Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

The body in The Matrix

I saw The Matrix only once, on television in about 2001 or 2002. I was disappointed in the film, particularly compared to the Wachowskis’ earlier Bound. Their first film a twisty, gripping banquet of a heist movie in which two women plot to steal mob money that’s being laundered by the husband of one of them. I’ve never seen Gina Gershon give a better performance than she does as Corky, and Jennifer Tilly slyly undermines her high-voiced, “girly” persona.

So I had high hopes for The Matrix but I’m sorry to say they weren’t realized. I found the film plodding, unsubtle and over-reliant on special effects, with a plot that seemed incomplete (as if the film-makers were holding back part of the story for the sequels). In particular, I found the “reality isn’t what you think it is, it’s something completely different” theme dissatisfying and fantastic (not in a good sense). I never bothered to watch the sequels. I always meant to go back and give The Matrix a second chance, to see if I’ve been unfair to it (a distinct possibility) but that has never seemed an urgent project in the 18 years or so since I saw it.

Then, recently, Jennifer Harrison (GeneticJen on reposted an essay that she had originally published on Medium 3 years ago, in which she examines the argument that The Matrix can be viewed as a trans allegory. That led me to Google, where I learned that there’s a whole online discussion of this very question that seems to have been going on for some time. One contribution that caught my eye was a story on Vox by Emily VanDerWerff, who puts her finger on exactly what I don’t like about The Matrix:

The entire movie is about transcending the limitations of the physical form to explore what the mind is capable of. Bodies are, at best, a suggestion. Your brain is what really matters.

I fundamentally disagree that the brain is “what really matters” and the body little more than a bundle of limitations that exists primarily to be transcended. The idea that the body is just an adjunct to the “real” self (whether that self is conceived of as “the mind”, “the soul” or some other kind of inner essential being) is a commonplace in European thought, literature and religion. I have long believed that it’s completely wrong and treacherously deceptive.

A person’s body is central to the way she exists in the world. It initially registers the sensory inputs — sight, taste, sensation, hearing and smell — that the brain then processes. It includes (among much else) the digestive and cardio-vascular systems that keep the whole organism alive. It’s responsible for speech and all actions taken by the individual. If we assume that a disembodied brain could exist at all, it would be completely isolated from the world, unable to communicate, to perceive anything or even to nourish itself. It could not survive for very long.

Even in this last paragraph, I’ve been treating body and mind as if they were distinct parts of the human being, capable of having an existence separate from each other. This is not what I believe, but is simply a piece of conceptual shorthand. Body and mind are both integral and essential to the complete person. We are accustomed to think of them as distinct only for analytical purposes.

They’re really nothing more than ways of trying to grasp different aspects of the same big, complex, multifaceted, organic thing (the human individual) but they don’t in reality correspond to an actual division or divisibility within that thing. A body without a mind is a corpse; a mind without a body merely a fantasy.

That’s the main reason I’ve never been able to accept formulations like “born in the wrong body” (which mercifully one hears less often now that people wanting to transition have fewer gatekeepers to persuade). A living body is not a vessel or container in which the essential self is carried around. Nor is it a piece of organic machinery which is employed (for want of something better) by a ghostly intelligence to mediate between itself and the “external”, physical world. On the contrary, the body is an integral part of the human being, a part that can’t be separated or disentangled from the being as a whole.

I fully understand that this is not how the body appears to us in our self-perceptions. I’ve written before more than once about not having a visual self-image. I do have a self-conception, however, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what form that self-conception takes. It’s not easy to be sure, because the idea seems to slip away as I try to examine it directly. But, as far as I can tell, I imagine myself (at least some of the time) as a blob of consciousness, occupying the same physical position as my cranium but slightly larger and with less distinct edges.

Of course, that self-conception is obviously wrong. I’m perfectly well aware that it’s wrong. I know that I’m an overweight, white, Irish male, in need of a haircut and about 1.81 metres in height. But that’s not how I experience my own being. (When I was much younger, I used to enjoy the “Oh, that’s what I look like” moment when I’d unexpectedly catch sight of my reflection. For some years now, the surprise hasn’t been nearly so pleasant but it’s still a surprise.)

Now it’s possible that, because I can’t visualize, I have a more obviously distorted self-conception than most. Be that as it may, I’m convinced that people generally have an inaccurate and misleading image or conception of themselves. Why we as a species should have evolved that way I can’t say, but I’m not in any doubt that we have done so. For some reason, we seem to be better adapted to survival if we can manage to believe that “we” are insulated by our physical attributes from our environment, and that we exist somehow apart from it. Intellectually, we know that this is an illusion. We should try not to forget that fact.

Probably, this distorted self-image is one of the factors that makes it possible for us to devalue the body: to see our consciousness as the essential thing and our physical characteristics as incidental and subsidiary, just the container. In any case, I think it’s worth making a special effort to give the body its (easily overlooked) due. I think something like this is partly what J K Rowling had in mind when she provoked a lot of anger by insisting that “sex is real”. Sex is, I suspect, the area of human activity and entity where the interdependence and inseparability of mind and body are at their most obvious and undeniable.

So, I interpret Rowling’s remarks as implying that “bodies are real, and indispensable”, and in that sense (though not exclusively in that sense) I fundamentally agree with her statement.

I think the time has come when I should finally rewatch The Matrix, with more critical attention than I gave it 18 years ago. Depending on how that goes, I might even watch the sequels. But I’m not going to be surprised if I don’t enjoy them.

Posted by Art on 03-Sep-2020.