Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Both the Washington Post and Rotten Tomatoes decided to remind me this week that it’s the tenth anniversary of one of the most influential films of our age, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Before those of you who are sick of superhero movies (or have always been too snobbish to enjoy them) start rolling your eyes, let me quote Roger Ebert (as the Post also does) in pointing out that The Dark Knight is a film that transcends its comic book origins to become “an engrossing tragedy.”
And I am hardly the first person to read into the film something beyond the surface of its plot and action sequences. At the time of its release in 2008, many saw it as something of a metaphor for America in the age of the Iraq War and the War on Terror. Gotham might be a stand-in for Baghdad, and Batman a stand-in for the U.S. military, his very presence by the its violent and extreme nature inviting escalation and challenge. In the end, Batman wins a pyrrhic victory through mass surveillance like the NSA. At the more obscure end of commentary,
the good folks over at Overthinking It (hey Mark) presented an interesting essay interpreting the film through the philosophy of Schopenhauer: Gotham as Will and Representation.
My personal pet theory of the film takes it as an updated version of Aeschylus and a story about jurisgenesis, the invention of law.
Aeschylus’s trilogy, The Oresteia, tells the story of Orestes, who kills his own mother Clytemnestra to avenge her murder of his father Agamemnon. By part three, The Eumenides, Orestes has escaped to Athens, where the Furies, primeval goddesses of vengeance, demand that he pay for the crime of matricide. Athena, patron of Athens, intervenes and persuades the Furies to allow Orestes a trial. The Furies proceed to act as prosecutors, Athena as the judge, and a chorus of Athenian citizens as the jury. The play therefore tells the story of how a society progresses from a primitive system of blood feuds to a civilized world of law and due process.
So in The Dark Knight, Gotham is a once-civilized world that, due to pervasive corruption and institutional breakdown, has regressed so far as to lose the rule of law. Enters Batman in the role of the Furies. Through the primitive means of punching people in the face, he reinstates a poor semblance of justice in Gotham. But he recognizes that he represents regression, and that the situation is untenable. Gotham must move in the opposite direction and reenter the age of law. He looks for a replacement and thinks that he finds it in—what else—a lawyer, Harvey Dent, a district attorney who may just be brave enough to stand up for the law using court filings instead of batarangs.
Ten years on, the Iraq War is no longer at the forefront of our minds. But the film is more relevant than ever, because the world we live in is far closer to being Gotham than in 2008. In 2008, most of us didn’t suspect that so many American public officials would be so hopelessly craven and corrupt as to willingly hand over the keys to the kingdom to criminals and traitors. Most of us never imagined a day when the United States would preemptively surrender to authoritarian Russia as easily as the mob and the Joker get police officers and judges on their payroll. Most of us didn’t suspect that half of the American electorate would simply not mind the venality and mendacity and criminality and treason. As the Mueller-like Jim Gordon asks in Batman Begins, “In a town this bent, who is there to rat to anyway?”
It is no coincidence that the great Internet meme machine has produced a great many images of Trump photoshopped in the visage of the Joker.
It is no coincidence that Trump at once looks like an evil genius methodically dismantling democratic norms and a flailing fool: “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” the Joker asks. “You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.”
It is no coincidence that in discussing Trump many quote Alfred’s characterization of the Joker’s nature: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” As classical literature such as Othello in its depiction of Iago also teaches, the nature of evil is that is has no explanation; is has only a void.
So then finally it is no coincidence that both Trump and the Joker keep telling pointless lies. “Do you want to know how I got these scars?” the Joker repeatedly asks his victims and foes, but each time he proceeds to tell a different story.
And Batman, towards the end of The Dark Knight, shows us an answer to the Joker’s question.
“You know how I got these scars?”
“No, but I know how you got these.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."