- Kubrick’s Odyssey: Myth, Technology, Gnosis
Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ has long inspired poets, artists, and philosophers. Porphyry, the neo-Platonic philosopher, saw in it the archetypal journey of the soul. From its home in the eternal realm, it journeys through the seas of time and space, resisting and then yielding to the lure of matter, but finally returning in triumph to its timeless home. This essential schema, described by Porphyry in “The Cave of the Nymphs,” found expression in countless Gnostic forms in the Hellenic period and would be enshrined afterward in Christian metaphysics. Dante, who did not know Homer’s poem first-hand, made of Odysseus a figure of the rootless modern: his hero forsakes home because of an unrelenting desire for novelty and experience. In the modern era, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Stanley Kubrick have taken up this ancient mythos and made it the frame of their greatest works. Joyce’s Leopold Bloom is a little man, short on heroism but long on humanity, who journeys through a day in June without notable accomplishment. Pound’s Odyssean persona in The Cantos journeys through the centuries and across the globe, witnessing and engaging the rise and decline of civilizations. The temporal scope of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) exceeded all of these: it would dramatize the origins and destiny of human intelligence.
Kubrick’s Odyssey holds a unique place in the arc of his films: it alone maintains a largely un-ironic vision of the human enterprise. Positioned between the apocalyptic satire of Dr. Strangelove (1964) and the satire on free will and conditioning in A Clockwork Orange (1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey is an awe-inspiring expression of the sublime reaches and potential of human imagination and achievement. Imagined [End Page 51] as a “mythic documentary,” it relies on the audience’s ability to assimilate and respond intuitively to the play of symbol and sound:
I tried [Kubrick said in 1968] to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophical content . . . I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does . . . You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level.(Kubrick 47–48)
This aesthetic license and trust in the audience—certainly not shared by worried executives at MGM—are in service of an epic theme, the high point in Kubrick’s canon, recalling the mythological and psychological styles and premises of modern humanists such as Joyce and C.G. Jung. Like Joyce, Kubrick would reinvent a perennial myth in modern terms; like Jung, he would rely on the capacity of the unconscious mind to respond to symbols and the conscious mind to turn those responses into a powerful experience, what the film posters called “the ultimate trip.”
Kubrick did an enormous amount of research for the 2001: A Space Odyssey in astronautics, anthropology, mythology, and psychology. In putting his story of space travel into a mythic context, he sought, like the modernists, to locate contemporary parallels to Homer’s world. This meant transforming the science fiction genre into something quite different: “It occurred to us that for the Greeks the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for our generation, and that the far-flung islands Homer’s wonderful characters visited were no less remote to them than the planets our spacemen will soon be landing on are to us” (Kubrick 18). Following this premise, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke studied Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) in an attempt to open the symbolic material of the scenario to archetypal resonances (LoBrutto 266). Inspired as much by Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as by Jung’s works, Camp-bell attempted to create a universal and ahistorical grammar for the hero’s journey. Setting out from an endangered home into the testing [End Page 52] ground...