by Rana Mukherjee
Thanks for your wonderful rendering of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Both Kurtz and Marlow had always haunted me in my dreams and nighmares since my first reading of Conrad. The book itself has a tiny skeleton but I took almost one full month to finish it.Conrad's subtle symbols always challenged my I.Q and I loved it! Later, I prepared a draft screenplay based on this very book which had made me wiser when I was really young. But fortunately, my dream project has not yet concretized. Since its publication, Conrad's text has had a significant influence on Western culture at all levels from the early twentieth century onward. Its most significant cultural impact occurred, however, when Francis Ford Coppola released Apocalyse Now in 1978.The director used the Stream of Consciouness technique to catch the flow of Conrad's story. But the setting was changed to post-war Vietnam. And herein lies the connection between to pastmasters of Post Modern popular culture. I feel, in conflating a nineteenth-century imperial nightmare with a twentieth-century horror, Coppola proved the endurance and power of Conrad's vision. Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) is a text that has consistently resisted analytic closure. So it would be a case of oversimplification if the book is cannonized only as a anti colonial cult-text. That is to say that its relevance to the twentieth century (and now the twenty-first century) is apparent through the allusions to the story in our media and culture. As each new "horror" of the postmodern world emerges, Heart of Darkness acquires new meanings that extend its relevance beyond the imperial boundaries of the Belgian Congo of the 1880s and '90s, and bring to Conrad's vision a shockingly contemporary pertinence. No wonder, Francis Ford Coppola realized the adaptability of what Conrad was trying to convey when he filmed Apocalypse Now in the 1970s. One obvious example, of course, is the way in which Heart of Darkness, a tale of nineteenth-century imperial corruption, becomes the touchstone for a film that for many was the final word on America's involvement in Vietnam. In this sense, popular culture can be dependent upon our most valued literature for its very content. After all, Apocalypse Now could not have been made in the form that we have it today if Conrad had not written Heart of Darkness. Conrad's novel thus moves beyond its status as a "classic" of English literature. It becomes a piece of cultural commentary that can offer critiques of our own contemporary predicaments. The fact that the story of an English seaman, Marlow, and his nightmarish journey up the Congo into the "heart of darkness" can mutate eighty years later into a filmic analysis of the atrocities of the Vietnam War suggests the endurance of Conrad's themes. Within the hyperreality of a fictional film, the actual experience of Americans in Vietnam has been distilled into a sequence of images and encounters that become the reification of a whole nation's perception of that event. This is important because the film, whether Coppola intended it to or not, has become emblematic of a critical moment in recent American history. Apocalypse Now, taking its lead from Heart of Darkness, is a self-consciously serious cultural product that forces the viewer to examine the effects and morality of the American presence in Vietnam, and, in that context, to look into the dark soul of humankind: Colonel Kurtz. Thus we are brought back to the postmodern cultural melting pot: Conrad's modernist text dealt with the complex issue of European imperialism in Africa and the moral consequences of that incursion. In Apocalypse Now it is recontextualized as a film about America's involvement in Vietnam, bringing new meanings to bear upon Conrad's original text. Such has been the success of the movie that it has recently been rereleased with previously discarded footage restored. Its cult status is now undeniable; it is arguably, for some, more important than the book that inspired it. Without the inspiration from Heart of Darkness, Coppola would have made a wholly different movie, probably less powerful and less enduring, and thus the film helps to secure the continuing presence of Conrad's novel in our culture because of the film's own enduring relevance. The popular film gains more dimensional complexity; the novel gains currency and a further reference point from which to evaluate it. Kurtz in Conrad's text is singularly silent; his words are reported, but he rarely speaks in the narrative. Yet his dying facial expression speaks to Marlow as eloquently as any words: "I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror--of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?". Conrad allows Marlow this speculative interpretation of Kurtz's final moments, but his final words "The horror! The horror!" reverberate through the closing pages of the novella, replete with possible meanings that Marlow is unable to fully decipher. Coppola, aware of Conrad's refusal to nail the meaning of this enigmatic moment, goes some way towards emulating Conrad. Marlon Brando's utterance of Colonel Kurtz's last words, "The horror! The horror!" is a notorious film sequence. It has been regarded as laughably inept, even comical; but it is also possible to see this as an example of Coppola (and Brando) attempting to convey the notoriously slippery nature of Conrad's narrative style. These are just about the last words spoken in the film, which leaves the impact of the utterance symbolically reflecting back on the whole filmic action, at one level. At another level, those two repeated words are conjoined with Jim Morrison's refrain "this is the end," as the musical soundtrack to the closing sequence. This dying whisper of horror is coupled with the equally horrific sight of the sacrificially slaughtered buffalo and the hellish scene as Willard (Martin Sheen) leaves Colonel Kurtz's compound, suggesting the inhumane and bloody nature of Kurtz's regime. Conrad, characteristically, leaves the words undeciphered for the reader. The juxtaposition of musical soundtrack and disturbing visual image goes some way towards unraveling meaning, but at the same time this multi-layering applies more potential signification to the words without fixing that meaning exactly. Thus the film is emulating the written text in a further example of postmodern intertextuality. This is my request that you must see the film as soon as possible and then you may also LEARN how multiple layers of meaning operates in a text like Heart of Darkness. Bless you.