THE JUNGIAN MATRIX
By Diane Delaurens
The Montréal Review, October 2023
The Matrix is the ultimate millennial sci-fi movie: it came out in 1999 and made cinematic history. What if we were, after all, living in a computer simulation? Almost a quarter of a century later, with algorithms and artificial intelligence controlling more of our world than ever before, The Matrix rings particularly true to our post-ChatGPT ears. The box office success of the 2021 Matrix Resurrections shows that the franchise is still going strong and captures the essence of our era. This should not be surprising: The Matrix is a Jungian movie that addresses the heart of our modern psychological struggles. In a machine-like world that has become too rational, human beings need to solve the riddle of the matrix to reach self-knowledge and recover their freedom.
The machines’ world of The Matrix is responsible for the humans’ split consciousness
The Matrix represents the culmination of the process that German sociologist Max Weber coined, after the romantic philosopher Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world’. This concept alludes to magic being progressively replaced, as an explanation of the world, first by religion with monotheist religions 1, and then by rationality with the 17th century Enlightenment and the subsequent scientific and industrial revolution 2. Indeed, in The Matrix, the apparent world itself has become a program running on numbers and algorithms, by essence the opposite of any kind of magic or spirituality. It is no coincidence that humans are treated like machines, with Mr Anderson (Neo’s name in the matrix) working for a big impersonal software company in which every human being is akin to the lines of code they write all day long – a cog in the system. This only mirrors the real world outside of the matrix, where humans are grown in fields and harvested to become batteries, feeding machines their vital energy. Agent Smith, the matrix’s sentient program in charge of its safety, is the opposite of human consciousness.
But this is where humans differ from machines. In 1958, in The Undiscovered Self, Austrian psychologist Carl Jung argues that spirituality is an essential need of the human psyche. Its replacement by numbers and rationality leads to a disastrous ‘split consciousness’ in humans, who forget the unconscious half of who they truly are, leaving them ‘undiscovered’. Let’s note that The Matrix’s protagonist is the perfect example of this split consciousness, being both ‘Mr Anderson’ during the day, and ‘Neo’ on his computer at night. When Morpheus, the leader of the human insurrection, meets Neo, this is exactly what he tells him: just like Morpheus a few years before, Neo feels like there is ‘something wrong in the world, like a splinter in [his] mind, and it’s driving [him] mad’. This Janus-like Neo is the perfect embodiment of our modern unknown self, according to Jung.
This sense of something missing, the Jungian unconscious part of the psyche, is why the human resistance in the movie uses so many symbols and references to spiritual traditions: they need to regain control of what makes them human in the first place. Neo meets Trinity in a club by ‘following the white rabbit’, an obvious reference to Lewis Carroll’s wonderful and scary world of Alice in Wonderland. Later on, traitor Cypher’s trap is announced by a black cat, symbol of bad luck, walking twice in front of Neo and triggering the ‘déjà-vu’ that signals a glitch in the matrix. The references get biblical in the real world: Trinity’s name is a reference to the holy trinity, the last human city is Zion (the other name of Jerusalem), and Morpheus’ spaceship is named Nebuchadnezzar, after the king of the Neo-Babylonian empire 3. To counter the machines’ dry and cold hyper-rationality, there is nothing as powerful as old traditions and symbols that carry spiritual weight. According to Jung, the unconscious works with these millennial images, symbols and archetypes that are key to heal our and Neo’s minds 4.
To become whole again, the humans through Neo need to solve the riddle of the dream-like matrix
The matrix is described as a neural simulation, a series of images that only happen in the brain: in other words, a dream. The whole movie repeatedly plays on the difficulty to distinguish between the matrix, ‘a dream [Neo was] so sure was real’, and reality. In the first few minutes, we see Neo waking up twice, after the party at which he meets Trinity and after being bugged by Agent Smith. This leads the spectator to believe that this was all a dream, only to learn later that this in fact happened – in the matrix. When Neo meets Morpheus, the latter notes: ‘You look like a man who believes what he sees because he is expecting to wake up’. Ironically, it is by following the Greek god of sleep and dreams that Neo wakes up to the real world, only to quickly return to a dream-like state. Indeed, all of Neo’s work consists of fighting within the matrix, and all of his training happens in programs. While plugged in and living all sorts of adventures in his brain, Neo in the real world looks asleep. And, probably not by coincidence, the very pilot of the Nebuchadnezzar is called ‘Dozer’, subtly referring to dozing off: even the role that requires the most acute focus and attention is linked to sleep. Neo did not take the blue pill that would have kept him in the matrix dream, but the red one he swallowed is not taking him so far away from it either.
For Jung, dreams are of particular interest as they provide the main door onto the unconscious. Jung sees the human mind as an ocean of unconsciousness in which an island of consciousness is progressively built over the water. This process leads to individuation, which is the reunification of the conscious and unconscious, healing the split consciousness through self-knowledge. By the information they bring to the conscious surface, dreams are a crucial element of this personal quest. However, they only do so in riddles, through symbols and metaphors that require work to be understood, and that a psychoanalyst can help the dreamer make sense of. Particularly, Jung identifies specific archetypes that appear in many patients’ dreams as well as ancient myths 5. For example, the Anima (for men) or Animus (for women) is a person of the opposite sex who acts as a mediator between the conscious and the unconscious in the dream. The figure of the Shadow, who appears as an enemy or dangerous being of the same sex as the dreamer, represents the unconscious that directly opposes or threatens the conscious ego. The Old Woman is an archetype that frequently helps the dreamer in their quest, and the Mother and Father figures are also common in dreams, along with a multitude of millennial symbols (caves, snakes, etc.)
If this sounds familiar, it is because it is exactly the scheme of The Matrix. Since the beginning, the matrix is a riddle to solve. ‘What is the matrix?’ is the very question that Neo spends his nights researching, leading to his encounter with Trinity. In the real world, the matrix is a long sequence of numbers on a screen, that only trained people can automatically read thanks to pattern recognition, just like a psychoanalyst is specifically trained to decipher dream symbols. The name of Cypher, the traitor, points directly to the historical and etymological link between code, numbers and encryption. The Latin ‘cifra’ refers to the signs by which a number is represented, which were invented by the Indians and brought to Europe by the Arabs and that were, at the time, un-decipherable by the Europeans 6. And, along his journey in the matrix, Neo encounters all sorts of archetypes: the matrix itself is the archetypal Mother that birthed him but also imprisons him, Morpheus the reassuring Father showing him the way to maturity, Trinity the helpful Anima ensuring the link between the real world and the matrix, the Oracle the Old Woman helping him on his quest to self-discovery, and finally Agent Smith his Shadow – desireless, rule-following, matrix-born program that is the exact opposite of what Neo aspires to be. Solving the riddle of the matrix thanks to these archetypes is for Neo a psychological journey of self-discovery: is he, or is he not, ‘the One’ supposed to destroy the matrix and free humans?
Solving the riddle means for Neo to heal his split self by getting to know and reuniting with his Shadow
The Matrix is an initiation movie about Neo’s psychological awakening to his own self. At the beginning, Neo is nothing but his conscious ego. When they meet for the first time, Morpheus asks him ‘Do you believe in fate?’, to which Neo naively and eagerly replies ‘No, because I don’t like the idea that I am not in control of my life’, all the while unknowingly living in a simulation. This situation is very similar to the false belief of modern societies thinking they are more enlightened than before, when they are, according to Jung, actually blinder – because they don’t even know themselves. No matter how much humans think they can grasp with their conscious reason, by not investigating their unconscious, they remain slaves to the latter. Even after taking the red pill and waking up to reality, Neo once again runs into ‘fate’ in the form of a prophecy in which Morpheus believes enough to die for. Let’s note the irony that this prophecy was made by the Oracle, which is nothing but a program in the matrix: the whole path towards human freedom is dictated by machines, seemingly denying humans any agency 7. Neo does not believe in this new kind of fate either: he does not think he is ‘the One’, and his training supports this view. He fails like everybody else before him at his first jump, while expectations were that ‘the One’ would succeed on their first try.
To defeat the matrix, Neo needs to follow his archetypes’ advice: get to know himself and use the power of his mind. The Oracle has the ‘Know thyself’ sign on her door, borrowed from the Greek High Priestess Pythia of the Apollo temple in Delphi, who, likes her, speaks in riddles. Instead of giving Neo the clear-cut answer he wants about whether or not he is ‘the One’, the Oracle, true to the Jungian conception of the psychiatrist who helps his patients but cannot do their psychological work for them, puts the onus back on Neo by asking him what he thinks 8. This is also the real lesson from the kung-fu training scene in which Morpheus explains that gravity is only a rule from a computer program and that it can therefore be bent or broken. After defeating Neo, he reiterates his point: ‘Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place? You think that's air you're breathing now?’ and, not long after, ‘Don’t think you are, know you are’ (emphasis added). The fact that Neo’s self-knowledge can empower him to change the virtual rules of the matrix is crucial. As a matter of fact, going further than rejecting the cartesian dualism (‘the body cannot live without the mind’, says Trinity), the matrix actually asserts the superiority of the mind over the body: blows given in the matrix appear on the real bodies in the spaceship because minds are not strong enough to tell the matrix and reality apart 9. Strengthening his mind is the only way Neo can therefore defeat the matrix. This is the signification of the spoon scene with the ‘gifted kids’ at the Oracle’s: remembering, while being in the matrix, that none of it is real except in your mind, that ‘there is no spoon’, allows you to modify the rules and therefore bend the aforementioned spoon.
Only once Neo starts acknowledging the power of his mind over the matrix that success comes to him. This happens in the last scene, in which he goes into the matrix to rescue Morpheus, detained by the Agents. Most noticeable is his appearance change, from casual everyday wear to the famous sunglasses and long black coat, which is nothing trivial: this is Neo’s ‘residual self-image’ 10, how he sees himself – by then with much more confidence 11. In the lift up the building, he repeats to himself that ‘there is no spoon’, finally learning the precious lesson that everything is a mind construct. This is what allows him to dodge the bullets fired by the Agents, making Trinity notice that ‘[he] moved like them’. When the Agents’ strength and speed are based on the matrix rules, Neo can modify the rules of the game itself: although shot by Smith, he is brought back to life by Trinity’s kiss in the real world (here fulfilling her Anima role of mediator between the matrix and reality). He wakes up more convinced than ever that he can fight the Agents; in fact, he even stops the bullets they fire at him. Before long he is actually merging with Smith, destroying him from the inside, and bending the walls around him while doing it, giving visual proof that he can now ‘bend the rules’ just like spoons. This is the climax where Neo reaches self-knowledge and true Jungian individuation: he has finally accepted his Shadow and has reunited with it, allowing him to be his full self and therefore become who he was predestined to be. ‘The One’ is not Neo but the reunion of the Neo and Smith 12, the two halves of consciousness. By letting go of his ego and accepting to investigate his dark side, Neo paradoxically overcomes fate while fulfilling the prophecy, and reaching new heights of self-knowledge and (mind) power.
The Matrix is a Jungian blueprint about what humans need to do to regain psychological freedom in a rationality- and technology-heavy time: heal their split minds by solving the riddle of their dreams and getting to know their unconscious. This exploration of the psyche also questions reality, as in the loading program the Construct, Morpheus tells Neo that ‘real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain’. This idealist vision, in the true sense of the term that ideas are the only reality that there is 13, opens new perspectives for how minds can influence reality, directly challenging the common understanding that a dream (or the matrix) is not real. At a time when depression and eco-anxiety are more prevalent than ever, the works of Jung and their translation into The Matrix seem to be of the utmost interest.