Writing about the relationship between Apocalypse Now and “Totem and Taboo” is daunting for the very uncanniness with which the two works fit together; it seems impossible that the film should have been made without reference on the writing staff’s part to Freud’s article, which articulates the themes of the film several decades in advance of its production. Apocalypse Now is, in a word, the story of an atavistic descent out of civilization which, like Slavoj Žižek’s reading of Kafka’s The Trial, finds as its terminus a form of civilization at its most literal, which is to say, its most obscene. “The structure here, of course, is that of the Moebius strip: if we progress far enough in our descent to the social underground, we find ourselves suddenly on the other side, in the middle of the sublime and noble law.” (“The Obscene Object of Postmodernity”) This parallel is no coincidence: the two texts in question share a philosophy of civilization, of the Law, as an essentially obscene, punitive force; a Law whose Other is incoherent.
Here we find the link to “Totem and Taboo,” which posits the primal parricide as the birth of civilization. Freud suggests that, like Cronus banding together with his Titan brothers to overthrow the father-ruler Uranus, civilization begins with a “band of brothers” who come together to overthrow their own father-ruler, who they see as having grown too powerful. The decision to overthrow the father stems directly from the first Law of civilization, the Law from which civilization comes to exist as such, namely, the prohibition of incest; this first non du père is that which inspires the brothers to rise up against the father. Traditions of totemic cultures – most prominently, the communal eating of the totem animal – affirm this etiology of civilization in their continued reenactment of the ambivalence that characterized the original father/son relationship. The totem animal comes to represent the father, and thus the act of consuming it (prohibited on one’s own but validated in the context of communality) and atoning for this consumption reenacts the ambivalence of killing the father who the band of brothers nonetheless loved, and whose death, at their own hands, they grieved. Freud locates this original parricide as the site of the birth of civilization but also that of the Oedipus complex; the two are thus inseparable, one being the guiding principle of the other. That the Other of this Law should thus prove to be incoherent is no surprise; the psychical principle that most fundamentally characterizes civilization is ambivalence, specifically the ambivalence on the subject’s part towards the totem-father, the figure (and the guiding principle) of the Law.
Kurtz’s cult in Apocalypse Now thus represents civilization at its most literal insofar as it’s civilization at its most reductive, returned to its original form as elaborated in “Totem and Taboo.” This is, of course, made its most clear in the sequence in which Kurtz’s followers violently sacrifice an animal in a clearly ritualistic context, a scene drawn more or less from the text of “Totem and Taboo.” That this sequence plays out while cross-cutting to and from Willard’s own murder of Kurtz makes the line all the clearer, underscoring the relationship not only between the sacrifice of the totemic animal and the original parricide, but also that between the text of Apocalypse Now and “Totem and Taboo.”
In fact, this Moebius strip structure, as informed by our reading of Apocalypse Now in relation to “Totem and Taboo” dogs the text of Apocalypse Now at large: from the very start of the film we are working in a temporal framework whose linearity is upset. The use of The Door’s “The End” at both the start and end of the film underscores this cyclicality, suggesting the narrative of the film not as a closed segment but rather an unending circuit. This is a particularly haunting thought in light of the consequences of such a cyclical temporality outside of the atavistic milieu of Coppola’s Vietnam. What Apocalypse Now insists upon is that Kurtz’s cult is not the exception of civilization, but rather the rule. The only thing that sets Kurtz apart from the U.S. military is his own declaration of independence, his refusal to be subordinate to the Law; it is, after all, the military itself that sends Willard on his mission to assassinate Kurtz. Thus, what “Totem and Taboo” tells us about Apocalypse Now – and about our world – is that civilization in all its forms is bound to repeat this parricide, and all the bloodlust and savagery that surrounds it, ad infinitum; that the closing of one door only opens another in the endless repetition compulsion that is the death drive.