Saturday, February 4, 2012

2001 analysis - part 15: Tarantino: Depiction of the alchemical nigredo


The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosophers' Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771. [Image from the Wikipedia 'Alchemy' page, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.]

Alchemy is an ancient tradition, the primary objective of which was the creation of the mythical "philosopher's stone," which was said to be capable of turning base metals into gold or silver, and also act as an elixir of life that would confer youth and immortality upon its user. The philosopher's stone is created by the alchemical method known as The Magnum Opus or The Great Work. Often expressed as a series of color changes or chemical processes, the instructions for creating the philosopher's stone are varied.[a] The Great Work originally had four stages:

1) nigredo, a blackening or melanosis
2) albedo, a whitening or leucosis
3) citrinitas, a yellowing or xanthosis
4) rubedo, a reddening, purpling, or iosis

After the 15th century, many writers tended to compress citrinitas into rubedo and consider only three stages. However, it is in citrinitas that the chemical wedding takes place, generating the Philosophical Mercury without which the philosopher's stone, triumph of the Work, could never be accomplished.

In the framework of psychological development (especially for followers of Jungian psychology) these four alchemical steps are taken as analogous to the process of attaining individuation.[b] Let us examine the first stage, the nigredo, in greater detail. Nigredo, or blackness, in alchemy means putrefaction or decomposition. The alchemists believed that as a first step in the pathway to the philosopher's stone all alchemical ingredients had to be cleansed and cooked extensively to a uniform black matter. In psychology, Carl Jung (a student of alchemy) interpreted nigredo as a moment of maximum despair, that is a prerequisite to personal development. The nigredo is associated with chaos, melancholia, and the encounter with the psychological shadow.[c] There are, theoretically, four nigredos in 2001; as described below, the occurrence of each of these nigredos is accompanied by the presence of the black monolith.

Top left: The first showing of the monolith, in the Dawn of Man segment of the movie, is accompanied by chaos among man's ape-like ancestors. Top right: The second time we see the monolith, at TMA-1 on the moon, it starts making a high-pitched noise, which, as will be gone into more detail later in the analysis, causes chaos among Heywood Floyd and the other five astronauts there. Recall that the bodies of Floyd and two other men, are occupied by alien life forces. Above left: The third showing of the monolith, floating near Jupiter, is immediately followed by chaos as David Bowman moves through the stargate. Above right: Bowman's movement through the stargate is depicted as a chaotic event, as is suggested, for example, by this particular view of the stargate as seen through Bowman's eyes.

Above left and right: The fourth and final time we see the monolith, Bowman is an elderly man near death. As with the other three showings of the monolith, its blackness signifies the nigredo.

As described below, Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film, Pulp Fiction, provides us with hints that each showing of the monolith in 2001 is accompanied by a nigredo.

Top left: As discussed in the analysis of Pulp Fiction on this blog, the briefcase in Tarantino's film represents the Space Odyssey monolith (note that the case's physical appearance - black, flat, and rectangular - is similar to that of a small monolith). The first presence of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, in the scene in Brett's apartment, is accompanied by chaos in the apartment (e.g., when hit men Jules and Vincent kill Brett). Note that the man handling the briefcase in this screencap, Vincent, is smoking (click image to enlarge). Tarantino is here associating smoke with the nigredo. Top right: The second time we see the briefcase, it is being held by Jules, while he sits in his boss Marsellus's restaurant. Above left: A short while later during this restaurant scene, boxer Butch Coolidge (standing on left) goes to the bar to buy some cigarettes. Butch just happens to be in the restaurant at the same time as Vincent and Jules. The red 'glow' in the restaurant is one thing indicating that this scene is linked to a nigredo in 2001, as described below. Above right: The third and final time the audience sees the briefcase, it is again in Jules' possession, near the end of the movie during the chaotic diner robbery. We note that Tarantino's movie not only ends in the diner, but opens in it as well. Even though we only actually see the briefcase in the ending diner scene, we can assume it is present in both diner scenes, since they are both set in the same place and time. Therefore, there are four 'presences' of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, corresponding to the four showings of the monolith in 2001.

Above left: Pulp Fiction begins with the first diner scene, from the point of view of Yolanda and Ringo's table. Above right: The second diner scene, which takes place at the film's ending, begins from the point of view of Vincent and Jules' table.

Note that David Bowman's 'ejection' into the emergency airlock is accompanied by smoke (from the EVA pod door bolts exploding); also note the red glow.[d] The smoke and red glow link this scene with the bar scene in Pulp Fiction (with the cigarette purchase in the bar scene suggesting smoke); therefore, Tarantino is telling us that this scene in 2001 represents a nigredo. Also, Bowman's entry into the airlock is a chaotic event, and is thus self-evidently linked to the nigredo. The two later 2001 nigredos described above, the monolith floating near Jupiter (followed by the stargate sequence), and then the presence of the monolith at the foot of Bowman's bed (in the 'hotel' scene), are really just 'apparent' nigredos: There are only three actual nigredos being depicted in A Space Odyssey. (The hotel scene is actually part of a dream Bowman experiences just before dying.) The three actual nigredos in 2001 are: Dawn of Man, TMA-1, and Bowman hitting his head.

a. Wikipedia, 'Philosopher's stone'. Web, n.d. URL =
b. Wikipedia, 'Magnum opus (alchemy)'. Web, n.d. URL =
c. Wikipedia, 'Nigredo'. Web, n.d. URL =
d. A question that is frequently asked, about Bowman's movement from the pod into the airlock, is, "What happened to the EVA pod door?" The answer to this is that the pod doors are built to move 'transversely' (from side to side, not in and out). Once the explosive bolts freed the door, it slammed back into its normally open position.


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