HD and Apocalypse Now

17 Feb

Louis K. Greiff, “Conrad’s Ethics and the Margins of Apocalypse Now.” Conrad, HD. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. New York: Norton, 2006. 484-491. [And note: this edition of the novella has excellent historical resources, including essays by Hegel and Darwin (Conrad’s near contemporaries) on “race” – and, of course, much, much more. Also note: after this article, there are two more on HD and AN.]

+ Study question: Do you think Marlow has as much integrity as the author of this essay attributes to him? [I think he is more ambiguous, more like Willard, than this essay admits.]

+ Study question: Greiff seems to think Willard’s moral ambiguity and passivity are worse and less meaningful than Marlow’s – do you agree? [I don’t.]

+ Study question: Greiff thinks Clean undertakes the massacre of the sampan riders out of pure terror. Do you agree? [I don’t.]  

* The film follows the novel far more closely and interestingly than is always recognized.

* It is framed by a Doors song instead of a scene of Willard explaining his adventure to “normal” people; this musical bridge connects the bizarre story of the outback and the context of modern cultural experience. Nightmare is conflated with normalcy.  

* Conrad and Marlow seem to believe that there is a connection between man’s endeavor and the quality of his being. To work well at a meaningful task is to create self along with visible accomplishment. To work badly is to erode one’s substance, as Kurtz has done in HD. Marlow has the integrity and strength to resist Africa, and Kurtz has lost his. Marlow is solid and internally unified, and he’s an artist both at his work and in his storytelling; his stories reveal truths.

* Kurtz could have been a brilliant artist but he has no stable substance, he is hollow; as such h is available to dark opportunities and dark suggestions from within.

* In the film, Willard (the Marlow surrogate) is the corrupt one, and Kurtz is the solid and dedicated one. Yet the film’s characters do not neatly exchange moral positions with those of the novel. And in the film, all ethical significance of their efforts is lost.

* The saucier and the pilot: artistry and discipline; only the saucier, in the end, believes that humans possess souls and that good and evil (not just relativism) do exist. Note the pairings of sailors, Black and white… and notice the pairings of the surfers; Kilgore looks like a good soldier but is hollow at heart (leaves the dying enemy he was giving water to for the sake of surfing talk).

* Greiff seems to think HD has a clear resolution and moral certainty, and that it is an ethical drama, and that AN distorts the text at least by locating the issues in different characters. The “ethical drama” is reenacted in a subplot by four marginal figures, and the major characters are both corrupt. He also thinks the movie wouldn’t work if it didn’t do that … Willard and Kurtz are TOO strange, they represent the Pan-European but NOT Americans, Americans are much more like the marginal characters.

* To Greiff’s conclusions I am tempted to say WHAT? What if the point is that this war, this American war, really was as corrupt as these central characters? (Do you think I am being too simplistic here?)


Posted by on February 17, 2008 in Bibliography, Conrad


2 responses to “HD and Apocalypse Now

  1. Jennifer Cascadia

    February 18, 2008 at 4:44 am

    Well, Maybe it is not a compliment to the Americans if they do not have within them the European capacity for depth of evil. We may have to simply return to the banality of evil in their cases.


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