Rightly do we feel shocked by some of the events we are witnessing in our times – particularly, and most recently, the events in Denver, Colorado, as well as all that we recall on the anniversary of the events in Oslo, Norway.
These events are made all the more shocking because of the difficulties we encounter in attempting to understand what they might mean. The most common question that rises into the atmosphere of the world – for these are world events – following such happenings is, Why?
This is a difficult question, because if we wish to pursue it through to any kind of truthful answer we are forced to travel a long and difficult road, and to find upon it much that we find confronting – particularly all that we may discover about ourselves.
But is this not part of the reason – part of the tragic gift – of such events? And is not merely skimming across the surface of what has happened, without attempting to comprehend any true meaning therein, part of the reason why such events continue to happen? A great deal of courage is needed. And it is needed in order to even begin to attempt to learn the lessons contained in such shocking events as we are seeing in our times.
But attempts must be made. This article represents nothing more than a beginning of an attempt in this direction. Ultimately, however, it is up to each of us to uncover for ourselves the reality of that which confronts us from all sides (and from all screens) today.
The individual who did what he did in a Colorado cinema was, apparently, deeply interested in the subject matter of what was about to play itself out on the screen. He was, apparently, deeply connected to the Batman series, in particular to the character of the Joker. He coloured his hair in like manner as the movie character before committing his crimes. When he was arrested he reportedly told police he was the Joker.
What is going on here? We sometimes hear the phrase ‘life imitating art imitating life’, but ultimately this is nothing more than an empty phrase. We must look further than this.
The character of the Joker is a being of lies, of tricks, of remorseless destruction, of extreme intelligence, of cold and deliberate intent, of calculated planning. He is a being of distraction and illusion, of chaos and disorder. He is, in part, a continuation of Goethe’s Mephistopheles (and many other devil-type characters), but, at the same time, he seems to be more than this. Essentially, he is an imagination of much of what we would term ‘evil’ in the world today – whether it exists around us or, to a degree, if we are honest, within us.
The Joker, therefore, appears to be a kind of amalgamation of different aspects of evil. On the one hand there is the extremely cold and calculating aspect desiring in any moment to pull the human being down. On the other hand there is an illusory aspect that threatens to distract us – to take us away from the true purpose at hand. Finally, I would venture to say, that there is a third kind of evil expressed in the Joker. I would also say that this third aspect is relatively new in imaginative works. This third aspect appears to be connected to a desire to extinguish something we might call either culture or spiritual life itself. This expresses itself in the competitive decisions he forces human beings to make. In the previous Batman film one of these decisions is whether or not one group of human beings should kill another group of human beings, or be killed by them. This is an attempt to destroy that very part of us which makes us human – the part of us that places ourselves in service of our fellow human beings. It is this generally human aspect which appears to have been absent or, rather, overshadowed in the deeds of the individual in Colorado.
Rather than putting himself in service of the universally human, he has consciously put himself in service of all that is expressed in the character of the Joker. He has associated himself with the Joker; has put himself in service of the Joker. This is not to speak figuratively or symbolically. This individual has literally been overshadowed by all that lives in the Joker character. One could even say that in this case all that is expressed in the Joker is in fact ‘the actor’ (or, perhaps, the ‘director’), while this individual is merely the ‘character’ (or, perhaps more fittingly, the ‘puppet’). This is not to negate individual responsibility and freedom – choices were available.
And we each have the possibility to choose. But we must become clear about what the choices actually are. For if we are to be truly honest here, we can see that in any moment we are confronted with similar choices. Of course, the consequences will look different in every case, but none-the-less the choice remains. What is this choice? It is the choice of what we will put ourselves in service of as free individuals. The evils expressed in the Joker character live also within us. Each of us is capable of cold, calculating activity – of what we may call, in essence, untruth or lies. Each of us is also capable of what we may call hot-headed flights of fantasy – of activity which takes us away from the world into our own dreamy selves – of what we may call, essentially, self-seeking. A little more difficult to pin down, perhaps, is our capacity to destroy cultural or spiritual activity through extreme, one-sided competition. To look at this third aspect from another perspective, we could also say that we are all capable of placing our own desires – particularly our own economic prosperity – before anything else.
If the Joker were to be a truthful imaginative representation of all that lives within us as evil, therefore, he would be more than merely one character. (From the trailers for the latest Batman film, it seems the new character of Bane is a similar amalgamation figure.)
A similar evil which has been expressed in recent years has been the hitman figure in the film No Country for Old Men. This figure shares certain similarities with the Joker character. The hitman expresses more blatantly, however, the third aspect of evil we have been touching upon here. He is not so much a figure of cunning lies or of self-seeking illusion. He is, rather, a remorseless being that, once set upon its goal, stops at nothing in order to achieve it. All human elements seem to be missing. He is mechanistic. He is an expression of his own being-ness. In deciding whether to kill people of not, he makes them flip a coin. That is, he forces them to flip a coin for the own lives – for whether or not they will live or die, for whether or not he will kill them. He cares – or rather doesn’t care – just as much either way. He is a being that seeks to eradicate the human spirit, to eliminate all that is generally human because he has absolutely no connection to this. He is a being in opposition to that which is human, as is the Joker. Neither the Joker nor the hitman are redeemed in their respective films. Rather, they both serve another purpose. And that purpose is to make clear, in front of us, that which also lives within us – that is, to teach us about our own selves. Their purpose – like the individual in Colorado, as well as Norway, and elsewhere around the world – is to help us to redeem ourselves.
Though it is not just within ourselves that such evils exist. Such imaginative figures express also what is taking place in the world around us. The fact that the hitman figure forces individuals to flip a coin is not without significance. Depending upon which way the coin falls – depending upon which way economic activity falls – human beings and the cultures they have created will either live or die. An unchecked economy does exactly as the figure of the hitman does, remorselessly following its own agenda, mechanically stopping at nothing, acting without conscience in order to ferociously and competitively achieve its goal. In so doing it is capable of destroying the human spirit and all that the human spirit is capable of creating in and through spiritual or cultural life. That is, the figure of the hitman, and one aspect of the Joker, is an unbalanced and unchecked economic life destroying the culture of the world and the human being. The very nature of this evil – its very being – is the death of culture. Economic life becomes the only reality. (This is also the theme expressed in, ironically, the highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar, though far more mildly.)
Likewise we can see in the world around us that face of evil we have observed as being cold, calculating, cunning – essentially all that leans towards what we might call lies or untruth. Within us this can take the form of doubt in our thinking, of hatred in our feeling life, and of fear in our will. Around us in the world, it essentially appears as a lack of truth and reality in cultural life in general. Materialism appears as the complete story, rather than one part of it, and all education, research and so on – and all branches of learning as well as their application – follow merely as chapters in this overarching story, this overarching mythology.
The aspect of evil we have identified as being one of illusion, of distraction tending towards self-indulgent fantasy and dreaming, can be seen most of all playing itself out in political activity. No matter what the system of government in the world, it is generally overshadowed by self-seeking impulses which in turn cause political activity to overshadow cultural life and, in some cases, economic life as well. (On the macro level, however, it is generally the economic reality that prevails, for even if governments feel they are in control, such control is generally part of their own illusion; or, to put it another way, government is simply a plaything of economic imperialism.)
So we find ourselves in a situation in which the evils present within ourselves are present also in the world around us. Art – including film – is able to express something of this back to us, albeit in a somewhat jumbled way. Primarily its role is to express this imaginatively. However, film is a medium that is capable of appearing extremely life-like; extremely graphic. It leaves little room for imaginative activity within the viewer when compared to the written word, for example, though even the written word is susceptible to similar problems today. In truth, all words in our time have suffered a kind of death – it is part of the activity and consequence of the death of culture, of untruth and of self-seeking within the world and within ourselves. Words too, like us, have become cut-off from their vital essence and thereby come to lack actual meaning. There is, however, a lesson or a gift for us here also.
All living things must also die. In death, however, there exists the opportunity for something new to be born. The plant that dies also releases seeds which live on and bring new life to the world. So exists the situation for our civilisation today. One part of it stands already in its own grave, while another is as though a phoenix struggling to rise. Only in the death of words – words which can be used to mean anything at all – words that have become disconnected to the their own truths – and, more generally, in the death of culture itself and our own thinking activity – only through this can we in freedom begin to create something new.
The imaginations we see on film are generally confused pictures of reality. Films that strike a chord in society are generally films that come closer to actual reality because we identify something in them that is closely and intimately connected to who we are and the inner reality of the world we experience around us. But in order to ensure that all civilisation does not bury itself forever in its own grave, we must have the courage to clarify what we are seeing in ourselves and in the world, and to put ourselves in service of characters, of real heroes, of real beings worthy of our service. This will not happen if we continue along with business as usual. For if we do so, we unavoidably and unconsciously put ourselves in service of beings of untruth, self-seeking and competition leading to death of culture, which have created the mythologies of our time – namely, materialism, Darwinism and its social consequences, and the ‘invisible hand’ of economic market forces. Nor will this happen if we are served up only a confusing smorgasbord of imaginations through a culture which has, of itself, grown as lifeless as the words which it employs.
The renewal of the human being and the world will only come about if we have the courage to discern and penetrate through the global ‘screen’ of impressions we receive on a daily basis to that which is real, to that which is true. Films like Batman and others need to be viewed in the right way. We must be able to see that the Joker is an amalgamation of different characters. In The Matrix, for example, the ‘character’ of cold calculation finds expression in Agent Smith, while the character of self-seeking illusion can be seen more in the Merovingian, though they both contain aspects of the other. The Machines (with their Machine city) generally express the element of the competitive death of spirit and culture, but not with the same confronting force as the hitman or the Joker.
In any case, the gift of these films – as with all imaginative works – is for us to be able to externalise and thereby observe that which usually takes place within us unconsciously. In externalising these ‘characters’ from ourselves, we can become free of their influence. This can take place not only in the moment of viewing or reading, but whenever we put our will to such an undertaking. The whole world is a film – a story – awaiting our reading, and it awaits our reading in such a way that it may become meaningful. (Our participation is required in order for meaning to emerge.) The ‘bat-cave’ is also a place we can come to in ourselves so that we can begin to make sense of all that we have observed. In order that a new civilisation can emerge from the crumbling and decay of this present one, we must build a bridge from the old to the new. We are ourselves this bridge, or it will exist not at all and everything will fall apart. We must understand that we ourselves are the renewal of civilisation as much as we are all the characters in the stories we tell one another; that is, all the characters and all that takes place is us. (Granted, this is true more so of the imaginations and mythologies of old, for with the death of culture and the death of words we must be more discerning today. Still, opportunities present themselves for a reading of the script of life and the human being in the world today.)
And lest more of these imaginations take place one-sidedly in the ‘real’ world (as we have seen in Colorado), we must treat them as imaginations of realities which are able to go beyond mere one-sidedness. For we contain more than mere lies, self-seeking and cultural decline and death. We contain also that which keeps these forces at bay and in their rightful places (and that is even able to redeem them), even if only in seed form. Yet just as the seed contains within it already the whole of the plant it will become, so too do we contain with ourselves all that we have the potential to become as human beings. So too does this world contain within it all that it can potentially become. The only difference between us and the plant is that we must now actually choose to bring this development about. Whereas the plant can rely on natural forces, we have to rely on our own creative capacities as human beings – that is, on our own spiritual forces.
The events in Colorado are yet another tragic wake-up call for all of us. If we do not heed it, more and more events of similar nature will follow. This path leads to an all-out war of all against all, and the mythology of social Darwinism will prove itself true. Yet, if we are able to recognise that, in addition to the figure of the Joker, there also exists Batman; if we are able to see that the two groups of human beings in the previous Batman film choose not to destroy one another; if we see that there are characters who refuse the hitman’s demand to flip a coin; if we see that the scientists of Avatar unite themselves inwardly with the spiritual-cultural life of the native characters, creating a spiritual-cultural life that is strong enough to overcome the economic forces that seek to mine, for their own gain, that which lives directly below the surface of their spiritual-cultural homeland, thereby relegating such economic forces to their own realm (that is, Earth, though both Pandora and Earth represent Earth; simply the spiritual-cultural sphere and the economic sphere respectively); if we are to see the way in which Neo stands between Agent Smith (as shadow of his own self) and the Merovingian (as an old, self-seeking intelligence), as well as the Machines which he must make a kind of peace with (because machines in general are also required in order to meet the needs of the human beings in Zion); if we are able to see all stories, including, perhaps more-importantly, mythologies of old with a discerning and holistic set of eyes, then we will also see that we contain within us the seeds of new humanity and new civilisation on Earth. We contain its destruction and its renewal, both. The questions is, What do we choose in each moment of our lives?
There are people in that movie cinema who covered others with their own bodies in order to save them. There are people in that cinema who died doing so. Norway could have responded to fear by creating more of the same; it chose not to. In particular, Norway has embraced multiculturalism, diversity, community. (It seems Americans [amongst other peoples] seeking to achieve similar social tolerance following September 11 have had to do so without the support of their government.)
We stand here at a fork in the road of evolution. All around us the world is producing auguries – omens – for us to read. This is the becoming text of our age. The mythologies of materialism and social Darwinism (essentially, war of all against all) have led us to this point. Such mythology now tragically plays itself out both on the screen and in the world around us. Culture is dying. Words have died. The only possibility for renewal is to be honest with ourselves about all that we are observing in the world, and from there to recognise that only through cultural renewal within ourselves and within the world will the phoenix of a new civilisation truly begin to rise from the ashes of the old. Only by regularly making spaces within ourselves for the true hero of our own lives – our own higher selves – and all that pours through it, as well as by making space for the hero of our fellow human beings, will the story begin to change. Cultural life must strive to find a footing in real and discernable spiritual reality, must attempt to build itself anew on the foundation of a real and concrete spiritual worldview, in as much as the scientists of Avatar were able to achieve imaginatively. This will move us from untruth towards truth in cultural life and, in turn, bring equality (rather than self-seeking) to political and rights life, and association (rather than furious competition) to economic life. Each one of us stands in the world as a pillar of this new civilisation. Each one of us, in choosing to serve not the lower forces that exist within us but the higher spiritual beings that make their home in that part of us which we can call truly human – in choosing this, and in making a space within ourselves for the same in our fellow human beings, then the new city – the new civilisation – of the future will truly begin to rise from the graveyard of our time; then will the new mythology of the world, written in the space between human beings, begin to tell another story of the future and of ourselves. For then a new Gotham – a new Zion – (a Pandora-Earth) will begin to be built within, between and all around us. This is the archetypal human city in which it is possible to find ourselves as human beings; it is the city ‘for old men’, for young men, for all humankind; it is, ultimately, a city – a civilisation – made up of and by free individuals who have put themselves willingly in service of the becoming of one another, and of the true spirit of progress in our time.
John Stubley, Ph.D.
This article is dedicated to Heath Ledger.