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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.

 


The West Is The Best: America’s Rock Star Poet Mentality

            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!!

Morrison 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 said,

“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.

            With another 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 West,

“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 pan-lingual abilities.

            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.”

The 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.”

            Bill 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

            It’s 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.  

            Amy 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.

            One 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.

            The 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:

“Every 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 American references. 

              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 warfare.

            “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 insane.”

            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,

“He was just a word for me. I do not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream....It is impossible. We live as we dream—alone.” (24)

            Such a 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.”

            Johnson 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,

“we 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.

            Guiding 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: “violence incarnate.”

            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) reflects,

“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 neutrality.

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. He states,

“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” (418).

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” (Densmore).

           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” (418).

           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 divide, saying,

 “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).

For 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 Darkness.

            A 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.

            Although 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” (Sellers).

            Jim 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

“‘beginning of 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).

While no 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 self-destruction. 

Without Contraries is No Progression

            Morrison 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 band’s name:

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).

            While 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.

            The 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,

“common ground is found between cultures that are ordinarily conceived as greatly different” (Thomas 23). 

Bill’s 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 man’s hat.

            In the 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

“a reminder, perhaps, of the real, historic outcome of the genocidal conquest of the American West” (193).

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 Now.

           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,

“I was a fool & the smartest kid in class.... a shaman with the soul of a clown.”

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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