On Stanley Kubrick and the meaning of life

“However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

I recently watched Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I finished my last day of lessons for the semester, met up with my brother and we caught the IMAX showing of Interstellar, which was mindblowing. But that is for another day. Afterwards we bought trays of sushi and discussed gravitational time dilation, the cheesiness of love as a “quantifiable” force. That night, through googling Interstellar I learnt that Nolan had been heavily inspired by 2001. I’d heard of Kubrick’s work: the massively violent A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut etc. but I’d never been moved to watch any.

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Watching 2001 was a strange, awe-inspiring experience. Rather than what Hollywood expected, Kubrick gave us a massively artistic work that would not be out of place in some avant-garde museum or arthouse cinema. From the first act of the dawn of mankind, the iconic transition from the bone to the spaceship, the haunting end, it is a painstakingly crafted film. Though filmed in 1968, its influence on modern space films is evident: Star Wars, Sunshine, Interstellar, Aliens. Kubrick was incredibly visionary. Artificial intelligence, robots going bad, distrust of technology and TPTB, aliens (and NOT little green men or crude monsters, but sleek, menacing black slabs). The maddening, dizzying techno wormhole at the end, with mysterious shapes resembles an LSD trip. How insane it must have seemed in the confines of a neighbourhood cinema in 1968. Some might call it a boring, tedious film, but its purpose is not entertainment; it is to provoke thought, it is Kubrick’s thesis on our place in the universe and our future. This is him throwing down the gauntlet.

I might do a full review on 2001 someday, but my mind is still unsettled. I went to sleep afraid of waking up to a black monolith standing over my bed.

Stanley Kubrick was an insightful man. His interviews are a joy to read. While I am writing this, I am listening to a 1966 audio interview of him, which can be heard here. My favourite interview has to be the 1968 Playboy Interview, courtesy of Brainpickings which featured some extracts in an article. They are reproduced below and are infinitely inspiring, much like Carl Sagan’s words.

Playboy: Thanks to those special effects, 2001 is undoubtedly the most graphic depiction of space flight in the history of films — and yet you have admitted that you yourself refuse to fly, even in a commercial jet liner. Why?

Kubrick: I suppose it comes down to a rather awesome awareness of mortality. Our ability, unlike the other animals, to conceptualize our own end creates tremendous psychic strains within us; whether we like to admit it or not, in each man’s chest a tiny ferret of fear at this ultimate knowledge gnaws away at his ego and his sense of purpose. We’re fortunate, in a way, that our body, and the fulfillment of its needs and functions, plays such an imperative role in our lives; this physical shell creates a buffer between us and the mind-paralyzing realization that only a few years of existence separate birth from death. If man really sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility. Why, he might ask himself, should be bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space?

Those of us who are forced by their own sensibilities to view their lives in this perspective — who recognize that there is no purpose they can comprehend and that amidst a countless myriad of stars their existence goes unknown and unchronicled — can fall prey all too easily to the ultimate anomie….But even for those who lack the sensitivity to more than vaguely comprehend their transience and their triviality, this inchoate awareness robs life of meaning and purpose; it’s why ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,’ why so many of us find our lives as absent of meaning as our deaths.

The world’s religions, for all their parochialism, did supply a kind of consolation for this great ache; but as clergymen now pronounce the death of God and, to quote Arnold again, ‘the sea of faith’ recedes around the world with a ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,’ man has no crutch left on which to lean—and no hope, however irrational, to give purpose to his existence. This shattering recognition of our mortality is at the root of far more mental illness than I suspect even psychiatrists are aware.

This segment cuts to the ultimate question of why we should value life. And his last line (my favourite quote of his) inspires such hope (or the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words).

Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel it’s worth living?

Kubrick: The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism — and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong — and lucky — he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

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