“A large single upright block of stone, especially one shaped into or serving as a pillar or monument”—but then also “a large and impersonal political, corporate, or social structure regarded as intractably indivisible and uniform.”
Subtract the aliens from 2001 and the ghosts from The Shining. How would those stories be different?
They wouldn’t be. Those apes were always going to figure out how to use tools to kill one another, and that bone was always going to evolve (2001 is often seen as a parable of human evolution, but notice how human and mechanical evolution take place side by side, from start to finish) into HAL. The Monolith is a red herring.
So are the ghosts in the Overlook. Jack Torrance is a violent alcoholic who resents his wife and child. He broke Danny’s arm because Danny destroyed his play, and he tears up a page of his new play because Wendy “distracted” him. Jack wanted to be an artist, but the Monolith flunked him, so he became a teacher, but the Monolith flunked him out of that, too. The Monolith said, “You can be a janitor, if you want, at this hotel,” and Jack deceived himself into believing this was a second chance at becoming an artist. He then failed as a janitor for the same reason he failed as a teacher and an artist: because he could not simply be a person: because he was an addict. Addiction separates people from their personality, and this is very dangerous, because the Monolith will think you’re expendable if you’re unable to exploit your own personality.
Who else did the Monolith find expendable? Certainly the Indians who had to be fought off for the Overlook to be built (so “all the best people” could have someplace to stay). Certainly the astronauts sent to Jupiter. Certainly HAL. The last act of 2001 is a competition between two agencies the Monolith has deemed absolutely expendable (cf. those poor astronauts held in cryogenic sleep, HAL’s first victims—so expendable the Monolith could not waste food, could not waste air, on them). And the first act of 2001 climaxes in a competition over water rights. The Monolith does not care which band of monkeys wields the bone, only that the bone be wielded. If HAL and the astronauts are destroyed, then more HAL’s and more astronauts will be sent. The work simply has to get done.
CUT TO, Don Draper, 1969, another addict who can’t quite be an artist, can’t quite be a businessman—can’t even quite be a person, but whose personality is disrupted by more than merely addiction. A kid from the wrong side of the tracks who watched the Monolith hurtle by like a freight train, until he jumped on board, finagled his way to the passenger car, and lied that he held a ticket. (Thank God he’s accidentally so monolithically good-looking.) Like a lot of people the Monolith uses for its own ends, Don has convinced himself that a special virtue attends his successes, and perhaps that’s even been true, in the past. But the Monolith folds space-time in the service of its wider needs—sometimes to create illusions, sometimes to dispel them—and the persuasions Don has skillfully spun throughout his career are nothing but handsome voids, shadows painted with sunlight, and when the Truth About Don Draper came out, so did the Other Truth About Don Draper: that everything would go along just fine without him. That even geniuses, even true artists, are expendable in the eyes of the Monolith.
What do you do when you learn this is true? What happens when a person learns the Monolith can take him or leave him?
Form and void are ugly choices: void might be more honest, form might be less painful, but both are ugly nonetheless—mirror-images of one another, in fact (the Monolith in Space being nothing but a bound blackness surrounded by a blackness unbound)—and each of the two choices resides in a single universe: a universe run by Monoliths. It’s crush or be crushed; wield the bone or let the bone be wielded against you. Be dependable, to yourself, your station, and your family; or you will become expendable. (If your child cries every night because you’re not there—because you’ve run off to the woods to escape the Inescapable—well, don’t worry: sooner or later the tears will stop, and the child won’t cry because he needs you and you’re not there: the child won’t cry, because he won’t need you.)
But again, backing up: What do you do when you learn this is true?
The work, of course, you do the work: you make music and you work at it, right up to the end.