Death as Knowledge

by Kevin Crisp

Fear of Death

The most important question of 2001 has to be the significance of the monolith. It's apparent purpose, according to co-scenarist Clarke, is that it represents technological perfection, or perhaps the origins of knowledge.

This is true regarding the silent narrative of the story, but the monolith is a deeper metaphor pointing at the origins of human creativity. The monolith does not only represent technology, but also the orgins of our need/desire to become tool creators and users. As Claudia Zimny points out, the obstacle which mankind faces in the beginning of the our evolutionary journey is the problem of scarcity. Material scarcity is of course a condition of all living species. Even in ecosystems of super-abundance, there is still competition for food, teritory and mates for procreation.

For every species, instinct plays the dominant role in motivating and organizing behavior. When instinct fails to change through natural selection, or the species fails to learn -- when a species' traits become less conducive to a changing environment -- the species is threatened with extinction. Simple scarcity is not enough to compel any species to consciously transform or revolutionize their behavior. For the most part, animals follow their genetic programming.

The opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey presents us with a stark representation of an environment which seems to contain too few resources for hominid survival. There are two bands of apes along with some (tapirs?) other vegetarian mammals struggling to survive by eating insects and scarcely nutritive shrubs. Actually, the tapirs don't appear to have trouble with living off of the present vegetation. For the apes, the future looks very bleak until an event sets them on a new evolutionary course. Perhaps S.J. Gould would desribe this scene as a extremely dramatic representation of one of evolution's "punctuations". A black door-like monolith appears amidst the ape-tribe. Obviously for the viewer of the film, something momentous is implied.

An individual ape soon discovers after his encounter with the monolith, that by picking up a bone and swinging it, he could wield a great deal of physical power. In the film, the bone is used as a club to crush the skull of a dead mammal's skeleton. Very quickly, the other members of the group learn the use of this first piece of technology. What is the reason for this radical change in early hominid behavior? Kubrick is arguing that it cannot have been merely accidental. The monolith is obviously the catalyst, but what is it and why did it lead to such an innovative and violent outcome?

The monolith is normally interpreted to be a form of alien technology, or a representation knowledge itself. Yet it is a seemingly useless object with rigid external barriers and wholy black. It also gives no instructions and contains no items of primitive communication. Two things about the monolith suggest to me it's symbolic role. First, the fact that as a monoltih, it sure looks very much like a doorway. This resemblence may have been accidental but the events throughout the rest of the film suggest the plausibility of this idea. A doorway to what? Second, the monolith, while mysterious in its form, has caused the aforementioned transformation in the apes. The following sequence of events informs the viewer that this invention will provide two objects of immediate value in an environment of scarcity: the ability to kill animals and the ability to kill competitors (wage war).

The monolith appears to be a speculation on what caused apes to proactively take control of their destiny -- their survival. Put differently, the monolith's broadest symbolic meaning is as a representation of eventual extinction. The rise of technological knowledge and learning is only the effect of man's encounter with the monolith. The monolith is the doorway to the abyss: Death Man became death conscious prior to becoming "tool-user" or "rational animal".

Philosophers, theologians and anthropologists all recognize the fundamental role that awareness of death plays for human beings. In Plato's Socratic Dialogues, a constant underlying theme of the discussions of virtue and justice is the relationship between the individual and death.

In Crito, Socrates is fully aware of his destiny, being condemned to death by the citizens of Athens for corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of the city. Although his friend Crito exhorts Socrates to flee while he awaits his execution, Socrates resists this in the name of virtue, in this case virtue meaning loyalty to the city. What is most striking about Crito for first-time readers is that Socrates seems to accept his death when he himself is aware it is clearly unjust. Upon my first reading, I dropped the book into my lap and sat baffled as to why a man such as Socrates would accept his own death so unflinchingly. Whether in ancient Athens, Jerusalem or in todays metropolex, this kind of attitude toward death is perhaps virtuous and psychologically healthy. It is also an abberration. For the ape-tribe in 2001 it is an impossiblility. The question of course still remains, as asked by Socrates of Crito: Is life itself superior in rank to all other considerations? But there is another way to formulate the question: Is survival superior to being alive? More to the particulars of the film: does our technological fight against nature and death threaten the human condition? This is the question Kubrick addresses with 2001: A Space Odyssey.

After the encounter with the monolith the first moves toward a technological conquering of nature are taken in the form of artisanship.

The importance of the fear-of-death motif is never ignored in Kubricks' film, and is best highlighted by HAL's own newly discovered fear. In fact HAL's clearly superior intellect should suggest to us that the prime mover for all humans is not knowledge itself, but a self-conscious understanding of mortality. We shouldn't overlook the possibility that HAL's violent and proud response to the discovery of his malfunction (and apparent first step toward self-willed action) occurred because he was in the process of becoming self-conscious, death-conscious. Hal proceeded to make the first step toward humaness by making choices outside of his programming, outside the bounds of his instincts, just as the earliest of our species did in the beginning of the film. That HAL's actions were violent and driven by a a not-too-paranoid fear is testimony to HAL's becoming human.

Power and Ambition

The role of power as a mechanism to overcome mortality, and the different manifestations of the tools used for the securing of power in the film (highlighted throughout Zimny's paper) need further exploration. What use is power? Is it an end in itself or is it a description of means? For mortals, power is the apparent summum bonum because it can secure the means to survival and longevity. In a purely material sense, an increase in power can be identified by an increase in survivability. But when the immediate limitations of techonology are reached, men transform the desire to forestall physical death into a desire to transcend it: ambition. Again, we see that men do not accept death, regardless of its inevitability. For the ambitious, whether a person, or under the logic of systems in competition (bands of apes or nation-states), power is the means to glory and historical immortality. Often, the desire for greatness leads to what Hobbes called vain-glory. In 2001, one wonders if glory is even possible.

With 2001, it seems that Kubrick not only addresses the problem of fear of death, but also the obsolescence of previous mechanisms, including ambition, for living with this fear.

Claudia Zimny's insight into the meaning of the Louis-seize room might help to confirm my suspicions about 2001. Zimny argues that the 18th Century bedroom, which the astronaut Bowman appears in at the end of the film, suggests a reference to the French and American revolutions and the end of absolutism. The implication according to Zimny is that Bowman's transformation at the end of the film consists of a revolution in Bowman -- his (humanity's) break with technology. This is a marvellous observation on her part. There is something more to add to this description.

Monarchs are perhaps the defining human embodiment of every important era in Western history prior to modernity. In this sense the monarch represents, literally, the crown of civilization. Monarchy (ancient and medieval politics in general) left room for some to transcend death: Pericles, Napoleon, Elizabeth. They have a distinction which is at least a finger in the eye of the reaper. There have been other realms within which one could attain a taste of immortality, most importantly philosophy. Even here,as Nietzsche argues, the greatest ethicist and value-creator was a "king": Jesus Christ.

But ambition as a means to defeat the inevitability of death reached it's nadir with the end of Monarchy and the advent of bourgeois society. To warp Warhols's now trite observation -- 15 minutes of fame is no fame at all. Two centuries after the arrival of modern republicanism, and industrial capitalism, the individual has been ironically destroyed, not elevated. The reduction of man to utensil status began with the rise of mass organizations and thus, it is no longer individuals who achieve greatness, but corporations and nations. The viewer of 2001 knows more about the two political super-powers and the corporations depicted in the film than about the human players. No matter how powerful the decisions of men are in the modern world, they themselves are of little consequence.

What makes matters more perilous for the human project is that HAL's intellect, growing self-awareness and news-worthy fame suggests human systems will themselves be superceded if the path of our evolution is not altered. The rise of artificial intelligence suggests that on the course of advancing technology, it is machines that would become the new standard-bearers of the march to immortality which began with the swing of a bone. Given a multiplication of HALs, we can imagine a world where even invention itself is no longer the play-ground for human beings.

But that march has always been driven by one premise: that man must avoid death.

For the characters of 2001, this premise has lost its validity, and also its power to inspire the passionate desire needed for survival and/or greatness. As Zimny accurately observes, the characters are already in the process of losing their humanity -- dull, lifeless and subserviant to the technology that was originally their great emancipator.

During HAL's revolt, Bowman confronts again the spectre of extinction as the ape-hominids did in the beginning, but there is no technology ready-to-hand to change humankinds long-run predicament.

The use of the screwdriver is an indication of our need for short-run reliance upon the objects which have come to become our dominators. To turn against technology is only the start of a return to the beginning.

A New Confrontation with Death

Bowman's emancipation from Hal does not only signify a breach with technology, but leads to the final segment, the climax of the films meta-narrative. The significant actions here begin with Bowman penetrating the heretofore impenetrable monolith. When Bowman enters the Monolith, there is a process of radical transformation, both in Bowman's perceptions of the universe (stars are awesome for the first time perhaps in his life) and of himself. He sees himself in every state of his life-cycle, growing old and decrepit, but then again a baby. He comes to understand (as do we) that he is mortal but that the process of all cycles, including life is itself infinite. All that was will be again, over and over. (Although this thought can be as terrifying as it is reassuring.) The alusion here is to Nietzsche's doctrine "The Eternal Return of the Same" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. If life is an endless eternity, then escaping death is meaningless as a purpose. In fact, in living with escape as our only motivation we lose sight of what is possible for our selves and our species. Our inability to see the need to pass through death rather than turn and run from it is embodied not only in HAL but in the satellite seen earlier in the film which is a rotating wheel: Technology is already conforming to the cyclic rhythm of the universe better than we. (Although I also Like Zimny's interpretation of man spinning his wheels in stasis) Perhaps we are destined, with our persistent desire to escape the end of life, to lose the sense of being alive at all.

A New Beginning

The ending is of course vague, but this is true to any attempt to understand the depth of our crisis. Bowman is Kubrick's Overman, and like Nietzsche's version, his defining the more-than-human is only possible with abstractions or poetry.

For Bowman, death is somehow not burdensome anymore. He has passed through the impenetrable monolith -the thought of his own anihilation -- and found on this inner journey a renewal: he is a baby again, innocent, joyous and playful. That which allowed the species to become a creator, the fear of death, has been overcome, emancipating not only man but his creativity as well.

"Innocence is the child, and forgetfullness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea."

...From "The Three Metamorphoses" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

The new beginning will entail a rejection of our modern subservience to systems and technology. It seems unlikely the new project would involve the creation of a new religion -- at least not one which is other-worldly(e.g. Christianity). Man must forsake all heavens which are refuges from the perpetuation of life and death. Bowman's return to Earth is just that: a new beginning, and the new rules of the game, the new values, must somehow reconcile mankind with death.

Acknowledgement: I have always had these ideas rambling in my head since seeing 2001. Claudia Zimny's scholarly paper "2001 and the Motif of the Voyage" provides some of the most interesting insights into Kubrick's film I have read or heard. Because of this, I am indebted to her for her fine work.