Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey is noteworthy for having fewer than 40 minutes of dialogue in a film that runs for more than two hours and 20 minutes. Even when the astronaut David Bowman fights his climactic duel to the death with the Hal 9000 computer to retake control of the Jupiter spacecraft, he says virtually nothing. All we hear is heavy breathing inside Bowman’s spacesuit as he disables Hal’s higher memory functions. His amplified breathing underscores the fact that he is the only living soul left on board – indeed, the only living being within hundreds of millions of miles.
In the prelude to this final showdown between man and machine, Hal had generally been portrayed as the most human character on the Jupiter expedition – at least until he murdered all the flesh-and-blood crew members and tried to lock Bowman out of the spacecraft. Hal, who had been programmed with “feelings” to keep the humans company on their long voyage to Jupiter, starts now to sound increasingly sinister. “I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal,” he promises Bowman in his most unctuous voice, thereby revealing himself to be the machine equivalent of a psychopath. “Dave, my mind is going,” he cries as Bowman sets to working shutting him down. “I can feel it.” Hal’s mind might be going, and who knows what machines can actually feel. But unlike a fight to the death with a human adversary, Hal will never breathe his last, since machines don’t breathe.
Our breathing is not normally something we pay much attention to. Unless we are breathing heavily – or in a spacesuit – our respiration operates in the background, barely above the threshold of hearing. Breathing is controlled by our automatic nervous system, meaning that it continues to function, day and night, waking or sleeping, whether we pay attention to it or not. We take nearly 1,000 breaths an hour on average, more than 23,000 breaths in a day, some eight million per year, hundreds of millions in a lifetime. But then, who’s counting?
The universe as we actually perceive it, from the inside, is literally a conspiracy, from the Latin cōnspīrāre, “to breathe with.” The universe breathes with us. If we stopped breathing for more than a few minutes, we would lose consciousness and die -- and the universe, as we know it, would be extinguished as thoroughly as if the fires of the heavens had been snuffed out.
According to the Genesis creation story, the universe began with a breath: “…the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach) also means “wind” and “breath.” One might as easily say God breathed over the face of the waters. Each day of creation began with a pronouncement, starting with “Let there be light.” Each pronouncement was preceded by a breath. Later, the Lord made a creature in his own image and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” – and so the world began for us, first with God’s breath and then with our own, breathing together.
An ancient Jewish prayer reads, "The breathing of all life praises Your Name." The name that God gave when Moses asked him to identify himself on Mt. Sinai was YHWH. The vowels are absent in the original Hebrew text. Christian Bibles variously render the name as Jehovah or Yahweh. But in Jewish tradition, the name is never uttered aloud. According to Franciscan friar and author Richard Rohr, the name is not spoken but breathed: yah (inhalation) and weh (exhalation). With every breath then we are calling the Lord's name: 1,000 breaths per hour, every hour of every day, from the time we take our first breath until the one who gave us life takes our breath away.
Genesis 1:2; 2:7
Richard Rohr, The Naked Now