Saturday, December 26, 2009

Choosing the matrix

"Cypher," the Judas character in the 1999 film The Matrix, decides he'd rather live a life of pleasant illusion than deal with reality:
Agent Smith: Do we have a deal, Mr. Reagan?
Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.
Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?
Cypher: I don't want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important, like an actor.
Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.
from The Matrix [script]
Excellent arguments have been made about why this is a dumb idea (more), but surely nobody would actually decide to live a life of illusion, would they?

Perhaps not, but people do it for days or weeks. That's what John Edwards and Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods all did when they involved themselves in extramarital affairs. And on a shorter time scale, Eliot Spitzer and many many many other unfaithful husbands consult high-end prostitutes.

Why do I say these men are living a life of illusion, particularly the prostitutes' clients? Levitt and Dubner offer this description of one high-end prostitute, "Allie":

She genuinely likes the men who come to her, and the men therefore like Allie even beyond the fact that she will have sex with them. Often, they bring gifts: a $100 gift certificate from; a nice bottle of wine (she Googles the label afterward to determine the value); and, once, a new MacBook. The men sweet-talk her, and compliment her looks or the decor. They treat her, in many ways, as men are expected to treat their wives but often don't.


Allie is essentially a trophy wife who is rented by the hour. She isn't really selling sex, or at least not sex alone. She sells men the opportunity to trade in their existing wives for a younger, more sexually adventurous version--without the trouble and the long-term expense of actually having to go through with it. For an hour or two, she represents the ideal wife: beautiful, attentive, smart, laughing at your jokes and satisfying your lust. She is happy to see you every time you show up at her door. Your favorite music is already playing and your favorite beverage is on ice. She will never ask you to take out the trash.

Super Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner,
pp. 52-53
This is about illusion -- and not a steak-and-creature-comfort illusion; it's fundamentally an identity illusion. It's about being being attractive and sexy and funny, about being being validated by a "beautiful, attentive, smart" woman, about being known. In short, the illusion is about being a real man.

But as Mike Erre asks on the back cover of Why Guys Need God, "Why, after years of being told otherwise, do we still chase after bigger paychecks, better homes, and cuter women to define us as men?" I haven't read the book (except for a few pages on, but I think he's on to something very important. He's talking about pursuing an illusion, whereas Allie is providing the illusion in participatory form.

Now I'll say that some illusions are harmless (think "Happiest Place on Earth"), but the illusions fed by psychotropic drugs, pornography, and prostitution can destroy lives and families. Must we avoid all illusions, all escapes -- all entertainment? I sure hope not! But how to draw the line?

Let me know when you have it figured out, will you please?

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