2001, Strauss, and Nietzsche
Note: spoilers ahead, if you haven’t seen 2001 – but if you haven’t, for heaven’s sake, go see it at once.
If I ask you to think about Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Chances are very good that the answer is Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, and for good reason. Kubrick’s use of the piece is dramatically and conceptually impeccable, and points us toward Nietzsche’s work as the key to understanding much of the film’s enigmatic richness.
When you recollect the tone poem, you most likely hear it’s unforgettable fanfare-like opening statement. These opening notes encode Strauss’s musical conception of the revelation brought down from the mountain to ordinary men by Nietzsche’s philosopher-hero, Zarathustra, who teaches of a creative life that pours forth from our own souls, and does not come to us from outside, or from the heavens.
Strauss’s theme consists a procession starting at C major and then ascending by the most consonant intervals in Western harmony, rising first by a perfect fifth, then a perfect fourth, then a major third followed quickly by a minor third. The whole psycho-acoustical mystery of Western harmony which has dazzled great minds with its implications of an intrinsic natural order since the time of Pythagoras is stated musically in those notes.
I suggest that Kubrick intended that structure to serve as a musical counterpart to the monolith of his film. Remember that the monolith is described as extending perfectly in proportion of 1 : 4 : 9.
Strauss’s music is paired most effectively with the appearance of monolith in the film. So what connects the central mysteries of Kubrick’s film with Nietzsche’s great work?
I suggest the primary answer is to be found in the section titled “Of the Three Transformations of the Spirit.” In this short chapter, Zarathustra tells his companions a parable of the three transformations of the spirit, by which individuals become capable of truly creative acts. First the spirit becomes a camel, then the camel becomes a lion, and then the lion becomes a child.
In the first transformation, the spirit kneels down like a camel asking to be laden down with a heavy burden, so that it can exult in its own strength. It takes upon itself all of the tasks that it deems most difficult and speeds off into the solitary desert.
In the desert the camel becomes a lion, whose task is to “utter a holy No” when it encounters the great monster opposing creative work: a golden dragon with the words “Thou Shalt” written on every scale. The dragon embodies a thousand years of social and moral law.
“All values have already been created, and all created values am I,” says the dragon. “Truly, there is no more ‘I will,’ to be spoken!”
The lion is up to the task. “Keep your laws,” it says (to paraphrase Nietzsche), “I have my own vision of life and of value, and if you don’t like it, you can stuff yourself.”
When the dragon lies dead at the lion’s feet, then comes the third transformation, whereby the lion becomes a child, capable of its own creation. What is this child?
“Innocence is the child, and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a wheel rolling out of itself, a first movement, a holy Yes-saying.
“Indeed, to play the game of creation, my brothers, requires a holy Yes.”
This is great stuff. I especially love this phrase aus sich rollendes Rad, a wheel turning out of its own center.
With respect to Kubrick’s film, I submit that it is divided into a prolog, followed by three primary movements. The prolog consists of pre-human anthropods doing their monkey business, until they stumble upon the monolith, that mysterious payload of transcendence, which either elicits or reflects their discovery of their human capacity to imagine and create.
Now human, they turn to their first creative task, building tools and weapons. This is the work of the camel, loosely associated with a lower order of creativity, and it lasts from the dawn of human history until our next encounter with the monolith, near Tycho Station on the moon.
Now we enter into the second phase of the film, aboard the big space camel speeding out into the solitary desert of outer space, driven by HAL 9000, the very embodiment of the law. A brilliant satirical statement by Kubrick, to depict the murderous inhumanity of human society as a computer. Joseph Campbell once observed that the god of computers is a lot like the god of the Old Testament – a lot of rules, and no mercy.
Our human explorers are in the hands of HAL, who is of two natures: paternal and mechanically-life-sustaining, but murderous when crossed. This is Kubrick’s conception of “Thou shalts,” and a similar concept of society may be seen in his other films such as A Clockwork Orange or Paths of Glory.
Incidentally, if you haven’t seen his lesser-known Paths of Glory, I emphatically recommend it – it’s truly one of my favorite films.
But I digress. David’s task in this second phase of the human journey is to slay the dragon, as it were, which he does (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do….”), and then pilots the ship on to its destination by his own initiative and resources.
So begins the third and final stage of the film, corresponding to the third transformation of the spirit. The Star Child that ends the film doesn’t seem quite so enigmatic now, does it?