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Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick's 2001: A Triple Allegory

The film seen as a triple allegory in a book by Leonard F. Wheat, 2000. Get the book by Wheat from Amazon.com.


Article added in September 2000

A
ccording to Leonard F. Wheat, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey tells three hidden stories: Homer's The Odyssey; a spoofy tale based on science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke's idea of man-machine symbiosis; and Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra, 1883-1891, 4 volumes).
 
Critics attacked 2001 for "its ponderously slow, boring plot development; its lack of character development; its confusing exposition; its substitution of special effects for story; and its enigmatic, frustratingly symbolic, surrealistic conclusion." 2001's champions "have countered by hailing its plot sophistication (no Buck Rogers stuff here); its substitution of concepts for characters as dramatic substance; its imaginative use of symbols; its stimulating ambiguities; and its breathtaking visual images, superbly enhanced by classical music." Wheat concludes that the admirers seem to be winning since Kubrick's film has been rated among the best films of all times by polls conducted by the British as well as the American Film Institute.
 
Wheat asserts that 2001's ambiguities and mysteries can be explained. For him, the movie is a triple allegory, three allegories (metaphorically or symbolically told hidden stories) combined in one surface story. Wheat writes: "Kubrick's first allegory is a retelling, in far more detail than has been imagined, of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey.  . . . The second allegory takes Clarke's theory of a future man-machine symbiosis, caricatures it, and inflates it into a spoofy three-evolutionary-leaps scenario. Leap number two - the leap from man to a species of humanoid machines - is abortive: the bad guy, symbolizing the new species, gets spiked in the forehead. The third allegory uses the surface story to symbolize the main themes of Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. This allegory, the main one, again deals with evolution, so it shares considerable symbolism with the with the second allegory. But now there are just two evolutionary leaps - ape to man, man to overman. Between man and overman is a major subplot in which God stands in man's way. Man finally kills God, clearing the way for the evolution of a new supreme being - overman (a race) - and allowing Zarathustra to deliver the message for which Nietzsche is famous: "God is Dead!"
 
Wheat analyzes the three allegories in detail. Although Kubrick does not symbolize all of Odysseus's adventures, he treats most of them: the Lotus-eaters, the cyclops (Hal, with his red eye, is the one-eyed cyclops, and the key that Dave Bowman jabs into Hal's brain modules is the stake Odysseus plunged into the cyclops' eye), the Laestrygonian rock attack, the pre-Odyssey material involving the Great Bow, the three goddess beauty contest, Paris, Helen, Menelaus, the thousand ships, the Trojan Horse and the downfall of Troy, etc. According to Wheat, 2001 ends with the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope (the star-child symbolizing Odysseus, the earth symbolizing Penelope).
 
Arthur Clarke is not only coauthor of 2001's screenplay but author of both the short story on which the movie is loosely based, The Sentinel, and the novel that is based on the movie. According to Wheat, Kubrick caricatures the man-machine symbiosis by creating the symbiotic creature Hal-Discovery. "Hal, symbolizing man, is a very human-sounding and human-acting computer; Discovery, symbolizing machine, is Dave Bowman's spaceship and happens to have a lot of cleverly disguised human features. Together, Hal and Discovery constitute an essential living organism that symbolizes a hypothetical new humanoid species, humanoid machines. In other words although Hal-Discovery is a single entity - an individual - in the surface story, he symbolizes an entire race of machines in the man-machine symbiosis allegory."
 
The author also explains the surface story and the meaning of the four monoliths. In 2001, each monolith has four meanings - one for the surface story and one for each of the three allegories. For example, in the Zarathustra allegory, the monoliths symbolize human characteristics - intelligence in the case of the first monolith - that are symbolically acquired by touching a monolith. These are just a few examples of Wheat's analysis. What before appeared mysterious, unexplainable symbolism, gets rational explanations. Sé non è vero, è ben trovato.
 
About the author, Leonard F. Wheat
 
Born in 1931, Leonard F. Wheat received a B.A. from the University of Minnesota at Duluth, his MPA from the Univervsity of Minnesota at Minneapolis, and his PhD in political economy and government from Harvard University. His early career included positions with the Minnesota Department of Taxation, the Office of Special Projects of the US Department of the Navy, and the US Bureau of the Budget. From 1966 until his retirement in 1997, he was an economist with the Economic Development Administration of the US Department of Commerce.
 
Wheat is the author or (in one case) coauthor of three economic studies and one book on philosophical theology. He has written two book-length government studies as well as various shorter ones, four refereed journal articles, and articles and publications relating to ... hiking. His first book, Paul Tillich's Dialectical Humanism: Unmasking the God Above God (1970), bears striking similarities to the present book. Both identify cryptic symbolism in other works - coded messages, so to speak - and decipher the symbols to reveal hidden content.
 
Wheat is an associate editor of the Journal of Regional Science and a member of the American Economic Association, the Southern Economic Association, the Regional Science Association International, the Society for Cinema Studies, and numerous environmental groups. He lives in Fairfax County, Virginia, with his wife, Dr. Wei-hsi-ung (Kitty) Wheat, Professor Emerita of English at Bowie State University in Maryland.
 
Added on October 31, 2002: Check the book by Dan Richter: Moonwatcher’s Memoir. Dan Richter played the character Moonwatcher in 2001: A Space Odyssey and choreographed the film’s well-known “Dawn of Man” sequence. Get the book (Carroll & Graf, September 2002, 156 p.) from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk.