Learning to be human

I had a few hours of newsletter work to do this afternoon, and I chose to do it while listening to the four symphonies of Johannes Brahms, performed by the greatest conductor of all, Wilhelm Furtwängler, in live recordings made in 1948-1952. Brahms, the most humane of the major composers, and Furtwängler, the most humane of all the great conductors. Contrast his performances with those cold, mechanical performances one is likely to hear today, and you’re in a totally different world. Just listen to him conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in 1952 in the Adagio movement of the Second Symphony of Brahms. 

The sound is certainly not for audiophiles, and yet, the limited sound preserved in this live performance enables you to hear and enter the immense humanity of the music, in contrast to the technical and digital hijinks of modern recordings that attempt to hide the superficiality of today’s celebrity conductors and musicians.

As I listened to these wondrous recordings from over 60 years ago, I started to think about how much we have lost as human beings. Most of Portland shut down today, and we even canceled Liturgy, because of the dire blizzard forecasts that our celebrity weather forecasters read off their computer models. I generally don’t pay too much attention to these dire predictions, but this time I did, because they were so certain and even the national news were abuzz about this latest blizzard to hit the northeast. Well, the blizzard was a no-show, just like the one that shut down New York City three weeks ago. In the old days we didn’t have sophisticated computer models; we looked at the sky. at the animals, and we waited to see what would actually come our way. In the old days we looked out our windows instead of TV and computer screens. But these days it seems only Sarah Palin looks out her window!

Back in 1968 an extraordinary film was released, 2001: A Space Odyssey

I was only 15 at the time, but I was captivated and went back several times to the Imperial Cinerama Theatre in Montreal. It was blasted by some undiscerning critics as cold and inhuman. And yet, in these cold and inhuman days that we live today this film is a great teacher on becoming human. I want to focus on three key scenes in particular:

1. The climax of the “Dawn of Man” sequence that opens the film. 

And one really should see the continuation to appreciate the amazing use of classical music in this film. Here is a space station rotating to the sound of the “Blue Danube” waltz.  

2. The killing of the HAL 9000 computer. 

3. The final transformation of Dave to a new level of existence, to the soundtrack of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss.

“The Dawn of Man” is the opening sequence of the film. A group of apes live in fear of their environment until a mysterious monolith appears that apparently teaches them to use tools. But the bones they use for hunting animals also become tools for murder. In the climax of this sequence, the chief ape exalts in his triumph over the competing tribe, and he throws the bone in the air… And in the most amazing tracking shot in cinema history, the bone turns into a shuttle spaceship traveling from earth to an orbiting space station. The space station rotates to the beautiful sound of the “Blue Danube” waltz. Kubrick summarizes two million years of human development in a tracking shot that lasts barely ten seconds. Questions arise: Are we really so different from apes? Have we really progressed as much as we think we have? Maybe we humans are still in our infancy stage?

The most chilling sequence in the film shows the one surviving astronaut on the spaceship Discovery disconnecting the rebellious HAL 9000 computer, who has killed all the other astronauts on their journey to Jupiter to discover the meaning of the monolith. HAL tries to stop Dave, in an all-too-human way. “Stop, Dave, stop…. I can feel it…. I’m afraid.” And before HAL loses all “consciousness” he sings the song “Daisy” which he had learned at the beginning of his existence. HAL is not evil, as he would be depicted in a sci-fi movie made today. He actually is more human than the human characters in the film! But he had to be killed.

The killing of HAL initiates the final sequence, in which Dave is transported through all sorts of wormholes, through time and space, into an extravagant suite where he encounters the same monolith that caused the evolutionary jump for the apes. So also here, Dave undergoes an evolutionary leap, a transformation into a Star Child that returns to earth and gazes upon our planet as the screen fades for the closing credits. The music accompanying this final transformation is the opening minute of the composition “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) by Richard Strauss – music that has been used for cheap effects in countless commercials and imitation videos, but which the brilliant mind of Stanley Kubrick used in key sequences of this his most extraordinary film masterpiece.

Perhaps we also have to kill the machine in our lives so that we can move forward to a new existence. Perhaps this new existence won’t involve some alien artifact, perhaps it won’t involve some trip to the end of the universe and return to our home planet. Perhaps we’ll never leave home. But surely, our next evolutionary stage has to teach us to see our home planet differently, to see each other differently, to learn to use our tools creatively and not to kill, and, above all, not to be ruled by our tools. Unlike the Terminator and countless other dystopian films made since 1968, the machine does not win in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s the kind of future I prefer to hope for. But for the machine not to rule over us, we have to learn to be human – fully human. I believe that Lent can help us do that, but that’s a topic for another day. Today was a day for Brahms, Furtwängler, and memories of 2001.

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