Schopenhauer And Apocalypse Now

The link is Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. The movie is inspired by the book. Schopenhauer was born in Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland while Conrad was from a Polish family in Ukraine. The German philosopher was an influence, along with Nietzsche, on Conrad’s writing, with the inevitability and futility of struggle being prominent in the writings of all three.

Heart of Darkness

The story is told in flashback by Marlow, an English sea dog currently moored on the Thames. He is first shown to us in a Buddha-like pose. Schopenhauer cited his three major influences as being Plato, Kant and the Upanishads. The latter are Hindu scriptures which I understand have some common elements with Buddhism including the beliefs that the world is an illusion, and hence not particularly worth getting involved with, and a generally non-theistic approach.

Marlow retails the story of how he was dispatched to the Belgian Congo by an ivory trading company. His mission is to find an apparently rogue ivory agent, Mr Kurtz, who has ‘gone native’ and is no longer to be counted a member of civilized society. The irony of this maintenance of a moral hierarchy in a world in which slavery, death and exploitation are normal, is stark. Kurtz has become more effective than normal ivory agents, dispatching more than all the rest of them combined, but is doing so by using ‘unacceptable’ methods. This despite the Company, which is sinister and unnamed beyond that, engaging in random shelling of the bush.

A long, slow and extremely difficult journey up the river begins. More and more of the trappings of ‘civilisation’ are dispensed with as the journey progresses, with human activity being restricted to the essential. Marlow finally arrives to be greeted by a motley figure in harlequin patches. This is a Russian trader who has come completely under the spell of Kurtz.

Kurtz is some type of ‘universal genius’ with a talent for poetry. He is deeply charismatic and is worshiped as a god by the natives. Conrad describes this mostly through listing its effects and the deepening fascination of Marlow for the agent as he learns more both about his exploits and the complete moral bankruptcy and ineffectual nature of the Company’s operations. Everything about Kurtz is a lie – even his name. We are reminded that this is the German for ‘Short’, and yet the man himself is seven feet tall – not least in impact.

Apocalypse Now

The movie also takes place entirely in flashback, although this is less explicit here than in the book. The protagonist Capt. Willard has been dispatched upriver in Vietnam to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ the command of Col. Kurtz. The problem that senior officers and the CIA – known as ‘the Company’ – have with Kurtz is that he has become too effective by using unorthodox methods. He is no longer taking orders, because he has realized that this is not the most effective way forward.

Willard also spends an immense amount of time moving slowly up the river into the Heart of Darkness accompanied by a crew of lost souls and misfits. He finally reaches Col. Kurtz’s station and is greeted by Dennis Hopper, who is a photographer analogous to the Russian trader acolyte of Mr Kurtz the ivory agent. It is true of both characters that they are half crazed, obsessed by Kurtz and both talk much to much. This is because they have no one else to talk to – one doesn’t talk with Kurtz, one listens – and so they fill the silence with babble.

“He could have gone for General, but he went for himself instead.” Col. Kurtz has turned his back on the military hierarchy despite being a third generation graduate of West Point with possibilities of much greater further promotion. Kurtz has realized that the purity and futility of the struggle means that victory is meaningless but in any case will only be reached by those having the most pure accommodation with evil.
When Willard finally reaches Kurtz, the latter illustrates the point with the story of an inoculation trip into a Vietnamese village. They complete the mission but come back after the Vietcong have also been to the village, and they find a neat pile of severed five-year old right arms. This is the purity Kurtz means.

We learn from IMDB the following: “The photojournalist quotes two T.S. Eliot poems. In a late scene in the film, a slow pan over a table in Kurtz’s room shows a copy of “From Ritual to Romance”, a book by Jessie Weston that inspired Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland”. Indeed, Eliot’s epigraph to The Hollow Men begins “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”. And here is Kurtz reciting the poem. Kurtz is the archetypal hollow man, bereft of faith and morality. But can we judge that, without ourselves assuming a moral standpoint? Is it not true that Kurtz is just more clearly sighted than the rest of us?


The central theme of Schopenhauer, explored initially in his masterwork The World as Will and Representation, is that the world presents itself in two aspects, only one of which, The Will, is real. It is an endless pointless striving, with some comparability to the concept of energy. So a stone or a tree are both manifestations of The Will – but it is important to understand that Schopenhauer does not mean that the stone decides in some way to fly through the air or roll over in a stream.

The Will exists in the noumenal realm and is Schopenhauer’s characterization of the thing-in-itself of Kant. The extrusions of The Will into the phenomenal realm are the objects and persons to be seen there. The application of space and time to experience allow for individuation; in the noumenal realm The Will is undivided. Thus we ourselves create the individuation that makes conflict possible and inevitable. Different elements of The Will feed on each other without knowing that they attack different aspects of themselves. We are also therefore the source of evil. This must be true, because in the absence of moral facts, we create all values. The contact here with the film is with the story of the severed arms. Within one value system, that of the Americans, this is abhorrent. Within that of the Vietcong, the loss of the arms is a necessary sacrifice to the greater goal of expelling the Americans. While our sympathies may lie on one side or the other of this question, it is important to understand that no correct answer can be derived from logic or anywhere else. The struggle and the apparent evil cannot be avoided, but are without meaning. Col. Kurtz comes closest to realizing this.

The musician Wagner never met Schopenhauer, but idolized him. According to Bryan Magee, Wagner and Cosima would read Schopenhauer most nights. Some elements of Wagner’s librettos play on darkness in a Schopenhauerean sense which is confusing because it will be the opposite of the normal connotations of darkness as being related to ignorance and danger. The ‘enlightenment’ is a byword for increased knowledge. Whereas for Schopenhauer, following Plato and the Upanishads, studying the world of appearance is the opposite of enlightening because it is illusory. We are to seek redemption and truth and The Will in the darkness. Thus the doomed lovers in Tristan and Isolde seek to be united forever in the darkness, which makes little sense without noting the Schopenhauerean subtext. Wagner is a central motif in perhaps the most famous sequence of the film: The Ride of the Valkyries. Music was of the first importance for Schopenhauer. He believed that it represented a direct copy of The Will, but this is confusing since he adored music but saw The Will as the source of all the world’s suffering.

Schopenhauer’s advocated solution to the problems presented by the inevitable conflict brought about by the extrusion of The Will into the phenomenal realm is somewhat self-contradictory, in that he suggests a Zen-like suppression of desire. This seems to involve The Will deciding to will no more. What would this leave behind, if not an unmotivated Hollow Man?

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

#Narcissism and #Unexpected Behaviour

Does Heidegger Establish That The Ready-to-hand Enjoys ‘Priority’ Over The Present-at-hand?

Spinoza’s Style Of Argument In Ethics I