We can also file this post under “the poetics of annihilation : entertainment edition”. Warning : this post meanders …
Batman’s world as a reflection of human psychology has always been pretty clear to me. The hero survived incomprehensible loss as a child. Upon becoming an adult he polices his own demons by catching and locking up human ones. Batman walks between worlds, as all trauma survivors do, the world of civilized humans that we all participate in every day and the world where the trauma happened. Batman makes his own rules, a means of regaining power in a world that rendered him powerless when he was a child. He works to keep a chaotic underworld repressed or at bay … the story elements become personifications of the processes of trauma survival, particularly, in this post, managing the chaos of the PTSD process.
Revisited The Dark Knight, the second Christopher Nolan Batman film, this week. In it, we meet one of the most powerful portrayals of antisocial criminal insanity put on film, Heath Ledger’s Joker.
He describes himself as the dog who wouldn’t know what to do with the ambulance if he caught it. He sets all the money on fire, sets about killing yet another gang leader and asks “what a hungry dog will do for food”. He knows human motivation, human reactivity, and he sets fire to it whenever possible in ever-escalating scenarios. It doesn’t even seem to matter to him that one set of ideas succeeds or fails; he simply moves on to the next in a series of intense escalations.
Early on in the film the audience meets him through a series of his crimes. He asks of his victims, “Wanna know how I got these scars?” He tells Gambol one story, he tells Rachel another. In either situation there’s an invitation to the game the audience may be playing, that of, this horribly evil character can become comprehensible through the injury that created him. The Joker turns this notion on its head by telling different stories in each situation. He denies us the ability to relate to him, which makes him all the more terrifying as a character.
There’s something else here, some other truth about relating to difficulty of any kind. Looking to the deep past to discover the source of present difficulty, or the reason why? Giant waste of time. The Joker forces those around him to deal with him on his terms. In the present. Doesn’t matter how he got those scars. His face is scarred and you’re the one looking into it. You’re the one confronted with the difficulty of him. His face is scarred and the scars themselves are scary, they make him ‘other’ in a way that unscarred faces are not. They cast him outside of ordinary interactions.
The movie documents the creation of social self through face, and the alteration of persona through its mutilation, through Harvey “Two-Face” Dent’s scarring accident. Harvey’s loss as an adult undoes him, as does the Joker’s visit to his hospital room to initiate him into an existence as a force rather than a specific human being.
Trauma survival has been described to me as the undoing of personality that Buddhists seek through enlightenment, via sudden extreme difficulty. The process of assimilating change quickly determines whether or not the human being involved is able to successfully integrate the EVENT into everyday life. Some traumas affect the biological mind in ways that point to deep psychological and physical connections of selfhood that have not begun to have been studied by science.
Story-cycles like Batman present the logic of trauma and its un-rational, yet logical, effects on persona in ways that touch on the universal difficulties of trauma. Why are the three plot-movers in this show masked? Batman wears a mask to enter into his second identity. The Joker’s mutilated face defines his relationship with the larger culture. And Two-Face, his ‘birth process’ out of the loss of Harvey, becomes the center of the movie.
Faces are the start of all human connection. When I suffered an accidental facial injury that involved black eyes, a broken nose, and almost 150 stitches in my mouth, it redefined my social interactions negatively for about six weeks. At another point in my life I gained a lot of weight. This also changed how other people responded to me. A year and a half later, when the weight came off, all of the tiny human interactions of my day improved as well.
Linguistically we also have loss of face : loss of our sense of status in the community. Our metaphorical language for social identity or persona starts with our faces. The sense of social role and facial appearance may be more deeply understood by actors and women, actors because persona is their bread and butter, women because the act of putting on makeup can reflect the act of composing onesself for the day. Of “making up the self”.
The Joker lives outside the human community, in almost total anomie. This permits his psychopathy. Harvey makes the traumatic journey from inside to outside through his trauma, losing his central human connection on his trip out. The Batman, of course, has to operate in both locations, shitty playboy Bruce to the neighbors, caped crusader at night.
Batman had a choice, our mutilated villains did not.
When a face is mutilated, it cannot be made up. Perhaps this is why Heath’s Joker skewers with his sloppy cheap stuff. Nothing can cover those scars.
When a face is mutilated, it cannot be made up. When a social identity has been shattered by trauma, it has to be made up, re-invented. If like Harvey Dent that reinvention is one woven with revenge and other reactions to loss, where is that person headed in life? The Joker ends up straightjacketed in Arkham Asylum. Even the Batman is stuck defined by how he chose to relate to his past, the adult reaction to childhood events.
When a face is mutilated, it is up to our neighbors not to wince. Our resilience as a culture is only as strong as our public ability to accept survivors as human beings who are not mutilated by the events they survived. Rape survivors may or may not have physical scars on their bodies. Our culture’s reinforcement of them as “raped”? As “forever raped” or “broken”? Not only is it a lie, these public attitudes can create scars where there would have been none before.
Somehow, the cycle of reacting in horror to accounts of events that were matter of fact to the people who actually lived through it has got to stop. Ordinary people are injured in horrifying ways; other ordinary people do horrifying things. We don’t usually have the spectacular make-up to tell us who the “bad guys” are. “Bad guys” may have ordinary or redeeming social features to them.
Oh, memory. People working in the PTSD field have described the process of the illness as time-looping through difficulty, having a repeating loop that can be triggered by things that, on the surface, sound similar (gunshots vs. car backfiring) The Joker loves to blow things up, set them on fire. One veteran of the Iraq war I spoke with about it described it as “having gasoline in his blood”, waiting for some ordinary event to spark his anger and “set him off”. The only regular thing about the Joker is his relentless push forward, creating chaos in an irregular yet continuing rhythm. This is what gets under my skin about that character, I think. For so many people that kind of fire is in their lives, waxing and waning, a response to a trigger somewhere in the body, a trigger disconnected from reality, relating to memory via a tricked out story …
… I wrote about Heath’s Joker as the Fool over here, in a post that’s in the blog I’m slowly migrating to this one. One other thread that I may discuss about this character in the future is his relationship to appetite. All good tricksters are deeply aware of the power of appetite. The Joker’s off-the-cuff statements about appetite, our animal nature, manipulation, and motivation fit the trickster’s archetype wonderfully.