Alexander M Gross

Literature | Language | Culture

The Gothic Apocalypse

This article discusses Heart of Darkness in terms of the Imperial Gothic with recourse to psychoanalytic literary theory. The visual representation in Apocalypse Now of Gothic elements in Conrad's narrative is also addressed.

Gothic Psychology in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now

Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared.

They are truly enemies.                                                                       Col. Kurtz

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was first serialised in 1899 before its publication in novel form three years later. It came at the apogee of the British Empire, at the end of a century that had seen unprecedented industrial development and territorial expansion. As such it is a narrative that is invested with colonial ideologies, moral concerns, and fin-de-siècle anxieties, and which is identified by Patrick Brantlinger as an exemplar of “Imperial Gothic” literature. Conrad's second narrator Marlow, speaking within a frame narrative, recounts his journey up the Congo river in search of an infamous ivory trader named Kurtz, who has assumed exploitative control over the indigenous population. Marlow's exposure to horrors leads him to question his personal values as well as those of his society. As a work noted for its stylistic merits and with a long-assured place in the Western literary canon, Heart of Darkness has been at the centre of an intense critical debate for many years. Postcolonial criticism has helped to reveal the reiterative subjugation of Africa and its people within Heart of Darkness, with criticism of Conrad's personal attitudes and their representation in the novel perhaps best exemplified by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and his essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness” (1977), which brands the naturalised British author a “thoroughgoing racist.”

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

Yet Heart of Darkness is not merely a cautionary tale about the dangers of imperialism or the perceived threat of savagery in an uncivilised world; it is also a journey into the self, an examination of the contradictions that plague the human psyche. It is profoundly psychological, an enigmatic narrative that is open to various forms of interpretation beyond perspectives of race and nation. Indeed, Conrad himself stressed that his work should be inconclusive and open to interpretation: “a work of art is very seldom limited to one exclusive meaning and not necessarily tending to a definite conclusion. And this for the reason that the nearer it approaches art, the more it acquires a symbolic character.” An examination of the novel's psychological subtext and its place, according to Jennifer Lipka, as “a prime example of the highest of British Gothic fiction” is offered here in an attempt to highlight the enduring value of Conrad's vision.


The universality of Conrad's story is corroborated by the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, the magnum opus of acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola. The film re-imagines Conrad's basic plot in the context of the Vietnam War. Captain Willard narrates the story of his journey up the fictional Nung river under orders to assassinate Col. Kurtz, a decorated officer who has reputedly gone insane and is acting outside his remit. Willard suffers psychologically as he nears the climactic meeting with Kurtz. The numerous narratological parallels between the film and the novel amidst vastly different settings highlight the potential for Heart of Darkness to transcend some of the fraught issues of race and nation that commonly form the focus of postcolonial criticism. The ending of the film in particular represents the director's personal vision of a journey into the self, as Coppola adapted John Milius's screenplay to adhere more closely to Heart of Darkness and its thematic concerns. As with Willard in Apocalypse Now, Marlow's psychological development over the course of his journey reveals much about a work that is concerned with the contradictions found within the human psyche. In her reading of Heart of Darkness as a Gothic novel, Lipka refers to the same internalised conflicts of the character and explains that “it is these contradictions that lead Marlow into taking a journey into his unconscious mind, and it is this journey into darkness that is best expressed through viewing Heart of Darkness as a Gothic novel.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, the early Gothic novel tradition which began over a century before with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto had given way to a wider set of Gothic conventions. Brantlinger informs us that many late-Victorian novels are characterised by Gothic features that can be seen as a manifestation of contemporary anxiety and sensationalism, and as such Heart of Darkness falls into his category of the Imperial Gothic. The sense of dread that pervades the narrative is perhaps its most striking Gothic feature, but some of the more corporeal conventions of the early Gothic novel are also identifiable. The exotic setting of the Belgian Congo, the repetitive descriptions of darkness and the unknown, and the pursuit of the damned, monstrous Kurtz are all exemplary of the Gothic tradition, as are some of the novel's structural features. The frame narrative that positions Marlow on a boat in the Thames to begin recounting his experiences is reminiscent of similar narrative devices in Shelley's Frankenstein or Coleridge's Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

Conrad's celebrated descriptive and at times impressionistic language can also be seen to consolidate the various instances when Marlow talks of nightmarish visions, and contributes to a dream-like sensation throughout: “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams.” Lipka states that this use of language serves as a technique that unsettles the reader and that it serves as “an excellent literary technique for a Gothic novel, as the initial descriptions make the reader uneasy with the unknown, which is slowly drawing them in to a shock.”

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud's theory of the unconscious, the central revelation of his book The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), describes a “repository of repressed feelings and instinctual drives,” many of which are potentially conducive to violence. This is clearly an important concept to consider when assessing man's tendency towards conflict and warfare. On numerous occasions, Apocalypse Now presents a paradox from the American experience of the Vietnam War, a life that appears to be detached from so-called reality. Colonel Kurtz, for example, dictates: “We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write fuck on their aeroplanes because 'it's obscene'!” Such paradoxes are indicative of the film's more general approach to the question of a soldier's split psyche and the internal conflict between the moral and the immoral. An approach to literature and film that considers the unconscious rests on the theories of Freud, a man who was Conrad's contemporary and was interested in various writers of the time, arguing that literary texts could be read as manifestations of the author's subconscious.

Freud proposed in The Interpretation of Dreams that a “new class of psychical material” was at work within the human mind, which was a better indication of the meaning of a dream than its manifest content. He labelled this material the “dream-thoughts,” and argued that the original content of a dream, as we remember it when we wake up, is “a transcript of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression.” He concluded that through an indeterminable process of “condensation” the dream-thoughts are transformed into dream-content, and dreams are therefore brief and simple in comparison to the thoughts that underlie them, rendering them impossible to ever be completely interpreted. Secondly, Freud presented the idea of a process of displacement in relation to dreams, noting that the manifest content commonly takes on a different emphasis when compared to the dream-thoughts derived from analysis. According to Freud, this results in a dream yielding “no more than a distortion of the dream-wish which exists in the unconscious.” It is the theory of the unconscious, pioneered by Freud, along with the idea that our unconscious desires and thoughts are manifested in our dreams via the processes of condensation and displacement, that makes Freudian analysis so important to literary criticism. A literary work or a film such as Apocalypse Now effectively becomes analogous to a dream, and Conrad's language in Heart of Darkness suggests a certain awareness of this potential. The work can thereby be said to lend itself to the same methods of psychoanalysis as the dreams of one of Freud's patients.

The Ego and the Id (Freud, 1923) outlines the functions of the three proposed parts of the human psyche, and the implications of the surrounding psychological theory bear great importance on both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. The ego is the name given to the conscious part of the mind that is governed by rational and logical thought, as opposed to the id, which is the unconscious part of the psyche that houses all the transgressive desires and thoughts that are rejected by the conscious logic of the ego. Freud suggested that a conscious censor within the human mind represses unsuitable material to the unconscious part of the mind – the id – to be manifested only in a disguised form, such as a dream. When a patient endures a mental disturbance of some sort and begins to freely exhibit such repressed material that would ordinarily remain contained in a healthy mind, he is diagnosed as neurotic. More informally, these are considered to be the beginnings of insanity, defined as “a disorder causing a person to act against the social or legal demands of society.” The third part of Freud's psychical model – the superego – accounts for a human conscious sense of morality, justice, and other such systems of belief that we are conditioned to adopt by various institutions including the family unit. For this reason, according to Ross Murfin, “the superego almost seems to be outside of the self.”

This area of Freud's psychoanalytic theory is applicable to the works of both Conrad and Coppola. It may be argued that there is an occasion for repressed thoughts and psychological material to emerge from the id into the conscious “reality” that lies between dreaming and neurosis, namely a creative outlet such as a literary text or a film. Freud was a proponent of the notion that a literary text was at least in part a representation of its author's subconscious fantasies, and in the case of Conrad, such a theory may lead to the supposition that his narrator Marlow shares the same feelings and moral dilemmas as himself. Frederick Karl has commented that Heart of Darkness is critical about the “illogic of human behaviour which tries to justify itself with precision only to surrender to explosive inner needs.” Conrad uses the mysterious figure of Kurtz as the vehicle for his concerns, but at the same time he presents Marlow as a character who is greatly influenced and perhaps even psychologically transformed by his contact with Kurtz: “I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.” Not only that, but Marlow also asserts of Kurtz: “I wasn't arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear.” This makes it possible to suggest that Conrad's own experiences in the Congo left him with repressed desires for power without common social restraint – the type of power held by Kurtz – while the logic and morality of his ego and superego resulted in his otherwise critical approach to the question of the misuse of Western power in the colonial territories.

The subdivision of the human mind is also of relevance to the wider thematic concerns of Heart of Darkness. The author's criticism of the behaviour of Western civilisation is illuminated with reference to the Freudian concepts of the ego and the id, especially in the character of Kurtz, a symbolic representative for the civilised world as a whole: “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” In the novel, he has abused his position as ivory trader in the Congo to exercise a god-like power over the Congolese natives who yield to his Western influence, while in Apocalypse Now, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz is a celebrated and respected military leader who has become disillusioned with the war because of its absurdity, and who has yielded to his repressed desires to subjugate a foreign race and live outside the moral codes of his original society. The extreme neurosis – psychosis – displayed by Copolla's Kurtz is a deliberate result of the director's will to powerfully highlight the sheer absurdity of the war, and more specifically the disillusionment felt by such men as a result of the irresponsible actions of the few in command. The impact of the presumed insanity that characterises the Colonel's life in the jungle, and his rejection of the ideals that he had once upheld, is enforced by the earlier descriptions of his exemplary career as told by Willard: “At first I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn't believe they wanted this man dead [. . .] like they said he had an impressive career, maybe too impressive. I mean, perfect”.

In Freudian terms, both versions of the Kurtz character ultimately reject their superegos; that is to say, they break free of the constraints of social acceptability that normally govern their existence. Conrad's Kurtz is a man with “immense plans” that remain unfulfilled at the time of his death, and he is arguably a victim of the immoral and hypocritical society that produced him – although he is presented throughout as an extraordinary figure with a unique perspective, he must ultimately be seen as the rule and not the exception.” His dying exclamation of “the horror, the horror,” so brilliantly captured by Coppola's own Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando, is indicative of the clarity in retrospection that he possesses despite his perceived insanity. It perhaps serves as a comment that, to truly understand the savagery and injustice of contemporary society, it is necessary to break away from it and oppose it. Coppola took this notion of the unconscious overriding the ego and superego and extended it to the question of morality in war. In the closing speech by Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, he explains to Willard that “horror and moral terror are your friends; if they are not, then they are enemies to be feared.” He relates this idea to his own revelatory experience of savagery – equivalent to the savagery that Marlow witnesses in Conrad's Congo – and concludes that “they were stronger than me because they could stand it.”

The necessity to break free from the restraints of the superego constitutes one of the prominent philosophies that pervade Apocalypse Now: the only way to overcome the uncivilised opposition in warfare is to match its savagery and immorality. Thereby, the accepted structure of the human psyche must be inversed, so that logical judgements of the ego are repressed, and the unacceptable desires and violent tendencies of the id are exploited. Conrad's presentation of the native black man, partly because of the cultural context of Heart of Darkness, very much suggests an absence of any sort of superego, that part of the mind that Freud deemed to be the result of sociological influences within modern society. Coppola adheres to this idea closely, presenting Kurtz's Montagnard army, for example, as savages that indiscriminately follow his orders because of the absence of any psychological process that suggest to them what they are doing is inappropriate, and the lack of any structured society that would influence them to behave within certain boundaries of acceptability. Frantz Fanon's essay “The Negro and Psychopathology” corroborates the idea that there is a marked difference in psychological processes between people of civilised societies and those from areas of the world that remain untouched by Western influence: “militarization and the centralization of authority in a country automatically entail a resurgence of the authority of the father. In Europe [. . .] the family is a miniature of the nation.”

The paradox that is presented by Coppola's Kurtz concerns the fact that the US military and government – powerful institutions of patriarchal society and self-proclaimed upholders of morality and justice in the modern world – failed to overcome their enemies and spread their values because they lacked the ability to harness the areas of the human mind that are savage and naturally aggressive. Col. Kurtz is an example of a man that has acknowledged and renounced the absurdity of America's military methods, and subsequently enabled himself to assume a position of power and fulfil the repressed wishes of the common man. More simply, he says of the Vietcong that “if I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly.” This defines the transformation of Kurtz from a paragon of Western values to a monstrous Gothic figure, the same transformation that is undergone by his namesake in Heart of Darkness, and which also threatens the “emissary of light” Marlow.

Even before the complex character of Col. Kurtz is introduced in Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard's own unstable psychological state is made clear. Relating to the difficulties found by Vietnam veterans in realigning themselves with normal society after being in a war situation, he explains the mental torment he experiences when awaiting a mission: “when I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” If the war situation is taken as the arena for man's unconscious and repressed natural desires to be expressed, and the soldier's homecoming is seen as his return to a world governed by rules of social acceptability, this introduction of the Captain illustrates the conflict that can occur between two distinct areas of the human psyche, as defined by Freud. While Kurtz is introduced from the outset as a respected officer who had gradually reached insanity, the audience joins Willard on his quest to reach the Colonel and sees such a psychological process unfold at first hand. The difficulty for the human mind in coming to terms with the events of warfare is ironically summarised by General Corman, the man responsible for what the supposedly enlightened Kurtz sees as crimes of hypocrisy: “in this war, things get confused out there [. . .] because there's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil.”

It is the “conflict in every human heart” that strongly relates both works to the Gothic tradition, as they share the same thematic concerns about the moral implications of imperialism and the capacity for evil in humankind. Both are frame stories with mediating narrators, and the role of the first narrator in the novel can be seen to be adopted by the camera in the film. Therefore, despite significant variations in the setting and story, Linda Cahir concludes that “Coppola's Apocalypse Now is a structural and a thematic analogue to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, possibly because [. . .] Coppola understood that technique and theme, structure and meaning are inseparable entities.” For this reason, it is instructive to examine the adaptation of the novel's various Gothic features by the film, and indeed how those features reveal the complex psychological subtext contained within. The Gothic in literature and film is closely related to physical horror and psychological terror, a distinction offered by Ann Radcliffe in her essay on the supernatural: “where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreader evil.” In both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, explicit horrors and images of savagery are accompanied by a sense of dread, and it is precisely this feeling that is accentuated through Gothic tropes: mysterious and exotic settings, dreamlike sequences, a dark and brooding atmosphere, and the desire to confront an elusive, damned soul that has monstrous characteristics.

The Gothic elements within Heart of Darkness and their visual representations in Apocalypse Now help to reveal the impenetrable paradox that humankind can only become fully sensitised to the depraved facets of modern society by succumbing to that part of the psyche that is normally repressed by conscious logic and sociological conditioning. This idea approaches a wealth of psychological readings that can be applied to either work, some of which have been considered here. Gothic features amplify the psychological transformations of Marlow and Willard as both discover that, in Karl’s words, “the dirty work of this world is carried out by men whose reputations are preserved by lies.” Ultimately, it is this realisation that constitutes the true “horror” of both narratives, a greater horror than that which forms our preconceptions of imperialism, savagery, and warfare. It is left to Kurtz, the monstrous and transgressive figure who has shaken off the restraints of his former society, to identify horror in its purest form.

Gross, A. M.


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