent coming of truth to consciousness.

Thank you for the interesting post. It is so encouraging for me to read this blog and Reality Sandwich. I think people's care and love come through, rather than the snarkiness that passes for discourse in some spots on the Internet.


At July 22, 2008 at 10:56 AM , Blogger marie said...

Chris, if you were one of the people in the smoke-filled room, that group of people who decide what we will like, what we will hate, who will be President, etc., which writings would you promote? Calvin, or AoH?

At July 24, 2008 at 4:41 AM , Anonymous Chris said...

"Calvin, or AoH?"

AoH of course! Not that I'd want to "blame" Calvin, exactly, after all, he didn't force human beings to embrace his worldview. Something about it was found to be attractive to millions, so it's pointless to simply vilify him for having a vision I happen to find appalling.

"I tend to think that Calvin's and other heartless, misanthropic ways of viewing the world have held sway because they resonate in human consciousness in a morphogenetic way or Jungian collective consciousness way."

That's a very interesting idea. I think there may be something to that. What you say makes sense to me.

If we just assume for the moment that my theory is right, and Calvin (for example) has been more influential in various spheres of thought than Shakespeare, the question is why? Why should cruel, unpleasant cosmologies have more influence than philanthropic, life-loving ones? Why should asceticism outrank "joie-de-vivre" in religion, philosophy, myth etc?

Because something about the images and visions involved are instantly accessible and easily comprehended by vast numbers of people. It's simply much easier to understand what Martin Luther was trying to say than to understand William Blake's verse, for example. Zoroaster's vision of the universe is easily & instantly understood, whereas the Gilgamesh poet's just isn't. I had to read that poem three times before I could truly begin to understand what it was all about. It's incredibly profound and a masterpiece for all time, but somehow the images and ideas don't "click" the way Zoroaster's vision instantly "clicks" into place the moment you encounter it.


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