December 20, 2009


Apocalypse Then: a review of Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary (Penguin Classics) by Joseph Conrad (Doug Brown ,

The only film I ever faked an ID to get into was Apocalypse Now. I spent half an hour in a social sciences class (ah, the irony) carefully altering the birth year on my learner's permit. That evening, a couple of friends and I went and beheld the spectacle. I recall thinking it was a really weird movie; it wasn't until my second or third viewing in college that I finally started to grok it in fullness. Of course, I had heard it was based on Heart of Darkness, but even as the film grew to become one of my favorites I never bothered to pick up Conrad. Given how the film is such a portrayal of the chaos of the Vietnam War, and knowing how Coppola has a habit of completely rewriting source material, I figured Conrad's novella would only bear a cursory resemblance to the film. However, my classics-year project finally left me out of excuses: it was time for the plunge.

And, amazingly, the film follows the book pretty closely. [...]

Fans of Apocalypse Now don't have an excuse not to read Heart of Darkness. It's short and it adds an extra dimension to the film characters (particularly Kurtz). For everyone else, I found this surprisingly well-written. I say surprising because I had expected a lot of manly gung-ho "let's go civilize the savages," but Conrad seemed more to be saying "this is their world, not ours." Whenever the whites with whom Marlow is traveling upriver open fire into the jungle, he complains that all they are doing is making smoke. Marlow's sympathies lie much more with the natives than his European cohorts. There is an element of the civilized white man looking down at the uncivilized blacks, but far less than Conrad's reputation led me to expect. The "n" word only occurs a few times, unlike in Mark Twain where it is in constant use. The whites looking to exploit Africa are the bad guys here; Marlow respects Kurtz because Kurtz embraced the darkness that Africa represented to Victorian Englishmen.


Just in case you'd missed his point, Conrad clobbers you over the head with it in the final scene, between Marlow and Kurtz's fiance, an archetype of civilization:

"'Forgive me. I -- I have mourned so long in silence -- in silence. . . . You were with him -- to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear. . . .'

"'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words. . . .' I stopped in a fright.

"'Repeat them,' she murmured in a heart-broken tone. 'I want -- I want -- something -- something -- to -- to live with.'

"I was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't you hear them?' The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. 'The horror! The horror!'

"'His last word -- to live with,' she insisted. 'Don't you understand I loved him -- I loved him -- I loved him!'

"I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.

"'The last word he pronounced was -- your name.'

The civilization she represents is the horror, not the jungle.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 20, 2009 9:19 AM
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