1793-- William Blake writes America: A Prophecy, describing the new nation's spirit as revolutionary, an untamed ego.
1849- John Joel Glanton leads mercenaries through West Texas, hunting Native American scalps.
1899- Joseph Conrad writes Heart of Darkness.
1925 -T.S. Eliot writes "The Hollow Men."
1953- Aldous Huxley trips on mescaline, writes about his experience in The Doors of Perception.
1965- Jim Morrison first performs "The End" at the Whiskey A Go-Go in West Hollywood, California.
1971- Jim Morrison, leader of the band The Doors, dies.
1975 - War in Vietnam ends.
1976- Francis Ford Coppola begins production on Apocalypse Now.
1979 - Apocalypse Now released.
1986- Cormac McCarthy writes Blood Meridian, hailed by Harold Bloom as "the ultimate western."
1991- Hearts of Darkness, a documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now, released.
1995- Jim Jarmusch writes and directs Dead Man, a surreal Western starring Johnny Depp as William Blake.
2009- When You're Strange, a documentary on The Doors, is released and narrated by Johnny Depp.
2013 - This essay written for ENGLISH 390: Dreams and The Movies.
It was the 1960s, and a time for rock
music. The nation was divided. The Vietnam War vs.the free love zeitgeist. Children vs. Parents. Tradition vs. Revolution. Ego v. Id. In West Hollywood, California, at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go,
a band called The Doors had been playing regularly, opening for Buffalo
Springfield and Van Morrison. One night they found themselves unable to play as their lead singer, Jim Morrison, was
missing. According to the 2009 documentary When
You’re Strange, Morrison had been greatly influenced by the prophetic 18th
century poetry of William Blake. Not only does Morrison’s band name draw
influence from an aphorism out of Blake’s The
Marriage of Heaven and Hell,
“If the doors of perception were cleansed,
everything would appear to man as it is, infinite,”
but so also does Aldous
Huxley in his book The Doors of
Perception. Huxley had experimented with and written on the effects of LSD:
the drug Morrison was on that night in 1965 when they found him in his hotel
room and dragged him to the Whiskey A Go-Go.
Still harboring a shy stage
presence, Morrison declared he wanted to sing a song about his girlfriend. The
band improvised, following his lead. What resulted was the first performance of
“The End,” an exploratory trip that spans over 10-minutes long. Concluding
their breakthrough self-titled album, the song climaxes into a cacophony after
an Oedipal spoken-word section:
The Killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on...
And he came to a door... and he looked inside...
Father, "Yes son?" I want to kill you...
Mother... I want to... FUCK YOU!!
later said, “It started out as a simple goodbye song...probably just to a girl.”
However, Morrison wasn’t merely the shy, heartbroken poet. He soon grew to embrace a wild
stage presence, recognizing and encouraging a mystique: a rock star persona. He
“I think it’s sufficiently complex and universal in its imagery that it
could be almost anything you want it to be.”
Morrison embodies the rock star
persona. On stage he was a flippant heartthrob, controversial and popular.
Offstage he harbored a professional ambition to propel his poetic gift and
elevate his art into rock’s canon. He succeeded both on and off stage, alongside The Doors and on his own via poetry. Morrison’s career rises and falls
among all the familiar spots. The band faced a rapid explosion of success, and
although they were fired from the Whiskey A-Go-Go for “The End,” within a year
and a half they earned a #1 single and a three-album contract. With fame and
fortune came more drugs and alcohol. Morrison became obstructive in the studio
and repulsive on stage, allegedly exposing himself to an audience and sometimes
unable to last an entire performance without passing out. His ego morphed into an anagram: "Mr. Mojo Risin'" At the infamous age
of 27, he died an early death and earned a lasting legacy.
one of Blake’s proverbs, “One thought fills immensity,” we can trace Morrison’s
influences and intertextual presence to examine America through the lens of an
individual. The power of lyrics and poet will guide us along horrific
plunderers in the books Heart of Darkness
and Blood Meridian. The films Dead Man and Apocalypse Now will shape our characterization of American
imperialism, and whether or not it maintains a rock star persona. Lastly we
will look at the driving force of success, which must balance out our darkly
subconscious “shadow self.”
Words Are Things
To begin this journey toward death,
we move upriver alongside lyrics from “The End.” We must go from the king’s highway in Blake’s 18th
century England and ride the highway west, baby. The 19th century American western frontier was a
place so limitless and free... a desperate land.
Ideally the repetition of Morrison’s lyrics here will increase their
validity. Just as pithy truth can become an authoritative adage, “the pen is
mightier than the sword.” Intertextual references embody certain words with an
immortal presence that increase in weight and meaning as passed from storyteller
to storyteller. Sometimes a voice is all that’s needed to spread such truths,
and what better voice to guide and connect than Johnny Depp’s.
Along with narrating When You’re Strange, Depp is the star of
Jim Jarmusch’s anti-Western Dead Man (1995),
which follows Depp’s spiritual journey from innocent accountant to experienced
outlaw. Depp plays William “Bill” Blake, a nominal coincidence that is
exclaimed over by Nobody (played by Gary Farmer), an outcast Native American
who saves and guides Bill Blake through the lawless terrain. Having been
kidnapped and put on display for his Other-ness, Nobody forcibly received a
formal education in England, which distanced him from his native family, but
instilled in him a great love for the poet William Blake. Throughout the film, Blake’s poetry is often
infused with or mistaken for Native American wisdom. Finding companionship in Bill Blake, who is
also outcast from the brutal, functioning logic of the West, Nobody turns Blake
from wide-eyed Ohioan to gun-slinging Western anti-hero.
Before Nobody can fully transform
Depp’s blank-slated appearance, there’s pushback and aggression toward the
power and influence of words. At one point in frustration, Bill Blake tries to
reject Nobody’s prophetic guidance, calling his sayings “malarkey” and claiming
not to have understood any of them. Such sayings include,
“some are born to
sweet delight, some are born to endless night,”
which is found both in Blake’s
poetry and The Doors’ “End of the Night.” There’s every right to be distrustful
of language, especially if it is fogged in mystique. Like the train fireman
from the film’s intro warns, as he ferries Blake from civilization into the
“I’ll tell you one thing for sure...I wouldn’t trust no words written
down on no piece of paper.”
Yet history, like language, can be
powerful and frightening despite any desire to dismiss it. We can turn to another
western, “the Ultimate Western” according to literary critic Harold Bloom, the
1986 novel Blood Meridian by Cormac
McCarthy. Bloom calls the novel’s antagonist, The Judge, “the most monstrous
apparition in all American literature...violence incarnate.” Yet The Judge is
notable for his extreme command of language, both via eloquent speech and his
The novel opens with a scene between preacher and
congregation in a makeshift church beneath a tent. When the Judge enters, he
authoritatively declares that the preacher is an “imposter” and wanted by law
for sexual acts with an eleven-year-old girl and a goat. (“Yes lady, that is
what I said. Goat.”) The claims turn the congregation against the preacher.
Gunfire erupts, the tent collapses, and moments later the Judge modestly
reveals that he fabricated the entire thing. Instead of being condemned for
bearing false witness, the Judge is praised, everyone laughs, and “someone
bought the Judge a drink” (5-6).
Alongside the historic figure, John
Joel Glanton, the Judge comes to ride with a group of Native American scalp-hunters
as they journey westward. He defends Glanton, a merciless gang leader, against
crimes he is clearly guilty of. Placating local authorities, the Judge uses
“latin terms of jurisprudence. He quoted Coke and Blackstone, Anaximander,
Thales” (201). A mystical expounder, the Judge explains,
“It is not
necessary...that the principals here be in possession of the facts concerning
their case, for their acts will ultimately accommodate history with our without
their understanding.....Words are things...Their authority transcends
ignorance of their meaning” (77).
The language still wields power even when
unintelligible or discarded as malarkey.
The Judge physical appearance evokes
another plunderer from the literary canon. Alopecia renders the Judge hairless
from head to toe “like an enormous infant,” and therefore similar to Heart of Darkness’ prominent villain,
Kurtz. Kurtz’s bald head is compared to the ivory he imperialistically ravages
from the Congo. Both men are revered for their sickening suspension of morality
and enchanting command of language. In Darkness,
protagonist Marlowe openly admires Kurtz’s “ability to talk, his words—the gift
of expression” (43). Not just physically, but also literally, Kurtz and The
Judge resemble each other, as Marlowe says,” Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had
something to say. He said it...He had summed up—he had judged” (65).
Kurtz’s physical appearance and
linguistic power is retained in the novel’s 1979 film adaptation Apocalypse Now (directed by Francis
Ford-Coppola). In his final moments, Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) is seen
sitting over his writings, a tape recorder, and microphone. Marlowe’s character
is represented by Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen), who grows to
identify with Kurtz’s mad genius the more he reads Kurtz’s dossier. By adaptation, the retelling of this story
helps it flourish in meaning and grow in authority. Coppola portrays the
Vietnam War in the light of European imperialism in Africa.
Like the Judge’s legal defenses,
authority and meaning can be evoked by simple references. Upon reaching Kurtz’s
camp toward the end of Apocalypse Now,
Willard is met by a photojournalist played by Dennis Hopper. The journalist is
enamored by Kurtz, whom he insists you don’t talk to, “you listen to.” He
quotes Kurtz alongside modernist poet T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”
quotes Heart of Darkness in its epigraph:
“Mista Kurtz—he dead.”
poetry encapsulates and reiterates the power and horror of a wartime leader. Canonical
evocation transcends Kurtz from an army man to a historic figure, a powerful
yet hollow man: a dead man.
In Dead Man, Bill Blake is taught how to utilize power of poetic
reference alongside violence. At first, like how he failed to understand
Nobody’s wisdom, Bill didn’t see the necessity of a handgun. He asks Thel why
she would have one, her response is simple and profound: “Because this is
America.” Later, Nobody gives Bill Blake
a handgun along with a more poetic justification of violence. Nobody says, “That weapon will replace your tongue....your
poetry will now be written in blood.”
Blake fulfills Nobody’s prophecy, once a nominal “a poet and painter, but
now....a killer of white men.” Bill gets a better control of his language and
his handgun and uses the two simultaneously. Finally becoming the outlaw
Western anti-hero, he is asked by two marshals if he is the William Blake they
are looking for. He responds, “Yes I am. Do you know my poetry?” and promptly
kills each marshal. One marshal’s head falls into a halo of sticks. The other,
Blake regards before killing him, is “born to endless night.” The power of
words and the power of violence become one as Blake embraces the referential
power of his identity.
The West Is The Best
easy to cheer for Blake in this scene, particularly because he is portrayed by
Johnny Depp. The movie star is able to earn affection from fans whether he
plays an outlaw, a pirate, or even a demon butcher; the rock star persona is
embodied regardless of the script he chooses. It’s as if he were destined for
success. Fame and fortune are seeded in in their manifestation, a star is
simply born. For example, Robbie Krieger, guitarist for Doors wrote “Light My
Fire,” which placed #1 on the charts and filled stadiums with screaming girls
who wanted to see Morrison sing, “Girl we couldn’t get much higher.” It was the
first song Krieger ever wrote for the band, yet the powerful lyrics triumphed
into rock’s canon.
Lynn Fletcher examines Morrison’s biography in recognition of the myth
surrounding him. She writes, “ the ‘rock star as outlaw’ pose became de riguer
by the early 1970s, though in Morrison’s case the perceived threat to
order....exists before he got famous” (144). Fletcher undermines Morrison’s
biography merely by assessing what little factual information exists about his
past, recognizing “what became the cliché of rock stardom....the official
story seems to write the person rather than vice versa” (142). The story,
skewed or not, still empowers Morrison’s image, his placement in the cultural
zeitgeist, and his rock persona.
important quality of this story is Morrison’s rebelliousness and talent from
the start. As a schoolboy, Morrison was recognized as intelligent by his
teachers, but received poor grades for his arrogance. Morrison abandoned home
(his parents didn’t know his whereabouts until a friend brought over The Doors’
debut album, under which Morrison’s claimed his family as deceased). As his
father was an admiral in the U.S. Navy, Morrison’s personal rebellion was
projected onto the youth culture’s anti-War movement. His story can be projected
onto the American myth, giving the nation a rock star persona.
story of America likewise is born in rebellion against its Anglo-Saxon parents.
In William Blake’s 1793 America, A
Prophecy, the heroic character Orc comes to represent the new nation’s
spirit. Orc walks on fire, was born in revolution and aims to undermine the old
European ways, stating “that stony law I stamp to dust: and scatter religion
abroad.” Its intentions are pure and unspoilable as Blake’s prophecies:
thing that lives is holy, life delights in life: Because the soul of sweet
delight can never be defiled” (Bloom 48).
America is cheered for its political
renegade attitude, and its violence becomes poetry in the myth.
This reverence for America’s inception
remains today; it is built into the New York’s One World Trade Center that
stands at 1776 feet. The sweet delight of America’s history is in its nearly insatiable expansion and, militarily,
international presence. It justified
western expansion with divine “Manifest Destiny.” At the turn of the twentieth
century, the tempo was slowed down, and Roosevelt ‘spoke softly’ while moving
in on Latin America. A greatest hits album would contain mostly WWII
photographs of Iwo Jima and V-J Day in
Times Square. It planted its
soldiers in Korea, then Vietnam, citing a “Domino Effect” that could plague the
world with communism. Young men like Jim Morrison, rebel of a militaristic
father and fatherland, tried to sing out in protest (but then again, all the children are insane). The country’s first major text, the Constitution,
(although its antiquity defines African American slaves as 3/5th
human) is still upheld for its rightness and purity when in defense of second
amendment gun rights. Love it or leave it, because this is America.
The sentimentality associated with
America’s proud past carries over onto the battlefield. In Apocalypse
Now, William Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) showcases the idealized,
almost naïve, attitude toward America’s military might. His hat evokes
Custer’s, another brave American who ill-judged his march into enemy territory.
Despite his enthusiasm for American imperialism, Kilgore retains a childlike
innocence. He wears a yellow kerchief and sits with a guitar around the
campfire like an overgrown boy scout. This visual language provides weighty
In Reel Men at War: Masculinity and the American War Film, Kilgore is
used to exemplify the thrill of winning, which characterizes America as
successful in both World Wars. He is “passionate about the manly thrill of winning,”
and thus embracing the powerful American myth. Yet it is merely a myth. As the
book’s final chapter warns, the “romanticizing effect” of war films perpetuates
male enthusiasm for America’s imperialistic might. Young men “seduced by World
War II and John Wayne movies” found themselves in Vietnam, where the enemies
were unclear and the end-goal was uncertain (179-80). Life mimics art, but
filmic references glorify only the propaganda used to seduce people into
“American exceptionalism” is a
poetic conceit used to justify the moral purity of international warfare, or in
the case of the western frontier, the divine grace that justifies genocide and
“Manifest Destiny.” Yet this propaganda is only justifiable to a certain limit.
After that, the language breaks down and the horrors of war defy explanation. Kurtz
exposes the absurdity of linguistics in the face of war. Moments before he is
murdered, Kurtz records into his microphone,
“We train young men to drop fire
on people but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ the their
airplanes because...it’s obscene!”
Civilized language does not equate with civility. The only tangible expression for wartime
atrocities is “horror.” Even the artistic depictions of U.S. imperialism
represent this breakdown of linguistic authority.
The Horror, The Horror
Coppola bluntly demonstrates the
failures of America’s war in Vietnam alongside the potential failure of his own
film. The 1991 documentary, Heart of
Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse begins
with Coppola delivering a speech,
“My film is not a movie. My film is not about
Vietnam. It is Vietnam….We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we
had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went
The war dragged on despite
unpopularity, excessive force, and its spread into Cambodia and Laos. Coppola’s
production likewise seemed to have no end in sight. Even toward the end of
shooting, there was no clear plan on how to conclude the movie, which explains
the narrative’s almost abrupt ending.
When Brando came in, the script had to be abandoned, and the written
words lost their ability to guide the filmmakers.
The literary source, Hearts of Darkness, begins, as do many
wars, under the veil of rhetorical justification. Marlowe frames imperialism as
a process in which invaders are violently
“bearing the sword, and often the torch,” implying the enlightening
(usually Christian) progressive principles that come with the slaughter and
plunder (2). He speaks, as many politicians do, of “the idea that redeems us”
(4). Whether an enlightenment principle, the glory of god, or simply
propaganda, imperialism disguises itself in rhetoric.
The book’s format is used to demonstrate
language’s elusiveness and the inability to express the terrors of imperialism
clearly. Its frame narrative destabilizes the story’s authority. The language
itself is called into question and displayed in the context of the ungraspable
subconscious. Marlowe pauses in his narrative to question his listeners, asking
if they can see Kurtz,
dream-state, or more aptly nightmare, seems to be the only way to express
wartime atrocities. Moreover the dream realm is that of darkness, of an endless
night, before dawn when the killer awoke. It can be a place where our darkest wishes
can be safely fulfilled, as Freud would delegate such desires to the psyche’s
id. Instead of following Freud, Jungian
scholar Robert Johnson constructs this dark persona as the “shadow self.”
stresses that when not handled properly, when kept suppressed and “despised,”
the shadow “accumulates more energy than our ego, it erupts as an overpowering
rage” (416). Not only is the shadow
present in the individual’s psyche, but also in a culture’s. Where we can
identify this in American imperialism, Johnson sees it everywhere, saying,
are presently dealing with the accumulation of a whole society that has
worshipped its light side and refused the dark, and this residue appears as
war, economic chaos, strikes, racial intolerance” (418).
Examining this in America’s history requires
an abandonment of ideas so worshipped as John Wayne or Blake’s Orc. This is the
end of innocence and propaganda’s power, as Morrison sings, the end of laughter and soft lies.
us into a subconscious, dark terrain, the opening sequence of Dead Man resembles such a journey into
that shadowy underworld. As Bill Blake dozes on and off during his long train
ride to Machine, the film repeatedly fades to black, lulling both him and the
viewer into a dream-state. The fades construct an uncertain passing of time,
perhaps one backwards into American history. The costumes and visages of the
train’s passengers fit this reverse-chronology, going from the upright,
well-dressed men and women of civilization to the ragged, entirely male crew of
hunters. The end-stop of this sequence reaches the core of the American id:
The train’s passengers suddenly are
called into action, and shoot at wild buffalo. The train fireman explains the
extent of this massacre while identifying the United States’ authoritative
condoning. He says, “Look, they are shooting buffalo. Government says it killed
a million of ‘em last year alone.” McCarthy likewise characterizes the slaughter of
buffalo as harrowingly utter. In Blood
Meridian’s final chapter, a buffalo hunter describes the “shooting weeks
and months till... their shoulders were yellow and blue to the elbow.”
Reflecting on a scene of eight million buffalo carcasses, the hunter (incorrectly)
“They’re gone. Ever one of them that God ever made is gone as if
they’d never been at all” (265-6).
Johnson would call this indulgence of the
nation’s shadow self “an astounding display of annihilation” (419). The dreamy descent into the Western frontier
ends in the genocide of animals and almost total relocation native populations.
In Apocalypse Now, Willard isn’t merely told of the disturbing facts
of American imperialism, as Bill Blake is on the train. Instead he finds Kurtz,
whose shadowy filmic presence personifies the America’s violent id. Johnson
describes the collective ego as whatever is acceptable within a culture’s
practices. Kurtz’s camp exemplifies the shadow which transcends boundaries of
society and sanity. Willard recognizes this breakdown of cultural norms, saying
to Kurtz, “I don’t see any methods…at all.” The camp is located in Cambodia,
where the U.S. Government pushed its troops despite the country’s official
Both cases of American imperialism
are evocations of the culture’s shadow. Johnson warns against viewing the
Other, whether Native Americans or Vietnamese communists, as the untamed anima.
“the tendency to see one’s shadow ‘out there’ in one’s neighbor or
another race or culture is the most dangerous aspect of the modern psyche”
It is a dangerous projection of one’s own darkness that manifests in violence,
war, and in “The End,” cacophony. In an explication on the song’s Oedipal
climax, John Densmore relates, “Jim just kept saying over and over kill the father,
fuck the mother, and essentially it boils down to this, kill all those things
in yourself which are instill in you and are not yourself….they must die”
Nonetheless, a violent climax to a
rock song is preferable to actual violence any day. Art, apparently, is a safer means by which to
face the shadow self and embrace it. Suppressing the darkness only gives way to
murderous eruption. Johnson quotes George Bernard Shaw in suggesting, “the only
alternative to torture is art. This means we will engage in our creativity (in
the ceremonial or symbolic world) or have to face its alternative, brutality”
Perhaps an excessive rock star
spirit is necessary, even healthy for expression. William Blake writes, “The
road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Literary critic Northrop Frye
examines this seemingly contrary duality in Blake’s work, including not just
Heaven/Hell or Innocence/Experience but also Freud’s Ego/Id. He recognizes the artistic and destructive
“there is only one
world, but there are two kinds of things…. one producing the real heaven and
creation and the other the real hell of torture and tyranny” (Bloom 60-1).
a society, there is the tyrannical nature of American imperialism, making
hellish war in Vietnam. On the other hand, The Doors are one of many talented
musicians who used their music to protest against that very war. For the
individual, the cost of wise, inspiring poetry may come at the cost of an
excessive sense of control, ego, or indulgence.
America’s 1960s divide exemplifies
this dual nature, and so also does the rock star. When dealt a certain amount
of success, not with imperial conquest but fame and fortune, the rock star
persona can engage in excessive behavior, sometimes self-destructive (like
sending its youth to war). Not only Morrison, but also the movie stars on the
set of Apocalypse Now showcase the
eruption of the “shadow” when too much emphasis is placed on the glamorous spotlight
of their success. So also does language break down. Marlon Brando, for example,
although representing the power of language, showed up to the set of Apocalypse Now without having learned
his lines or even having read Heart of
certain amount of toleration, an “exceptionalism,” is allotted to such figures
that are enshrouded in talent and success. Brando and Coppola had worked
together before on The Godfather (1972),
one of the most highly renowned films of all time. Their success seemed to fuel
an egotistical, sometimes obstructive behavior. As chronicled in the 1991
documentary Heart of Darkness: A
Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the egos of Brando and Coppola nearly stopped the
film from being finished. From the director’s chair, Coppola’s perfectionism
took the film wildly over budget. He was constantly rewriting the script,
firing cast and crew (including the main actor, who was originally Harvey
Keitel). A shoot that was planned in terms of weeks ended up lasting more than
a year at the insistence of Coppola’s artistic ego. Brando was even worse.
Kurtz was written as a mean, lean warmonger, Brando showed up for the part
overweight and uninformed about the story. Virtually all the cast and crew sat
and waited while Coppola had to read the script to Brando. Struggling to
essentially invent the character of Kurtz from scratch, Coppola grew frustrated
as the brazen star drained time and money from the production. Brando eventually got what he wanted,
ad-libbed the majority of his lines, and insisted on being filmed in shadow and
dark clothes to disguise his enormous figure. Upon being asked for an interview
for the 1991 documentary, Brando retained his arrogance in refusal, saying,
“Why are you making a film about that fat fuck, he owes me $2 million”
Morrison also exemplifies this problematic persona. While the rest of The Doors waned off their use of
psychedelic drugs, Morrison kept on at full speed. Like Brando, his ego
distanced him from the frontline of his craft, farther away from his band
members and further into himself. The band hired professional drinkers to keep up and keep check on Morrison, but that failed. As his drinking increased, his popular, often
erratic, stage presence escalated. Fletcher chronicles that the
the end’ plot point in the Morrison Story revolves around whether Jim Morrison
did or did not expose himself” to a Miami audience in 1969 (149).
photographic evidence from the concert is retained, Morrison did face a prison
sentence for the act that exemplifies excessive rock star behavior. Grappling
with celebrity status, the individuals are turned against their own art form in
Without Contraries is No Progression
turned to poetry to curb his drunken alter-ego “Jimbo.” Channeling his
excessive faults into an artistic medium, he sought to balance his “shadow
self.” The rock star’s fame is fueled both by their professional work and their
offstage failures, as if both are required to propel the myth of their success. For 1960s America, domestic culture was
empowered by its poetry, rising in opposition to the war and singing for free
love. Meanwhile, on the international stage, America shook its phallic military
might in Vietnam. The written word of the historic record attempts to take both
sides into account, and recognize excessive military force and genocide on the
western frontier. Johnson ends his essay by stressing that owning the shadow,
embracing the rock star’s success despite its destructive faults or revealing
both sides of a historic movement, “would be true holiness” (420). Keyboard
player for The Doors, Ray Manzarek, uses this concept in explanation of the
There are things you know about, and things you don’t, the known
and the unknown, and in between are the doors- that’s us. We’re saying that
you’re not only spirit, you’re also this very sensuous being. That’s not evil,
that’s a really beautiful thing. Hell appears so much more fascinating and
bizarre than heaven. You have to ‘break on through to the other side’ to become
the whole being (Newsweek).
not a direct reference to ‘The Doors of Perception,’ William Blake’s influence
on the band and Morrison’s poetry is evident. Blake’s prophetic insistence on
the equal binary between good and evil, or innocence and experience, is
exemplified in Dead Man. In an essay
on the poet and film, Troy Thomas declares, “Dead Man…is in fact a screen adaptation…based on Blake’s literary
works” (57). Even its most apparent visual quality, the black and white
footage, makes a strong case for wholeness of duality.
binary fought on the frontier of the Western has been simplified into ‘cowboys
vs. Indians.’ History shows the native population failed to stand their ground
against the invading Americans who, as The Judge describes, were “anointed with
the blood of the enemies of the republic” (280). Yet in many ways the historic
battle is subverted in Dead Man.
Thomas finds that “Blake articulated his political belief in the equality of
all men, including Blacks, and… presumably Native Americans” (78).
The mere friendship between Nobody
and Bill Blake argues for this equality. Nobody is outcast from his people due
to his European influence, having lost the customs of his own culture. Bill
Blake is distanced from his Midwest background, and his estranged innocence
sets him apart from virtually everyone he meets (perhaps with the exception of
Thel, who is killed as quickly after she enters Blake’s life). Nobody and Bill
Blake meet on the peripheries of their opposing backgrounds where,
ground is found between cultures that are ordinarily conceived as greatly
different” (Thomas 23).
transformation is apparent in his costume and face-paint, while Nobody subtly
learns to appreciate Bill’s culture, at one time playfully trying on the white
end, all the heroes and villains that fought on either side of the Western
frontier are swept up equally in death. This is best seen in the closing
sequence of Dead Man, where the
remaining figures in the battle between white colonizers and Native American
Indians come face to face. When Nobody and bounty hunter Conway Twill kill each
other, they not only negate one another in the struggle, but do so simultaneously. This is a rather bleak
conclusion. Jakob Ladegaard, in an essay on the film’s political ideological
implications, speculates that the death of the two main characters is
At least in the context of the film’s structure, this
death before the final credits provides closure.
While this cycle is enveloped in
death, a balance is found. In Apocalypse
Now, Willard is sent upriver to restore the balance of a civilized
military, to restore order and neutralize a rogue general. He upholds the
collective ego. Yet Willard almost
succumbs entirely to Kurtz’s powerful language, and nearly becomes him at the
story’s close when the tribal society bows before the killer of their leader.
He successfully owns the shadow of the Freudian subconscious as well as the
Jungian anima. Rachel Harrison writes in an essay on the film, “the
assassination of Willard in the closing stages of the film is itself ritual in
nature, with oedipal overtones of the son’s murder of the father, inter-spliced
with shots of an animist ritual slaughter” (52). Willard owns his shadow, ironically,
for the goodness of society.
Morrison’s lyrics best exemplify
this dual nature of cultures and individuals. He establishes this known truth
of wholeness with the first lyrics of The Doors’ first album:
“You know the day
destroys the night. Night divides the day.”
Meanwhile, history cannot be
divided between winners and losers, instead it is cyclical. Blake once imagined
America as embracing Orc’s pent-up spirit for revolution, but the country
itself turned tyrannical and suppressive. We are reminded of this fact by the
symmetrical structure of Dead Man as
well as reprises by The Doors. “This is the End” is both the first and last
lyric to “The End,” and the song bookmarks Apocalypse
With this total embrace of good and
bad, the rock star persona is baptized in a fiery explosion of fame and
fortune, but burns out young. Jim Morrison may have been a “chiché of rock stardom,” but he was also a poet. In his
poem “As I Look Back,” he sees in himself this ability to walk both paths. He reflects,
The human spirit constantly oscillates between these two extremes.
Between civilized innocence and experienced savagery. Between viewing America’s
past with a conscious nostalgia and a nightmarish reflection. Between language that
defends violence and atrocities that defy explanation. In the 1960s it was
between the Vietnam War and rock music’s loud, artistic protest. In the
meantime we thrive in the struggle, existing on one side or the other.
McCarthy’s The Judge perhaps best represents
this eternal battle. The novel concludes with a chilling perspective of the Judge,
after he has outlived virtually every one of the novel’s characters. He resurfaces in a tavern, “among every kind of man,”
preparing to partake in ritualized dance. He is horrifying, monstrous murderer,
but equally an incredible artistic manifestation who dances and fiddles. His
hairlessness makes him appear an infant, yet he lives on. In the final lines of
the novel he embodies the human spirit: “He dances in light and in shadow and
he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the Judge. He is dancing, dancing. He
says he will never die.” (283)
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Morrison). New York: Wenner, 2007. Web. 20 November 2013.