The Ark as Anima Vessel in the Conquest of the Useless:
peering into Hearts of Darkness with a sisyphean Kon-Tiki-torch


Molly Aida [from Fitzcarraldo]

what follows are miscellaneous musings carried by various boats [in the name of Ark Codex], as inspired by Werner Herzog [& Camus, Conrad, Heyerdahl, Coppola, et al]. i think it was Stanley Crawford, though, & his Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine that inspired me to have my novel, that i was at the time tentatively calling Natural Histories, take place on a boat. though so far in Ark Codex 0 [i'm in the 5th & final chapter] the ark is barely built & moored up at the north pole waiting for the ice to melt [& the text of the novel has since disintegrated into illegible collage].

Conquest of the Useless is based on the diary Werner Herzog kept whilst making Fitzcarraldo, the 1982 movie about a rubber baron obsessed with transporting his steamship over an isthmus between two rivers to access untapped territory.

as Herzog writes in the prologue to Conquest of the Useless:

A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle...

this premise not only becomes the obsession of his protagonist in the film, but it becomes Herzog's consuming passion, as reflected in the film & this diary of the making of it—in reality the two are inseparable. although the film is a fictional drama, his approach to filming in a sense makes it a documentary, a metaphor for itself. by this time [having filmed Aguirre, also in the Peruvian Amazon] Herzog had the presence of mind to know that a film made in such conditions inevitably turns into a drama about the making of that very film, so why not set it up as some absurd & impossible task & then film yourselves going through the ordeal of trying to make it happen? in fact, there's another film about the making of Fitzcarraldo that Les Blank was making simultaneously, Burden of Dreams.

Herzog does not use special effects to portray this sisyphean feat of getting the ship over the hill, but in fact recreates the drama as it is supposed to be happening—he hauls a real steamship over a real mountain, under practically the same conditions as the script: he goes to the Amazon, acquires a steamship, hires a 800+ crew of Indian extras & implementing a janky hand-made system of block & tackle pulleys & medieval-looking wheel winches, hauls the steamship up & over a steep hill between two rivers.

he navigates through every pitfall & calamity imaginable under such conditions: airplane crashes, poisonous animals & insects, sickness, infection, death of crew members, cast members losing their shit & defecting, Herzog being arrested, dealing with hostile media, hostile natives, violent crime, political unrest, rape, floods, torrential storms, budget issues, severed limbs, impaled by arrows—you name it. here's a typical passage that exemplifies the mindset it took to work on this film:

Up on the plateau between the two rivers, woodsmen had been felling trees, barefoot as usual, and one of them had been bitten by a snake. Snakes had never been seen anywhere near chain saws, because the noise and the exhaust fumes drive the snakes deep into the jungle, but this man had suddenly been bitten twice in the foot. He had dropped his chain saw and just caught a glimpse of the snake before it disappeared into the underbrush; it was a chuchupe. Usually this snake's bite causes cardiac arrest and stops breathing in less than a minute, and cases in which a person has survived a bite longer than seven or eight minutes without treatment are almost unknown. Our camp with the doctor and the antivenom serum was twenty minutes away. The man, so I was told by someone who had been working next to him, had stood motionless for a few seconds, thinking hard. Then he had picked up the chain saw, which had stalled when it hit the ground, pulled the cord to start it, the way you pull an outboard motor, and had sawn off his foot above the ankle.

or here's another typical start of the day for Herzog:

Uneasiness because I have some blood in my urine. I noticed it a few days ago but at the same time did not take it seriously, but it is impossible to ignore. Maybe it was upsetting me me so much because I had bilharzias from my time in Africa [...] we decided to send a Coke bottle with a urine sample to the hospital tomorrow, though it is more than doubtful that they can do more there other than the traditional taste test.

Werner Herzog Conquest of Useless

Herzog in action

amidst the chaos of the film, in his diary he manages to find serenity amidst the harsh & hostile jungle, usually by way of observing the animals around him, as a way of escaping the drama of the film, or even himself. he makes pets of some of the animals, eats others, but mostly he just observes & lets them be. my favorite was the albino turkey:

This turkey, this bird of ill omen, is a pure albino, so it is quite a sight when it fans its great white wheel, spreads its wings, whose tips trail on the ground, and puffs up its feathers. Snorting in bursts, it launched several feigned attacks on me and gazed at me with such intense stupidity emanating from its ugly face, which took on a bluish purple coloration and had tumorlike wattles, that without more ado I pulled a feather out of its spreading rear end. Now the turkey's sulking.

in between the rainforest camp drama, he takes occasional trips to NYC or SF or Europe to deal with financiers or the media & sometimes these surfacings for air are just as surreal as his Amazon entries, in contrast. & it's often hard to tell what's real & what is a dream. often the «real» passages are more surreal than the assumed dream sequences. this from an entry on March 30, 1981, in Iquitos, Peru:

We studied the dailies of the Rio Camisea. Still many uncertainties. I found a frog under my pillow. In town a policeman stopped me on the motorcycle on some pretext and wanted to extort money from me, but I stepped on the gas and sped off. Now it is evening and the sky has opened up. Rain is streaming under the door [...] in a matter of minutes the room will be under water. [...] I observed some disturbing creatures that resembled eels, reddish brown, presumably they are a kind of very large blindworm. [...] Waited for hours for a phone connection. [...] Today the rushes seemed like something I had dreamed, or rather, like something someone else had dreamed and I had merely been told about. Being wide awake at night now seems natural. I hardly sleep. I do not know what real sleep is anymore; I just have brief, strenuous fainting spells. I followed an electrical crackling and found in the wet wall little metal doors that were wide open, inside them a tangle of cables [...] Today there is supposed to have been an attempt on Reagan's life...

& amidst the random or surreal observations, he'll casually mention that he had a daughter born that day or that Mick Jagger showed up on the set & because their regular driver died or defected, Jagger took on the job of shuttling people around town. for whatever reason [he doesn't specify] Mick Jagger's part is cut from the film, doubtful it had to do with his attitude as Herzog portrays him as nothing but a good sport & if not surely would've said something in his journal as he doesn't hold anything back. he has nice things to say about some people & not-so nice things to say about others, like the denizens of this town: «people in Satipo were like vomit—ugly, mean-spirited, unkempt, as if a town in the highlands had expelled its most degenerate elements and pushed them off into the jungle.» he bashes Jason Robards [the original lead] for essentially being a sniveling primadonna & inevitably Robards was kicked off the film [or was evacuated because he had dysentery], leading to a complete rewrite of the script mid-stream, bringing back Herzog's mainstay male muse—Klaus Kinski. Kinski also ends up being a tantrum-throwing primadonna, but one Herzog is able to control & they feed off each other in a fucked-up but perhaps healthy way. this sentence from his journal pretty much sums it up: «Kinski in total dissolution, on the point of collapse: no one will ever know what it cost me to prop him up, fill him with substance, and give form to his hysteria.»

Herzog & Kinski

Herzog directing Kinski

Kinski's behavior enrages others on the set to the point where two other Indian crew members take Herzog aside & in all seriousness ask Herzog if they want them to kill Kinski for him—for all their sake. this is perhaps Herzog's secret though, to deflect the negative energy from himself, using Kinski as a buffering scapegoat. & to channel all this seething bitterness & brooding hostility for Kinski to act out. if you take Herzog's word, he is the only one with the vision, which is perhaps one-sided & egomaniacal, whose to say.

Kinski looked at the site and announced that my plan was completely impossible, prompted by madness. He is becoming the epicenter of discouragement. On closer inspection it became clear to me that no one is on my side anymore, not a single person, none, no one, not a single one. In the midst of hundreds of Indian extras, dozens of forest workers, boatmen, kitchen personnel, the technical team, and the actors, solitude flailed at me like a huge enraged animal.  But I saw some something the others didn't see.

I haven't seen Burden of Dreams yet [which perhaps gives an unbiased outsider's view], but if it's anything like Conquest of the Useless, or Hearts of Darkness [the making of Apocalypse Now!] then i could possibly like it better than Fitzcarraldo.

Herzog doesn't mention Apocalypse Now! in his diaries, though he is in San Francisco & Napa a few times at Coppola's houses, so you can't help but to think he was under the influence, especially being as this was right in the wake of Apocalypse Now!. Herzog does go to Colorado at some other point in the book to visit Kubrick on the set of The Shining but doesn't have much to say about Kubrick. & although both Fitzcarraldo & Apocalypse Now! have similar themes, taking place on boats penetrating deep into untamed jungles, Herzog's approach & tribulations are markedly different. while the making of Apocalypse Now! was plagued more by extravagant over-budgeting & the drug-abusing egos in the cast, the making of Fitzcarraldo was plagued more by real-world dangers [half-wished upon themsevles]. not that the set of Fitzcarraldo didn't have it's fair share of crazed debauchery [though most of it seemed fueled by alcohol & prostitutes]. in one entry where Herzog surfaces for air in NYC, he is at some party where everyone is snorting cocaine & it strikes him as frivolous & vain, given his mindset.

of course it ends anti-climactically as you might expect, despite accomplishing his mission. Herzog doesn't mention the The Myth of Sisyphus, but surely he must've also been under Camus' spell in the making Fitzcarraldo: «A profound thought is in a constant state of becoming; it adopts the experience of a life and assumes its shape.» &  «The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.» & «Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth

i'm still also still chugging away through Cuore di Tenebra [Heart of Darkness in Italian, or rather in both English & Italian]. it's my 3rd reading & it's still surprising how dense the prose is, how many new things you pick up on subsequent readings [perhaps induced by a more careful reading in italian]. in relation to boats, here's a passage that stood out on this reading:

He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer too, while most seaman lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them—the ship; and so is their country—the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.

the last sentence in particular could also apply to Herzog, as even though he seeks out the jungle, he also repeatedly expresses a disdain for it, though granted his eyes are by no means closed to the mystery of it but pried open with toothpicks. another passage from Heart of Darkness that also reflects Herzog's approach, of fore-going movie magic for real guerilla-waged footage is this [replacing «lies» with «fiction»]:

There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because i had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see—you understand? He was just a word for me. I did 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—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams...."

another book/movie about a ship which i've been dwelling on lately is the Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl. i read it a long time ago, but recently we watched the movie, which you can stream in it's entirety on youtube:

like Herzog [perhaps inspiring Herzog?], Heyerdahl goes to Peru to enlist the help of Indians to help him realize his project, only his project is in the name of science, not entertainment, which does not preclude it from a being a masterful work of art. Heyerdahl's obsession is to build a balsa wood raft using traditional materials & methods of the South Americans of yesteryear & then sail this raft across the Pacific to Polynesia, not to prove that Polynesians came from the Americas, but to prove it was possible Polynesians could've come from the Americas on such a raft. & unlike Herzog [who did use tractors & some behind the scenes movie-magic & lets face it, could've been evacuated at moment's notice if anything went wrong] there was no going back for Heyerdahl & his crew once they had committed themselves.

Kon-Tiki raft

the Kon-Tiki

in regards to my own experiential fact vs. fiction, i don't have a lot of direct experience with boats. in fact, until i graduated from college i was terrified of them & got sick every time i set foot on one. then one day i was in Fiji walking around this yacht harbor, as i tended to do, marveling at the sailboats, imagining how liberating, yet terrifying, it would be to cross the ocean in one. i saw an ad inside the yacht harbor seeking a crew for a big double-masted 110-foot schooner going to New Zealand. on impulse, against sound judgment, i used the short wave radio in the bar of the yacht harbor to ask about it & next thing i knew i was on the ship. the ship was named the Adelaar & the strange thing is now, googling for pictures of the Adelaar some 20 years later, i not only found this photo but this account of the same journey by my bunkmate who now calls himsef «The Experience Junkie»! small world.


the Adelaar

his account of the trip is pretty much how i remember it, at least the parts of the trip where i wasn't violently ill from being seasick. i've been meaning to transcribe some of my pre-internet journals [though this one in particular was difficult since i was still writing with my left hand weeks after being stung by a stonefish on my right].  but here's an excerpt from this Adelaar trip:

Sept 17, [1990]
Lat 28° 53' 66" S
Long 177° 22' 93" E

The last 3 or 4 days have been living hell for me—a journey through the underworld. We hit this big storm just as B said we would. The dramamine got me through the first 3 days but once the storm set in I wasn't keeping anything down. Vague memories, lots of screaming and yelling in the dark—pulling this rope or that when told, in complete delirium. We reefed the sails (mizzen and main) and pulled the rest down. The winds at first were about 35 knots for a day or so with lots of rain. Then the winds picked up to 40+ knots, though it had cleared up, and the swells rose to 20 feet. I felt fine until we were pulling down the number one sail. In order to do this, two of us needed to crawl out into the net hanging from the bow sprit. The bow was smashing up and down and waves were crashing into the net and it was pitch dark (even if I could see the horizon through the swells), so I had no perspective of direction or motion. Orders were being shouted and the sail was flapping loose and my stomach was full of adrenalin, not to mention salt water from the waves crashing on my face. I was so preoccupied with the tasks at hand that I didn't realize when I was first sick. I just puked over the side as I was pulling ropes. The next 3 days were misery. My head was spinning, I was completely disoriented and everything I put in my stomach came back up. For a while I still did work and went on my shifts—everyone was sick, one night I even saw the captain B puke up all this white froth. Eventually I was physically too weak to leave bed. I just laid there with my eyes closed. Reality and dreams and sleep merged together to the point that I couldn't tell when I was awake or not. I would have these really twisted dreams while the boat shook so violently you had to grab the bed to keep from falling off. Up and down, up and down, rocking side to side and smash! At times it felt the whole boat came out of the water and when it crashed down I couldn't believe it didn't split in two. Everything creaked and things were rattling and falling all over the boat. And the worst part about it was that we were 5 days from any land, causing a sort of claustrophobic panic attack so intense my eyes were spinning but then i couldn't close my eyes because my head would spin—there was no escape. At one point I remember thinking if i had a way to kill myself I would've, just to make it stop. I was getting dehydrated as I couldn't even keep down water. My urine was turning a dark yellow-orange. I was worried to say the least. I never imagined one could have such a longing just to be on solid ground. Time was pain. Nausea with every swell. And the whole cabin had taken on this foul stench, the chemicals from the toilet, mildew, puke, sweat, the smell of cooking. Even my own stench revolted me. It was too wavy and I was too sick to shower. None of us had showered in 4 days. Even getting up to brush my teeth made me ill and the water was a rusty brown. Wet salty clothes hung everywhere, not drying. The air in the cabin was thick and putrid and suffocating.

Finally this morning I forced myself up and went out into the cold salty wind. Ate a banana, then porridge with raisins, and then a rice and tuna omelet, then some mashed potatoes with onions, and an orange. I was ravenous, making up for lost time. My puke was metaphorically swirling in our wake, fading into the thick paint-like blue of the sea, for the fishes to eat, swirling, spreading into the fading horizon behind us. And now it's blue sky and relatively calm seas, enough to move us along at 7 knots. If I could do it all over again I wouldn't but I'm glad I did it. Just the thought of being out here in an endless expanse of ocean with nothing but phosphorescence and moon and stars at night, and the sun during the day, with the occasional albatross that pays us a visit. Amazing how these birds can survive out here so far from land. Talk about solitude. To just know for a moment what goes through their minds as they glide between the swells, eyeing us with suspicion. The true nature of people really shows in situations like this. Nobody was that helpful to me when I was sick except M. Granted we were all sick, and i'm sure they thought I was just trying to cop out of doing work, and helping a puking person is not exactly pleasant, i surely wasn't in any condition to help anyone else. But M covered my shifts and emptied my puke bucket, and then he has to share a bed with me, what a fucking saint! I haven't decided what to think of the skipper, B. Sometimes he can be funny and interesting, at other times downright vile. He burnt his face off in a welding accident while refurbishing the ship (from a river barge), to the point where you're looking directly at skeletal muscle or bone. There's no hiding his emotions, at times it's downright scary, like looking right at a ghost, like you're talking straight to the source, with no facial gestures to smooth out emotions, to disguise meaning. Makes you realize what a face can tell you, or the absence of one. It would be interesting to see a picture of him before his accident. Until then, the sight of him, hanging to the bow-spirit in the 50-mph gales and waves and squalor, barking orders at us, will be indelibly implanted in my mind. And it's not his face so much that makes him to be such a tyrannical demon in my mind, but his sniveling attitude about his possessions as opposed to concern for our safety and well-being. If I ran to barf over the rail, he'd yell at me mid-vomit to puke over the leeward side (away from the wind). Or he'd tell us not to use the lights to save batteries. After informing us that if someone fell overboard he wouldn't turn the boat around, that it wasn't worth the risk, I asked him about the lifeboat and he reluctantly showed it to us then said, "but it cost $8000 US dollars, so don't use it." So it struck me as funny that in the height of the storm this lifeboat got knocked loose and fell in the wake of the ship. they started pulling on the rope to retrieve it and all it did was open it up and inflate the raft & it got sucked under & they had to cut the line. Ha ha. $8000 lost (not to mention the fact that now we have no life raft!).

The first thing I saw this morning when i went to go pee overboard was a couple of dolphins jumping along the side of the ship. it's dead calm today. No wind. Late in the morning the engine made this horrendous sound and sputtered to a stop (yes, there's a diesel engine to supplement the sails). So B, H and I went down into the bowels of the ship to dissect it. A big smoky, oil-spitting monster. And being the skinny-wristed person I am, I was delegated to stick my hands into the hot oily guts of the gearbox and figure out what was wrong. I pulled out a few chards of broken metal and some loose ball-bearings which ended up being the remains of the reverse thrust bearing. No worries. Who needs reverse anyway? We're always moving forward, and this is B's last voyage with this ship (once we get to New Zealand he's trading it for a farm). Right now it's well past 1 a.m. and I am on watch. There is a strange sparkling planet or satellite on the horizon but otherwise nothing in sight. I can never get enough of looking down at the glow-in-the-dark plankton. You can stand up on the rail and shine the light down down and see all sorts of strange glowing shapes and forms, large jellyfish even, things you would've never guessed existed, invisible ghosts, until their outlines are revealed by their interaction with charged phosphorescence. Time to oil the engine, pump the bilge and check the pressure. But I can't take my eyes off the water. The glow-in-the dark plankton looks like fields of glowing snow for as far down as I can see.

& at that point i turned the page of the journal and there is a page written by none other than The Experience Junkie himself, whose own account of the same journey i linked to above. besides a brief rock-climbing adventure in Arizona, i'd all but lost touch with him—the internet is a wonderful thing. in the note he wrote in my journal he said he «marveled at my inane ability to ask the strangest hypothetical questions»—something that probably hasn't changed much—my sisyphean quest for aburdity. but i'm still far from having any answers to these silly questions. & speaking of Camus i'll end on one of my favorite lines by him [not to sound grim or anything]: «There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.» which i'm sure Herzog also took to heart making Fitzcarraldo.





©om.Posted 2011 Derek White