A philosophical basis for the Batman saga
We live in a time when the forces of chaos again threaten to break loose. Madmen like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot gain control of nations and kill millions in pursuit of irrational ends. More recently, smaller scale violence breaks out in the name of the Hindu and Muslim gods. Poor but culturally rich inner cities of New York and New Orleans have rotted into ghettos, almost ungoverned zones with cultures alien to the rest of America.
While most comic books tell traditional stories of transcendental saviors and folks given magic powers, the Batman saga is different. Smart, handsome, rich — he gives up a life of ease, instead molding himself into a pinnacle of physical and metal skills in order to painfully wage war on the forces of disorder that have engulfed his city.
Why does this story have such appeal, to adults and children, during the past 70 years? I believe it evokes our fears about the weak foundations of our society, tottering against threats both foreign and domestic.
The following is from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, somewhat paraphrased and re-combined. Also dashed off in a somewhat incoherent fashion. But very relevant to the movies.
From where comes the Joker, the ambassador of Chaos?
Rousseau and Nietzsche destroyed the intellectual basis of the Enlightenment. What’s left is contempt for the bourgeoisie — the self-satisfied, morally blind, materialist — and fear that our values rest on nothing.
A darkness on top of a void is the condition of of life and creation, no longer dispelled by the light of rational analysis. The rise of the bourgeoisie results in a spiritual entropy or an evaporation of the soul, which weakens us in face of the unlimited choices made possible by the death of god in our souls.
That is the basis of Max Weber’s science, a doubtful dare against the chaos of things, and values certainly lay beyond its limits. That is what the precarious, not to say imaginary, distinction between facts and values meant. Reason in politics leads to the inhumanity of bureaucracy. Weber found it impossible to prefer rational politics to the politics of irrational commitment; he believed that reason and science themselves were value commitments like any other, incapable of asserting their own goodness.
Politics required dangerous and uncontrollable semireligious value positing, and Weber was witnessing a struggle for possession of man and society, the results of which were unpredictable. Everything is up in the air, and there is no theodicy to sustain us. Weber, along with many others in Germany under Nietzsche’s influence, saw that all that we care for was threatened by his insights and that we were without intellectual or moral resources to govern the outcome.
We require values, which in turn require a peculiar human creativity that is drying up and in any event has no cosmic support. Scientific analysis itself concludes that reason is powerless, while dissolving the protective horizon within which men can value.
The image of this astonishing Americanization of the German pathos can be seen in the smiling face of Louis Armstong as he belts out the words of his great hit “Mack the Kife” … a translation of the “Mackie Messer” from The Threepenny Opera, a monument of Wiemer Republic culture … Less known is its origin in an aphorism in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra entitled “On the Pale Criminal”, which tells of story of an insane murderer, eerily resembling Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who does not know, cannot know, that he committed murder out of a motive as legitimate as any other: he lusted after “the joy of the knife.” Our stars are singing a song they do not understand, bringing America into a world where anything is possible for people who sing about the joy of the knife in cabarets.
Why is Bruce Wayne’s choice to become Batman significant?
Since values are not rational and not grounded in our natures, they must be imposed. They must defeat opposing values. Rational persuasion cannot make them believed, so struggle is necessary. Producing values and believing in them are acts of the will. Lack of will, not lack of understanding, become the crucial defect.
Commitment is the moral virtue because it proves the seriousness of the agent. Commitment is the equivalent of faith when God has been supplanted by self-provided values.
Nietzsche was a cultural relativist, and he saw what that means — war, great cruelty rather than great compassion. War is the fundamental phenomenon on which peace can sometimes be forced, but always in the most precarious way. Cultures fight wars with one another. They must do so because values can only be asserted or posited by overcoming others, not by reasoning with them.
Cultures have different perceptions, which determine what the world is. They cannot come to terms. There is no communication about the highest things. Communication is the substitute for understanding when there is no common world men share.
Culture means a war against chaos and a war against other cultures. To live, to have any inner substance, a man must have values, must be committed or engaged. Therefore a cultural relativist must care for culture more than truth, and fight for culture while knowing it is not true.
So what is Bruce Wayne fighting for?
We can only guess at this. I believe he does not fight for any higher values or abstractions. He fights to buy time for the people of Gotham to reclaim their city and themselves against the forces of chaos.
We live in a time when the police spend a disproportionate fraction of their time writing tickets for traffic violations and arresting folks for minor drug use, our rich elites devote themselves to conspicuous spending and collecting art, and our government devotes itself to gathering power over all things great and small. The fantasy of a man voluntarily devoting his life to the most arduous and dangerous public service has great appeal.
This is consistent with the admiration of Americans for the US military, despite its many failings among the most-trusted of our institutions.
Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
Other posts in this series about America, how we got here and how we can recover it
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
- Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
- Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
- The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
- We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
- Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
- Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
- Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
- The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.