A Mimetic Reading of Stanley Kubrick’s Film, “2001, A Space Odyssey”

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The following reading of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is re-published by permission from its author, “Dean,” who submitted it recently for the enjoyment of bloggers on the Reflections on Faith and Culture site. Dean views the film’s story through the lens of René Girard’s mimetic theory.

In the famous Dawn of Man sequence an ape overcomes his fear and touches the monolith, which has suddenly appeared during the night, a sentinel planted by some unseen and vast intelligence. There is a sense of numinous awe in the film, as the mysterious black basaltic slab appears over and over again throughout the movie. This is the divine agency of the film–the burning bush. The ape in the initial scene then turns bones into tools. He learns how to use his new “tool” as a murder weapon against a rival tribe of apes, and although that was not the intention of the caretakers who imparted the knowledge, the rival apes at the business end of a jagged thigh bone may have thought differently.

A klaxon is sounded, as the sentinel telegraphs its message to the stars signaling the changed status of the apes.  From that point on, the monolith patiently stands as a silent beacon, through aeons of time, in different locations, awaiting the next visitation in the distant future when it will impart a new chapter of knowledge further along the evolutionary path as the unseen caretakers surveil our progress from behind the scenes. The tree in Genesis as well as the cross at Calvary and the Monolith in Space Odyssey are essentially the same: preparations for participation in a grand mystery. But the agency behind that mystery remains unseen, or seen only through a glass darkly, which is the central tension both of the film and of our lives. Each discovery emboldens us to go another step further on our personal and collective odyssey.

As we attempt to move away from our own violent beginnings, we find ourselves returning to them over and over again, which I also suspect was not the intention of our benefactors (if we have any) but the beacon trip wire in anthropological history that signals the next step. In Girardian terms, when the distinctions and boundaries that define culture begin to collapse, the most painful dilemma in that deconstruction is the undermining of the primitive sacred with its cohering mythology of fear and divine justice. The ape overcomes his fear; we do too.  There is an initial sense of relief as the last vestiges of that fear become sufficiently muted to thwart its continuance, and then a subsequent despair as increasingly violent and chaotic challenges to its eroding sense of authenticity are accelerated proportionate to the lack of any discernible resistance from it. People are both pleased that an angry, wrath-laden deity does not exist, but sufficiently enraged at the same time to act as surrogates for the vengeance they believe it would unleash if only it could see what we are doing to ourselves. 

If there is an apocalyptic process or some kind of evolutionary momentum at work, it seems, if I understand it at all, that we are at this stage: We have dispensed with an angry God by creating a scenario in which he would seem to be welcomed; and dismissed the possibility of a loving one who could be perceived as audacious or apathetic enough to conspire in the revelation of his love through such a painful, violent and lengthy process.  A process in which he gives us such apparently complete control over the ultimate, and by no means, optimistically assured, outcome.  In other words, it’s a long way from bone tools to Europa and Jupiter.  Whether Hal chooses to close the pod bay doors on us is anyone’s guess.

Apocalyptic events are neither new, nor perpetually genial if they go unrecognized long enough.  Was the new world Noah helped to create any different in its fallen nature than the one it supplanted?  Jesus pointed to the Noah story as a prototype of the last days.  If Jesus is truly the “lamb of God” shouldn’t he stop pulling the “wool” over our eyes by lending his status and corroboration to a myth that uses violent metaphors as a way of ingratiating us to a “loving” God?  What does this say about Jesus?  What does this say about God?  What does this say about us?!

Lot is another example of a potential victim surviving the culture that would victimize him.  How is that survival to be interpreted, unless it’s at the hand of divine justice?  Again, we have Jesus corroborating it.  If the event described is a mythologized or sacralized account of what actually transpired, it seems that very little of the entire text of the Bible is to be trusted as anything more than a eulogy to the warped religious impulses and sentiments of a perpetually cruel people and the God who they believe inspires them.

Then we have Gideon—a true example of the outsider, who becomes the custodian of mimetic violence against 135,000 Medianites, and dethrones the cult in the “old fashioned” way, with the help of a God who we are told now despises violence?  If these are mythologized texts, what value can they impart to true experience, if our willingness to be moved by them is compromised by the knowledge that they never happened, and therefore cannot happen again?  (I would be relieved to know that they never happened, but then I would be suspicious about the revelatory character of a book that uses as object lessons stories that have no apparent value or relation to the thing they’re trying to convey).  Is this the way God teaches us to love?  By telling us stories that are filled with violence?  Has it worked?  Can He be strong enough to save us, if He’s unable to deliver an uncorrupted message to us?  Why is there any violence in His message at all?  Are we supposed to be shocked into a renewed sensibility by a candid and tedious display of what we already know about ourselves?  Unfortunately, I don’t know.  I’m just an ape at a watering hole with a bone in my hand.  Should I use it as a weapon or a tool?

Before the concept of eternal life was embraced as a religious creed, only grudging and protesting victims were accorded divinized immortality through the transcendentalizing of mimetic contagion and violence.  Yet living on in the memory of those who murder you seems a pitifully cheap legacy which is hardly worthy of comparison with what people long for when they speak of the power of the resurrection.  People turn to Christ primarily because he promises eternal life, not because he possesses a precocious anthropological sensibility. When men become gods, they live only until replaced by other “gods” who are like them; when God becomes man and dies at men’s hands, men live forever through the one they killed.  But the nagging question remains, is this just symbolic speech, invoked to reveal a merely anthropological insight, or is it more?  In light of these ideas, is the good news of the gospel anthropological, metaphysical or both?  And how are they reconcilable?

 If the socio-anthropological reading of scripture is true, then the mystical and metaphysical reading is certainly at odds with it.  Gone is the Jesus who performs real miracles: walking on water, raising the dead, healing the sick and feeding the multitudes.  In its place is a savvy anthropological spiritual genius who diverts scapegoating rituals, reconciles rivalistic combatants and scolds the duplicity and obfuscation inherent in the machinery of victimization. The sick are healed, not because they’re cured of their physical infirmities, but because they’re awakened to their calumny and personal participation in a myth; the multitudes are fed, not because the loaves have been increased, but because their dietary scrutiny has been blunted sufficiently to allow them to share a meal without killing each other; and the dead “rise” not because they are restored to life,  but because everyone recognizes their personal culpability in murdering them in the first place.  To “arise” then, is to awaken to a new revelation, but the revelation is grudgingly sparse in its talk of a literal resurrection of the body, which is Paul’s defining proof for faith, and which he further proclaims is meaningless and foolish without it. Of course, Paul also expected the return of Jesus in his own lifetime, and shaped the urgency (and I would guess the proscriptions) of his letters around that fact.  I wonder what he would have said in those same letters if he knew they would be read 2,000 years into the future?

Gone is the God of anger and wrath who takes vengeance on an uncaring world, to be replaced by a people of anger and wrath who take vengeance on each other in the name of an uncaring God.  Gone is the promise of Heaven and eternal life and the hope that makes life endurable; to be replaced with the rice paper eschatology of scrupulous avoidance and the careful manipulation of mimetic desire as we wend our torturous way to an earthly heaven. In fact, seen in this light, Girardian theory poses the threat of becoming a kind of Christian McCarthyism.  I can see it being used as a litmus for interpreting, defining and adjudicating every suspicion about human nature. It runs the risk of becoming like a Möbius strip, twisted and tied at both ends, and feeding on itself in a hermetic ritual. The measuring process becomes a kind of Heisenburg quantum entanglement on the anthropological level. There is no point of observational distance and imagined immunity and knowledge if you live in a community with other human beings.Trying to reduce every function of human existence to a theory, no matter how prescient and elegant it may be, does not render life solvable in any meaningful way or remove the observer from participation. All these tools for examining life becomes just another method for collapsing the wave function, without bringing us closer to anything that could be called the truth. Diagnosis is not cure.

I don’t know if the gentleman from Avignon [René Girard] believes in a personal resurrection or not, although I know he’s a Christian.  I’m certainly not trying to misrepresent him in any way.  These are my own insights based on what I’ve read both by him and about him.  I’m sorry to say that his anthropological ideas shed very little light on my personal struggles with faith, and I think they would have by now if they were going to. 

How do I wrestle God and Jesus from the clutches of the Bible?  For me, belief in God is my way of saying I bow in reverence before the mystery of the universe. A universe that it is not “solvable” or “reasonable” in any terms that will finally result in our comprehending it in some meaningful and satisfying way as though it were a destination that we had finally reached.  It is a mystery, because like God, we cannot touch it.  But as a Christian, I believe that God can touch us, and by so doing confer on all our questions and doubts the reasonable expectation of some meaning in the silence that reaches the restless din of our own souls and proclaims by the power of love that we are not alone. All I have to do is look into the eyes of people who love me to be assured of that.

I’ll close with words which I think would be great if anyone ever does a cryogenic commercial for Nobel Laureate sperm donors:  “Many are called, but few are frozen”.


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One Response to “A Mimetic Reading of Stanley Kubrick’s Film, “2001, A Space Odyssey””

  1. Dean Hansen Says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Iniekcja. Yours is the best advice possible, and I will continue to follow my heart while keeping a close eye on the hearts of those I’ve loved and who continue to influence me.

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