Monday, 11 June 2018

'Our Past Sins Will One Day Knock On The Door And There'll Be Nothing We Can Do': Heath Ledger's Joker and The Jungian Shadow




The capacity that narrative has to reveal psychological truths about human nature is often overlooked. To illustrate this point we will take a look at the character of The Joker in Batman. We are familiar with the idea of The Fool as an archetype. 


In the Tarot deck is The Fool is also the character which takes us through the great mysteries of life, and that is worth bearing in mind in terms of what I’m about to say about The Joker. Historically the jester’s place in the court was as the one person who could speak the truth to the king (representing power) using comedy as a cover. In the Christopher Nolan directed film The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s character reveals some dark truths about reality and human nature. I think Nolan understands the archetypal power of the fool far more deeply than any other adaptors of the Batman story have. I’ll paste a couple of clips to show you what I mean.


In the interrogation scene in which Batman and The Joker finally meet there I think at play is this Jungian idea of The Shadow. Jung defined the Shadow as the darker side to our consciousness, which he believed we have to confront and get under control in order to be fully integrated psychologically. It is wrong to think of it as our 'evil' side- it is more everything about us that is repressed and under-developed (in which respect it could be seen as 'immoral'). We have this idea we have to beat, or destroy our dark side- but that is actually incorrect. When Batman tries to violently attack his shadow- represented by his nemesis the Joker- his shadow does not yield to any violence and in fact laughs at him and basically says ‘that is not the way to beat me.’ In fact- the shadow is not to be beaten, but to be assimilated.


This scene has such power because Batman confronts his dark side and realises that his shadow does not want to destroy him, as he suspected. As The Joker says, ‘you complete me’ before adding ‘what would I do without you?’

What The Joker here represents as the shadow is the unpalatable truth about human nature, our dark side; the lies we tell each other personally and societally. The Joker says ‘they have all these rules and you think they’ll save you’ [but in reality] the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules’ because ‘these civilised people are only as good as the world allows them to be and at the first sign of trouble they’ll eat other. Like rats.’ When Batman, or the conscious, tries to reason with his shadow the shadow plays upon his darkest fears and vulnerabilities. Saying-

‘Don’t talk like one of them, you’re not. Even if you’d like to be. To them you’re just a freak, like me. They need you right now but when they don’t they’ll cast you out, like a leper.'

The Shadow / Joker adds- ‘their morals, their code….it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble.’ We can see that in this conflict Batman, or the conscious, is overwhelmed. As a result his moral code- or basic ego structure- is threatened. Confrontation with his shadow has, The Joker tells him, allowed people to die. Batman tells The Joker he has ‘one rule’ [presumably that he won’t kill] but he’s ‘thinking of breaking it’. (Incidentally, we realise he may have done this already- The Joker plays with the idea that the Batman has already given into his darkness, saying ‘there’s no going back’). Like the Jungian shadow, which demands you’ll have to enter it to come to terms with it, The Joker says, ‘that’s the rule you’ll have to break.’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhSqGupieog

It’s worth noting the characterisation of the Fool, or Joker, as a figure outside of society in this scene. There is some really fine nuance here, and Nolan and Heath Ledger use every opportunity to make the most of the characterisation (Jung may have argued they were accessing a Collective Unconscious in order to do this). We have this character dressed in a strange purple suit with dyed hair and poorly applied makeup. He has this self-administered Chelsea Smile, and at various points in the story he offers conflicting accounts of how he got it. The Joker is a man on the outside of society- a criminal who is hell-bent on creating anarchy, with the way he destroys social rules by gate-crashing a party. Insouciantly eating the appetisers, glugging the wine and then forcing the guests into his narrative with the threat of implicit violence (note- the first thing he does when he enters the scene is fire a gun into the air.)


The Joker also comes across as deranged, disturbed, sick. He has lived on the side-lines of society. The scarring and swelling on his mouth reminds me of when I’ve been at a low ebb and my mouth has been full of ulcers, and that mental spiral you go into when you’re unwell which seals you further away from society as you try to recover. The Joker is upending the idea of being marginalised (as the conscious works to marginalise The Shadow) by symbolically saying ‘I’m sick but I’m not going to hide, in fact I’m literally going to spoil the party.’

I think the reason why he is scary as a character is because (and this is something I noticed psychopaths do when I was a psychologist) he uses language in an instrumental way to get what he wants in that moment. The veracity of his statements are of no interest to him. We see that in the way The Joker slips between roles. At first he is ‘tonight’s entertainment.’ Then he becomes an interrogator. Talking to the elderly man, who declares himself unintimidated, he becomes an avenging son, saying ‘you remind me of my father’. Then, talking to the women he becomes a seducer, and then the victim of a disgusted wife. This is all within an overarching constructed persona- that of The Joker.

What also makes this personification so unnerving is that he evokes the idea of the Jungian shadow by playing the role of the debt collector, the person who’s come to settle the unpaid bill (and the idea of a character coming to make you address your sins is an old one). Mark Haddon's short story 'Wodwo', from the collection The Pier Falls shows a man arriving at a family gathering on Christmas Day whose presence unpicks the vanities and lies of an arrogant TV star, thereby showing how quickly life can unravel with the wrong kind of attention. Harold Pinter also explores this idea in his famous play The Birthday Party, when a man hiding from his past in a distant Bed And Breakfast is found and then hounded by two men representing the establishment, Goldberg and McCann (here). 


The Joker plays on our fears of our civility, our luxury, our comfort, being disrupted at some moment by all the wrongs we thought we’d got away with. Our past sins will one day knock at the door and there’ll be nothing we can do to turn them away. These forces represent the darkness that lurks in our subconscious, forces that will one day be personified. This idea is even there in the scene when The Joker gate-crashes the party. It is there in the little touches, such as the way the Joker slams his glass repeatedly on the table, in how he throws the wine on the floor. He embodies this idea that someone will one day come along and say ‘I don’t give a damn about anything of what you’ve built, I’m going to expose it for the construction that it is.’ 

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Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Symbolism in Lyrics of The Smashing Pumpkins



Drawing from research into psycho-analysis, Tarot and numerology, this article took a long time to write but is now live in the excellent 3:AM Magazine...

Friday, 6 April 2018

Excerpt from 'Camden Afterlife'



Here's an excerpt from a new novel I've been working on for years, called 'Camden Afterlife'-


The only time I saw Emma play. It’s a hot night in August, and the summer holidays have peaked. They’re coming to an end, and the retreating crowds in Camden prove that. There are less bodies around the tube when we get off and walk down the high street. Hippies in plaid trousers. Stalls selling sunglasses and bad replica t-shirts of bands I’ve not heard of. Truth be told, I’m scared, and Mum is fighting a clear sense of repulsion. She removes her Gucci sunglasses with perfectly polished nails. Her Dior perfume is like the Gaul’s last camp against the Romans, in this backdrop of hemp and skunkweed. I know these smells because of Emma; the idea was always that I wouldn’t become too familiar. Mum is scared that going to this gig will make me all the more enthralled by my sister's lifestyle when my mother is here to attempt to cleave her from it. But Emma has won the battle for my innocence that she waged with our parents because we’re in her manor tonight.

Near the lock, the fresh orange juice stall churns bright globes into pulp. The vinyl’s on the stalls as we pass the lock are trapped worlds of possibility. Around the lock people sit at sticky benches, their legs lolled over the wall. ‘We can’t be far off it now,’ Mum says, and I note stress lines at the corners of her mouth.

‘The venue is called The Purple Turtle,’ I say.

Mum blanches at a man playing a djembe on the pavement. ‘Venue, please,’ she says. ‘More like den of iniquity.’

We realise we should’ve got off at Camden Town. Mum has never walked this far, at least for as long as I can remember. It makes her foundation congeal a bit. The venue is on a busy corner, and outside the queue is a straggle of threadbare boa and dulled leather. Plastic jewels sparkle on wrists, and makeup is yet to crinkle.

‘I’m going to attempt to find myself a passable glass of wine,’ Mum says, as we move inside. Her handbag at the crook of her elbow. ‘I stress the word attempt.’ She heads for the bar, reeking of self-regarding afternoons in John Lewis. She smells like parental rallying at sports day, and post-argument sulks with Dad.  

I see a raised stage. On it a lithe, ratty man wears an open waist coast, to show off his six pack. He reminds me of a lizard. Behind him the keyboard honks and the guitarist makes his instrument sound like a buzz saw. ‘We’re Dagger and this is our next single,’ he says. I realise that they’re not sound checking- this is it. The spectacle has already started.

There’s a knot of people at the front, a few feet back from the stage when Cupid go on. My first sight of Emma is announced by Mum, who says, in a tone of low panic ‘there she is.’ I look up to see Emma on the steps by the stage, bending over to check her black Telecaster, before darting out of a fire exit. Her guitarist, Melissa, and her drummer, Donna, stay on stage and seem to debate something for ages whilst Melissa fiddles with an amp. Their hunched body language is unnervingly fixed. I decide there is a technical problem with tuning or sound that, by the looks of it, is unsurmountable. I sense Mum’s intending triumph and the way she’ll revel in it, all middle class elbows and triumphant phone calls, while Emma stays in the background looking impossibly bruised.   

‘You alright?’ I ask Mum as, blushing, she sips her wine. She blanches.

‘The band would look a bit more professional if they stayed offstage until the set started,’ she says.

‘Emma’s not on stage,’ I say, sipping my coke.

‘I know. She’s the only one whose worked it out. Don’t tell anyone you’re her brother if you're asked. You’re too young to be in here, and I don’t want school finding out.’

This remark annoys me on so many levels. Some girls in vintage fur are standing near the stage and I’d have loved the chance to play the role of the innocent younger brother. Mum spots this thought. ‘Not a word, Jeff,’ she says. ‘You’ll have plenty of time to hang out in places like this when you’re older, if you decide that’s how you want to live.’

I have already decided this is how I want to live, but am wise enough not to say that. When Cupid do come on stage, it’s gradual enough to betray amateurism. My heart beats, hard. Emma’s wearing a small black dress, ripped fishnet tights and black Doc Martens. Her eyes are lined with thick dark kohl and it gives them a shine and lustre, an eminence I’ve not seen before. Certainly not during the mornings she sits in her bay window, all bruised legs and missing strings, chopping at her acoustic guitar. Tonight she’s transformed. A loud buzz emanates from Emma’s guitar as she puts the lead in, to a light smatter of applause. She checks the input, and laughs loudly at something Donna says as she twirls drumsticks. I realise the band are dressed in mink and satin dresses and the bassist is wearing a fake fur leopard print coat over her shoulder.

‘We’re Cupid,’ Emma says.

Mum clears her throat. A few people look at her but Mum looks ahead, determined, in manner that refuses to acknowledge that she did it a little loud.

The drums start. The fuzzy bass that joins it is so loud. Emma saws her guitar and distorted chords make the sound like thick, treacly sludge. When Emma sings the first few words are lost, then when her voice is caught by the mic Mum jumps theatrically. A voice that sounds a little bit too much like her when she's arguing soon becomes a grizzled, Courtney Love style lament. But in soft bits (really just the bass stopping and her stamping off the distortion) there’s a curl to her words that sounds like only her.

They churn through a twenty minute set. I can’t hear a word of it. It’s all vowels- ‘ow,’ ‘yargh’ and ‘ee.’ I wonder what the point of all that lyric writing was. At one point a couple of the girls po-go, until one of them dramatically forces another to stop. Emma winces, snarls. She pouts, leaning over her guitar when she’s not singing, and tries to hide that she can’t quite make some of the chords. I think of her in the boat house and suspect that in her nervousness she has just forgotten a whole chord sequence. During the smattering of applause for that song she glances over at us once, for one intense second. Mum seems to blush, and look ashamed, and then she shakes her hair. Once or twice the music takes flight and her and Melissa face each other, chopping at their guitars in time, red nails flashing. In one song Emma attempts a star-jump. The bassist puts a tiara on Emma’s head during a solo. It lodges at the back of her hair during the final number, which some of the audience sing along to. For almost all of the last song the words are nearly audible. But something clicks into place and her words finally cut straight through to us. She sings ‘Courtney’s new single / Is titled Bulimia / I sing along / Whilst I cut my arms.’

I look over at Mum, who tries to hide a gulp, with little success. With a slight smile on her lips, as if she knows we can hear her, Emma sings; ‘ Princess Diana / Stripped of skin / Dragged right down / Kensington High Street / Such an apt / Climax to her funeral / I’m The Sculptress.’

Mum has gone pale. The song clatters to an end, a cacophony of missed notes and late drum hits. ‘That was our new single, The Sculptress. We’ve been Cupid. Good night, Camden,’ she says.

They leave the stage. Mum finishes her wine. ‘That’s that then,’ she says.

‘I thought they were good,’ I answer, anticipating Mum’s itinerary of complaint and justification. But she just grimaces, and I see her lipstick has touched her teeth. ‘Shame about the crowd,’ she says, looking past me.

One of the girls in the knot at the front leans over the cage and cranes her fingers, reaching for their set list. A tech comes over, prises it off, and hands it to her. As mum clatters to her feet, the girl clutches the set list to her heart. She’s wearing the exact same tiara as Emma wore onstage.

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‘Right, let’s go,’ Mum says.
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