2001: a nietzschean odyssey

2001 does not only constitutes a landmark in film history, but it also makes up a haven for the most distinct kinds of lucubration; a kind of serve as you please amalgam of pictures. Kubrick once said so eloquently – while others echoed it ad infinitum:

You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film —and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level— but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point. — the often cited fragment from a Playboy interview with Stanley Kubrick (September 1968).

One. Understanding that speculation is possible due to the film being a coherent piece in its evocative level is our first step. (That they are actually words and not images is somehow important here.) Two. That you are free to speculate does not mean that every speculation you can possibly make is valid in itself. Three. Kubrick did choose Richard Strauss’ musical poem.

The mischief of the senses. 2001 is regarded in various film contexts as a symphony for the eyes. With that in mind the appreciation of the film was never fully completed as it was often relegated to perception —and a subjective one for that matter— in terms of image-sound, whereas every ulterior interpretation was somehow valid on the ground that validation was not something you could earn but something you already had. And that represents but the first stage in our aesthetic approach to a piece, and while its true that the creator of that piece would be better not outlining the course of thought pertaining to a reflective stage —which, as it needs to be made with words, is not inherently cinematographic— we, on the contrary, cannot elude it.

I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content. (Another fragment from the same Playboy interview.)

I am not denying the possibility of such a film; on the contrary. It is because the film penetrates our perception in its evocative and emotional level that the ulterior speculative stage —about said philosophic content— is even possible. But once we have been affected in our sensibility our understanding wants to start working with the impressions left, organizing them —not as we please but as the representation in synthesis with our understanding is accommodated in a consistent idea. And so I will follow the connection to Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical tract “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, which —if anything else fails— is made evident by the use of Richard Strauss’s musical poem Also Sprach Zarathustra. 1

But let’s suppose he had used another musical piece. 2001 would still clearly be a Nietzschean film as every bit of it resembles –in its poetic way–Nietzsche’s work and ideas. Nietzsche was really an ambiguous thinker (made evident by his often inspiringly unfathomable prose); Space odyssey is no different in that sense.

“Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.”

The Nietzschean idea of a superman is somehow widely known; thus, it is also widely vulgarized and misleading in its use. The übermensch as he wrote is more feasible translated into overman, in a transcendental way. The overman is who transcends Man, not just some present-day man held superior to others but a radically different type of man. Trying to reconstruct the meaning of Nietzsche’s erection by alluding to it as superman is a woebegone effort. Thus, it shall better be paraphrased as over and above man.

The Dawn of Man is the first part of the movie. With the longest ellipsis of all time Kubrick is conveying an important idea: from the ape to the astronaut nothing has essentially changed. We could jump from one to the other because everything remained, in essence, identically. A constant pattern. The Eternal Recurrence of the identical. The question is not how much human beings have evolved, but how little. Human being is still an animal. That is what Nietzsche and Kubrick tried to say.

“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.” ~ Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s prose is marvelous in its power and emotion —it is evocative. And it is not coincidence that Kubrick starts the movie like that. It is a movie full of dawns. Opportunities. Mankind has always had plenty of opportunities to overcome itself. Zarathustra speaks about dusks. (As well as Nietzsche in the Dusk of Idols.) Kubrick —in what could be thought as a dialectical dialogue— speaks about dawns. Still, mankind has chosen the path of repeating one time after the other our eternal mistakes.

Near the end of the opus, when the main character travels to the infinite and sees himself as an old man, in the immaculate white of the room, with the wisdom provided by age, the old man is nonetheless utterly clumsy. He breaks the glass of wine on the floor. What has he done to overcome himself? In the last moment of the film, the human being before dying tries to touch the monolith, the absolute (be it a metaphor of wisdom, knowledge or whatever). But he can’t. From his shelter, his bed-of-death, he extends his arm to the black prism. And then the camera goes into de object which, throughout the movie, remained distant and untouchable. Only the camera goes into it.

The light does not die. Man is ready for the next evolutionary step. His body is cast away. And the starchild is born. — reference taken from Kubrick 2001: The space odyssey explained.

Let’s not take the child too literary! The camera —taking us for this last ride— left us in the space. We are seeing a baby while “Also Sprach Zaratustra” screams comprehension. And while a cold quiver comes up our spine we realize it is Nietzsche’s übermensch. A man which could overcome the Eternal Recurrence of our existence. And now the child is seeing us. Confronting us. Staring at our very essence. We meet our eyes and we are seeing everything we are not. Art is standing straight, hieratically, as a mirror of ourselves. The baby is demanding us: “would you let me exist?” Or is it an illusion constructed by art? After all, it was the camera that went into the monolith, not Men. Kubrick presents the ideas but never concludes them. But we are left to wonder: what has happened —given that Man couldn’t get to the monolyte— to warranty the mere existence of the übermensch? What have we done to overcome ourselves? The man of the future may be born, or may be not. It is up to present-day man —and yes, that means us. It is our journey should we dare to take it. That is, if we can say so, the legacy beyond the symphony for the eyes. There is no such thing as “the starchild is born” as if Kubrick as a puppeteer had commanded such an act to happen. The starchild is not born by inertia.

We could, however, still hold 2001 as a mere experiment with images, and it would succeed as such. Because what is important here is that film cannot be the topic of usual semiotics; film is, before everything else, representation —thus its emotional impact. Semiotics come post factum as reinterpretation of the representation which affected us in the first place. That is why a truly cinematographic piece of art has to be pure in its aesthetic representation, otherwise it feels pale and shy. A shy emulation of literary semiotics, a pale impression of cinematographic possibilities.


  1. Of note (from Wikipedia): In an article in the New York Times, Kubrick gave credence to interpretations of 2001 based on Zarathustra when he said: “Man is the missing link between primitive apes and civilised human beings. Man is really in a very unstable condition.”