Batman and Girard, Part 1--A Purging Fire is Inevitable and Natural

When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.

--Ra's al Ghul, Batman Begins

Ra's al Ghul: Tomorrow the world will watch in horror as its greatest city destroys itself. The movement back to harmony will be unstoppable this time.

Bruce Wayne: You attacked Gotham before?

Ra's al Ghul: Of course. Over the ages, our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham, we tried a new one: Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham's citizens... such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself... and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way. Like your father, you lack the courage to do all that is necessary. If someone stands in the way of true justice... you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.

--Batman Begins

It was brave of Christopher Nolan to lead off his Batman reboot with Ra's al Ghul as the primary villain.  I am no scholar of the Batman comics, to be sure, but I had never heard of him prior to seeing the movie.  Say what you want about the first run of Batman movies, but they hit all of the A List (the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler) and many of the B List (Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, Poison Ivy) Batman villains.  Nolan dug down to tap someone from the C List right from the start, and that decision set the trilogy on track to be something other than a basic super hero story.  Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows are, in my opinion, critical to understanding the arc of the three movies.

In brief, the League of Shadows is an ancient and secret conspiratorial group, dedicated (at least ostensibly) to fighting against crime and wickedness and in favor of justice.  When a particular city becomes decadent and corrupt, the League of Shadows comes in and arranges for its destruction.  Ra's al Ghul tells us that the League of Shadows organized the fall of Rome and "of Constantinople" (which, of course, wasn't destroyed so much as it was taken over by the Turks, but whatever), and its current target is Gotham City, home of Bruce Wayne/Batman.  Indeed, Ra's al Ghul recruits and trains Wayne to be the instrument of this destruction, but Wayne balks and Ra's al Ghul has to do the job himself, setting up the confrontation at the heart of Batman Begins.

What is interesting to me about the ideology of Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows is that there is no endgame.  They don't claim "once we destroy Gotham, we can start over with a better kind of city."  Nor do they claim "once we destroy Gotham, the people will be better off because they will not have to deal with this corrupt city."  The League of Shadows isn't trying to destroy Gotham City in service of some broader goal or objective.  Instead, all they claim is that Gotham City "needs" to be destroyed because of its wickedness.

But who "needs" it to be destroyed?  And why?  Ra's al Ghul provides no real answer to this question, other than this is what the League of Shadows does.  Ra's al Ghul seems to point to some sort of historical or sociological necessity, but he never provides any account of a purpose for what the League of Shadows does.  The quote above has a reference to "the movement back to harmony," but you don't get the sense that "harmony" is some sort of ground state, periodically disturbed by corrupt cesspools like Gotham.  Instead, you get the idea that disharmony is the ground state, only periodically fixed by League of Shadows intervention.  But if the world is always corrupt, and the intervention of the League of Shadows doesn't move the needle except in the most fleeting ways, what's the point?

Plus, look again at Ra's al Ghul's speech to Batman quoted above.  To defeat the criminality and corruption of Gotham, the League of Shadows manipulated the economy to make people poor.  And by making people poor, by "[c]reat[ing] enough hunger," you ensure that "everyone becomes a criminal."  Which in turn justifies destroying Gotham.  In other words, everything the League of Shadows has done and does do with regard to Gotham is entirely circular, and their plan collapses in on itself.  Perhaps if you didn't make people poor, there would be less criminality, which would make it less "necessary" to destroy the city.

Notwithstanding half-hearted references to "harmony," Ra's al Ghul sets out to destroy Gotham for the sake of destroying Gotham.  The purging fire is not a by-product of what the League of Shadows does, but its core purpose.  The Order that the League of Shadows represents is not directed to some greater good.  All it does is perpetuate itself, creating the conditions under which its own existence is necessary.

Now, at this point one might be tempted to say, "well, when you put it like that, you're right--Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows's plan is crazy and pointless.  But that shows us that Batman Begins is not well written and not that great of a movie.  A better written movie would provide some goal, some endgame for Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows."  But I think that's precisely wrong; the lack of such a justification is the thing that makes the movie Girardian.  By leaving out the standard appeal to some sort of ultimate end goal, Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows expose the fact that most of those justifications are nonsense.  By giving us the purging fire for the sake of the purging fire, without some kind of contrived story for how everything will be great after we destroy this village in order to save it, Batman Begins is showing us that it is always the purging fire for the sake of the purging fire.

To prove it, let's change gears and think about the actress Susan Sarandon.  She's a big supporter of Bernie Sanders for President, and she has suggested that if Hillary wins the nomination, it would be better for Trump to be President than Clinton.  The reason?

“Really,” Sarandon said, adding that “some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in, things will really explode.” Asked if she thinks that’s “dangerous,” she replied, “It’s dangerous to think that we can continue the way we are with the militarized police force, with privatized prisons, with the death penalty, with the low minimum wage, threats to women’s rights and think you can’t do something huge to turn that around.”

In other words, it would be good for Trump to be President and do all of the things he says he is going to do (i.e. build a wall, deport millions of people, torture families of suspected terrorists, etc.), because that would provoke the purging fire that will sweep away evil.  The collateral damage of a Trump Presidency can be justified, even celebrated, by reference to the utopic end that will come after the fire.  Better that, Sarandon argues, then the grudging incremental compromise represented by Clinton.

It is much easier, of course, to take such a position when one is a rich and white and famous, as opposed to Muslim or Latino and poor and anonymous.  But let's focus here on the thought process--(1) tragic but inevitable and ultimately justifiable suffering is fuel for (2) the purging fire, which in turn (3) leads to some (usually vaguely defined) utopic end.  Can you think of an example of this working?  We have certainly heard it proffered many times.  For example, do you remember "sure, the loss of life resulting from the invasion of Iraq is tragic, but it will result in getting rid of Saddam Hussein, which will in turn usher in democracy and peace in the Middle East"?  Or how about "mass incarceration of drug users will break the culture of drug use, ushering in a 'Drug Free America' as promised in innumerable ads from when I was a kid"?  So we have many example of this as a rhetorical posture, but can you think of any examples of this ever working?  I can't think of any.  Instead, we usually get plenty of suffering, and often some sort of fire, but we never find our way to the utopic end that we were promised.

Girard would argue that we never actually get to the happy ending because the happy ending is a lie.  There is never a happy ending after the scapegoat is sacrificed, only more scapegoats and scapegoating.  And, if that's right, the difference between Susan Sarandon (and the Bush administration, and the Reagan administration during the War on Drugs, and all of the countless others who have played the Order playbook) and Ra's al Ghul is that Ra's al Ghul provides the courtesy of not fooling us with the empty promise of some happy ending after the fire.  Because, at the end of the day, all of those claims of a happy ending at the end of the purging fire are empty.  The goals of the League of Shadows are not incoherent or strange; it's the same story we have heard countless times in countless forms, without the mask that usually covers it.  Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows show us that the destruction and fire serves no purpose except to perpetuate itself.

In other words, Ra's al Ghul is not crazy; he's just Keeping It Real.

Ra's al Ghul is critical to the arc of The Dark Knight trilogy because he lays down a marker for what the Order pole means--"once I kick an arbitrary amount of ass and kill and arbitrary amount of people, the cleansing fire will come and wipe everything out, solving the problem of evil until the next time."  Once that marker is laid down, every other Order pole character in the trilogy--Batman, Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)--have to react to this marker.  They have to convince themselves that what they are doing is not simply the Ra's al Ghul playbook with an self-serving veneer.  In many ways, this is the thread that runs through all three movies--can you bring order and justice to Gotham without becoming Ra's al Ghul?

Girard's answer is basically "no," or at the very least "not by using similar methods to Ra's al Ghul."  I think the trilogy bears out this analysis.  And no one understands this better than The Joker.  


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