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Reflecting on Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (Part III)

Here I begin the third and final reflection on Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. I am going to write a comparison between Song of Myself and Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, emphasizing the poststructuralist themes found in both texts. Derrida, the father of poststructuralism, reminds us in his text, Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, that structure is inherently paradoxical because “that very thing within a structure which governs the structure…is within the structure and outside it” (1).

In 2001, Kubrick uses a symbolic monolith to demonstrate Derrida’s theory. The monolith is a black, rectangular structure that is never defined or explained, creating an exasperating mystery. As a result, viewers superimpose their own experiences onto the monolith, attempting to give recognizable meaning to an irregularity in structure. Or, as The Theory Toolbox puts it, “it is when you don’t know or can’t figure out the underlying structures of meaning that the existence of these structures becomes most apparent” (148).

Despite its random and off-putting presentation, the monolith is a natural and recurring shape in everyday life—a rectangle. Kubrick takes advantage of this subliminal correlation by integrating rectangles into the cinematography, costumes, set design, and props of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clearly, Kubrick wants his viewers to take note of this symbol, but what does it represent?

(this is the question, by the way).

Personally, I agree with Rob Ager. Ager gives a wonderful, two-part video analysis of 2001 that can be found here. In short, the monolith represents the screen that viewers are using to watch the film. The viewer and the film are simultaneously watching each other, like two parallel mirrors reflecting the same reflection. There are many moments in the film where the viewer is forced to look through a screen, emphasizing the “I’m-watching-you-watching-me” feeling. For example, the film is often shot from Hal’s perspective, forcing the viewer into a confined space, trapped behind a lens.

2001: A Space Odyssey and Song of Myself are two sides of the same coin, separated by the medium in which they were created. The dialogue in 2001 is minimal, placing the emphasis of the film on the soundtrack and visual effects, which is a sharp contrast to Song of Myself, a poem with no—aside from linguistic—auditory or visual props. The language of Song of Myself compliments the auditory and visual presentation of 2001, and vice versa. For example, Whitman writes: “the unseen is proved by the seen/Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn” (77-8). Structuralism is justifiable until the viewer stops watching himself watch himself. At this point, the viewer is “both in and out of the game…watching and wondering/at it” (118-9).

2001 and Song of Myself represent “the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands,” (551) as Whitman describes, but these thoughts are personal and experiential, removed from language and “just as close as they are distant” (557). For this reason, Kubrick has refused to impart the meaning of his cult classic, stating in an interview for Playboy Magazine that any explanation for 2001 “would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a ‘reality’ other than his own.” Whitman agrees, writing, “Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you/You must travel it for yourself” (1758-9).

Kubrick’s 2001 is a narrative about the evolution of humanity, documenting each step forward. The film ends with a new beginning, suggesting that change, or freeplay, is limitless.

When we become the enfolders of those
orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in
them, shall we be fill’d and satisfied then?
And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and
continue beyond.

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