Appropriated Now Redux

Finished reading Heart of Darkness today. In my last post, I wrote about how the movie Apocalypse Now seems to have appropriated my reading of the novella, my sense of the book’s meaning.

As I finished the book, I realized that I was less satisfied with it than on previous readings. It wasn’t the novel I remembered, the exploration of the dark places of the human heart and mind. It wasn’t as foreboding as the film that lifted its plot and some of its characters from the Congo to Vietnam. Kurtz, for instance, is less than menacing in the book, unlike Brando’s portrayal in the film. In the book, Kurtz is somewhat pitiful.

It was not a horrible read, as far as language goes. It often was filled with lush images and original language, as this passage demonstrates:

The great wall of vegetation an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his existence.

Those images are as strong as the images of shadow and light rolling and flickering inside Kurtz’s compound in the movie, evoking the sense that some menacing force is out there in the jungle, and we really shouldn’t get off the goddamn boat, not if we want to survive. And Conrad’s prose is clean, for the most part. Few clunky sentences exist.

Still, something seemed not quite right. I found myself irritated by the constant repetition, in one way or another, of the phrase “heart of darkeness,” even breaking its way into the final sentence:

The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky — seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

Moreover, Conrad falsely attempts to lead the reader into a mood, into sharing with Marlow a fellow-feeling of horror and dread. Jane Smiley notes Conrad’s failure is sentimentality. He tends, she says, “to generalize from [false] feelings rather than to actually observe what is around him . . . .”

The narrator Marlow doesn’t observe, Smiley says, he places over the actual landscape his feelings about the darkness within the jungle, not looking for what is really present within (perhaps explaining the frequent repetition of “heart of darkness;” it’s already a fear present within Marlow), a common tendency of sentimentalists, as Smiley notes:

Sentimentality is often defined as fake or exaggerated feeling, but it also may be seen as feeling that has no basis in the sentimentalist’s actual experience — he does not truly observe or perceive the object, but rather projects fears or wishes onto the object and then reacts to them as if they were real.

Smiley seems to be right about Marlow’s narrative: It left me missing the horror Marlow believes he witnesses in the jungle. It seems clear that before Marlow set off on his journey upriver he already felt and knew what he was going to experience without actually exploring, without discovering if there really is a menace, a horror in the jungle.


Appropriated Now

I started reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness almost 10 days ago; I’ve read it several times before. A few years after I saw the movie (aka Apocalypse Now). Then once for a class in the English novel. There we got the whole lecture of the novel’s mythopoeic themes — a hero’s journey into darkness and his return to the light.

apocalypse_now_marlon_brando.jpgBut now, as when I first read the novel, I keep trying to find parallels to the movie; I keep expecting a black pajama-ed Marlon Brando to face off with a haggard, whiskey-addled Martin Sheen and utter “the horror, the horror” at any moment. The images of the movie slide into the novel’s narrative, though the first image of Kurtz in the novel — “but this — ah — specimen, was impressively bald. The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball — an ivory ball . . . .” — reminds me of Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (which I compared in an earlier post to an American Heart of Darkness). I’ve come to the spot in the novel when Marlow encounters the harlequin, played so well by Dennis Hopper in movie that now as I read the novel, I picture the figure as Hopper; I hear Hopper’s voice in the narrative.

The novel has become appropriated by the movie. At least for me. Its meaning is now locked inside the narrative of the movie and the movie seems as relevant now — given the apocalyptic tendencies of our current regime and its military adventurism — as it was when released in 1979, six years after America’s pullout from Vietnam.

I am what I am

When I first put this incarnation of Exile on Ninth Street up, I thought of using it as a reading journal of sorts, specifically to record the experience of my 100-novels reading project.

As I’ve posted, though, I’ve also written about other readings, about writing, and occasionally about my personal life. Recently I’ve made posts about writing regularly, and promising myself to write regularly, whether here at the blog or freelance or exercises or just writing, but each time I’ve done that, I haven’t held to that promise.

This morning I was thinking about it and began to wonder if the problem is that I haven’t been thinking of myself as a writer. And I think I began to stop thinking of myself as a writer a couple of years ago when I left my full time daily newspaper job 2 1/2 years ago to begin a brief stint as an adjunct writing instructor at a community college (my advice is not to work as an adjunct, unless you have a full time job or have some other source of substantial income; otherwise you’ll be working with no or few benefits, and no promise of classes, unless you want to drive all over creation — at least in Texas — to grab as many classes as possible. The more I think about it, the more I agree with Jerome Weeks’s assessment — the use of adjuncts and other part time faculty by colleges and universities is “sweatshop exploitation.”)

Now, I’m a textbook editor, and I’ve never thought of myself as an editor, though I was the lifestyles and religion editor at the paper. At the newspaper, I thought of myself as a writer; I was obsessive about being a writer, always trying to improve technique or style or voice. Editing, back then, was simply part of the job, not the thrust of what I was doing. Recently I haven’t had the same urgency, the same passionate drive to write, because all I’ve done — professionally, at least — is edit. While thinking of myself as an editor, I’ve written a handful of blog posts, and one published freelance story since July.

I’ve been trying think of myself as a writer again, not an editor, to think of myself as an editor only in the context that it is my job and not what I am. I’m trying to regain that urgent sense that everything has to be written down, that there are stories to be written. That there are words, sentences and paragraphs to be written, because I am a writer.