2001 in 200l:

Being and Nothingness Revisited

If biologists, poets and historians are right, consciousness and cosmos have no beginning and no end. Ontogeny is said to recapitulate phylogeny: in the division of a cell we see the origins and progress of a species. In 1969, I took in three things on TV: an escalating war in Southeast Asia, an Apollo moonwalk, and Kubrick’s 200l: A Space Odyssey. I was twelve; in social studies I tried to fathom a phrase like does the end justify the means? while other seventh graders were kissing and petting and losing their minds to various cultural Newspeaks. To me the universe was still a lright-handed pitcher for the World Series St. Louis Cardinals (Bob Gibson), Black Like Me, and a greatly-abridged The Second Sex.  We hadn’t paid attention to the riots in Watts; Janis Joplin was still alive; we weren’t yet reading Hegel, but I did hear Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and I was moved.

The odyssey makes silence verbal: the dawn of Man was Cain’s jawbone homicide: with it came curiosity. In the film, we peer from behind the Sirens’ rocks, and find that sapience birthed genius and evil, and later art, caretaker love, the ability to listen gracefully. A Heuristic-Algorithmic microprocessor, surrogate mom to IBM and Microsoft, lip-reads, sings lullabies, forgets things, and kills to cover when he errs. Listless, drifting cosmonauts in praying mantis spacesuits, women ligatured in suspended animation, all dream-producing monsters. Muffled sound of breathing, Poe’s telltale heart, our own shallow gasps. From a uterine ship, untethered, we dangle and drift umbilically. The pulsing, binary birth of a star, a black milk galaxy, a sea of amniotic fluid. We strive to hear ourselves breathe, above the fray of politics and nightmare shopping. This inspiration is our gift; Kubrick’s was to flood its feeling onto the wide, deep screen.

The question was and is: what have we learned through cloning, palm pilots, and the Internet? 1984 whizzed by with no Big Brother to speak of. Rockets still scuttle over Serbia. On a day when Palestinians are shot beside the Temple Mount, Liberia’s streets are restive, a space shuttle lifts from Kazakhstan, hermaphrodite polar bears are poisoned with PCPs, and two nearly-indistinguishable national cartoon Presidential candidates duke it out, we live for the magnetic pull towards the unknown, unfelt, unsaid, unseen.  It twitches our privates; it masters our conviction to make a better world. In space, Panam, Hilton, the BBC should be everlasting: Baltic underwater research is prophetic of our own Kursk tragedy. What Kubrick sang was timeless: the sneer of Ramepithecus, magenta go-go seats, Op-Art, antigravity pens, the psychotropic birth canal of parallaxed, desert wastelands--images spawning a map of the unconscious.

The last act in the poor play of the life of a human being, for Shakespeare, was mere oblivion:  sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything. Not so for us. My daughter will be twelve next month when we trip to the Providence IMAX Theater to see this film. She’s on the Triplett Student Council; she’s counseled me to vote for Nader’s Greens.  I know that the shock of recognition she’ll receive, when the bone goes up and the mission ship to Jupiter floats forever on is reason enough to believe in regress and progress in flux, in seeing the life of a girl as the whorl of a species carrying on. For her, for kids of the 21st century, with their eyes wide open to sounds and sights, the breathing of old age into new life will be reason enough for this film to be valued for another hundred years. For between the Picta-phone and a bush baby lies the terminus, the genetic code of the XML of the new millennium.