Dry November: Day 22

November 22, 2018

I’m whelmed. Both over- and under-, the former by a slew of nascent endeavours, the latter by their fruit and lack thereof, by the talk earlier this week, and by 2001 last night. Not that the film was underwhelming, but maybe Kubrick’s disdain for the follies of man has rubbed off on me in a sort of misanthropic mimesis. “To whelm” once meant “to overturn or capsize”, according to the OED, but it cites no such usage since the sixteenth century. In the sense of overturning a dish, it was used as late as 1854. In 1894 it still meant “to throw (something) over violently or in a heap upon something else, esp. so as to cover or to crush or smother it,” or to “bury under earth, snow or the like,” with an example from 1883. There are no twentieth century usages cited. The Online Etymology Dictionary says:

whelm (v.).

early 14c., probably from a parallel form of Old English -hwielfan (West Saxon), -hwelfan (Mercian), in ahwelfan “cover over;” probably altered by association with Old English helmian “to cover,” from Proto-Germanic *hwalbjan, from PIE *kuolp- “to bend, turn” (see gulf (n.)).

“Overwhelm” seems to mean something more physical and closer to “overturn” than I had thought. I imagined it meant something more like “overcome” or “outnumber” than it does (though maybe this comes figuratively from the “burying” sense). Its facetious twin, “underwhelm,” doesn’t make literal sense, then, as it would mean something like “undercapsize” or “underturn,” or perhaps “underbury”? Surprisingly the Etymology dictionary attests usage as early as 1953, though it does not give an example, and the OED as early as 1956:


K. Quinn Giant Corporations viii. 61 He wrote..commending the action of one of the giant corporations for a..price reduction at a time when prices were rising. I was underwhelmed, and investigated.

2001 was not underwhelming, nor was it exactly overwhelming, beautiful though it is. I appreciated it more than I did the first and last time I’d seen it, on 35mm at the BFI, in July 2009. I had waited several years after seeing the rest of Kubrick’s work, at the advice of my uncle, who’d said not to see 2001 except on the big screen. Last night we watched it on 70mm at the Science Museum’s IMAX, an experience worth having. The first time I’d seen it, alone, in the afternoon as I recall, the third act seemed to take an era, and I was dying to get out by the time it finished.

This time I went with eight friends, and I had much more patience. I credit this to age, and to the equanimity-enhancing effects of meditation. The final act, though somewhat slow, was not insufferably so, and I felt it was much more meaningful and less pretentious than I had thought a decade ago. Its lasting effect on science fiction seemed somehow clearer, and I thought about a claim I heard at uni, which was something like: “Every Kubrick film is a meta-film, in that each is both a genre film and a film about that genre.” What it says about science fiction I am not sure, but the cold isolation of Alien(s) and the “This means something”-ness of Close Encounters of the Third Kind came to mind. I wondered whether the HAL sightreading/jettisoning episode wasn’t referencing one of the renditions of The Mutiny on the Bounty (“Keelhaul him”?). The film’s presentation of hibernating humans as mere numbers and graphs, the sentience and suffering of our digital counterparts, and the fraught relationship between man and machine remain as prescient and powerful as ever, perhaps more so in our age of increasing existential AI risk.

The visions of the post-Cold War future are charming, compared to what’s happening now, and I couldn’t help wondering what the students of 1968 would have thought of this vision of the future. Superficially it’s utopian, and yet it also stresses that refinement never really cures the Hobbesian state of nature, as presented in the film’s iconic “Dawn of Man” beginning. The lack of nature throughout is also striking: from the desert desolation of the start, to the sterility of space, to the lifeless visions of Jupiter in the third act, man lacks real connection with nature. His perhaps most vital connection to it—food—is unnatural, from the apes eating meat, to the liquid meals, to the boxed sludge, to disappointing-looking sandwiches. The opulent eighteenth-century meal at the end looks least nutritionally distressing, but the man eats utterly alone, unlike the film’s other meals, all of which are communal. The film gives no glimpse of any other physical pleasure, nor any search for meaning. There is no sex, no intimacy; the family calls (to the daughter, from the parents) are bizarre.

 The hot water at ten.

And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

— T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

The digital game of chess lost to HAL had me thinking of The Waste Land. I’m not much of a chess player but the mate coming on-screen seemed comically obvious even to a neophyte. The second act really is like a drawn-out game of chess, though this time Dave checkmates HAL. I thought a lot about HAL’s red light in these scenes. I thought of Kubrick’s interested in eyes, in Eyes Wide Shut and the eye-opening scenes from A Clockwork Orange. Last night we discussed whether it might be the sun, or whether it might not be the solo Cyclops eye, if we are really to read this as an Odyssey. In that case, would the Monolith represent the beam used to put it out? Or might it represent the beam obscuring our eye, of which Jesus preached?

I also thought about the question, asked by the BBC 12 reporter, whether HAL has feelings, and the response that “I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer”. HAL passes the Turing test but the opacity of consciousness never allows us real insight into the internal states of others, which must always be interpolated and assumed. This question seems to be at the heart of this film, and of Eyes Wide Shut, in a way, another instance of acting oddly under threat of surveillance. The film gives hardly any hint of any character’s interior states, except for fear and aggression at the start. The implication is that not much has changed since those Darwinian days, and I think this is what makes the film seem so misanthropic.

The Shining has many parallels, with the Overlook Hotel acting as a character in the drama, the environment itself being an agent, just as HAL’s control of the ship gives Dave’s environment agency. I thought as well of the excellent Room 237, in which Kubrick enthusiasts present their views (ranging from persuasive to perverse) of what The Shining actually means. I suppose I’m interested in why 2001 doesn’t seem to get the same attention, because it has a powerful momentousness in every moment, and an overwhelming feeling of meaning even though the meaning is never clear. On the one hand, it seems to be a rather banal investigation of the progress of technology. On the other, as the odd people in Room 237 felt about The Shining, the symbolism in every scene seems to point to much more. I was also struck by the bathroom scene at the end, which reminded me of the one in The Shining. My partner pointed out that this is mirrored by the zero-gravity bathroom sign, and possibly by the grooming habits of our distant forebears.

I thought a lot about whether the three stages might represent something like pre-linguistic, linguistic, and post-linguistic, or subconscious, conscious, and supra-conscious aspects of human nature. The final sequences do seem to imply a universal consciousness, a disconnection or liberation from the single focus of consciousness to which we are by flesh bound. This individual consciousness is absent from the communal first act, but powerfully present in the survival narrative of the second. One could read the film along the lines set out by Robin Carhart-Harris in his mind-bending neuroscience paper The Entropic Brain, and think about whether increasing entropy might not be another way to read the film.

Today I’m recording some sort of educational video, and will be in front of a green screen for the first time. Wish me luck.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.