Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 4th, 2018

The cosmic order

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

On April 2, 1968, the world premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey was held at the Uptown Theater, a movie palace in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Two days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, sparking riots throughout the country, including the nation’s capital. At first, this might seem like another reminder of how we unconsciously compartmentalize the past, filing events into separate categories, like the moon landing and the Manson killings, that actually unfolded in a confused present tense. Three years ago, the artist Edgar Arceneaux released an experimental film, A Time to Break Silence, that tried to go deeper, explaining in an interview:

Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and Dr. King were formulating their ideas about the duality of technology, which can be used as both a weapon and tool, during the same time period. As the psychic trauma of Dr. King’s death had the nation in a raw state of anger and uncertainty, a film chronicling the genealogy of humanity’s troubled future with technology is released in theaters.

More often, however, we tend to picture the political upheavals of the sixties as moving along a separate track from the decade’s scientific and technological achievements. In his book on the making of 2001, the journalist Piers Bizony writes of its visual effects team: “The optimism of Kubrick’s technologists seemed unquenchable. Perhaps, like their counterparts at Cape Kennedy, they were just too busy in their intense and closed-off little world to notice Vietnam, Martin Luther King, LSD, the counterculture?”

But that isn’t really true. John W. Campbell liked to remind his authors: “The future doesn’t happen one at a time.” And neither does the past or the present. We find, for instance, that King himself—who was a man who thought about everything—spoke and wrote repeatedly about the space program. At first, like many others, he saw it through the lens of national security, saying in a speech on February 2, 1959: “In a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death though the stratosphere, nobody can win a war.” Yet it remained on his mind, and images of space began to appear more often in his public statements over the following year. A few months later, in a sermon titled “Unfulfilled Hopes,” he said:

We look out at the stars; we find ourselves saying that these stars shine from their cold and serene and passionless height, totally indifferent to the joys and sorrows of men. We begin to ask, is man a plaything of a callous nature, sometimes friendly and sometimes inimical? Is man thrown out as a sort of orphan in the terrifying immensities of space, with nobody to guide him on and nobody concerned about him? These are the questions we ask, and we ask them because there is an element of tragedy in life.

And King proclaimed in a commencement speech at Morehouse College in June: “Man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. He has been able to carve highways through the stratosphere, and is now making preparations for a trip to the moon. These revolutionary changes have brought us into a space age. The world is now geographically one.”

King’s attitude toward space was defined by a familiar tension. On one hand, space travel is a testament to our accomplishments as a species; on the other, it diminishes our achievements by forcing us to confront the smallness of our place in the universe. On December 11, 1960, King emphasized this point in a sermon at the Unitarian Church of Germantown, Pennsylvania:

All of our new developments can banish God neither from the microcosmic compass of the atom nor from the vast unfathomable ranges of interstellar space, living in a universe in which we are forced to measure stellar distance by light years, confronted with the illimitable expanse of the universe in which stars are five hundred million billion miles from the Earth, which heavenly bodies travel at incredible speed and in which the ages of planets are reckoned in terms of billions of years. Modern man is forced to cry out with the solace of old: “When I behold the heavens, the work of thy hands, the moon, the stars, and all that thou hast created, what is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou remembereth him?”

In 1963, King made the comparison more explicit in his book The Strength to Love: “Let us notice, first, that God is able to sustain the vast scope of the physical universe. Here again, we are tempted to feel that man is the true master of the physical universe. Manmade jet planes compress into minutes distances that formerly required weeks of tortuous effort. Manmade spaceships carry cosmonauts through outer space at fantastic speeds. Is God not being replaced in the mastery of the cosmic order?” But after reminding us of the scale of the distances involved, King concludes: “We are forced to look beyond man and affirm anew that God is able.”

This seems very much in the spirit of 2001, which is both a hymn to technology and a meditation on human insignificance. For King, however, the contrast between the triumphs of engineering and the vulnerability of the individual wasn’t just an abstract notion, but a reflection of urgent practical decisions that had to be made here and now. Toward the end of his life, he framed it as a choice of priorities, as he did in a speech in 1967: “John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed national income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on Earth.” The following year, speaking to the Rabbinical Assembly in the Catskills, he was even more emphatic: “It must be made clear now that there are some programs that we can cut back on—the space program and certainly the war in Vietnam—and get on with this program of a war on poverty.” And on March 18, 1968, King said to the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, whom he would visit again on the day before he died:

I will hear America through her historians, years and generations to come, saying, “We built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. We built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our airplanes we are able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Through our submarines we were able to penetrate oceanic depths.” It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, “Even though you have done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not, I was naked and you clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security and you didn’t provide it for them. And so you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.”

Quote of the Day

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The poem…is that ambiguous gift, food, host in the sense of victim, sacrifice, that which is broken, divided, passed around, consumed by the critics canny and uncanny who are in that odd relation to one another of host and parasite. The poem, however…[is] parasitical in its turn on earlier poems, or contains earlier poems as enclosed parasites within itself, in another version of the perpetual reversal of parasite and host. If the poem is food and poison for the critics, it must in its turn have eaten. It must have been a cannibal consumer of earlier poems.

J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host”

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2018 at 7:30 am

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