Three Perspectives of a Film

Excerpted from SF: The Other Side of Realism, Thomas D. Clareson, Editor
(Bowling Green University/Popular Press), pp. 263-271
Copyright ©1971, All Rights Reserved

2001: Odyssey to Byzantium

by Morris Beja

From the journal Extrapolation 10 (December 1968), pp. 67-68

Most of the commentary on Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, has concentrated on the second half of the title, and consequently on the way in which astronaut Dave Bowman's journey takes him to the infinite -- from here to there. But the film presents us, as its full title indicates, with a journey which is temporal as well as spatial. The first half of the title -- and the part given most stress by the graphics associated with the film -- emphasizes the temporal nature of Bowman's odyssey, and consequently the way it takes him to the eternal -- from now to then.

Indeed, the choice of date strikes me as one of the most intriguing things about the movie. With its connotations of a new start (...0001) built on past millennia (2000...), it recalls many theories of the cyclical nature of universal history. For me, it has been illuminating in particular to consider this element of the film against the background of William Butler Yeats' stress on 2,000 year cycles, at the end of which we have a birth and a take-over by a new god. Any student of Yeats, certainly, is not going to pass lightly over the crucial significance of the year 2001, of all possible dates. It seems especially enlightening to compare what Kubrick and Clarke are attempting in 2001 with what Yeats is attempting in such a poem as "Sailing to Byzantium."

I need hardly mention that my point is not that Kubrick, say, necessarily knows Yeats' poem, or that Yeats composed it after a vision-preview of the movie in 1926. Rather, the approach and goals of the two visionary and metaphysical works seem to me strikingly similar and mutually illuminating.

In "Sailing to Byzantium," of course, Yeats is concerned with what faces each individual soul as it tries to turn from our sensual and physical world -- "that country," as Yeats calls it -- to the next world, the world of the spirit and eternity, symbolized by the holy city of Byzantium. In his quest, he beseeches the aid of the "sages" in "God's holy fire," asking them to "come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre" -- that is, to leave their condition of eternity for the mid-realm of the gyre, so that they may teach him how to be gathered "into the artifice of eternity."

The key to apprehending 2001 is the initial realization that -- in this film about what is past, or passing, or to come -- when Dave Bowman goes on his odyssey to outer (and inner) space, he is on precisely the same sort of journey that Yeats is making when he sails to Byzantium; only in Bowman's case it cannot be called a conscious quest as such, since initially he is not aware of the full significance of his "mission." But we are: we have been clued in by the appearance of the artifice of eternity -- the monolith of the opening sections of the film. By the time we see Dave on his unwitting quest for it, we realize that it has awaited him, patiently, three or four million years, a monument of unaging intellect.

Unfortunately, Dave encounters obstacles on his pilgrimage: the most formidable is that monument of its own magnificence, Hal, the computer. But our pilgrim triumphs over that obstacle and finally goes through to, as the words on the screen inform us, "Jupiter -- and Beyond -- the Infinite." Clearly, when you go to the Infinite, what you are doing is, in Yeats' terms, going out of nature. And once out of nature, Dave goes through a prolonged and intense psychedelic experience, in order to be taken out of our world into the other. In Clarke's novel based on the film, we are told that Dave is here going through "some kind of cosmic switching device, routing the traffic of the stars through unimaginable dimensions of space and time." The movie itself exposes us to varied and extreme visual and aural phenomena, designed to make it perfectly clear to any observer that what Dave is doing is perning in a gyre -- and finally coming through God's holy fire.

By the time the extraterrestrial sages get him through, he is an aged man, and we are presented with the most perplexing sequence in this challenging film. We encounter Dave, in a French Provincial room, considerably aged since we last saw him. Moreover, he is not getting any younger, so pretty soon we see him as a tattered coat upon a stick, a mere paltry thing, a dying animal. But we must realize that that does not matter -- that, indeed, his soul should clap its hand and sing, and louder sing for every tatter in his mortal dress. For Dave is to have his bodily form changed -- and he is no more likely than Yeats to have it transformed into any natural thing.

He has been gathered into eternity, and that is no country for old men. So his bodily form is changed into that of a child. But a god-child: the new god coming in the magnus annus, the Great Year 2001 -- the beginning of the new 2000 year cycle. Or, at least, he is a supernatural, anti-natural child: what the sequel to Yeats' poem "Byzantium" will hail as "the superhuman."

1001 Interpretations of 2001

by Robert Plank

From the journal Extrapolation 11 (December 1969), pp. 23-24

The glory that was Greece reached its pinnacle in marble, so when you want to see it at its most glorious, you go to the Louvre, for the Venus di Milo and the Victory of Samothrace. And what do you see? Venus has no arms, Victory has no head.

The viewer has to complete the figure, and if your imagination is what it should be, you may produce something finer in your mind than any sculptor could have chiseled into stone. Absolute perfection is not within human reach; being imperfect, these statues are perfect.

They were not, of course, so designed: their fate perfected them. Few artists are as lucky as to have head or hands knocked off their works in just the right way. They have to leave room for imaginative completion intentionally. They have to build ambiguity into their design.

Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium" and the Clarke/Kubrick film2001: A Space Odyssey are such works. Professor Beja has shown us their kinship in a lithe and lean paper in the last issue of this journal. His reasoning is as enchanting as it is convincing on internal evidence. That he sought to underpin it with something like a numerological proof was gratuitous.

Similar lines of thought could undoubtedly be spun from any date that Kubrick and Clarke might have chosen. To interpret the date 2001 differently is equally easy. It being but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous, let me demonstrate how simple a step it is:

Factorize the date. You get this equation: 2001 = 3 x 23 x 29. If you don't believe this to be a true equation, recompute it: if you can't, ask your friendly neighborhood computer. Now the significance of the three prime factors:

Three has been a sacred number for so long that nobody remembers or cares any more, how it got that way. 23 = 12 +11, the number of the apostles plus the number of the apostles who remained faithful. 29 is a number of such awesome sacred secret power that even the numerologists don't know.

If you like the search for the meaning of God better than the search for the meaning of numbers, here is another tack: in Citadelle, Antoine de Saint-Exupery relates a (perhaps fictitious) dream:

...Obstine, je montais vers Dieu pour lui demander la raison des choses...Mais au sommet de la montagne je ne decouvris qu'un bloc pesant de granit noir-lequel etait Dieu...Seigneur, lui dis-je, instruisez-moi...Mais le bloc de granit ruisselant d'une pluie luisante me demeurait impenetrable...

Undaunted, I climbed toward God, to ask him the reason of things...But on the summit of the mountain all I found was a heavy block of black granite -- which was God...Lord, I said, teach me...but the block of granite, dripping with a luminous rain, remained, for me, impenetrable...

Citadelle was published (in French) in 1948, four years after its author was lost in action. Clarke's short story The Sentinel -- the gem of 2001 -- was copyrighted in 1951. It is not impossible that Clarke could have known Citadelle, but -- as Beja has shown -- it does not matter. The kinship is strikingly there. Does it follow that the slab in 2001 is God, and that this is the explanation of the film?

Where a work of art has the requisite ambiguity, it is almost easier to interpret it than not to interpret it. These interpretations proliferate. If one of them is as good as the other, shouldn?t we wonder whether any of them is any good?

The problem how to validate our interpretations is so vast and difficult that it would be presumptuous of me even to suggest any solutions: but I do think it is time that we seriously address ourselves to it.

The Academic Overkill of 2001

by Alex Eistenstein

While Morris Beja's general interpretation and conclusions are hardly arguable, his methods of arriving at them, and the actual relevance of the Yeats poem are highly questionable. "Any student of Yeats," says Beja, " not going to pass lightly over the crucial significance of the year 2001, of all possible dates." The "crucial significance" of 2001 is that it has long been one of several traditional dates (1999 and 2000 are others) favored by sf writers dealing with the semi-distant future. And more important than "Yeats' stress on 2000 year cycles" is the significance attached to the termination of any millennium by the multifarious prophets preceding the temporal juncture. Yeats is hardly the first mystic to predict the arrival of a god (or the end of the finite world) at the onset of a new (or the culmination of an old) millennium.

Beja disclaims all intentions of demonstrating some clear-cut literary influence of this esoteric poet on either Kubrick or Clarke, yet he insists that the "key to...2001 is...that...Bowman goes on...precisely the same sort of journey" as that described by Yeats in "Sailing to Byzantium." It is an odd key indeed that manifests a perfect fit through coindence only. Yet...

Beja fails to establish that the two "metaphysical works" in question are "strikingly similar and mutually illuminating"; they are no more so than most randomly-matched pairs of millennial forebodings (mystic or otherwise). (Plank politely hints as much in the last lines of his own brief rejoinder in the following issue.) That Dave's hypercosmic journey equals "perning in a gyre -- and finally coming through God's holy fire," apropos of Yeats, is far from being "perfectly clear to any observer," if only because the poet's terminology, via Beja, does not correspond at all with the imagery, either metaphysical or literal, in this final portion of the film.

In his two encounters with specifics of the film itself (aside from the title), Beja errs twice. The first error is relatively minor and the result of an excusable ignorance of art history: the furnishings of the green bedroom are not French Provincial, but mostly Louis Seize, the outstanding exception to the period style being the modern, unadorned king-size bed upon which Bowman gasps his last.

Beja's second error of observation is more fundamental, but he compounds it with a very convenient misapprehension -- and, thereby, spuriously rectifies his ultimate conclusion. In his analysis, the last sub-title reads, "Jupiter -- and Beyond -- the Infinite"; in other words, what lies beyond Jupiter, for Dave, is the Infinite. Sound reasonable? Yes, but it isn't really, for the sub-title actually reads, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite." (My italics). There are great, glowing magnitudes of difference between these two captions! Nevertheless, Beja surmises that Bowman travels "out of our world [and] into the other" -- i.e., outside the normal confines of our Universe and its Space/Time Continuum; beyond the usual matrix of matter and energy, into another plane of existence. His basic assumption is that "Clearly, when you go to the Infinite, what you are doing is, in Yeats' terms, going out of nature." Well, I cannot speak for Yeats, but in terms of present cosmological theory, one needn't necessarily search for Infinity outside the Universe; Infinity may be right at home, so to speak, as a function of the space/time we ordinarily experience. (Another theory describes the possibility of a finite Continuum, but most sf stories equate the dimensions of Time and Space with Infinity). Obviously, however, to go "beyond the Infinite" would definitely require transcendence of the normal physical framework; and thus Beja derives the correct conclusion from faulty observation and assumption.

Some of Robert Plank's interpretive suggestions would be intolerable, were they not offered in an effort to ridicule all such extraneous interpretation. His introductory remarks involving aesthetics must displease the sincere artist. If the viewer of Venus di Milo may truly imagine more beautiful limbs than those it originally possessed, a probable explanation is that ideals of feminine loveliness have changed somewhat since 150 B.C. (Or perhaps that the Venus is not a particularly enchanting example of Hellenistic sculpture). Although the greatest present appeal of the Nike lies in her enveloping drapery, which describes in stone the exciting, turbulent flow of wind about her figure, no historian or critic of art, nor any real artist, would suggest the foul notion that this statue was less a work of art before being damaged. To contend that accidents of deletion perfected the Victory denies the competence (and evident genius) of the artist who designed and created her; such a thought is the expression of an absolute philistine -- the iconoclasm of Dada and Surrealism notwithstanding. I categorically reject Plank's assertion that any viewer with an adequate power of imagination "may produce something finer" in his mind "than any sculptor could have chiseled in stone." Being a graphic artist myself, I know something of the problems and process involved in such creation; rest assured that even a well-developed imagination is more slippery and insubstantial than Plank would have it. The question of the relative merits of the actual head of Nike nand that imagined by Plank is, of course, absurdly moot: the original cannot be recovered, and Plank, I presume, cannot show us his version.

The permissible extent of intentional ambiguity -- the whole point of Plank's facetiousness regarding Classical statuary -- is a highly subjective area of debate, as witness Joanna Russ's seemingly opposite view.[1] Where must specific and literal exposition and description necessarily end? This self-query applies especially in the realm of sf writing: in a short story there is often not room to explain in detail all aspects of the author's marvelous inventions. Occasionally, apt naming must suffice. Nevertheless, I am not positive that Plank's acceptable ambiguity is consonant with mine.

The similarities between de Saint-Exupery's Citadelle and Clarke's "The Sentinel" are interesting, but the correspondence is too slight for Citadelle to be relevant to the later story. The Sentinel, after all, is a translucent pyramid, and even the titles are closer in sound than in meaning. The black monoliths of the film are not so much symbols of specific content as agents of specific involvement, and they suggest many more entities of myth than they represent. As Richard Hodgens, for one, has observed, "This is art, not allegory."[2]

After demonstrating that Clarke could have read Citadelle before writing "The Sentinel," Plank offers the contingent, theoretical question, "Does it follow that the slab in 2001 is God?" Because he never establishes any probability that Clarke knew Citadelle, and even dismisses the importance of such prior knowledge, the obvious answer is, "No, of course it does not follow -- not from the story Citadelle." Nor does it necessarily follow, from any source, that only one slab exists -- a pet notion of the literati. Whether or not the first monolith (or its later manifestations/cousins) is God depends almost entirely on how the Deity is defined. In a certain functional sense, the monolith acts as "God": it seems to strike the first spark of higher intelligence that separates Man from Beast; thus the Monolith may be said to "create" Man. And a literally vital idea is triggered (or imparted) by the monolith; the latter, therefore, is also saviour.

Of course, the monoliths are really minions of a collective High Power, one that apparently embodies both the omnipotence and omniscience ascribed to God in the modern Judeo-Christian conception. Yet neither the slabs nor the Master Intelligence are implicated in the Origin of the Universe when the Supreme Power displays the process to Bowman, during the so-called "psychedelic trip." The Creation is presented in two brief, successive shots: the first is often mistaken for a globular star-cluster hurtling at the viewer; the other is commonly interpreted, less understandably, as a spiral galaxy. Actually, these shots comprise a concise visualization of the "Big Bang" theory: the first illustrates the explosive disruption of the primal "cosmic egg" into myriad, glowing spherules; the other depicts the random whorls of proto-galaxies coalescing within a vast, amoeboid nebula (a later stage, presumably, of one of the incadescent ejecta in the first scene).

So God-the-Primogenitor is not a part of the fictional scheme of 2001 -- though all devout Christians would surely belabor the significance of the Cross over Jupiter and the many trinities scattered throughout the film. They would discount, of course, the possibility that those signs are included expressly to elicit such reflexive inferences (and to curry the favor of the Church -- not the only group Kubrick attempts to placate with the multiplex freight carried by the film's imagery and story-line. But that's another story in itself).


[1] Joanna Russ, "Dream Literature and Science Fiction,"
Extrapolation 11 (December,1969), 6-14.

[2] Richard Hodgens, "Notes on 2001: A Space Odyssey," Trumpet #9 (1969), p. 37.