Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad was one of the first works of fiction to explore modernist notions of reality, and specifically, what makes an experience "real." "Apocalypse Now" can, in many ways, be thought of as the transposition of Conrad's ideas onto a modern war. Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato investigates similar themes concerning mental and physical interpretations of reality and is also placed in the Vietnam War. Together, these three works provide insights into the minds of Francis Ford Coppola, Tim O'Brien, and Joseph Conrad; in particular, they reveal how these three artists structure their interpretations of reality through direct experience, memories, and dreams.
Conrad was, of course, a pre-modernist author. He did not go as far as many that followed him, like Wolfe or Hemmingway, who jumped from moment to moment, and perspective to perspective in an effort to represent reality as a combination of people, ideas and emotions. However, Conrad did intentionally try to deviate from the traditional, chronological approach to storytelling. We, as the readers, are distanced three times from the actual people and events in his story: Africa is seen through Marlow's perspective, Marlow is seen through the narrator's perspective, and finally, the reader is left to interpret the tale.
The narrator tells us that "to him [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine." (Conrad 7). Importantly, it is the narrator that details the purpose of Marlow's story: the meaning is engulfed in haze and uncertainty -- this haze cannot be waved away -- but the uncertainty is what makes any meaning we do see possible. Truly, this is a cryptic theme for a novel. Additionally, the narrator, not Marlow, claims that this is the purpose of the story. Clearly, Conrad was very concerned that his audience should derive their own meanings from Heart of Darkness. He perceived their likely physical distance from the African wilderness, as well as their mental distance from Kurtz.
Marlow was capable of detailing the facts of his adventure -- as he saw them -- but the mental reality of the experience could not fully be conveyed or duplicated. For instance, when he gives his account of the man-o-war firing at natives hidden on the coast he describes it as "firing into a continent." (Conrad 21). Almost certainly it was not that dramatic, but the description gives an insight into Marlow's understanding of the events in his own personal reality. Yet by the choice of perspective we, as readers, are forced to look through so many lenses before we can interpret the actual event that its magnitude is greatly increased and distorted by the various interpretations that distance us from Conrad himself. This is, naturally, deliberate.
Heart of Darkness is semiautobiographical; so some of the events did have a physical reality to them at one time. But Conrad does not try to write his own biography -- to him the physical events were not as much a reality as the way they were interpreted. Conrad does not, either, try to create a reality by switching from perspective to perspective, but rather, he ties to create a reality by representing multiple perspectives simultaneously. This unique use of perspective was purposely employed by the author to enhance emotional and mental realities while downplaying the concrete.
Tim O'Brien in his postmodern work, Going After Cacciato, uses quite different methods than Conrad; but he maintains the same goal of amplifying mental interpretations of physical events. From the physical point-of-view, the book takes place during a single night of guard duty on the South China Sea. Most of the story is in the third person perspective, but it becomes apparent that it takes place entirely in the mind of Lieutenant Paul Berlin. Essentially, O'Brien borrows from actual concrete events at Berlin's physical location, in his memories, and in his imaginings.
Going After Cacciato fluctuates from chapters about Paul Berlin's sentry duty, to chapters about missions he carried out in his past, to his imaginary chasing of Cacciato to Paris. Berlin, himself, tries to keep a continual grasp on reality -- on the "facts." It is significant that the novel begins with a list of these supposed facts. They include a list of the dead: "Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had dies in tunnels. Peterson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead." (O'Brien 1). Despite this daunting list, the story introduces these characters and reveals their deaths later in the book. This is done to establish Berlin's mindset. The physical reality of their deaths does not translate to their deaths in the mind.
Even though Berlin spends the full physical duration of this story in one place his mind is free to move to places he has been and places he could have gone. Largely, Berlin's hallucinogenic account of Cacciato's desertion is a reflection of the guilt he feels; it is an account of the things that may have occurred had he made different decisions.
When they first set out to follow the AWOL soldier Berlin envisions the consequences: "The possibilities were closing themselves out, and though he tried, it was hard to see a happy end to it. . . . He imagined it. He imagined the many dangers of the march: treachery and deceit at every turn, disease, thirst, jungle beasts crouching in ambush; but yes, he also imagined the good times ahead, the sting of loneliness, the great new quiet, new leanness and knowledge and wisdom." (O'Brien 23). This imagining is crucial to O'Brien's construction of reality. Berlin himself is trapped in the world of facts, but the novel is able to take his daydreams and transform them into a separate entity; a reality beyond the facts that he clings to.
The story that O'Brien tells is a combination of Berlin's "facts," his memories, and his daydreams. Yet, even the facts seem to have more existence in the mind than in physical reality. By the end Berlin admits to himself, "Those were all the facts, and he could face them squarely. The order of the facts -- which facts came first and which came last, the relations among facts -- here he had trouble, but it was not the trouble of keeping facts. It was the trouble of understanding them, keeping them straight." (O'Brien 323). With this passage O'Brien is hoping to show that even an extensive knowledge of the physical world is always imperfect -- and the truths that are born out of these facts are formed within an individual's perspective. It is Berlin's regret that skews his interpretation of the world, and causes him to dream-up alternate endings to past events: it is his regret that gives this tale life. In Going After Cacciato Tim O'Brien hopes to demonstrate that human emotions are what determine interpretation of reality.
Francis Ford Coppola nearly went mad creating "Apocalypse Now." It was filmed in the Philippines and was riddled with creative problems as well as problems in production. He endeavored to create a contemporary adaptation of Conrad's classic. It is difficult to imagine a better setting than the Vietnam War, for the loss of values and disillusionment of American people.
However, "Apocalypse Now" does not distance the audience from the story in the same manner as Heart of Darkness. We are told of Captain Willard's story directly from his narration. The choice of media -- film -- requires that the audience be privy to every aspect of the journey; we can see…