The Joker and the Deceiver

So I did my American civic duty this weekend and watched The Dark Knight this past weekend. In IMAX. Then I went and saw it again last night.

Jonathan posted on his Twitter blog to go watch TDK and then read the works of Rene Girard. Intrigued by a possible connection between TDK and some French anthropological philosopher, I hunted down some online excerpts from his work “I saw Satan fall like lightning” at Jonathan’s recommendation…

This excerpt from Chapter 3 in particular struck me:

“If we listen to Satan, who may sound like a very progressive and likeable educator, we may feel initially that we are “liberated,” but this impression does not last because Satan deprives us of everything that protects us from rivalistic imitation. Rather than warning us of the trap that awaits us, Satan makes us fall into it. He applauds the idea that prohibitions are of no use and that transgressing them contains no danger.”

This brought to mind the hospital scene between Harvey Dent and the Joker, where the Joker—the self-proclaimed “Agent of Chaos”–seduces Harvey into this “liberation,” this anarchy and chaos as a way to expose the plans and pretenses of humanity.

Seduction then destruction.

Also this part:

“The Crucifixion is one of those events in which Satan restores and consolidates his power over human beings. The shift from “all against all” to “all against one” permits the prince of this world to forestall the total destruction of his kingdom as he calms the anger of the crowd, restoring the calm that is indispensable to the survival of every human community. Satan can therefore always put enough order back into the world to prevent the total destruction of what he possesses without depriving himself for too long of his favorite pastime, which is to sow disorder, violence, and misfortune among his subjects.

The death of Jesus thwarts the satanic calculation.”

This is based on the idea that virtually in every culture, this distorted need for a “scapegoat” inexplicably arises. Whether it’s a primitive human-sacrifice-driven culture from ancient times, or the current political smear campaigning, somehow it’s ingrained in our natures to arbitrarily shift blame in circumstances especially when we ourselves are culpable. In a recent conversation, my friend Josh (who is also a youth minister) cited this tendency as no different from church disputes in which people typically shift and assign blame. Like the Joker in TDK, Satan is a master of manipulation and discord and achieves a particular triumph when humanity chooses to unleash cathartic violence on an innocent, be it the witch hunts of Salem, the lynch-mobs of the Jim Crow era or the pogroms of Nazi Germany.

I love how Girard points out that in the ultimate scapegoat moment in history—namely the crucifixion of Jesus—is where Satan banked that he had made his ultimate triumph in the violent, insatiable madness of the mob. And yet how Jesus’ death “thwarts satanic calculation.”

I found Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker to be completely riveting. Anytime he stepped into a scene, I found myself paradoxically mesmerized and disgusted, from the smeared make-up to the reptilian licking of his lips. But the most compelling–and darkest part–of his character had nothing to do with physicality; it had everything to do with the seductive quality of his philosophy as a bringer of chaos and destruction.  Or simply a man who, as Alfred ominously observes, only wants “to watch the world burn.”

Anyway, the film–apart from containing one of the most flippin’ amazing (literally) stunt truck sequences I’ve ever seen–had a lot more to offer than special effects and action.  It was a penetrating look into madness and evil, how quickly society can be seduced by it, and the moral and ethical complexity of freedom.  

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5 thoughts on “The Joker and the Deceiver

  1. I have to read this Girard man. But I think I’m going to wait until I have sustenance in me so that I can actually process what I’m reading…I loved the truck sequence, too.I think I’m going to go see it in Imax next week.And last, I love the introduction to Joker…”I’m gonna make this pencil disappear…”Really, brilliant.

  2. Jeanne: yes, you must. But maybe next week?:) Jonathan: My beating you to the blog punch better not stop you from posting about it… I want to hear your thoughts! I ordered the book today so I will be able to read more than 6 pages of one chapter…;)

  3. Thanks for the connections between Girard and TDK. Having not seen TDK yet I can’t give definite suggestions, but I imagine chapter 5 of Girard’s “Violence and the Sacred” might be equally interesting. That and anything describing “mimetic desire”. You can find a great outline of the larger picture ideas within Girard in Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s “The Gospel and the Sacred” Regardless, you explain Satan well.

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