much madness is divinest sense
|MUCH madness is divinest sense|
|To a discerning eye;|
|Much sense the starkest madness.|
|’T is the majority|
|In this, as all, prevails.||
|Assent, and you are sane;|
|Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,|
|And handled with a chain.
– Emily Dickinson
I find Batman to be the most interesting comic book superhero. Not only is he human, but he’s the most realistic. He doesn’t stick blithely to any preconceived notions of morality like Superman or Spiderman do. He does what needs to be done. In a world driven mad and going madder each day, he provides a sole beacon of sanity. But often, even Batman’s sanity is called into question by the madness of those around him. It is not that Batman is flawlessly moral, it is his very vulnerabilities that make him essentially human. It is this humanity that Christopher Nolan captured so beautifully in The Dark Knight.
In direct contrast to Batman’s moral crusade is the anomaly known as the Joker. In the city of Gotham, if Batman represents sanity and order, the Joker is the antithesis, the progenitor of chaos. The Joker is an exemplary nihilist, a hedonist whose is driven by only one desire: chaos. Heath Ledger captured the Joker’s essence totally, imbuing him with a life so completely true to his origins and legend, a feat I don’t believe Jack Nicholson ever achieved.
But what sparked off this posting was my rereading of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s seminal 1988 comic The Killing Joke. This one-shot short has been the foundation for many subsequent adaptations of the Batman and especially the Joker. Tim Burton cites it as a major influence on his own Batman film and Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan used it as inspiration for the character as well as the plot for The Dark Knight. Just like the Joker tries to drive Batman insane in the film, he tries a similar stunt in the comic, trying to drive Jim Gordon insane.
The story starts off with the Joker’s escape from prison (or Arkham). He proceeds to take over an amusement park and then set his ingenious plan in action. At Jim Gordon’s house, he shoots Barbara, Gordon’s daughter, in the spine, and kidnaps Gordon himself. Back at the park, he strips Gordon naked, humiliates him and forces him to acknowledge his failing as a father by showing him pictures of his daughter, naked, wounded and possibly dying. It is the Joker’s intention to show that any normal person, if confronted with enough things that go wrong in his life, can be driven insane. He wants to show the Batman that even an honest and honourable man like Gordon can be driven insane. Running parallel is the story of the Joker’s origins. Moore depicts the Joker as just a normal man, a comedian, weak, frail and unsuccessful. He has a loving wife who is pregnant with his child and who he is willing to do anything for. Faced with eviction and his failure as a comedian, he falls in with some criminals who want to rob a card factory, by way of a chemical plant. Hours before the heist takes place, tragedy strikes as he is informed of his wife’s death by accident. The heist goes through but is foiled by the Batman. He falls into a vat of chemicals and emerges insane, as the Joker.
In signature style, Alan Moore weaves a story fraught with philosophy and psychology. He explores the depths of the human mind and the fragile relationship between sanity and insanity. Using the Batman and the Joker as prototypes, Moore explores how easily some might turn to crime while others turn to crusades. Batman and the Joker are both products of a single violent incident, which the Joker tries to replicate with Gordon. While Batman chose the moral high ground, the Joker went the subversive way, turning to madness. But Moore isn’t one to leave things so cut and dried, so black and white. From the very first lines, we see Moore’s insinuation: “There were two guys in a lunatic asylum.” Lunacy isn’t the exclusive property of the Joker, for even the Batman, is a little insane. “Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?” questions the Joker maniacally. And it is a question that resonates through the entire comic, a question Christopher Nolan explores in depth in the The Dark Knight. The Batman and the Joker are distorted mirror images, as similar to each other as two shades of gray.
“Remembering’s dangerous. I find the past such a worrying and anxious place. “The past tense” I suppose you could call it. Memory’s so treacherous. One moment you’re lost in a carnival of delights, with poignant childhood aromas, the flashing neon of puberty, all that sentimental wiring. The next it leads you where you don’t want to go. Somewhere dark and cold, filled with the damp, ambiguous shapes of things you had hoped were forgotten. Memories can be vile, repulsive. But can we live without them? Memories are what our reason is based upon. If we can’t face them we deny reason itself! Although why not? We aren’t contractually tied down to rationality, there is no sanity clause. So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought headed for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there is always madness. Madness is the emergency exit. You can just step outside the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away… forever.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen! You’ve read about it in the papers! Now witness, before your very eyes, that most rare and tragic of nature’s mistakes! I give you: the average man. Physically unremarkable, it instead possesses a deformed set of values. Notice the hideously bloated sense of humanity’s importance. Also note the club-footed social conscience and the withered optimism. It’s certainly not for the squeamish, is it? Most repulsive of all, are its frail and useless notions of order and sanity. If too much weight is placed upon them… they snap. How does it live, I hear you ask? How does this poor pathetic specimen survive in today’s harsh and irrational environment? I’m afraid the sad answer is, “Not very well”. Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random, and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this… any other response would be crazy!”
At the end, when Batman has the Joker in a vise grip, he tells Batman a joke:
“See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight…stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren’t make the leap. Y’see…y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea…He says ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’ B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… he says ‘What do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!'”
And Batman, finally faced with the reality of his mirror image, starts to laugh, hysterical demented laughter that rivals that of the Joker.