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Martin LeFevre: Homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey”

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

Homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey”

There’s a lot of interest in human origins these days. A new, permanent exhibition, featuring more than 200 casts of prehuman and human fossils, just opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The exhibition addresses three fundamental questions, according to the museum’s president: Where did we come from? Who are we? And what lies ahead for us?

On the same day I came across the article about the opening of the exhibition, I happened upon the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Arthur Clark’s story and Kubrick’s classic movie address the same three questions, and were the inspiration, when it debuted in 1968, for my philosophical work in ‘theories of human nature.’

The movie opens with a large, black monolith surrounded by a group of apes. They are displaying innate curiosity, cautiously inspecting and touching the strange object. The monolith remains in the apes’ midst until the right moment, symbolized by the alignment of the sun and moon. Then it silently triggers a momentous insight in one of the apes.

To the soaring notes of Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” our proto-human ancestor pauses amidst a field of animal bones, and has the ‘aha’ moment of all moments. He picks up a thighbone and begins smashing skulls with it, first a fleshless skull amidst the field of bones, then the living animal (signifying the beginning of hunting), and finally, the skull of a rival group member (signifying the beginning of war).

The weapon is tossed into the air, and morphs (in 1960’s technology) into the graceful arc of a rectangular space station millions of years later, famously set to the Blue Danube Waltz. As this and other technological marvels soar through space, the message is clear: all our vaunted technology sprang from that first insight and lethal tool.

“2001” unfolds as a montage of evolutionary culmination and human alienation. The monolith appears again on the moon millions of years later, buried, with perfect placement and timing, to be discovered by the distant descendents of the skull-smashing ape. The mysterious object emits another signal, this one painfully audible, which directs the humans of our time to a point near Jupiter.

A grand mission is undertaken, but HAL, the superhuman computer brain in charge of all functions on the spaceship, goes haywire, and an epic confrontation between man and machine ensues. Once that test is passed, the surviving human completes the journey alone, his hibernating and ambulatory compatriots having been snuffed out by HAL.

Near the end of “2001” there is a wonderful riff on time, with past and future converging in the present and telescoping into each other. The sole remaining astronaut, having been transported into another dimension (the psychedelic scenes for which the movie is famous), first sees himself as an old man, looking back at the young man. Suddenly he is the old man, seeing himself on his deathbed. Then he is on his deathbed, and there is a breakthrough. A new human being is born, floating in space next to the earth, its amniotic sac having a larger circumference than the earth itself.

With a stroke of artistic genius, Kubrick, perhaps unintentionally, conveys in these scenes something of the essence of the meditative state, compressing time into an infinite regression that leads to a breakthrough into a higher order of being.

“2001” provides one answer to all three questions posed at the beginning of this column. For a boy of 16, imagination fired by the early NASA missions, and philosophical questions with friends, the film took me to another level and launched my philosophical vocation.

The essential flaw in the book and film, and my point of departure with it as a young man prone to non-drug-induced ‘mystical experiences,’ is the positing of an outside force prompting human evolution at critical junctures. That smacks of divine intervention.

There is no outside force; the mystery is much greater and deeper. But “2001’s” portrayal of the crisis of humankind’s alienation from nature and ourselves is penetrating and prophetic.

The film is correct in another way—there is indeed another stage of human evolution. Increasingly urgent, as well as available to the ordinary person, some are experiencing but few understand it.

************

- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: martinlefevre@sbcglobal.net. The author welcomes comments.

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