Watching the Joker in the film The Dark Knight and seeing him eliminating the criminals who assist him, seeing him burn a mountain of money, seeing his pursuit of the district attorney not as a vendetta but as a means of demonstrating his understanding of existence, seeing him force people to confront their fear and surrender their humanity, sent me on a search in which I found nihilism, anarchy, and most importantly Batman: The Killing Joke and Alan Moore.

A major inspiration for the film, Alan Moore’s graphic novel (comic book) Batman: The Killing Joke, tells the story of the man who became the Joker. Moore’s graphic novel literally ends with a joke about killing that leaves Batman and the Joker laughing hilariously together; both seeing the reality we make of existence as a joke.

And what we find in Batman and the Joker is Alan Moore’s exploration of the meaning of existence. In San Francisco’s Believer Magazine (June 2013), Moore, in an interview, says:

    • Yeah, our view of reality, the one we conventionally take, is one among many. It’s pretty much a fact that our entire universe is a mental construct. We don’t actually deal with reality directly. We simply compose a picture of reality from what’s going on in our retinas, in the timpani of our ears, and in our nerve endings. We perceive our own perception, and that perception is to us the entirety of the universe.

Moore, gives an indication of how he awoke to his understanding of reality.

  • "LSD was an incredible experience. Not that I'm recommending it for anybody else; but for me it kind of – it hammered home to me that reality was not a fixed thing. That the reality that we saw about us every day was one reality, and a valid one – but that there were others, different perspectives where different things have meaning that were just as valid. That had a profound effect on me."
  • (Alan Moore: Believer Interview, Sept 2014)

Christopher Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight, does not bring Batman and the Joker together in the way that The Killing Joke does. In the comic book, the ending suggests that the characters are two sides of the same coin; both see absurdity in human constructs of reality. But in the film, they are in total opposition and don’t share the joke. Batman, beginning to question his function as a saviour, is at the beginning of disillusionment and his doubts weaken him. While the Joker, the embodiment of chaos, complete in himself, can act with absolute certainty and is powerful, more powerful than Batman.

For the Joker, the reality that we profess is a fabrication, a fairy tale, “a mental construct;” it is not authentic. And the definitions that we give to existence, conceal the reality ofits meaninglessness. The controls that we place upon ourselves, having no external reference, simply become the means to uphold an illusion. All the knowledge that we have accumulated and the progress we have made, merely feed the illusion that life has objective reality. But they are a form of psychotherapy and we are really locked inside reflexivity – as participant–observers in a reality of our own making.

If there is no objective reality, we are dealing only with “perception of perceptions.” And that for the Joker makes existence meaningless and the world an asylum. Existence being meaningless, authenticity of being human consists in being meaningless. As we refuse to acknowledge that, he is compelled to demonstrate it. So embracing insanity, the Joker frees himself of human conventions and sees his mission as the destruction of the veneer, the facade of sanity, under which we hide the reality of chaos. Determined to force acceptance of insanity as the true meaning of reality, he pursues Harvey Dent, the best of the best, whom he drives insane. Dent becomes Two-Face; with a face one half of which is orderly and the other chaotic; he becomes the Joker in the Batman.

Next, the Joker places people in a situation in which they have to choose between killing or being killed. He is certain that fear will overcome reason, drive them to kill and they will all be destroyed. He does not win this challenge; the people on the ships choose not to kill so they do not die. They affirm the value of life that underpins civilization and human belief in objective reality. This affirmation gives back to Batman his strength as it validates his being.

Does this test prove objective reality or does it affirm human existence as a “mental construct”? Science fiction presents human existence as objective reality i.e. we are not the only occupants of the universe. But is Science Fiction not simply a projection of human life into outer space? Is it not simply a “mental construct”? – more reflexivity?

In The Dark Knight, anarchy and chaos are regarded as synonymous, but for Moore they are not. This is how Moore defines anarchy in his graphic novel, V for Vendetta. V says:

    • “Anarchy means "without leaders", not "without order". With anarchy comes an age or ordnung, of true order, which is to say voluntary order ... this age of ordnung will begin when the mad and incoherent cycle of verwirrung [chaos, confusion] that these bulletins reveal has run its course ... This is not anarchy, ... This is chaos.”( Alan Moore: V for Vendetta)

George Woodcock editor of The Anarchist Reader writes in his introduction:

    • ... the word archon (means) a ruler, and the prefix an, (indicates) ‘without’; hence anarchy means a state of being without a ruler. By derivation, anarchism is the doctrine which contends that government is the source of most of our social troubles and that there are viable alternative forms of voluntary organization. And by further definition the anarchist is the man who sets out to create a society without government. (p.11)

And Moore takes this further:

    • “I believe that all other political states are in fact variations or outgrowths of a basic state of anarchy; after all, when you mention the idea of anarchy to most people they will tell you what a bad idea it is because the biggest gang would just take over. Which is pretty much how I see contemporary society. We live in a badly developed anarchist situation in which the biggest gang has taken over and have declared that it is not an anarchist situation – that it is a capitalist or a communist situation. But I tend to think that anarchy is the most natural form of politics for a human being to actually practice.” (Believer Interview)

What anarchist theory posits is informal organization not the governments that we have today that rule by fear, coercion and exploitation. After twenty years of living under a “democratic” government, I now see governments as the Jokers of the world but without the Joker’s intelligence or honesty.

The Joker is not an anarchist; he is a nihilist [nihil = nothing] i.e. he sees existence as having no intrinsic meaning and finds human attempts to create meaning, a sick joke. That would include the anarchist attempt to create society without formal government. The anarchist idea of informally organised communities is to me as idealistic as democracy. It takes human goodwill for granted in the same way that democracy does. But human beings are not altruistic; our first concern is the self and we are supremely opportunistic, And governments, in practice, acknowledge only the volatility of human nature. Laws and regulations are forms of control; as are all societal institutions, social, religious, economic. And the Joker sets out to show that the reality human beings create in building society, is a fantasy, a pretence of orderly existence; that there is no consistency or commitment in declarations of liberty, fraternity and equality. Everyone knows – rules are made to be broken. So why pretend that what we have created is real; that our rules ensure a haven for human existence?

His view is involuntarily supported by Batman, whose efforts to end crime in Gotham City lead to new more creative forms – criminals impersonating Batman and committing crimes under his guise. In The Dark Knight, Batman is beginning to see his role as one who simply puts out fires without being able to stop the conflagration. He is beginning to see that human propensity to take opportunistic advantage of all situations is ingrained; that society’s conventions invite subversion by all, though most obviously by the criminally inclined and the disadvantaged. The criminally-minded (and that includes corrupt politicians) batten on the compliance of the majority with rules and regulations – the moral cages in which they are confined that make possible their abuse. Bound by convention, people are sitting ducks for the Jokers of the world.

Being out of the moral cage gives the Joker his power. He is able to destroy at will because he does not subscribe to concepts of good and evil. And because he repudiates all conventions, he is totally unpredictable. No one knows what to expect from him. That is his power. Batman, Gordon, Dent all follow the rules so their actions are fairly predictable. In a conventional world, power is gained from being unconventional. Unpredictability is what makes all criminals powerful. Because it confers power, it is also a trait of most heroes in novels and films, heroes like Batman. We call them mavericks and admire them for their ability to ignore societal restrictions and act on their own authority. Their individualism, independence, freedom from constraint gives them power and makes them very attractive; they appeal to the subconscious longing in all of us to be free of rules and regulations. We identify vicariously with their defiance of imposed authority – of controls that become hindrances in a crisis.

And it is this anarchic desire for freedom in all of us that is symbolised in the Joker. But the Joker’s unconventionality and unpredictability are not just the titillating abandonment of rules; for him regulatory rules, laws, are lies to protect the superstructure of fantasy that hides the truth. Rules deceive us into believing that our actions have meaning when they are there only to ensure that we preserve the systems that bind us together and delude us into believing that we have a purpose in the universe. The Joker, the only true maverick, repudiates all attempts to make him conform to the fabrications of human logic.

As there is truth in what the Joker believes, he forces us to examine our understanding of existence. But his view is one-sided. True – existence is a mystery, human beings are instinctual and cannot be relied on absolutely, and they have fabricated an existence on earth. But does that mean that the human creation of existence is meaningless because it is a mental construct, a perception of perception? For the Joker this is so. As we cannot place our existence in a clearly definable context that is outside ourselves, ourÂÂexistence is reduced to a kind of psychotic dream.

But the one undeniable fact is that we do exist. For the majority of human beings who value the life they have, it is an opportunity. And they have created civilizations, flawed as they are, and given human meaning to existence. That meaning is the expression of our instinctive reverence for life. Even the Joker values his life. His despair at the meaninglessness of existence does not lead him to take his own life, and, like the majority, he gives it meaning – he has a mission. His mission is to destroy our illusions. So despite his nihilism, he functions, albeit negatively, in the human context in a human way; he creates meaning.

He expresses his meaning through his actions. And that is what humans have done since the beginning of time, acted to make the world their home – taken control of the randomness of existence and created a human reality. The Joker is in despair because it is not objective reality; Batman is in agony because, being human, it can never be perfect.

For the Jokers of the world, who need an external agency to give reality to our existence, life is a meaningless joke and there is no point in giving it form. The majority of humans do not suffer the Joker’s angst as they believe in an external agency – God. For the Joker this belief is part of the elaborate structure they have created to give credence to a false understanding of existence.

There are others, who may or may not be atheists, who, like the Joker, contemplate the mystery of existence, but unlike the Joker, do not despair at its incomprehensibility. For them it becomes an exciting adventure, a challenge to give meaning, to create reality – as all artists and scientists consciously do. Alan Moore calls it magical:

  • ÂÂ
    • "I believe that magic is art, and that art, whether that be music, writing, sculpture, or any other form, is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images, to achieve changes in consciousnessÂÂÂ... Indeed to cast a spell is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people's consciousness, and this is why I believe that an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world to a shaman." (Alan Moore)

In The Dark Knight, the Joker unwittingly makes magic; destructive magic, but magic nevertheless. As his negativity and pessimism can only be perceived in its opposition to human optimism and creativity, he too is caught in the logic of a “mental construct.”

In the end there is no escape from reflexivity. And the line between sanity and insanity disappears.

  • References
  • Alan Moore.Batman: The Killing Joke, DC Comics, 1988
  • Peter Bebergal. Interview: Alan Moore. TheBeliever, June 2013.
  • The Dark Knight, a Christopher Nolan film, 2008