The Deep Eighteenth Century
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There’s an ancient piece of Solomonic wisdom that says, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Our modern age can now confirm there’s nothing new on Jupiter either. Or at least that’s suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s classic science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In the film’s finale, David Bowman, the last surviving astronaut on the Discovery One mission to Jupiter, after enduring a psychedelic descent through Jupiter’s atmosphere finds himself in a room inexplicably decorated in an eighteenth-century style.
In a film filled with arresting visuals, this is one of the most baffling: Bowman in a red spacesuit, standing in an elegant French Rococo grand salon decorated with marble urns, pastoral paintings set into the paneling, neoclassical statues reposing in niches, and Louis XVI-style furniture. One reviewer, writing in Vogue, was struck by the image: “What is one to make of the astronaut’s finding an image of himself in a French eighteenth-century drawing room?” And The East Village Eye noted in their 1968 interview with Kubrick that the room’s design “really flips a lot of people out.” Perhaps we “flip out” because in a movie about exploration, we expect a frontier—or, if we imagine an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, it’s not one with a taste for French chaises or paintings of rosy-cheeked earthlings tending to their flocks. And perhaps in a movie about the evolution of humanity, we do not expect to return to the past. According to Kubrick, “The room is made from [Bowman’s] own memories and dreams. It could have been anything that you could possibly imagine. This just seemed to be the most interesting room to have.” What makes an eighteenth-century room the best, most interesting of all possible rooms to find at the end of the universe?
Encountering the eighteenth century often feels like the experience of coming across a photo of ourselves where we least expect it. This unexpected similarity, as some film critics have pointed out, is what Kubrick himself recognized and is what drew him to the eighteenth century not just in 2001, but also, for example, in Barry Lyndon (1975), which is entirely set in Georgian England. Perhaps Kubrick saw in the twentieth century the “shadow” of the Enlightenment, the same hope in human progress, with all the dangers those hopes entail, that characterized the age that brought us the Scientific Revolution and the natural sciences, the new empirical philosophy, the French and American Revolutions, the rise of capitalism, and the expansion of world trade. Kubrick’s 2001 is part of an Enlightenment tradition of cautionary tales that explore the perils of progress and the limits of human reason and achievement: Hogarth’s engraved series A Rake’s Progress is about the decline and fall of the young hero Tom Rakewell as he enters London society; Samuel Johnson’s poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes” reminds us that shooting for the stars will only end in the disappointment of all our political, scholarly, professional ambitions; Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels makes us doubt everything, especially our capacity for reason. These tales are bookended at the beginning by Milton’s retelling of our original expulsion from the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost and at the end by Mary Shelley’s famous tale of a science experiment gone horribly wrong in Frankenstein.
For this uncanny affinity between the modern world and the world of the eighteenth century, Yale theater historian Joseph Roach coined the phrase “the deep eighteenth century.” The “deep eighteenth century,” he says, “is the one that isn’t over yet. It stays alive among us as a repertoire of long-running performances. In fact, some of them we can’t get rid of, hard as we might try, chattel slavery and colonialism, for example, still exist as themselves here and there and as their consequences everywhere.” It is not hard to visualize Roach’s concept of a deep eighteenth century at work in the time-bending, out-of-body sequence that finishes 2001 as Bowman rapidly ages, dies, and then finally is reborn. But deep time is not limited to deep space. The final scene of 2001 is powerful partly because it gives us a shocking image of what is true not only in the most extreme circumstances of space exploration but of ordinary life as well. So much of our current world—the political, social and economic structures we live with, the ideas we hold, the questions we ask—we owe (and how!) to the eighteenth century. Like Bowman seeing uncanny images of himself age and transform, so too do we moderns see ourselves reflected, at once strange and familiar, in the world of the eighteenth century.
It seems to me that the choice of an eighteenth-century interior for the final segment, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” is not as inexplicable as it first appears—surprising because we are jolted by a sudden flash of recognition, yes, but not inexplicable. It is a setting that makes the film as good an allegory for the progress of science and technology as for the importance of historical inquiry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: no matter how far we go, no matter how much we reach or how fast we progress, we will always arrive back where we started—at the eighteenth century. And it is this backward glance, careful and sustained, at who we used to be, that will give us back the image of who we are now and what possibilities the future might hold.