“2001: a Space Odyssey” Defended

Still from “2001: a Space Odyssey.”

This article was written in response to FT’s editorial director Robert Shrimsley’s April the 6th opinion piece where he facetiously denigrated Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey as so much pretentious gobbledygook. In contrast, the writer of this article strongly feels that Kubrick’s renowned epic film can be effectively interpreted as a brilliant Gesamtkunstwerk (total piece of art) expressing deep conceptual themes rooted in German, Ancient Greek, and even Jewish philosophy and mysticism.

Famously, the movie begins with a musical reference to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra which proclaims the coming of the übermensch (higher man). This is the main theme of the whole movie. A synesthetic meditation on humanity’s ascent from beast, to murderous tool maker, and, then, to a next level sentience born of space exploration.

Accompanying and, indeed, igniting man on this epic journey is the mysterious monolith. I suggest that the inscrutable monolith is a symbol of humanity’s relationship to the ancient Stoic idea of logos. This is the idea that man is a reflection of universal reason materially at work in the cosmos and is thus guided by it. There is also a reflection of this thought in Jewish mysticism within the concepts of Chokhmah (an all encompassing wisdom that orders creation) and the tzaddik (holy man) who is the special historically contingent recipient of this wisdom.

This brings us to the main human character of the film: David Bowman. Almost immediately we are struck by the meaningfulness of his name. His first name, plausibly, is a clear reference to David and Goliath; the unlikely boy who fought the menacing giant and won. More importantly, though, is his last name which refers both to Nietzschean and Heraclitean philosophy (the two are closely linked).

The bow is a central trope for both philosophers. Heraclitus states in one of his famous fragments: The name of the bow is life but its work is death. What Heraclitus is expressing here is the tension of opposites which lead to new beginnings. The bow is a symbol of flux; the change that is ever ongoing for every entity in the universe. This perfectly encapsulates David Bowman’s fictional life trajectory. A man containing his opposite “higher man” which is realized only through his death and rebirth as a child.

Indeed, the image of the so called “Star Child” at the end of the film brings us full circle from the beginning which now once more references Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch as a kind of child ready to bring forth into the modern world new kinds of cognitive “play”. Thus, with man’s entry into deep space Kubrick is clearly stating that humanity has not only crossed a physical boundary but a spiritual even biological one. The outer expansion of the species will necessarily be met by an even deeper, inner one.

But what about the murderously paranoid AI, Hal, you say? Well a secondary theme of the movie is a rumination on intelligence; or reflections of the logos and the logos itself. What kind of intelligence did early man possess? What are the essential features of intelligence of modern day humans? What will ultimately define the intelligence of the “higher human”? What does it mean when our tools (computers) become sentient? Will our tools become like us, surpass us, seek to destroy us? And finally, does the cosmos itself possess a higher level of reason and active cognition? This last topic is a very 19th century German philosophical question addressed by the likes of not only Nietzsche, but Schopenhauer and Hegel, too.

Thus, it is my unqualified contention that in the twentieth century all these ideas and more were brilliantly put to celluloid in an amazing cinematic philosophical tone poem we call:  2001: a Space Odyssey.


Dan Corjescu teaches at the University of Tübingen’s TRACS program.