Back in 2008, shortly after the release of The Dark Knight, I wrote The Philosophy of Batman: Schopenhauer Edition, where I framed Batman and the Joker through the bat-literary tradition and in the Christopher Nolan movies as exemplars of “the Will” and “representation” — concepts drawn from the work of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
In this model, a universal urge to live, thrive and procreate — the “Will” — drives Batman and the Joker. It is vast, unknowable, and present in their physical bodies, like a man inside a Batsuit (or, as the story so often flips it, the bat within Bruce Wayne). Batman and The Joker can’t know the Will, but through the principle of sufficient reason, they can snap off shards of it that are explicable — these become representations. Through representations, people come to regard and understand themselves in relation to the Will.
In Schopenhauer, The Will causes suffering, and it causes people to want to procreate. People who want to procreate, but can’t, find proxy activities or find solace in art and contemplating forms. So Batman and the Joker, struggling with all these imperatives, determine their representations and impress them upon Gotham (itself a place full of Will that is suffering) as such:
- Batman inspires imitators, impresses the idea of Batman onto the populace as an inspiration and governing form, recasts the darkness of Gotham in his own image, as if it is his cape or mask, and impresses his own fear, rooted in the death of his parents, onto criminals.
- The Joker impresses absurdity on social order, makes the world seem senseless and comedic, leaves around icons of clowns and jokers, makes people wear clown masks, impresses upon society games for his own amusement, and, famously, but not in Nolan, sprays gas on people that turns them into laughing death masks in his own image.
The two struggle against each other while recognizing their similarity. “You’re like me!” and all that. It’s very poetic.
(WARNING: From here on out, there will be The Dark Knight Rises spoilers)
Of course, The Dark Knight was a long time ago, and The Dark Knight Rises is the new hotness. I did not expect my connection to hold up, but there was one part of The Dark Knight Rises in particular that made me think of Schopenhauer and revisit the relationship between the Will, Batman, Bruce Wayne and the world in which they all exist.
And Still I Rise
While The Dark Knight is mostly about representations, The Dark Knight Rises is much more about the “will-to-life.” In the central scene, Bruce Wayne, locked in Bane’s cistern-like prison, has one chance to escape — a Ninja Warrior-esque ascent up the Middle East’s most treacherous climbing wall.
Bruce trains and trains, making use of only the finest bat-calisthenics and rope-and-punch-based alternative medicine. But even once he shaped up, Bruce can’t quite make it past a giant leap in the climbing wall. He leaps, he misses, he plunges, and, dejected, he dangles by the safety rope around his waist until lowered to confinement. Strength itself, it seems, is not enough — nor is the altruistic impulse to save your city from annihilation.
We discover from the guy who gives Bruce Wayne the answers that he must take the safety rope from around his waist — the fear of death, he say, is a necessary motivator for Bruce to realize his full potential. Self-preservation is the most primal and powerful of drives, we learn, and depriving ourselves of it in the moments where we must be at our best is a dangerous handicap.
(Actual huge spoilers, you’ve been warned)
This lesson — to be at your best, you must motivate yourself with self-preservation — is repeated in the final act of the movie.
When Batman confronts defeats Bane, takes the bomb out to sea, and fakes his own death, his big reward, more than saving Gotham, more than beating the League of Shadows, is to live, so that he emigrate to Europe and have sex with Anne Hathaway, but mostly so he can be not dead.
From the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that Bruce Wayne needs to find a way out of his situation, but there are only two ways out of being Batman, quitting and dying. Given the choice, in the third movie in an epic trilogy, we would expect bat-death. But Bruce, like George Michael before him, chooses life, and Gotham is lucky he did, since it’s the only way he finds the strength to save them.
Bruce Wayne’s “rising” is not a Springsteenean “The Rising,” where society comes together to heal in the face of horror, nor the rising of a saint or Christ figure who undergoes apotheosis and departs for Heaven through death — it’s more similar to the “climb outta Hell” from Al Pacino’s great inspirational speech in Any Given Sunday:
Pacino speaks of a tension between the death of “getting the shit kicked out of us” and the death of “being willing to die to get that inch” — he’s not ambivalent between these outcomes. He would rather not die. But in order to fight for life, and avoid death, he must face the fear of death, and it needs to matter to him.
This is similar to what Bruce Wayne does when he “rises” out of the prison and what Batman does at the end of the movie when he “rises,” through victory and saving himself. He gets out of his head that he’s ambivalent toward dying, he decides not to die — in his own interest — and he then faces the fear of death and uses it as a motivator to accomplish great things.
A Condo in the Lazarus Pit
There has been a lot of talk about Occupy movement imagery in The Dark Knight Rises, and cases made that the movie is politically conservative. But the true philosophical conflict of the movie is not between haves and have-nots, but between two potential origins for moral action and judgement.
- A separate, vaunted, Kantian “thing-in-itself,” distant from immediate experience, acting through phenomenological intermediaries in pursuit of abstractly defined goals
- A more Schopenhauer/Nietzsche/Heidegger (wow, that’s a big net) oriented individual present in and interested in the things that are happening — who feels pleasure and pain and has wants and needs in the here and now
It is a struggle between, on one hand, the authority of symbols and abstract ideas, and on the other, the authority of beings.
As I mentioned in The Philosophy of Batman: Schopenhauer Edition, Ra’s Al Ghul’s (the antagonist of Batman Begins, who appears in the year’s most unnecessary ghost cameo hallucination) approach to leading the League of Shadows is similar to German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s idea of the thing-in-itself — the world as it actually is cannot be observed; only the phenomenological world, the world we can see and understand, is visible.
The Rational Will, the thing that confers value by making judgements, dwells with the thing-in-itself, not with the phenomenological world. Ra’s sets himself up as the thing-in-itself producing the Rational Will — the secret, unknowable originator who manages a world of phenomena, conferring value on it and making judgements as he sees fit, in service to what he sees as natural laws, universal laws and the dignity of humanity.
In a Kantian way of looking at things, ideas of art, duty and morality share a quality of elevation and separation from the people who undertake them. Art is most successful and beautiful when it is disinterested in satisfying base needs. Acts made in the interest of gratifying the senses or causing pleasure for the agent have a lot of trouble being morally good, because these sensory responses are phenomenological, not part of the thing-in-itself.
These should be familiar moral ideas. You hear them when people complain about music being bad because it is commercial or popular, or people’s good deeds not being praiseworthy because they profited off them. They have value, but in The Dark Knight Rises, they are the Villain.
The intention that turns out to matter is not Bane’s phenomenological revolution, but the intention of the thing-in-itself –Talia’s intention, the true master of the League of Shadows. Talia is nostalgic, but disinterested in Bane’s pleasure or pain (literally suppressing his senses with the tube mask, mostly so he remains useful) and invisible to those looking at the phenomenological world.
And of course we learn that her intentions aren’t elevated after all.
- Talia isn’t a tongue of flame bearing the spirit of righteousness, she just really liked Batman Begins and wanted to do it over again, except with an extra large popcorn and a fresh pack of Batman revenge-killing.
- Bane is the obvious example. What Bane wants doesn’t matter at all (in fact, his chief value to the League is that he wants nothing for himself). He makes speeches about political and economic equality, but we all know he is lying — he just intends to kill everyone anyway and uses the words cynically to rile everyone up.
- The scarecrow’s court is a mockery of justice, the literal elevation-on-a-bunch-o-tables a mockery of judges’ efforts to ritualize their impartiality through pomp.
In this movie, aspiring to a greater purpose separate from yourself and elevated above yourself through logic, institutions and abstractions depends on a lie — the lie that the originator of the Rational Will is disinterested — that there are effective, admirable people who can rise above their self-interest and rule and judge objectively.
The Sickness Unto Bat
Bruce Wayne tells this same lie throughout the first act of the movie. He tries to separate from Batman and from Wayne Enterprises, even from his own body — to become like Ra’s Al Ghul with all his doubles — invisible, disinterested, and transcendent — directing events from the shadows. But of course it doesn’t work. Dis-involving himself from the phenomenological world instead makes him sick, weak and depressed.
He can’t even keep track of his charity donations. We learn, tellingly, that Bruce’s charity donations to the facilities for orphan boys depend upon the profit of Wayne Enterprises — that by disinvolving himself from his self interest, Bruce Wayne has not become more moral — he’s become less moral, because he’s become just less.
So, being Kantian really isn’t working for Batman.
Schopenhauer’s Happy Suggestion
Of course, Schopenhauer, that intolerable mope, might suggest that in this situation Bruce Wayne should just kill himself. Clearly the miseries of his life are outweighing its pleasures, and since Schopenhauer is pessimistic about the human condition in the extreme, there isn’t much harm in dying now rather than dying later.
Thankfully, the point of these articles is not to show how closely these stories hew to philosophical tradition, but to use philosophical tradition’s vocabulary to understand them and articulate an enriched sense of what is happening and what to get out of the flicks.
In this framework, I see the Batman story as a reconciliation of the epic with the pessimistic — where the human condition is grim, but the yearning for heroes is so great that the very things that make people miserable (trauma, loss and the will-to-life) turn out to create its greatest triumph and hope, much like the much-referenced-on-this-website Book XXIV of the Iliad, where the universality of death allows for a moment of mutual understanding and pity between Achilles and Priam. The very impulses that make Bruce Wayne torture himself as Batman create either the hero it deserves or the hero it needs right now, whichever one is the yes in that line near the end of the movie that I always get wrong.
So, in The Dark Knight, Batman has this will-to-life, this desire to survive and procreate, and it causes him a lot of suffering. It also makes him put on the mask that reflects a representation of the will and look to reproduce the image of it — of himself — all over Gotham. This is not the best situation imaginable — it still kind of sucks to be Batman, and Gotham is still pretty crappy — but it is a better situation.
And it gets that way not because Batman is selfless, but because he is self-obsessed. His energy to reproduce drives him toward extraordinary things, which we have to imagine he enjoys at least someone, or at least which follow earnestly from his yearnings.
At the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, it’s clear that this will-to-life has been too painful to confront, and he has tried to get away from it — with the result that he’s moved on from the representation of Batman. He’s not feeling that same yearning, and, as such, he’s not producing that same epic, self-involved public service that everybody likes so much.
If you consider the Will as one big unknowable thing and the various representations as shards of the Will, Bruce Wayne has traded in his shard. He now sees himself in terms of a different representation of the Will, but this representation is not nearly on such mutually beneficial terms with the will-to-life. He’s still tortured, but this time it’s by inadequacy, failure, and self-debasement, rather than the Batman’s self-involved hunger for justice.
He has tried to manage the Batman legacy remotely, looking to others — in particular to the legacy of Harvey Dent — to fill in the gap — but he’s failed.
In other words, Bruce Wayne isn’t courting the death of “being willing to die.” He’s courting the death of “getting the shit kicked out of him.”
What a Batman Wants
So, to stop getting the shit kicked out of him, Batman needs to stop acting like a Kantian and start acting like the later German philosophers descending from Schopenhauer who invest a great deal of moral authority in individual beings authentically going about the business of getting whatever it is they want. To our ears, this sounds dangerously selfish, even amoral — and certainly much of this philosophy repudiates closely held Judeo-Christian moral values. But it is not quite so foreign to us.
He needs to learn to value his own life and his own opportunity to live it, or he will not make good things happen. He needs to be true to himself. He needs to do what he loves, so he doesn’t work a day in his life. (You know, other than the whole inheriting billions of dollars and not having to do that anyway.)
Once Bruce figures out that he really does want to move on, compelled to a life past Batman (where he actually reproduces, ‘natch), he is renewed. He is once again positioning himself in alignment with the will-to-life, or the will-to-power, or the authentic experience of being in the world — pick your poison. He once again becomes an inspiration for Gotham — with Commissioner Gordon lighting the flaming bat-signal on the forehead of the Brooklyn Bridge. He needs to get through the current ordeal to live that life, of course, but the fresh motivation proves to be enough to not only get the bomb out to sea, but to eject to safety. He even inspires an imitator to follow in his footsteps — an imitator who appears to be having a lot of fun.
The 99 Purr-cent
Catwoman is the assurance in the movie this sort of individualism is not a Randian quality of the independently wealthy — that rebels, organizers, protesters, and rogues — so long as it is a characteristic of their representation of the will as authentically experienced — also thrive when they align the things they enjoy, the things they need to do to survive and the things they think are right. Catwoman is a clear parallel to Batman in that she is also after a “life after this” and finds extraordinary motivation in the suffering that this will-to-life brings upon her. She doesn’t hang around waiting to get the shit kicked out of her — she puts that safe six inches in front of her face, and those pearls six inches below it.
Her place in the final shot where we see her is a bit problematic, though. She is either as transitioning into the bourgeoisie and abandoning her principles or as finally inducing the upper crust to share the wealth with her. Although it’s actually unclear whether Bruce Wayne has any money in the life he leads after the movie. But it sort of looks like he does.
Who knows these days — it’s so hard to get a stable exchange rate on batarangs-to-euros. So perhaps we have to wait and see on that one.
What do you see as the major philosophical levers at work in The Dark Knight Rises? What do you think sets apart Bruce Wayne and Catwoman from Talia, Bane and the League of Shadows? What does Alfred’s trip to Burma have to do with Karl Popper or John Stuart Mill? Sound off in the comments!