It is chilling. Initially and always for me it has been so.
My late friend Tom Miller, in the first positive mention of “2001” in the “New York Times” in a Letter to the Editor after Renata Adler’s damning review, used the term Rorschach in relation to the movie. It is, of course, that, among many other things. For me, the death of the three scientists is the true Rorschach Test.
The Big Question: How can we identify with the deaths of people when we know nothing about them?
The Big Answer, also a question: How can we call ourselves human if we don’t so identify?
Is the imaginative leap that large? If we cannot make that leap, what does that say about us?
Black men and women hanging like strange fruit from trees in the United States, and not only in the South: must we have a black heritage before we can empathize?
Must we demonize to tamp down the empathy? One of my aunts truly believed that black people lacked souls. Admittedly she treated her black servants well enough, as she would have the family’s cows and pigs and dogs. But I believe that she would have had no problems with the strange fruit hanging from the trees: like any soulless animal they could be put down if they did not behave according to white expectation.
That aunt was devoutly religious, so much so that no church in my county at that time was rigorous enough for her. Is religion one more way to dampen empathy?
It says in the Bible that one race was condemned to slavery. It says in the Bible that slavery was okay. And anyway black people practiced slavery. That Good Samaritan helped the poor man but didn’t take him home and let him sleep in his bed with him and let him marry his daughter. (I kid you not: I heard those negatives used as a positive justification for Jim Crow from the pulpit of the First Methodist Church in Greensboro Alabama! By an ordained minister!) It says in the Bible, usually voiced by people lacking any knowledge of that Book as well as anything else.
Dirty Jews. Dirty queers. Dirty Gypsies. Put dirty in front of anything and you can justify not knowing, not empathizing. Dirty Muslims. Dirty Baptists. Dirty Catholics. Dirty Auburn. Dirty Alabama. Dirty Trans.
But our three scientists are not tagged as dirty. Hunter, Kimball, and Kaminsky. Unlike in the typical news account of murder they are not even characterized as “innocent victims.”
Like astronauts Bowman and Poole, we never know these three scientists. We know nothing about them other than their names, that they were trained separately and brought on board in hibernation and that they die. We get the mostly obscured glimpses of their faces through the windows in the hibernation tanks, the coffins.
How do we respond to the deaths of people we know nothing about? Talk about Rorschachs.