Batman and Girard, Introduction--The Hero We Deserve

Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.

-  Commissioner Gordon, The Dark Knight.

At the heart of the work of Rene Girard is the interpretation of stories.  His initial work was in the area of comparative literature, and through his study of key authors (Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dostoevsky, in particular) he developed his mimetic theory in his first major book Desire, Deceit and the Novel (1961).  Later, he moved on to other kinds of stories, including mythology (Violence and the Sacred (1977)) and the Bible (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1987)).  But in any case, the key is stories and their interpretation.

For Girard, a story is truly great if it speaks to a core dimension of the human condition.  And since, for Girard, the interplay of mimesis, violence, and scapegoating is a core dimension (perhaps even the core dimension) of being human, we should be able to see Girardian ideas and themes in great stories, whatever their format or origin.  And I can think of no better example of a recent great story that reflects Girardian ideas than Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy of movies--Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).


Before getting into it, the idea for this series comes from Charles Bellinger's article "The Joker is Satan and So Are We: Girard and The Dark Knight."   Credit for the original idea must go to Bellinger (who is a professor and librarian at Brite Divinty School at Texas Christian University); what I hope to do here is to take his article and build off of it.  In particular, Bellinger focuses exclusively on The Dark Knight, while I want to talk about all three movies as a unified whole.  While The Dark Knight is clearly the masterpiece of the three, I think the Girardian dimensions can be seen more clearly if one brings The Dark Knight Rises and especially the vastly underrated Batman Begins into the discussion.

Also, in order to do this series, I am going to have to talk about the plot of all three movies in detail.  I'm not particularly worried about "spoiling" the movies, as all of them have been out for several years.  However, if you haven't seen them, this series may not make much sense, so you might want to watch them before diving in.  Even if you are someone who doesn't normally like or watch "super hero" movies, they are incredibly well acted and well done and you will enjoy them (well, The Dark Knight Rises has a lot of problems, but is still very watchable, while the other two are fantastic).  In fact, I suspect you will like them more, in some respects, if you don't normally like super hero movies, as they are in many ways a deconstruction of the whole idea of a super hero and the super hero story.  But more on that as we go along.

Which brings me to my basic thesis--the Dark Knight trilogy is the best and most comprehensive discussion of the concept of Satan, as seen through a Girardian lens, that I know.  Satan is not a "character" in the films per se, but Satan permeates the three films thoroughly and completely.  Moreover, the trilogy provides a nuanced portrayal of the "bipolar" nature of Satan, and the consequences that flow from that bipolar nature.

So, I think the Dark Knight trilogy is about Satan.  But who or what is Satan?  Classic protrayals of Satan or the Devil describe a "person" with horns and a tail that goes around tempting people to do stuff and taking their soul.  This anthropomorphic vision is difficult to take seriously, either on an empirical level or even (at least for me) on a theological level.  It feels like the bogeyman, something to scare little kids.



It wasn't until I read I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001) did I encounter an explanation of Satan that had any sort of coherence or resonance for me.  First off, for Girard, Satan is not a "person" or even an "entity" in the standard sense, but instead something like a force that we tend to personify (in the same way we personify gravity when we say it is "pulling us down").  This force is not a force of nature, in the sense that it is necessary and intrinsic to the functioning of the world--whereas you cannot find some place where gravity does not operate, it is possible to create spaces where Satan does not operate.  Also, unlike gravity, Satan does not affect the physical world, but instead affects human culture and society.

In fact, maybe the best analogy for Satan is that of a virus.  Viruses (or, for Latin fans, virii) are pervasive in the environment, and they live parasitically off of the organisms that they infect.  As they infect cells, they high-jack the cell and reprogram it to advance their own "agenda," which is to make more viruses.  The key distinction here is that in one sense viruses are "natural," in that they are a phenomenon that occurs in every part of the world, but at the same time they are not "natural" to the human condition in the sense that they are not somehow intrinsic to being human--you can kill viruses and live virus-free. We may all "get sick" from time to time, but being sick is not some baseline human state. Similarly, Satan is parasitic on human culture, hijacking it to fulfill its agenda.  This parasitic reality is pervasive--found in all cultures and all circumstances--but it is not some intrinsic part of being human.

But what is the nature of this parasitic reality?  As I said earlier, Girard argues that Satan is a bipolar reality, just like magnets are bipolar.  Whereas we talk about magnets as having a positive pole and a negative pole, we can talk about Satan as having a Chaos pole and an Order pole.  The Chaos pole is the force that stirs memetic rivalry between human beings.  A person sees another person desiring something (whether it is an object, or a person, or some intangible status) and comes to imitate the other person's desire.  This mutually reinforcing cycle grows and spirals, leading to covetousness and violence.  The end point of memetic rivalry is the unconstrained "war of all against all," the total break down of all social structures and relationships.  This outcome is Satanic chaos in its purist form.

The other pole, Order, is the application of rules and force to prevent this Satanic Chaos from destroying everything.  It appears, at first glance, to be the solution to the problem of Satanic Chaos.  But it is a false solution, because at the heart of this Order is the scapegoat--violence directed at the one or ones to be cast out.  This violence doesn't actually fix the problem of memetic violence, but simply discharges it and medicates it for a time.

And herein lies the true power of Satan.  Contra to the famous line from the movie The Usual Suspects ("the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled is convincing the world he doesn't exist"), the real trick of Satan is convincing the world that this Chaos and Order are two opposing forces.  They are not, Girard argues; instead, they are two mutually reinforcing sides of the same Satanic agenda.  Satan makes us sick with memetic rivalry, and then sells us the patent medicine in the form of sacred, scapegoating violence, which just leads to become sicker again, requiring more patent medicine.  And on and on, in a never-ending cycle.  While we are staking our places on one side or the other of this divide, Satan is profiting off of selling weapons to both.

The Dark Knight trilogy, more than any other set of stories I have ever seen, exposes the way in which Chaos and Order are two sides of the same coin, working toward the same destructive outcome.  The tent poles of the trilogy are the two primary villains--Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson), who represents the Order pole, and The Joker (Heath Ledger), who represents the Chaos pole.  Both of them, however, understand and accept the need for the other pole as a tool to accomplish their work--they both understand that Order and Chaos come from the same place.  We also see this in what we might think of as the "remix" villains in The Dark Knight Rises--Bane (Thomas Hardy) and Talia al Ghul/Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard)--who blend the Order and Chaos elements unleashed by Ra's al Ghul and The Joker.

The Dark Knight trilogy also explores various attempts to break out of this fundamental trap.  All of these efforts, however, have the same basic plan and suffer from the same basic flaw, in that they are trying to find some formula in which the power of Order and Chaos can be harnessed to achieve good without bringing into play the negative effects.  They are all attempts to use Satan's tools to beat Satan at his own game.  And all of them, I would argue, fail; the lesson being you cannot beat Satan at his own game.  Thus, the trilogy gives us a set of tragic heroes--first Harvey Dent/Two Face (Aaron Eckhart), then Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and finally Bruce Wayne/Batman himself (Christian Bale).

These seven people are going to be the focus of this series.  First up is Ra's al Ghul, the League of Shadows, and the fantasy of the cleansing fire.    

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