Lost in the Cosmos: A Discussion of Death, Deep Space & Man’s Ultimate Destiny
THE NEW OXFORD REVIEW
MAN, MONKEYS & MOVIEGOERSBy Pieter Vree & Jason M. Morgan | October 2019Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR. Jason M. Morgan, who writes the NOR’s Cultural Counterpoint column, teaches history, language, and philosophy at Reitaku University in Japan.
The tenor of our times is both Calvinist and Promethean. Mankind has achieved astounding feats of technical skill over the past century, and his scientific prowess has convinced many that he has stolen fire from the heavens and is able to make his way in the universe alone. But mankind also remains deeply Calvinist. For all his successes, man still seems undeserving, at least to some. Just as man was setting his sights on outer space, a nihilism based on man’s utter worthlessness, or total depravity, engulfed the culture at large. Astronauts were declaring giant leaps for mankind while anti-human humanists were pulling the rug out from under such grandiose proclamations.
Prometheanism and Calvinism — it’s a strange juxtaposition. And yet it perhaps defines our cultural condition as no other set of terms.
Recently, NOR editor Pieter Vree and NOR columnist Jason M. Morgan sat down to discuss this phenomenon and whether man is homo asterum, “star-man,” or just homo asterisk, a forgettable Darwinist blip.
Pieter Vree: In your latest column, “Denizens of a Pale Blue Dust Mote” (Jul.-Aug.), you explore some of the consequences of astronomer Carl Sagan’s contradictions. On one hand, Sagan lauded man for breaking free of his earthly chains and propelling himself out among the stars, or at least heading in that direction with the lunar landings, the Voyager probes, and other space-exploration initiatives. On the other hand, Sagan, in explaining his interstellar photograph, Pale Blue Dot, took pains to belittle man as deluded by his sense of grandeur and his “imagined self-importance.”
Jason M. Morgan: Right. Sagan essentially portrays man as some randomly evolved, non-centrally-located, and ultimately meaningless scrap of material fluff in a universe that came from nowhere and was bound for the same.
Vree: Randomly evolved — like a monkey in a moon suit? Exploring a cosmic zoological enclosure? David Byrne put that thought into the lyrics of a song: “Someday we’ll live on Venus, and men will walk on Mars / But we will still be monkeys down deep inside.”
What’s interesting is that the song, “Facts of Life,” appears on the Talking Heads album Naked, which also features a few “back to nature” songs — sort of an artistic symbiosis of the dual disparagement and exaltation of Earth embodied in Pale Blue Dot and Earth Day that you discuss in your column. Not coincidentally, Naked was released a mere two years before those two fateful events of 1990.
Morgan: That was the cultural moment, and the Talking Heads caught the Zeitgeist perfectly.
Vree: Speaking of monkey-man cultural moments, we can go back to 1968, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic has a match cut of a shot of a monkey throwing a bone to a shot of a massive space station in orbit. It’s a clever cinematic technique, and the overall effect is to impress on viewers that no matter how far man travels, he still comes from primates.
Morgan: It’s Freudian, isn’t it? Man is always the naked ape. There’s always some barely repressed atavism, primitivism, just beneath the veneer of civilization. There’s always discontent lurking somewhere. The monkey and the man can never quite reconcile their evolutionary differences.
Vree: Coincidentally, after your column went to print, I came across an interview with Kubrick from 1968. He says essentially the same things Sagan did over 20 years later when expounding on Pale Blue Dot: “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…. He is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space.”
Morgan: That last line could have come straight from Sagan’s mouth! And the first line is the inevitable corollary of such thinking.
Vree: As you mention in your column, in the West we’ve endured the “death of God” and the “end of history” — a collapse of the grand story of mankind and his salvation in Christ. The result, for space-oriented men — for modern men in general — is that a kernel of nihilism undoes whatever meaning they try to inject into their own lives. As Kubrick says in the same interview, “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.”
Morgan: It sounds like Kubrick and Sagan would have benefited greatly from reading Walker Percy.
Vree: Talk about “lost in the cosmos”!
Morgan: Marx and, later, Marxists talked at length about alienation, but nobody nailed the theme like Percy. He was famously jolted by a line in Kierkegaard about the Hegelian who can explain everything in the universe except himself, except man. It’s the strangest thing. In his book The Moviegoer, Percy uses the example of the lowly dogfish. The scientist can give you the dogfish biologically, chemically, genetically, any scientific way you please, but the scientist has no idea who the man in the mirror is. He can’t even begin to guess. Science can say profound things about things, but it is pitifully inarticulate when people try to make it say things about non-things. Science as religion is just plain silly.
For example, what I always found most striking about 2001 was the opening scene, the one with the monoliths and the monkeys and the bones. There’s something almost Wiccan, definitely New Age, about the power of a slab of rock to connect lower lifeforms with the “cosmos” — in the 1960s sense of higher consciousness or enlightening vibrations.
Vree: According to Kubrick, the monoliths are artifacts left behind by unseen (in the movie) “extraterrestrial explorers” that allow them to “observe the behavior of the man-apes.” These ETs then decide to alter the man-apes’ “evolutionary progression.” At the climax of the film, the human astronaut, after being caged in a “human zoo,” passes through some kind of psychedelic vortex to a higher consciousness — very 1960s, indeed — an elevated state, in which he is “reborn,” in Kubrick’s words, as “an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman,” and “returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny.”
Granted, Kubrick is the director and co-screenwriter, but that doesn’t sound right to me. I always thought there was a plausible Christian interpretation of the film. I take the monoliths to be representations of evil — perhaps the knowledge of good and evil — because they appear before moments of conflict in the film, or epiphanies of sorts. The “zoo” scene seems to me a consideration of man’s most refined culture, the height of human civilization — we see the astronaut in a Victorian dining setting, eating on fine china. And in the final scene, as I interpret it, the astronaut passes through the portal from human life to death and the afterlife, in which he is reborn as a “new man” and rewarded a share in the Godhead and the sum of knowledge that that affords — he appears before Earth as a baby with adult eyes, meaning he is a new creation but one privileged with understanding.
Of course, I could be wrong! But after numerous viewings, that’s my best interpretation.
Morgan: So much of the symbolism and imagery in 2001 echo the Bible. I’d heard that the acronym “HAL,” used for the supercomputer that pilots the ship to Jupiter and on the way malfunctions or becomes sentient and tries to kill the crew, was intentionally one letter each away from “IBM.” But now I wonder if Kubrick might not also have meant “El” — as in “Elijah,” “Elizabeth,” “Israel.”
Vree: Well, one thing is certain: Kubrick was trying to stir religious sentiments in his audience, without defining the religion — very much a New Agey 1960s project. He said that “the God concept is at the heart of 2001,” though he claimed that he himself did not believe in “any of Earth’s monotheistic religions.”
Morgan: The monoliths seem to be key — those smooth, black, impenetrable, nameless, and featureless slabs that somehow hurtle through space imbuing carbon-based lifeforms with self-awareness. In many ways, I think those monoliths are good metaphors for the modern condition. Modern man shunted all the old, hard metaphysical questions out into space, as it were, the way folks sweep dust under a rug. The origins of human life and intelligence are explained away by “aliens,” and so forth.
In fact, Sagan was a big SETI proponent — that is, the “search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.” I always thought the contradiction was glaring. Here’s a guy who wants humans to know that they’re just meaningless froth on the evolutionary whirlpool, but he won’t quit looking for other lifeforms elsewhere in the universe. But by his own admission, wouldn’t those other lifeforms also be just evolutionary accidents? Even if he found them, what would be the point?
Vree: That eagerness to encounter extraterrestrials is telling. All the talk of UFO sightings and the like might be hoaxes or delusions, but the bigger point is a religious one, and also a cultural one. What we see in the sky, or at least claim to see, says a lot about how we see ourselves. For example, our religiously deracinated society sees “aliens,” whatever they might be, as akin to angels: higher-order beings possessing some sort of transcendent knowledge, not to mention way-cool technology — angels without the religious trappings. We can project our own dreams of a better world onto these fantastic, though as yet illusory, beings.
Morgan: I’ve thought the same thing, and felt that this comes from a position of intense false humility. It’s with a mixture of fascination and jealously that we peer at the images of weird objects floating and darting around in the heavens. Before real angels, we would fall down to the ground in awe. Nobody who saw an angel would retain the presence of mind to film him on a cellphone. If modern man could be summed up in a phrase, it would be “he who will not bow down, but who deep down still really wants to.” The tension is the same as in Kubrick: Man is nothing, but he wants to be everything.
By the same token, the anthropological schizophrenia in Sagan was extreme. We got rid of God — and Sagan was clearly happy to see Him go — but then we realized that we were not exactly qualified to take His place. We can’t escape the wound to our pride that follows the so-called death of God. We lacerate ourselves for being lesser mortals, even though we congratulate ourselves for shucking off the old fairytales and taking possession of the universe as our own. Prometheus in Geneva!
Vree: Something that’s always struck me as odd — and something Kubrick repeats — is the assumption that alien lifeforms, whether benign or aggressive, would be “more advanced,” with superior technology and intellect. Why should that be the case? Perhaps that assumption has to do with the wishful notion that man is not so grand after all, and that the existence of other, more advanced beings would prove that point conclusively.
Morgan: This reminds me of another movie, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, one of the biggest hits of all time. I remember seeing it in the theater as a boy when it first came out in 1982. There was something unsettling about that interplanetary do-gooder then, and looking back now I see him as another example of an angelic alien. “Love one another” — a little waddling Mother Teresa. He even takes the veil in one scene!
Vree: Even more, ET is portrayed as something of a Christ figure: He has the power to heal.
Morgan: It gets better: ET himself was dead and then rose again. He was pallid and cold, but he revived. I wonder how many of the people who cried during E.T. believe in the Resurrection, believe that death really has been conquered? What is slathered in sentimental sappiness in E.T. was truly accomplished, with blood and sweat and horror, at Golgotha. But we prefer Disneyfied death.
Vree: And unspecified, saccharine spirituality. As evidenced by 2001, E.T., and Pale Blue Dot, the problem of death haunts secular man. He can’t make sense of it; it’s anathema, an enigma.
Morgan: Secular man’s inability to grapple with death finds expression in truly bizarre ways. It turns out that before he died, billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein was planning to have his penis cryogenically preserved as a way to perpetuate his DNA into eternity! Crazy, but true. He seemed to operate according to Kubrick’s “ferret of fear.” His life was as pointless as Nietzsche prophesied humans’ lives would become. Nevertheless, Epstein still wanted to seed the galaxy with his chemical self. It’s amazing how “sci-fi” is just rarified anti-humanism in so many movies and books.
Vree: Kubrick’s “needs and functions of the body” certainly played an “imperative role” in Epstein’s life and career. As a serial pedophile who assaulted — and likely pimped — young teenage girls, Epstein mocked morality. And by seeking to preserve his DNA for eternity, he mocked mortality.
Morgan: Epstein wasn’t only a moral cipher; he was also — probably not by coincidence — very popular among the rich and famous. When Epstein entered his island sex-abuse palace and saw all the A-listers in attendance, he, like Kubrick’s character in 2001, also could have exclaimed, “My God, it’s full of stars!”
Vree: Epstein is the classic sci-fi villain: wealthy, powerful, and perverted. Only he was real. And he was really connected. Very few were surprised by his “suicide.” I found it notable that people across the political spectrum — conservative, liberals, you name it — basically agree that he was “suicided,” silenced, as it were, in order to protect the powerful.
Morgan: St. Paul mocked death — “where is thy sting?” — but we are all cowed by it. We believe the Devil, who says that death still has the power that Christ already took from it forever. Epstein isn’t the only one who sought his immortality in the physical world. It’s a true victory for Satan — for men to be afraid of the death that Christ conquered, to be too proud to cling to Christ and enter Heaven, where the moth and the worm don’t nibble away at our vainglory. Epstein’s cryogenic eternity is a hell in and of itself.
Vree: If there’s a thread between Kubrick, Sagan, and Epstein, it’s that for them, this world and its pleasures aren’t enough. They sought something greater in the “great beyond,” something that hasn’t been thought of or considered before now. Our humble abode, and its old pathways to eternity, are simply too boring to these self-styled geniuses. They have rejected God — emptied Heaven, as you say in your column — yet they can’t help looking to the heavens, to some glorious technological future, for meaning, for a sense of perdurance.
In fact, I would say that being perceived as “boring” by modern man is one of Christianity’s greatest challenges at the dawn of its third millennium.
Morgan: We are endlessly distracted and, I think, on purpose. The Enemy wants us to forget who we really are. There are diversions everywhere, and so many people throughout the ages have sought their fortunes in this world — which now includes, practically speaking, the neighboring planets and beyond. Elon Musk wants to go to Mars; Kubrick imagined a trip to Jupiter; Sagan’s Voyager 1 has flown past the orbit of Pluto; and if we go back to the moon we’ll find all the junk we left there 50 years ago. Whatever we’re looking for, it’s not in this universe. On all the billions and billions of worlds, there has only ever been one empty tomb.
©2019 New Oxford Review.