(Updated Oct. 17, 2020)
I don’t think The Matrix is a masterpiece. I have already written more about that movie than I should, probably. And I believe Zizek doesn’t think it’s a masterpiece, either. But he sure hasn’t written too much about The Matrix. I was reading a revised version of Zizek’s Enjoy Your Symptom (1992) the other day, when I came across this very illuminating discussion, which I believe perfectly illustrates Zizek’s oft-repeated contention that “If there is a point in psychoanalysis, it is that people do not want or desire happiness.”
Zizek first refers to this well-known dialogue in which Morpheus provides a high-falutin description of how and why The Matrix came to exist:
MORPHEUS: It’s that feeling you have had all your life. That feeling that something was wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. … The matrix is everywhere, it’s all around us, here even in this room. … It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
NEO: What truth?
MORPHEUS: That you are a slave, Neo. That you, like everyone else, was born into bondage … kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison of your mind.
Zizek contrasts this conversation with the moment, toward the end of the film, in which Smith, the agent of the Matrix, gives a different, much more Freudian explanation:
« Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops [of humans serving as batteries] were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the matrix was redesigned to this, the peak of your civilization. »
Skynet. What this shows, Zizek goes on to explain, is:
The imperfection of our world is thus at the same time the sign of its virtuality and the sign of its reality. One could effectively claim that the agent Smith (let us not forget: not a human being as other, but the direct virtual embodiment of the Matrix—the big Other—itself) is the stand-in for the figure of the analyst within the universe of the film: his lesson is that the experience of an insurmountable obstacle is the positive condition for us, as humans, to perceive something as reality. Reality is ultimately that which resists.
In a way, this is Zizek’s way of repeating the old witticism: “reality is what remains there after you stopped believing in it,” one of his favorite underlying messages (*). But the way Smith puts it, and Zizek underlines it, brings these verses to mind. The Lord is speaking to Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Prologue in Heaven:
I never have hated your ilk;
Of all the Spirits who deny,
I find the scamp the least tedious.
Man’s endeavor tends all too easily towards slumber;
What he wishes for first of all is unconditional rest.
Therefore I am wont to assign him a companion
Who provokes and must act and appear as a Devil.
Interestingly, Zizek ties his Matrix discussion in Enjoy your Symptom with the subject matter of the novel I published a couple of years ago: the unresolved murder of Geli, Adolf Hitler’s niece, in 1931:
Perhaps, it is along these lines that one can also explain the obsession of Adolf Hitler’s biographers with his relationship to his niece Geli Raubal who was found dead in Hitler’s Munich appartment in 1931, as if Hitler’s alleged sexual perversion will provide the “hidden variable,” the intimate missing link, the fantasmatic support that would account for his public personality. Here is this scenario as reported by Otto Strasser:
“Hitler made her undress [while] he would lie down on the floor. Then she would have to squat down over his face where he could examine her at close range, and this made him very excited. When the excitement reached its peak, he demanded that she urinate on him, and that gave him his pleasure.”
Crucial is here the utter passivity of Hitler’s role in this scenario as the fantasmatic support that pushed him into his frenetically destructive public political activity; no wonder Geli was desperate and disgusted at these rituals. Therein resides the correct insight of The Matrix: in its juxtaposition of the two aspects of perversion—on the one hand, reduction of reality to a virtual domain regulated by arbitrary rules that can be suspended, and on the other the concealed truth of this freedom, the reduction of the subject to an utter instrumentalized passivity. In other words, The Matrix gets it right, but in a wrong (inverted) way. That is, we just have to turn around the terms in order to get at the true state of things: what the film renders as the scene of our awakening into our true situation is effectively its exact opposition, the very fundamental fantasy that sustains our being. We are not dreaming in VR that we are free agents in our everyday common reality, while we are actually passive prisoners in the prenatal fluid exploited by the matrix; it is rather that our reality is that of the free agents in the social world we know, but in order to sustain this situation, we have to supplement it with the disavowed, terrible, impending fantasy of being passive prisoners in the prenatal fluid exploited by the matrix. The mystery of the human condition, of course, is why the subject needs this obscene fantasmatic support of his existence.