I had to watch the Dark Knight a second time to make sure I was right. We saw it all together, me and the Triple Entente in a beautiful room in Seattle during the summer. Wife-unit, afflicted with jetlag stayed at home and slept until I burst into the hotel room exhilarated.
Yesterday I took her to see it and am convinced that contrary to what tall idiots may say, this is a masterpiece.
Let me tell you why:
The last claim is the one I am going to quickly as possibly flesh out for you now so that you can seem really clever next time you and your friends get together for a pint. I thought I might be on to something by wife-unit confirmed it. She rocks at the philosophy after all so you have to listen to her.
As I begin my critique you have to remember that I agree with Pete Rollins postulation that in his capitalism, Bruce Wayne/Batman is a profoundly troublesome character. Slavoj Zizek has already said that this movie veers into a fascist propaganda and I think that I can maintain that claim. Come, let us think too much about a cartoon turned into a silly summer blockbuster!
Post-modernism is best understood as the collapse of shared value systems. Humans need value systems. You have one. The Pope has one. Richard Dawkins has one. It’s just these days each individual feels no obligation to have their worldview line up with anyone else’s. This is one of the impacts of post-modernism.
Post-modernism is a social phenomenon that finds its roots in philosophy. Namely, in Friedrich Nietzsche, the great moustachioed German. Nietzsche grew up in the midst of German liberal Protestantism, a society that pretended to be formed by the narrative of the Scriptures and the resurrection of Jesus but in reality was obsessed with the myth of human progress. Germany was now a global power through the advances in science and the belief that actually drove society on was that reason would liberate humanity.
Nietzsche punctured this hubris with a series of works that simultaneously tore shreds off 19th Century Christianity and the emerging secularism that was increasingly dominant. The famous passage in Nietzsche that you have surely heard mis-quoted if you have ever hung around arrogant first year philosophers is as follows, about the death of God:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.
“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?”
The madman is the Joker. Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent represent the two faces (see what they did there?) of secular post-Christendom society, society that lives in the vacuum that was once occupied in the West by the church. As humans that live in society, they require a moral framework to function. Hence, the plot of all Batman stories is driven by the ethical wasteland that is Gotham. But in the absence of any firm foundation upon which to lay the stones of an ethical society, individuals are driven to take up the burden themselves.
Bruce Wayne/Batman is driven to take it on in terms that as Zizek has outlined elsewhere, is profoundly troubling. The role of the violent agent of justice without bounds or limits is delineated in the plot by Rachel Dawes’ comment about how Caesar came to rule Rome.
In the case of Dent, in a society where individuals are the sole source of ethical truth, he too feels a need to take the burden of building a just society entirely upon himself. In both these cases, the unacknowledged death of god in the city of Gotham leads to the men lifting weights they cannot carry. The Joker is simply the madman who comes amongst them to hold up a mirror to their futile and ultimately self-serving leadership. The ethical universe of Gotham is arbitrary. The Joker is the anti-hero willing to stretch the self-shaped Messiahs of Dent and Wayne to break them.
I feel pretty strongly that upon this reading alone (and I could stretch this out to a Jimlad-length post if I cared to annoy you), one should consider seeing the Dark Knight. Again, if you are Fergal. The Nolan brothers are showing serious skill here.
I also think that unintentionally the movie ends up being a powerful argument pointing towards the Gospel. Maybe in the sense that the Gospel is the source of beauty, all beautiful things end up reflecting its glory. In the absence of the saviour, human beings are driven to be their own saviours. But whether as political messiahs or scapegoats who bear the burden of our iniquities, humans fall short and their noble if wrong-headed attempts to set things to right flounder.
[Potential spoiler alert]
Thus, at the end of the film the “lonely”, solitary good man that is Commissioner Gordon ends up concocting elaborate lies to protect the city’s hope in humanity. Humans need a saviour. We need someone to lift us out of our systemic corruption and our personal hopelessness. But without that saviour, the human who tries to fill the gap ends up only feeding the systemic corruption and the dark personal hopelessness that makes the Batman mythos so compelling.
Your Correspondent, Off to drink with Babette