COINCIDENCE v. FATE
The influence of Joseph Conrad's work on twentieth century literature is undoubted. In particular, his short novel "Heart Of Darkness" holds a great deal of importance in relation to the work of T.S. Eliot, arguably the most important poet of the twentieth century.
"Heart Of Darkness" is a novel about one man's journey into the depths of Africa during the colonization of the continent in the nineteenth century. His mission is to find Kurtz, a renegade ivory dealer whose sponsors have sent Marlow to investigate rumours of his "misconduct".
The journey is fraught with dangers. Men die from disease or violence with appalling regularity, and the atmosphere is already heavily doom-laden, via events and rumours of Kurtz's "work", even before the narrator starts up the river.
What Marlow finds is a man whose supposedly civilized ideals have been subverted by his own failure as a person. He has been "reduced" to living in the wilderness as some sort of chief, near a god to the few poor natives he holds dominion over. As he nears Kurtz's hut / headquarters / office, Marlow passes a number of posts crowned with human heads. The comparisons with Dante's Inferno are obvious. What Kurtz has been doing in the name of civilization is also obvious.
Marlow tries to get the ailing man "back home", but we know this is not to be. Kurtz dies on the way, and his last words should be familiar to many people: "his stare... wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness... that wide and immense stare embracing, condemning, loathing all the universe". This is the stare with which Kurtz meets the vision of ultimate truth, in a "supreme moment of complete knowledge, greeting it with his final cry -- 'The horror! The horror'."
Eliot's most concentrated reference to Conrad is found in his (chronologically) next most important piece.
"The Hollow Men", written three years later in 1925, has as its basis the theory that the vast majority of people are "hollow" inside, going through life merely "coping", seldom "seeing". Those who do see are doomed by the very fact of their knowledge. It is a direct reference to Conrad, whose "affirmation is that all men are hollow, all fated to endure the condition which Eliot figures so allusively in "The Hollow Men", and all fated to be blind to their condition; all excepting those few, and Kurtz himself is one, who are able eventually to glimpse and face this horrifying truth."
It is relevant to cite both "Heart Of Darkness" and "The Hollow Men" for my purposes, especially in the light of their influence in twentieth century culture and its interpretation of the human predicament.
"Apocalypse Now", Francis Ford Coppola's seminal film of the Eighties, is based directly on Conrad's novel.
The film is no doubt familiar to many people, and hopefully the parallels are obvious. For the Belgian Congo, read Vietnam, for steamboat, gunboat, and so on. But a surprising and inspired scene is that of Kurtz (Marlon Brando), tracked down after the unreality of violence and death of the passage up river by Marlow (Martin Sheen), surrounded by the trappings of a pagan culture based on worship of him, reading aloud in a crumbling temple a section of "The Hollow Men" just before his sacrificial death.
"We are the hollow men
We are the hollow men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men."
The epitaph Eliot gave to the poem was "Mistah Kurtz -- he dead."
The film's title is also applicable to the last lines of the poem, which ends in a bizarre "nursery rhyme", again familiar to many people:
"This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper"
It is a supremely effective film overall and rightly praised. Its effects were far-reaching. As the most important film on Vietnam to date, it held a great deal of attention by virtue of its treatment of the subject. The themes inherent in the film have been explored in the 60s, 70s and 80s by many of the artists working in the fields of art, music and literature.
In art: Raushenberg, Vostell, Beuys, The Art Workers Coalition, Warhol; In literature, Michael Herr, Ginsberg, Wolfe, Burroughs; and in music, this list could be without end. Vietnam and its attendant horrors created waves which still remain with us now.
Joy Division, on tour shortly before Ian Curtis' death, played the soundtrack to "Apocalypse Now" continuously. To many, this could be seen as a tenuous connection. However, Curtis was an admirer of both The Doors and German film maker Werner Herzog (he was watching "Stroyzek" shortly before his death) and Herzog's film "Aguirre, Wrath Of God", a film about Spanish conquistadors journeying along a river into the depths of South America on the search for El Dorado, has many parallels with "Hearts Of Darkness".
I hesitate to make further parallels... In 1980 The Durutti Column recorded a 12" single for the Belgian section set up by Factory in conjunction with Les Disques du Crepuscule. It is entitled "Lips That Would Kiss...", a line from "The Hollow Men" which continues, "...form prayers to broken stone". The piece was written in memory of Ian Curtis by the guitarist Vini Reilly.
A few months later Richard Jobson, with the musical help of Paul Haig, recorded his own sad version of "The Hollow Men".
It is a citation which has importance in the long list of cause and effect: Coppola, Eliot, Conrad and the names in between. The lines refer to "the pathetic trust that Kurtz's fiancee has in his nobility, his truth, his love for her". They echo the very desperation of his, Kurtz's death. "In point of fact, Kurtz sank from faithfulness to her to the worship of pagan forces".
In "Heart Of Darkness", Marlow returns to England and feels duty bound to report the fact of Kurtz's death to his "widow". The meeting is conducted in early evening, the twilight which Eliot refers to in "The Hollow Men". Because Marlow weakens at the last, and lies about Kutz's last words (he tells her they were of love for her), he shows himself to be subject to the same weakness that Kurtz himself fell foul of. In "The Hollow Men", Eliot's lines:
"Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom"
is a reference to that scene.
Eliot's "twilight kingdom" is a testing area, "...a transitional stage between the "dream" and the "other kingdoms", those being Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. "This twilight kingdom is the condition in which man has to face the truth about himself and life, as Kurtz does...".
Another more oblique reference to twilight (crepuscule). The importance of the meaning of "twilight" in both Conrad and Eliot is that it is both the indeterminate area in which we live, indecisive and unseeing, and also the romantic-poetic, dream-like area of unreality, which in reality can lead to weakness or strength.
This one final connection is coincidence, but perhaps it means more than that. In that twilight area, our decisions can send us to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. Those who see the final horror are doomed, either way, in this life.
That is the risk of twilight.
Patrick Moore ~ © 1982