Interpretations of the “Monolith” (2001: A Space Odyssey)

The marbled monolith represented exactly what it was — a massive slab of obviousness.  It was something that could not be ignored if one was consciously present within the room.  However, it represented something more.  It hypothetically put forward how we evolved from apes to humans, as despite it being so obvious, one does have to be consciously aware to detect a change in one’s environment — to detect a spontaneous black slab that appears out of nowhere.  What I think Kubrick may have been illustrating was how we transitioned from a lesser state of awareness and into something more.  The apes saw the world from a primal and survival-based intelligence level.  Then, one day, they saw something in a way which they could not describe.  It captivated them in a manner which superseded all that in the background.  The apes had their first intelligently conscious moment.  The black slab was so sudden and so out-of-nowhere, that there was no way to not perceive it with intense reactional response, elevating one’s self from a lower conscious level to ultimately realize human potential.  The apes realize that one can use objects as weapons and begin to interact with the world in an evolutionary manner.  Kubrick was describing the birth of conscious intelligent life.

Just as the apes, the bones-as-a-weapon realization and the rocky, wild and unconquered landscape acted as an allegory for where conscious awareness found itself, the ending “room” is the same.  We see a fully civilized, cultured man surrounded by a pleasant bright white light in an ordered and structured room.   Whereas before the sun was the only source of light, now the source is fluorescent and man-made.  The world in which the apes found themselves was completely out of their control and foreign, whereas the room the ‘futureman’ finds himself within is completely of his (in the species sense) own creation and understanding.

Just as before, this man sees a black slab appear out of nowhere.  He chases it around the room and finds himself getting older and older in the very process.  As with the apes (‘dawn of man’), the black slab represents something in which to call attention to and inspire evolutionary reaction.  However, as a being already evolved, it is perplexing to understand its context in this room.  The man is chasing the meaning to his own human life, representing the human species as a whole.  His drive and inspiration is personified as a cold, impersonal metallic slab.  The futureman is chasing this until he dies, but with every realization, he finds himself ending up at a goal, with no memory of how he got there.  His only memory is standing at his previous position, looking out at the end-goal.  He then finds himself at the end-goal, only to not have actually ended anything.  Ironically, he finds himself once again on the chase, immediately focusing on the end-goal, until his physical body runs out of life — the entire process fueled by the monolith.  Yet even on his deathbed, at the very last moment, with his very last ounce of strength, the futureman sees this black slab once more and MUST reach out to it.  He is determined despite knowing that there’s no way he can possibly do such a thing, as he is confined to his bed and limited by his old age.  However, he must reach the end-goal and is always searching for an answer that simply cannot be reached.

This man represents what we are as a human species at the present moment — 1% away from complete control but somehow we still find ourselves unable to reach this remaining percentage.  Kubrick’s only explanation is indirect, as he eventually zooms into the black slab and transitions into space.  We live on earth and we look at space, a massive beautiful black slab, and it drives us.  Space isn’t the actual root drive of humanity; it just represents something that makes us realize our own subjectivity and scale.  It represents something so massive and so incomprehensible — its existence is a symbol for human ambition.  Like the black slab, space is unexplainable, yet we must understand and decode its mystery.  As illustrated in the final room, though, we see how the pursuit will kill us.  It is only in our last moment in which we will ever feel complete, as death is the only end-goal that can be reached with complete satisfaction.  Upon death, we go once again back into the chaotic world which we so often, in life, pretended did not exist.  We are so afraid of the unknown, that just to live we have to build white rooms of cutting edge architecture to hide us from the scary black space.  This space, like the monolith, represents the majority of existence which we do not have wrapped around our finger.  We hide from chaos and disorder, but it always exists.  Death exists, space exists and everything beyond our perspective exists and it is out of our control.  As the apes did in the beginning of the film, we go insane at these realizations — just as the futureman drove himself to death in pursuit of an explanation for what is inherently unexplainable and chaotic.  All perceived order is nothing but one flower in a field of trillions of weeds which are slowly creeping in on our shell of artificial order.

An Alternative Interpretation

The final scene could also be viewed as Kubrick’s interpretation of death, post-existence and post-humanity.  The starchild symbolizes the final peaceful understanding felt just before passing after a lifetime of seemingly futile pursuit.  The last scene shows this starchild looking over the earth and it is here where the individual starchild transitions into a metaphor for the human species.  We see the starchild looking over the earth in a contemplative and honorable manner.  If you could replace the earth with “a lifetime of personal memories” and the starchild with “someone passing away”, the intention would be exactly the same.  Instead, the final scene depicts the personification of the perfect human looking back upon the earth and thinking upon how far man has come.  In this state, one can only observe in reserved tranquility rather than act.  For a perfect, fully-realized species, this is the ultimate heaven — to look back on the source of our life, the earth, and marvel at how far we have come.  In this light, the ending is a love letter for the human species of the future.  We see a peaceful, beautiful, golden and intelligent fetus rather than something wrought with flaws.  Despite the journey, despite the chaos that once so defined humanity and the desire to understand everything, we float in peace at the finish line with nothing to do but bask in the odyssey of our achievement.

Time Is Absurd

It’s interesting to think of time as being genuinely relative depending on which level of life you choose to focus your attention upon.  The Aquatic Mayfly lives but 30 minutes, while the Aldabra Giant Tortoise is on record for living 225 years (liver failure is what got him).  The human, on a worldwide average, lives for around 67 years.  Yet, each species lives life in the same general manner.  They are born into reality, and then they die, fading into non-existence.  The processes in-between are also similar, as each of these three species consumes food (the fly and the tortoise, primarily plants) which is processed into energy which is essential for life.  Is it so far-fetched to suggest, that if the fly and the tortoise were consciously aware of their lifespan, all three species would perceive the duration of their lives in the same relative amount of time?

Every individual process in any lifespan, has a beginning, and has an end.  Each system, however, is designed to be perpetual and infinite, fueled from collective sub-processes.  The processes within these systems are things which perish/cease to exist, but each process is always working towards the purpose of the grander system which it serves.

Think of the cells within your body forming tissue, forming muscles, forming body systems, forming you, forming the human species and finally forming the earth’s ecosystem.  Each process (let’s say, the tissue) is preceded by that which forms the process (the cells), and succeeded by the system which said processes (the tissues) form (the muscle).  Each individual system formed within this existence is the result of one singular path — one path of repeatedly successful micro-systems.  Collectively, these systems can join together, to become processes for an even grander system.

The fascinating thing about being human is that we are consciously aware of our own existence.  We can contemplate upon the very structure of such a thing.  We can gain an ego, simply because the human being is a pretty impressive thing, just like any mammal, organism or system.  We are really capable of quite a lot, but our conscious awareness allows us to get wrapped up in a perceived significance in our individual life.  Clearly, the human is just another process, resulting from several micro-systems, and the macro-system which it serves is that of the human species.

This concept is found many places — your computer, the numerical system, the formation of stars and galaxies, a musical album, cities within a state/country/etc.  You can keep filling that sentence with a plethora of examples, but the point will remain that this is a pattern which pops up all over our conscious existence.

If each process (each process resulting from succeeding micro-systems) — essentially everything — is just serving a macro-system of a grander nature, would not the details within every single process share a certain universality?  You would certainly start to see many similarities between seemingly random and non-connected processes.  Between an asteroid and computer byte, between a human and a galaxy; what each process served would certainly be very different, but everything still follows the basic “/micro-system –> macro-system/micro-system –> macro-system/” loop.  If smaller creatures and various animals could perceive existence in a similar manner to the human species, their perception of their individual lifespan would likely be extremely similar to that of a human’s.

Smaller creatures appear to move extremely quickly, and the universe as a whole seems to move very slowly — from human observation, at least.  Sure, the earth revolves around the sun at around 67,000 mph, but what does that even realistically translate to from our micro-systematic perspective?  We say “1 year”.  This really just sounds like saying “1 successful completion of a process”, in this case, the earth fully revolving one time around the sun.  On a whole, one year for the earth is quite a long time from our point of view — and this is not subjective, as our timescale stems from the Earth’s revolution around the sun.  Under this timescale, the Mayfly lives but half an hour.  We are measuring our micro-system by a macro-system’s standard, and this is clearly an absurd way to calculate our existence.  In this respect, Sun Worship would naturally make the most sense as a religion to subscribe to, as Father Time is certainly a Pagan.

Judging a micro-system’s time from a macro-system’s perspective is certainly the most natural way to perceive time, but while functional, it is philosophically delusional.  True perspective of existential duration stems from the perspective of the individual process, in relation to surrounding processes upon the same level as itself.  To really get a grasp for how significant a human being, as an isolated process, has in correspondence to known universal existence, think of things in terms of “1 Human Life” — the average worldwide lifespan is, again, 67 years.  Going back to my initial examples, a Mayfly would then live for 7 Billionths of 1 Human Life.  Our sun then, exists for about 184 Million Human lives.  When you look at things in this manner, you get an immediate understanding for the true duration-based value of your existence.

And from this, we also see that there is no way to measure time without relying upon a reference point.  This reference point, being, whatever individual process you choose to judge from — and in this we see that time as a concept is imperfect.  Completely, completely relative, and therefore one should place no philosophical or contemplative weight upon “minutes”, “hours” and “years”.  Existence is existence, regardless which system you find yourself a part of.  Hypothetically, if you could view every individual process, consciously and independently, I would imagine every lifespan to pass by with the same relative duration.