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.’

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.’