Mystery = Heart of Darkness

Remember the principle we were examining a few months ago?

The female carries the mystery.

Let’s explore this in the movie Apocalypse Now.

The central image/passage of the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film is a journey upriver. Hard to think of a more “female” construct, particularly when the voyage is cast from the story’s inception as an odyssey into the dangerous and the unknown.

When we recall, in addition, that Apocalypse Now is derived from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, we are more certain than ever that the primal image and narrative architecture is female.

Martin Sheen as Capt. Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now

Our male lead is army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), who is tasked by his superiors to venture upriver, locate a certain Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and “terminate his command,” i.e. kill him. Why? Because although Kurtz has been astonishingly successful in carrying out his mission in military terms, he has apparently “gone native.”

 Wildly native. 

Kurtz has gotten out of hand, say his downriver superiors. He is operating beyond all command and control. His methods, the army brass declare, are “unsound.”          

“Terminate,” the officers instruct Willard, “with extreme prejudice.”

But for our young captain, as he commences his journey upriver and begins to study Kurtz’s service records and learn his history—top of his class at West Point, multiple awards for valor, rapid promotion after rapid promotion—the focus of the enterprise alters for him. 

It becomes more about fathoming the Mystery.

Who is Kurtz?

Is he a madman or a genius?

What has he discovered, of life or of himself, deep in the jungle?

We, watching the movie, are of course asking the same questions.

What exactly is the mystery in the deepest sense—the “female” that the film is seeking to explore and to understand?

The mystery is Vietnam.

Specifically, the mystery is Vietnam as a theater of war in which we Americans—a self-described unbeatable military, cultural, and economic power—find ourselves up against a foe whom our methods can’t seem to defeat.

The mystery is the enemy.

Who are these little guys in black pajamas? What do they know that we don’t? And why are they kicking our ass?

The mystery is the jungle.

The mystery is the hidden, the occult, the unknown. It is that which eludes our helicopters and spy planes and satellites, that which cannot be bombed or Agent Oranged into submission.

The mystery is our own inner darkness.

Why are we in Vietnam in the first place? What is our objective? What are we trying to accomplish? For whom? And why?

When you and I as writers seek to apply a principle like “the female carries the mystery” in studying and evaluating a specific work like Apocalypse Now, what exactly are we trying to accomplish?

First, we’re testing the principle to see if it holds water. Does it apply? Is it a key or road map to the movie’s inner meaning? Can it help us gain insight? Most importantly, can we then use this principle in seeking to understand our own stories, particularly whatever tale we happen to be working on now?

Can we ask ourselves, of our current story, “Is there a ‘female?’ Who is it? What is it? Is it ‘carrying a mystery?’ Is there a ‘male’ character seeking to unravel or reveal this mystery? What, in our story, is the mystery?”


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  1. Peter Brockwell on August 12, 2020 at 1:46 am

    Great post! Thank you Steve.

  2. Frank Freeman on August 12, 2020 at 7:59 am

    This one was right on the money for a novel I’m working for, Steve. I had already realized the mystery was not the woman the man wanted but the country she came from. Not that the woman wasn’t important, but that the mystery in her was part and parcel of her country’s mystery. Your words remind me of this and make me think about it some more. How can I explore the richness of the mystery?

  3. Trish Cameron on August 12, 2020 at 8:12 am

    So creepy – the patriarchal imagination sees “the female” as 1) something to be terminated with extreme prejudice; 2) the enemy; 3) a country that a war-mongering empire exploited and decimates in their effort to dominate the world; 4) the wild, the savage, the people of colour; 4) nature. What really holds the mystery is how “the male” with his gaze and his fevered, fearful imagination can turn other human beings into “less than” for exploitation and murder. Looking straight into a mirror and not see himself – the real heart of darkness. Sickening.

    • Ann Dalrymple on August 12, 2020 at 8:30 am

      Trish Cameron – Totally agree.

      • Virlana Kardash on August 17, 2020 at 4:58 am

        Trish and Ann, Totally agree! We need more stories about what women are seeing when they look at that same “heart of darkness.” We’ve been taking the male vision and not questioning it for far too long…

    • E.k Weston on August 12, 2020 at 8:50 am

      Love this Trish. Thank you for elucidating this for us

    • Charlotte Rodziewicz on August 12, 2020 at 9:01 am

      Thank you Trish.

    • Aiyana on August 12, 2020 at 10:16 am

      Absolutely, Trish. I was going to say something similar. The female is not
      the “dangerous” and the “mysterious” – but rather, life giving and generous.
      That is if we can make such broad generalizations about gender, which I
      don’t think we can. The Heart of Darkness is a fear-based stereotype of
      Africa leading to exploitation. What is this, Steve?

      • Steven Pressfield on August 12, 2020 at 12:47 pm

        I absolutely agree. The point Francis Ford Coppola was trying to make in “Apocalypse Now,” I think, was how “the female” was being raped and massacred by “the male” in our contemporary society. Indeed the female–Vietnam–was fertile, life-giving, productive, beautiful (kind of like Kurosawa’s village in “Seven Samurai”) and was being destroyed wholesale by forces that feared it, couldn’t understand it, and whose only methods of approaching it were destructive. I think this was what Joseph Conrad was saying in “Heart of Darkness” as well. Both book and movie, I think, were pro-female, if we want to divide the world into these factions as ‘warring,” which I don’t. Remember the final moment of “Apocalypse Now” is Captain Willard calling in a B-52 strike on Kurtz’s hideout with the same words Conrad used, “Exterminate the brutes.”

        • Trevor Lyons on September 8, 2020 at 10:22 pm

          I love what you said: “if we want to divide the world into these factions as ‘warring,’ which I don’t.” It feels – to me – like a bit of a misnomer to conceive of any particular story as being “pro-female,” (which I understand you’re not doing, exactly) as if the story – or storyteller – is asserting that there exists some differential between the sexes when it comes their inherent virtues and that the feminine should be regarded as “the good, the virtuous” and the masculine as “the bad, the destroyer;” it seems to me to be an entirely different thing to tell a story that can usefully observe that – in a particular circumstance – a traditionally conceived of masculine force might be in violation of the dignity, or sacredness, of the traditionally conceived of feminine. I will say I am having a hard time fully comprehending the principal being offered – that of the “female carrying the mystery;” I’m new to this work – perhaps I need to go revisit the original post on this principal. I like this conversation a lot!

    • Marina Shemesh on August 13, 2020 at 11:50 am

      Yes, Trish! The true mystery is who that person that does not see himself in the mirror. Instead of be the mystery being anything else that does not fit his point of view or level of intelligence.

  4. James McCabe on August 12, 2020 at 8:13 am

    Majisterial, Steve.

    • Anne Pellicciotto on August 12, 2020 at 9:04 pm

      I have to agree with the ladies above on this. Seems a very male myopic view. What about the feminine journey which is more internally and spiritually driven? Is the quest, the mystery, still a female? It is certainly less about conquering and more about understanding. Reading Americanah now and thinking her enemy, her quest, is America outwardly – it is turning out to be really a quest for home.

  5. Ann Dalrymple on August 12, 2020 at 8:23 am

    I love the posts. They are incredibly helpful in terms of writing and creativity. However, I would like you/writers/people to consider renaming the mystery as female. It’s a shorthand term to convey information in the literary sense, but in the larger picture, it makes women the other, unknowable, the enemy, the inner darkness just to use a few terms, some of which were used in this article. This has implications in how women are treated in society. It makes man the center, and women as the unknowable enemy. Or at the very least, unknowable. It’s an uphill battle women are constantly fighting in real life – both at work and at home. This is such an unconscious/subconscious part of the fabric of our society. I’d like to bring this trope out into the open to see if there is better terminology that doesn’t demean/”other” half the population. Since I read this blog as a creative, not as a writer, please excuse the writing in this response and take into consideration the request. Thanks for all that you do to help writers and creatives to understand the art.

  6. Anonymous on August 12, 2020 at 8:23 am

    Use of the words male and female are so confusing without deep study. The male in a story (as in human sexual relations) is the giver, the perpetrator, the progenitor. The female is the receiver, the place of holding and growing. Thinking of the male and female archetypes in this way helps me fathom Steven’s deep posts and analysis of stories.

    • Mia Sherwood Landau on August 12, 2020 at 8:28 am

      Guess I didn’t fill out the comment form properly… want to make sure you know I am the one who is giving you credit for deep, mystical knowledge, Steven!

    • Ann Dalrymple on August 12, 2020 at 8:34 am

      Anonymous – these are sexist tropes. Women are also givers, perpetrators, progenitors. Men are also receivers, a place of holding and growing. There has to be a better way of illuminating ideas than using binary sexist cliches based in misogyny.

  7. Bruce Pfeffer on August 12, 2020 at 8:31 am

    Thanks Frank, your comments on Steve’s post hit home for me on a hole in my first sci-fi novel. My hero, a disabled alien soldier, like Benjamin Willard is trying to solve the mystery of his unexpected mission on earth. Now I can see that the mystery he must come to terms with is unresolved baggage from his shattered life on his home world. Your example allows me to make Earth the female, a much more powerful mystery than his human love interest.

  8. Zinc Pederson on August 12, 2020 at 8:35 am

    Thank you. The recent film 1917 has an Odyssey feel to it.
    You’re a cool dude.

    As always,

  9. Bing on August 12, 2020 at 9:26 am

    Makes me think of when Jesus was crucified on the cross. It was Mary Magdalene who was the hero. All the Apostles ran scared for their lives. It was the same Mary that saw the risen Christ first. She was a major player and of course the male governed church did not want to acknowledge that she was a female hero, a leading Apostle in the Jesus narrative.
    – Shalom

  10. Nickolas+Sherman on August 12, 2020 at 11:26 am

    Steve is just using Female here Archetypally. This is in no way laced with any kind of misogyny. The opposite is true. The female calls man forth into the unknown. She holds the secrets to his growth and transcendence of what he already knows. This has beautiful psychological significance.

    • Jurgen+Strack on August 16, 2020 at 3:46 am

      Like The Sirens in the river scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou

  11. Maria on August 12, 2020 at 11:52 am

    Interesting post , Steve. These are deep nuanced principles. we , humans both possess the feminine and masculine aspects to ourselves. The masculine energy governs action and doing, while the feminine energy describes the capacity to feel, sense ,the capacity for emotion. These truths go deeper than gender and are responsible for individual human motivations and larger political issues . I think this is seen in the US military commanders seeking to control or overpower that which they fear, which is mysterious , intangible , wild and free , the Vietnamese jungle .
    I also this is a common place occurrence of many acts of aggression against the female. The female carries the capacity of the mysterious and incredible act of creation from within herself, while the masculine energy must create outside of itself. I think it is a deep, darker fear of the insecure masculine to hold jealousy against this undeniable power of the feminine.
    I love the example of the Mary Magdalene and Mary , as well. Her capacity to bear witness , hold the space and have the power to encompass so many ferocious feelings during Jesus’s death. This is another example of the enormous power of the feminine in encapsulating grief , sorrow , loyalty and love.
    Amazing post and comments.Thank you ,Steve for going deeper into the work.

  12. Marduk on August 12, 2020 at 12:08 pm

    Steve, this was a brilliant insight into the layers underlying the story. I remember reading Conrad with fascination as an undergrad and loving it.

    If I may extend your analysis, the additional archetypal foundation to this story is that of selection – both natural (the river, the theater of war, nature itself…) and sexual (the female symbolism) – the man who is unable to navigate these selection processes is eliminated or transformed beyond recognition.

  13. Dorothy Seeger on August 12, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    We are all both masculine and feminine. At some point our
    masculine “doer” has to go within himself to find his feminine “knower”. They are not separate, but the feminine is hidden from the masculine until that aspect of oneself goes looking for the creative, the intuitive, the feminine. They are not really separate, but it sure makes a good story to separate them and chronicle all the drama of the search!

  14. Madalena on August 17, 2020 at 7:01 pm

    Women have the strength, power and courage to endure spiritual, emotional, and physical suffering. Men feel a sense of purpose if they have the opportunity to be the one to make a woman secure and feel safe. I think because the female has the power to elicit deep emotions in a man that allows him to access emotions otherwise cut off from him in an all male society , a female who needs a man on any level will empower him. Yep, that’s a mystery.

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