I used to write all of my Epsilon Theory notes by starting with two or three or twenty quotes and images, so that the note wouldn't really start until like ... page 5. It was an affectation of the sort that a lot of new writers adopt, and I dropped it when I finally realized it had become a shtick.
But sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Eight years ago, here's how I started a note that was also titled "Hollow Men, Hollow Markets, Hollow World".
|Kurtz:||Did they say why, Willard, why they want to terminate my command?|
|Willard:||I was sent on a classified mission, sir.|
|Kurtz:||It’s no longer classified, is it? Did they tell you?|
|Willard:||They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.|
|Kurtz:||Are my methods unsound?|
|Willard:||I don’t see any method at all, sir.|
|Kurtz:||I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?|
|Willard:||I’m a soldier.|
|Kurtz:||You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.|
I first saw Apocalypse Now as a college freshman with two roommates, a couple of years after it had been released, and I can still recall the dazed pang of shock and exhaustion I felt when we stumbled out of the theatre. Nobody said anything on the drive back to campus. We were each lost in our thoughts, trying to process what we had just seen. Our focus was on Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, of course, because we were 18-year old boys and he was a larger than life villain or anti-hero or superman or … something … we weren’t quite sure what he was, only that we couldn’t forget him.
When I reflect on the movie today, though, I find myself thinking less about Kurtz than I do about Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard. Both Kurtz and Willard were self-aware. They had no illusions about their own actions or motivations, including the betrayals and murders they carried out. Both Kurtz and Willard saw through the veneer of the Vietnam War. They had no illusions regarding the essential hollowness of the entire enterprise, and they saw clearly the heart of darkness and horrific will that was left when you stripped away the surface trappings. So what made Willard stick with the mission? How was Willard able to navigate within a world he knew was playing him falsely, while Kurtz could not?
Eight years ago.
Before Trump. Before Covid. Before a hot war with Russia and a cold war with China. Before Bitcoin became Bitcoin! ™.
It's hard to remember the before-times, right? It's hard to remember how alienated and disenchanted and hollowed-out we all felt THEN, even before all of the crap of the past eight years.
Forty years ago, as a teenage boy, I imagined myself as Kurtz, the anti-hero/superman/supervillain.
Eight years ago, as a 50-year-old man, I downgraded my imagination to Willard, the good soldier/assassin/errand boy.
Today? LOL. Ego is a powerful drug, and it takes events like those of the past eight years to draw it out of your system. Today I finally know who I am in Apocalypse Now, who we ALL are in its narrative arc terms.
I am a villager.
We are all villagers in Kurtz's world, an unnatural, literally insane world created by proclamation and fiat. Sure, our standard of living may be a little bit better than in the picture above, but the essential hollowness is the same. Maybe worse. And now an implacable agent of change - in the movie it's the assassin Willard but in the real world it's inflation, war, disease and climate - has arrived to collect the bill that is due.
This is an Old Story.
I don't just mean that Apocalypse Now was taken directly from Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel. I mean that the story of hubris at a societal level, where prideful human leaders lift themselves and their people up to unnatural heights by stealing what is not rightfully theirs, only to have their society struck down in retribution, is probably the oldest social narrative arc of them all.
And that is exactly what our Kurtzian leaders have done in the United States over the past 25 years. In their overweening pride, they have stolen what is not rightfully theirs to lift themselves and their people up to unnatural heights. Through monetary and fiscal policies that have pulled forward future growth and productivity into the present, they have not only stolen wealth and prosperity from our children and our children's children, but they have also created a political dynamic that has hollowed-out the Constitution and its attendant political norms.
We are a husk of ourselves. A wealthy and pampered husk of ourselves, sure, where I find myself disappointed if the local liquor store has only five different artisanal mezcals to choose from, but a husk nonetheless. Sometimes I wonder what the 5th-century Roman equivalent of artisanal mezcal would have been.
How did this happen? Here, I'll show you.