From the Birth of Tragedy to the Heart of Darkness

24 Jul

“When I do a novel, I don’t really use the script, I use the book; when I did Apocalypse Now, I used Heart of Darkness. Novels usually have so much rich material.” —Francis Ford Coppola

Nietzsche’s theory was new and innovative in terms of the age in which he published it. He had hoped to gain respect from his peers from it and, despite high praise from the Wagner family, it was generally poorly received.

His theories in Birth of Tragedy went against strong held beliefs of the day. God was not dead as far as his contemporaries were concerned. Nietzsche questioned the whole outlook of the society in which he lived and he found it to be stale.

He is not the sole originator of the ideas in Birth of Tragedy. He is strongly influenced by Schopenhauer who “has described the tremendous dread that grips man when he suddenly loses his way amidst the cognitive forms of appearance, because the principle of sufficient reason, in one of its forms, seems suspended.” (BT p.16)

Here the reason is that of Apollo. Suppress reason and you are left with the chaos and irrationality of Dionysus. Frazer tells us: “The god Dionysus or Bacchus is best known to us as a personification of the vine and of exhilaration produced by the juice of the grape.” (GB p.386)

Nietzsche quotes from Schopenhauer: “Just as the boatman sits in his little boat, trusting to his fragile craft in a stormy sea which, boundless in every direction, rises and falls in howling, mountainous waves, so in the midst of a world full of suffering the individual man calmly sits, supported and trusting the pricipum individuationis” (WR p.352).

Might not that same boatman be Marlow on his journey up the Congo or Willard on his way to Cambodia? It is quite possible that Conrad is referring to Nietzsche’s BT (p39); “True understanding, insight into the terrible truth, outweighs every motive for action, for Hamlet and Dionysiac man alike. No consolidation will be of any use from now on, longing passes over the world towards death, beyond the gods themselves; existence, radiantly reflected in the gods or in an immortal ‘Beyond’ is denied. Aware of truth from a single glimpse of it all man can now see is the horror and absurdity of existence; now he understands the wisdom of Silenus, the god of the woods: it repels him”

Thus Marlow says in HD (p112) “Destiny. My Destiny! Droll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of unextinguishable regrets.”

Nietzsche’s theory embraces the WILL and the IDEA, which can also be compared to the Dionysiac and the Apolline, and he applies this dichotomy to art and music. This leads on to his idea of the “will to power” where the weak hold back the strong.

The closer you get to the WILL, the purer the art form. Therefore music is the purest form as it requires no intellectualisation to get its message across. However Nietzsche had a high regard for painting, though not as high as music.

The film, had it been around at the time, might concievably have topped the list as it is an ‘immersion’ experience, it draws you in. It is quite possible to follow Apocalypse Now without understanding a word that is said. Admittedly you are left with the ‘reality’ while you lose some of the insights.

Apocalypse Now is full of symbolism of the rationalisation of the Dionysiac. It is impossible to conquer the chaos and so it must be brought into the fold. For instance, the river is described by Conrad as a winding snake. This motif is carried into the film in the tattoo on Chef’s shoulder. The jungle is filled with insects, possibly dangerous but it is the giant insects, the helicopters, that bear the words “death from the sky”.

There is a fine line between the law and chaos and in Nietzsche’s view of the theatre, the Greek tragedy held the Dionysiac and the Apollonian in the correct balance. For instance in Sophocles immortal tragedy Oedipus Rex Apollo is represented throughout but Dionysus is represented through the chorus.

In Apocalypse Now this relationship can also be explored through the music, being the voice of Dionysus. When all is still the music is calm and flowing, like the mouth of the river, but when the destruction begins or when Willard is in internal turmoil there comes a change. The strains of the orchestra are replaced by the raucous sounds of the Doors.

At other times we here the Rolling Stones but one place in the film where music is used to particularly good effect is at the bridge where there is no longer a command. Without Apollo, Dionysus rules and Hendrix plays over the radio. Of course the most obvious reference to Nietzsche in the film is through Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as the helicopters begin their attack on the rebel village.

Robert Duval’s Colonel Kilgore is an interesting aside. Throughout the film ritual is rife, from the service for the dead soldiers to the barbaric rituals of Kurtz’s tribe. However no where is it better portrayed than in the ritual of surfing. It is also interesting to note the modern widespread use of the phrase “Charlie don’t surf”. It appears that Apocalypse Now has entered the modern mythos.

Kilgore also represents the two forces in balance. Of course he appears totally insane but in the heat of battle he alone remains calm, surveying the beach while shells explode around him—sure in the knowledge that he cannot be killed.

Here the film is disturbingly accurate to life. “I am a general. No one would dare shoot a general.” – Sir Michael Rose, British commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, on why he didn’t flinch when a sniper bullet came close to hitting him last week. (NW)

Then again this could be a reference to Nietzsche as quoted by Camus: “What is more pessimistic than the Greek maxim: ‘Happiness lies in not being’?” (YW p.141) This refers to the idea apparently accepted by the Greeks that it was far better to live a short and glorious life than a long and tedious one thus they gravitated to the Dionysiac.

The central character in Apocalypse now is Willard but his foil is Kurtz. Again they represent the oposite sides. The regimented soldier moving towards chaos, and the “man-god” ruling by absolute.

In Heart of Darkness the manager says; ‘”We must save it at all events – but look how precarious the position is – and why? Because the method is unsound.” “Do you,” said I, looking at the shore, “call it ‘unsound method’?” “Without doubt,” he exclaimed hotly. “Don’t you?”… ‘”No method at all,” I murmured after a while.’ (HD p102)

However Kurtz has gone beyond method. “It is surely undeniable that we take pleasure in dreaming, that we enjoy living in an imaginary life a hundred times more beautiful than reality. This is because we feel the need to forget our individuality and to identify with humanity as a whole” (YW pp, 139-140) Unless we take method to mean rhythm, the control of the Dionysiac. “They disciplined mystical frenzy by means of cadence.” (YW p. 141)

In Frazer’s Golden Bough there is an interesting comment: “a tradition of human sacrifice may sometimes have been a mere interpretation of a sacrificial ritual in which an animal victim was treated as a human being. For example at Tenedos the new-born calf sacrificed to Dionysus was shod in buskins, and the mother cow was tended like a woman in child-bed.” (GB p.392) Despite the insaninty of Kurtz the world of his creation is one of order and so the fine balance is retained. When Willard kils Kurtz he replaces him but he cannot rule because he has come back from the edge and so he must call in the air-strike.

In this essay the following abbreviations apply:

BT: Birth of Tragedy
GB: Golden Bough
HD: Heart of Darkness
NW: Newsweek
WR: The World as Will and Representation I
YW: Youthful Writings

Selective Discography:

Jimi Hendrix
Richard Wagner
The Doors
The Rolling Stones


Apocalypse Now by Francis Coppola – American Zoetrope 1979
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Penguin 1989
Newsweek – May 30, 1994
Poetics by Aristotle – ?
The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche – Penguin 1993
The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer – Penguin 1993
The World as Will and Represenation I by Schopenhauer – ?
Youthful Writings – Cachiers II by Albert Camus – Vintage, pub.

Lecture Notes – Peter Storfer

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Literature


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