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Heart of Darkness () Top 100 Books of the Millenium

Death of a dirty fighter (Richard S Ehrlich, 7/08/03, Asia Times)
Anthony A "Tony Poe" Poshepny, a decorated former official of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who collected enemy ears, dropped decapitated human heads from the air on to communists and stuck heads on spikes, was buried on the weekend in California. Poshepny, who waged failed secret wars for the United States in Indonesia, Tibet and Laos, was often compared to the Marlon Brando character Kurtz in the movie Apocalypse Now.

"The posting of decapitated heads obviously sent a powerful message - especially to North Vietnamese troops seeking to invade the homelands of the Hmong and Laotian people," Philip Smith, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Public Policy Analysis, said in an e-mail interview after Poshepny's death on June 27.

"He successfully fought terror with terror. He strove to instill courage and respect in the tribal and indigenous forces that he recruited and trained as well as fear in the enemy. In the post-September 11 security environment, fearless men like Tony Poe are what America needs to combat and counter terrorism and the new unconventional threat that America faces from abroad in exotic and uncharted lands," Smith said. [...]

Said Smith of the Center for Public Policy Analysis: "Tony Poe epitomized what the late Theodore Shackley, former CIA station chief in Laos, called the 'Third Option'. America - to avoid the potential twin options of using nuclear or conventional forces to defend its interests - should instead rely on special, elite clandestine forces to recruit, train and arm indigenous, or tribal forces, to project power, protect its interests and counter guerrilla movements, terrorism or other attacks.

"Clearly, Tony Poe symbolized America's decision to exercise its 'Third Option' in Laos."

After retiring in 1975, Poshepny and his Hmong wife lived in northern Thailand until 1992, when they moved to the United States. He remained close to the Lao community in the San Francisco Bay Area, advising their sons to join the US Marines, financing Laotians in need and petitioning Washington for aid to Laotian veterans.

Apocalypse Now is, as most everyone will be aware, based on Joseph Conrad's great, but little understood, novella Heart of Darkness. You'll probably recall that Kurtz's dying words, a moment of clarity in what's become his brilliant nihilistic insanity:
"One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, 'I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.' The light was within a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, 'Oh, nonsense!' and stood over him as if transfixed.

"Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror -- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

"'The horror! The horror!'

"I blew the candle out and left the cabin. The pilgrims were dining in the mess-room, and I took my place opposite the manager, who lifted his eyes to give me a questioning glance, which I successfully ignored. He leaned back, serene, with that peculiar smile of his sealing the unexpressed depths of his meanness. A continuous shower of small flies streamed upon the lamp, upon the cloth, upon our hands and faces. Suddenly the manager's boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt:

"'Mistah Kurtz -- he dead.'"

But few seem to notice or remember how the tale ends. Marlow returns to Europe a seeks out Kurtz's fiance, events he relates to our narrator:
"'Forgive me. I -- I have mourned so long in silence -- in silence.... You were with him -- to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear....'

"'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words....' I stopped in a fright.

"'Repeat them,' she murmured in a heart-broken tone. 'I want -- I want -- something -- something -- to -- to live with.'

"I was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't you hear them?' The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. 'The horror! The horror!'

"'His last word -- to live with,' she insisted. 'Don't you understand I loved him -- I loved him -- I loved him!'

"I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.

"'The last word he pronounced was -- your name.'

"I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. 'I knew it -- I was sure!'... She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark -- too dark altogether...."

Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. "We have lost the first of the ebb," said the Director suddenly. I raised my head. 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.

The fiance is the very quintessence of civilization, yet here Marlow names her "the horror" and that tranquil waterway is not the Congo, but the Thames. The horror, Conrad was saying, is not so much what Kurtz did, but that European civilization required actions like Kurtz's if it was to subdue the savages. Similarly, Tony Poe's actions are less horrific than the blithe self-satisfaction with which we tell ourselves the Cold War was noble and our refusal to use our nuclear weapons and military dominance to end it something for which we are to be congratulated.


Grade: (A)


Joseph Conrad Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Joseph Conrad
    -ESSAY: Under Eastern eyes: Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham (Jeffrey Meyers, 6/30/24, The Article)
    -ESSAY: “Invasion is a Structure Not an Event.” On Settler Colonialism and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: Robert G. Parkinson on Historicizing Imperial Encounters at Home and Abroad (Robert G. Parkinson, May 29, 2024, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Ivory, silver, coal: Joseph Conrad and the ecology of empire (Jeffrey Meyers, October 2021, The Article)
    -ESSAY: Hisham Matar on the Migratory Fictions of Joseph Conrad: The Author of The Return Reconsiders the Story, “Amy Foster” (Hisham Matar, December 3, 2021, LitHub)

Book-related and General Links:
-Joseph Conrad
     -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE: Heart of Darkness   by Joseph Conrad (SparkNote by Brian Gatten)
    -Resources for the Study of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
    -LECTURE: Africa and Africans in Conrad's Heart of Darkness : A Lawrence University Freshman Studies Lecture (given by: Candice Bradley, Associate Professor of Anthropology)
    -ESSAY : Joseph Conrad Never Jumped  (Frank Kermode, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : New Light on the `Heart of Darkness.'  (Angus Mitchell, History Today)

If you liked Heart of Darkness, try:

London, Jack
    -The Call of the Wild

Dickey, James

Farwell, Byron
    -Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton

Forbarth, Peter
    -The Last Hero

Harrison, William
    -Mountains of the Moon

Unsworth, Barry
    -Sacred Hunger