Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2501
Nietzsche, Strauss, Kubrick, and a Trilogy of Metaphor

by Andrew Boyd

Today, a story — in three parts. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Friedrich Nietzsche helped give birth to existentialism — a philosophy associated with a search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. It’s, of course, more complicated than that. But existentialist writing and art does tend to be dark.

photograph of Nietzsche

One of Nietzsche’s most influential books was Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s layered with metaphors describing the spiritual growth of the work’s human protagonist, Zarathustra. He’s joined by the overman, a “man but more than man” who’s managed to transcend the human condition. Scholars continue to debate exactly what the overman is. But Nietzsche informs us that, metaphorically at least, the overman is to Zarathustra like Zarathustra is to the ape.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra was interpreted musically by Richard Strauss in a tone-poem of the same name. It’s filled with musical metaphors — of an existential nature. The opening “sunrise” movement is now so recognizable it’s cliché.

photograph of Richard Strauss

[Audio: Beginning of Thus Spoke Zarathustra]

And the piece owes its distinction as cliché to cinematographer extraordinaire Stanley Kubrick and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a magnificent choice for the film. But Kubrick didn’t select it just for its aural virtues. He was acutely aware of its connection with Nietzsche.

photograph of Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick takes us from the “Dawn of Man,” where a mysterious monolith teaches apes how to kill for sustenance, to the present, where we no longer recognize our preprocessed food for what it is. Then he takes us beyond. Through psychedelic scenes depicting the unknowable, we ultimately encounter the “star child” — Kubrick’s overman.

star child

It would be a mistake to consider 2001 simply as Kubrick’s take on Nietzsche. It’s not. But Kubrick was heavily influenced by Nietzsche, Strauss, and others. And he created his own “unique brand of cinematic existentialism.” It’s not hard to see. Films like Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut. There aren’t a lot of happy endings. Or sad for that matter. Just people trying to figure things out.

2001 is nominally a science fiction film. And it’s widely considered the greatest science fiction film ever made. It was technically groundbreaking; visually stunning. But it also completed a century-long trilogy. A trilogy of metaphor, told in word, music, and pictures, by Nietzsche, Strauss, and Kubrick.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

[Audio: Conclusion of Thus Spoke Zarathustra]

(Theme music)


For related episodes, see IN C.

Frederich Nietzsche. Web site of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche. Accessed June 2, 2009.

The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick. J. J. Abrams, ed. Lexington, Kentucky: The University of Kentucky Press, 2009.

The pictures of Nietzsche, Strauss, and Kubrick are from Wikimedia Commons. The picture of the star child is by E. A. Boyd.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.