The Dark Knight and René Girard

Last week, I saw The Dark Knight. It was incredible, easily the best movie I’ve seen in the last year and probably in my Top 10 overall. It had a wonderful balance of action, good writing, amazing acting, thoughtful plot, and provocative questions. The questions it raises (and answers?) are, as you would expect from a good Batman movie, all about justice and violence and how much of the latter is permitted in search of the former.

A few months ago, that would have been all I perceived in the film. Recently, however, I’ve been going through René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, since I’d wanted to get a taste of his thought through one of his books rather than from a secondary source like Walter Wink. Anyway, I was nearly done with the book when I saw The Dark Knight, and was surprised when I saw the film explode with new meaning for me, unlocked by Girard’s concepts! I thought a brief exposition of the connections could be illuminating (and maybe inspire someone to read Girard, whom I now believe to be one of the most important thinkers of our time).

Attempting a one-paragraph introduction to Girard’s theses is silly, but here we go: his main idea is that there is a hidden principle that ties together all of human society, which stems from the fact that as creatures we are prone to mimetic desire, that is, we are prone to mimicking others’ desires, or desiring what others have. This naturally creates ever-building conflicts (which he calls scandals), and these scandals mount and mount until a moment when there is so much intrasocietal tension that people come to the verge of the “war of all-against-all”, since the only logical conclusion of “mimetic rivalry” is murder. In order to prevent such a catastrophic degradation into pure bestiality and to restore order, Girard thinks these tensions and energies are collectively focused in a spontaneous and unanimous redirection to a swift and violent “war of all-against-one”. This “one” is referred to as the scapegoat, initially demonized then subsequently divinized for his “ability” (through sacrifice) to bring calm to the community. This whole process, Girard says, is ritualized and then mythologized in such a way that the actual violent mechanism (the “single victim mechanism”) is veiled and invisible to the contemporary participants then the later receivers of the mythological tradition. In other words, the citizens who pick up the stones actually believe that the one they are about to murder, even though a moment ago he was one of the crowd, is now worthy of death.

Girard goes on to base some astonishingly profound claims on top of this foundation, which are worth exploring further if you have the time to read his work. He also supports his powerful anthropological claim in a way that I clearly don’t have the space to outline here – it truly is amazing when he examines the myths of the ancient world and compares them to the stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition (which he thinks is the only tradition to see and expose the single victim mechanism for what it is – a second-rate and temporary solution to the main problem of human existence). Of particular interest for Christians, he unlocks a new and compelling way of reading Jesus’ words and the history of early Christianity radically nonviolently, particularly the Crucifixion. (Girard loves treating Jesus’ willing death, not so much a “blood sacrifice” in the sense as all the other ritual sacrifices which mask the single victim mechanism, but as an action that looks enough like it to dupe the “principalities and powers” into triggering the mechanism, only for it to backfire via the Resurrection and Jesus’ powerful exposition of their hidden secret for maintaining power). Finally, Girard thinks that in our modern society, thanks to the insights of Christianity, we tend to be characterized by “concern for victims” rather than a subconscious willingness to sacrifice them.

Obviously, a lot more could be said, but sooner or later we have to get to The Dark Knight. In the movie, Batman is wrestling with some essentially Girardian questions (common to superheroes, it seems). He sees the fundamental problem of society (Gotham) clearly – disorder, violence, and inaction, and attempts to counter these problems with his own brand of nonlethal (rather than lethal or nonviolent) crime-fighting. He soon discovers, unfortunately, that his actions only heighten the tension and spawn nemeses of greater caliber. This corresponds, I’d say, to Girard’s description of the multiplication of scandals and the move to a breaking point.

The breaking point comes in the form of the Joker, a mysterious individual who describes himself primarily as an agent of chaos, which is extremely interesting in a Girardian sense given that “chaos” is exactly what the single victim mechanism evolved to counter – so already we can imagine that perhaps one of the Joker’s roles in the film will be to instigate this societal mechanism. In fact, he does this on a number of occasions! His favorite games all seem to involve forcing supposedly-upright citizens into situations where it looks like sacrificing one (or a few) of their number will bring calm and restore order (the call to murder the Wayne Enterprises employee about to reveal the identity of Batman, the ferry dilemma, his speech to Harvey Dent, etc…). In other words, he is inviting the triggering of the single victim mechanism, even explicitly, as a way for Gotham to regain peace. But tellingly, this “peace” is only temporary – the next day, the Joker will be back with another escalation of tension and another demand. This is exactly how Girard describes the single victim mechanism – a violent and temporary reduction of societal tension.

It’s also interesting to examine the Joker in the light of Girard’s thoughts about Satan as the principle (rather than the “person” – Girard doesn’t want to award Satan with real existence-in-himself) behind mimetic violence (the violence generated by mimetic desire and resulting in the single victim mechanism). Girard sees Satan as maintaining power precisely through the operation of this mechanism (as the Joker does).

Another of the themes in the movie is Batman’s wrestling with the Joker’s argument that they are basically the same. Nemeses, true, but both costume-wearing crazies: one out to promote order and the other to destroy it. It seems that the Joker’s argument is really intended as a temptation for Batman to give in and use the same tools as his enemy (using lethal rather than nonlethal force). Girard’s theory speaks to this situation as well, when he talks about “mimetic rivalry”. Two people who desire the same thing eventually become hard-and-fast rivals – that much is pretty obvious. But he also explains that two rivals, supposedly different in every sense, through their intense rivalry generate a fundamental likeness as they are consumed by their rage against each other and eventually become beings with one main characteristic: the desire to defeat the other. And so the Joker invites Batman to succumb to this cycle, to descend into the facelessness of mimetic rivalry where the combatants have more in common with each other (via their combat) than not.

In all of this, Batman has to make decisions about whether to play the game offered by the Joker (and indeed, it seems the only option), or whether to reject the Joker’s starting assumptions. These questions are put not just to him, but to all the people of Gotham, especially in the ferry trial. The options: order at the cost of other people’s lives, or pure chaos (everybody dies). It seems sadly obvious to us, the viewers, that the former option is better than the latter. But Batman (and the people on the boats) decide to believe in a third option – the path of nonviolence and the willingness to be sacrificed. Of course, that path doesn’t always lead to a happy ending – though it did in the movie because of Batman’s skill in trapping the Joker.

But how does that help us? What if we were in the same situation, except without a Batman to perform our miracles? This is where faith in God is put to the test (or rather, where faith in God puts him to the test), and we find out what Jesus (and so many other innocent victims) felt like before being torn apart by the mob… But perhaps I should leave that an open question!

Well, I hope I’ve made it clear that there are some cool resonances between The Dark Knight and Girard’s theories. I haven’t done any research or exploration to see if the writers / director of the movie have read Girard or intentionally used any of his ideas in making the movie. Either way, The Dark Knight stands as a powerful representation of these important themes, and asks us to confront within ourselves questions about violence, scapegoating, and sacrifice.