I could be called Mr. Two Face Dark Knight when it comes to analysis and thinking — reflectively — on the films and books I read. I don’t know about you, but I find myself wrong more often than I’m right. Likely that’s because everything we don’t know is infinite. Everything we do know is finite. And for years, I have known that I hated the film The Dark Knight. What I didn’t know was how much I could grow to love it.
I was mostly wrong in my assumptions and in this full explanation, I’m going to explain exactly why I was wrong and apologize to all of you with whom I have argued over the years. As I said in Cliché Vindicated, two kinds of people argue with themselves: maniacs and metaphysicians. The maniac argues with himself the way a jaded husband argues: hashing up old arguments that lead nowhere simply because he’s in the habit of doing so. In that endless cycle, he becomes unsure of how he exactly he lost his way. The metaphysicians — the philosopher (whether an amateur lover of wisdom like myself or a true Doctor of the art) — argues with himself to gain greater insight, to grow wise by way of passion kind of like the newlywed couple so eager to love one another on their honeymoon, they cannot quite agree on what to do next. I am about to argue with myself. I do so not as a maniac, cycling around my habitual ranting. I am about to argue with me out of passion that stems from insight I’ve gained since the last time I wrote and argued about The Dark Knight.
That very tension we’ll find at work in this film.
I got into it again with two of my good friends. Recently I took a bus ride up to Niagra Falls to stay with the ever-hospitable, ever-brilliant, ever-humble Dr. Anthony G. Cirilla for a brief mid-week writing retreat. I was meeting the soon-to-be Dr. T.A. Giltner (the ever-hilarious, ever-tender, and also ever-brilliant) who had already been there for a week. I am, obviously, dwarfed in their good company but luckily since Tolkien, all good companies need a dwarf.
In addition to some deep belly laughter and moments of giddy wonder (a frozen Niagra is a thing to behold, friends) and good food, I found myself learning a great deal about medieval literature and symbolism, thinking again about an advanced degree, and debating. You see, I could also add to my good friend T.A. Giltner’s superlatives the “ever-argumentative” and mean it wholly as a compliment by referring to the old sense of the word: as Chesterton said in one place, he hates a quarrel because it always ends a good argument. As he said in another, there is a great equality in a duel and perhaps a gentleman will never be fully egalitarian until he can really quarrel with his servant. I took up, again, the position of attacking the Dark Knight and its failures as a film and remained firm in my convictions until Dr. Cirilla recently followed up through texting and appealed to another film we watched and analyzed: Sin City. That film, as I will be writing in the following days, is filled with far more and truer dark knights than even The Dark Knight. Primarily because The Dark Knight himself does not end up as a dark knight but something more.
And for me, that is the redemption of this film.
It took this twelfth viewing of the film to get it, but I was fully and wholly wrong on all the points that mattered to the philosophical core of this film. It took a text from Dr. Cirilla about knights while I was reading St. Francis of Assisi by Chesterton, but I finally got it.
What did I think was wrong with the film?
Frankly, I thought that the nihilism of The Joker was left unchecked by The Dark Knight. I thought his philosophy wins out, turning The Dark Knight film into something more like The Joker film. I thought, as evidenced by Heath Ledger’s death, that a sort of malevolent spiritual residue lingers in the content of the film and that it does more harm than good for our culture. And let me be honest here: it still might. Certainly people quote the Joker more, certainly Ledger upstaged Bale, and even The Dark Knight trailer features him more than Batman:
This gets at our culture’s overall preference of supernatural evil over supernatural good, as I talked about in Contra Graham: How Our War on YA Exposes Our Immaturity and Insecurities, a preference that seems particularly disturbing in light of recent events.
After all, if it took me twelve viewings to land here — this time over four-and-a-half late night hours (I stayed up late last night and am quite low on sleep with the duties of the day ahead), sixteen pages of notes and hand-written Dark Knight quotes, and a refill of my fountain pen’s inner inkwell — then the core intended meaning of the film, and its inherent goodness, may well be so obscure to the common viewer that the philosophy of the joker wins out and therefore undoes whatever goodness The Dark Knight himself achieves in the narrative. That’s yet to be seen and honestly, cannot be measured except by a survey of a large swath of reflective Dark Knight viewers spread across different cultures and classes, the majority of whom won’t bother with posts like these or the ones I found after having written out my thoughts such as Christopher Nolan’s Achievement: The Dark Knight by Thomas S. Hibbs and the over abundance of posts on Patheos.
What we can know for sure about the negative implications of the film are two things, a story and a personal anecdote. First the story that explains, perhaps, why even The Dark Knight actors Michael Caine and Maggie Gyllenhaal actually feared for their lives the first time Heath appeared before them in full costume — Caine forgot his lines and Gyllenhaal refused to look at Heath prompting the ad lib, “LOOK AT ME.”
It’s said that when Heath Ledger went to Jack Nicholson for advice on playing The Joker, Nicholson said, “Be careful: that role will consume you.”
Heath passed away, tragically, due to an overdose on five prescription drugs, saying before he passed that he ‘stressed out a little too much. [That] psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy [kept me up at night]. Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night. I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.’ He died not long after that.
When asked about his passing, Nicholson said, “I warned him.”
Whatever the meaning of that well-documented interaction, we cannot call it “good.” Having seen firsthand the kind of wild west anarchy that plagues the big-budget film set — having seen the lack of jurisdiction protecting actors from overextension and the lack of protection for people such as the entire cast of The Dark Knight and the entire crew of The Dark Knight from the many OSHA violations that systemically happen on Hollywood movie sets (fire, flood, bad air, structural instability, abuse, etc.) — and having once more meditated on the list of over four-hundred entertainers who have died from overdose, I must stop to ask: is there something fundamentally wrong with the way the American ruling class rewards her troubadours and jongluers and jokers and jesters? Is fortune, fame, and infatuation with carnal lusts enough of a reward? Or even a reward at all? It’s a meta theme particularly pertinent to the ways in which we’re about to reflect on this film.
The second is a personal anecdote: that The Dark Knight theme (as in “song”) for The Joker tends to give me severe migraines. It turns out Hans Zimmer created some 90,000 bars of experimental music, starting first by striking piano strings with razors. After listening to Zimmerman’s whole mess while on a location scout in Hong Kong, Nolan landed upon a cellist sawing away slowly on a single note. It hovers on the edge of music and noise, between an amateur child clanging with his bow and an expert drawing one solitary sound. As the cello’s my favorite instrument and as the note in question is one of my stronger vocal notes right in the middle of my natural baritone range, it tends to unsettle me on a visceral level quite likely more than the mere irritability it provokes in others. The note is struggling to make sound, struggling to make music, struggling even when it does come through to stay on key and therefore dissonant with itself with regard to every possible polarity. The note itself is Two Faced. It’s interesting because it reminds me of how even dissonance is contingent upon harmony — how even the darkest angels of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë have their dark themes incorporated into the grander narrative and symphony of God. Even the worst, most dissonant songs will end and return us, if nothing else, to the harmony of silence or ambient noise — what we conveniently call “white noise.”
Which brings us to the film and my new reflections.
Having made those two riders on my concession, I used to say also that The Dark Knight did not have an adequate response to the nihilism of The Joker. My argument went that The Joker and Batman remain at a standstill, that the Joker remains an immovable object, that Batman was made “stranger” because he was not killed and therefore was ultimately broken. Dr. Cirilla texted T.A. Giltner and I back:
AC — In Arthurian romance, the White Knight usually fails because he can’t face his own sins. Harvey Dent had a flaw in his armor from the beginning: the symbol of the two faced coin, a typical politician symbol. Near the beginning we find Batman accepting weaker armor with the return of being able to turn his head.
AG — Which is precisely why the Joker’s lie works perfectly on Dent: chaos isn’t fair – it can’t be; it can’t be anything.
AC — But this isn’t a Grail Quest. This is a Beheading Game, and White Knights can’t survive those. Dark Knights, maybe they can.
AG — No one makes their own “luck” (fortune), and chaos is never fair.
AC — “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such time. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
LS — I find that compelling for four simple words: I’m not dead yet.
AG — “Why didn’t you just kill me?”
“Your punishment must be most severe.”
Their points forced me to reconsider how I had been wrong, particularly in the context of the Sin City dark knights (about whom I’ll write soon). One of the first things I did was to google when was the dark knight released and it came up: The Dark Knight 2008. I reflected back on that year — on my own depression and aimlessness, on my frustration with a particular institution and its figurehead that had failed my friends and I, and on my my disappointment in the company I had kept. It was entirely possible that my own life experience — and the depression it provoked — read too much into the film. I saw it with friends some seven times that year even though I hated it and in years following, I watched it at homes with others who seemed to go to it as a kind of default. I got a headache every time and grew more and more embittered with the film and its meaning. Last night’s four-hour viewing was, I’m proud to say, the first time I finished it without a headache and I have Dr. Cirilla and the soon-to-be Dr. Giltner to thank.
It’s particularly relieving because I have been a huge fan of Nolan since the year Memento came out. I love talking about his films and though I rarely write about them — or any film, really — at length like this, I’m happy to see that Inception: Nolan’s Inferno continues to be well-received, cited, and imitated. To have a good reason to return to his one film I hate, and to do so with renewed vision and an open mind, actually fills my heart with joy.
Dr. Cirilla texted me right as I was reading through le Jongleur de Dieu chapter of St. Francis of Assisi by Chesterton and that combination gave me the key I needed to finally understand this film on something like my own terms. The Dark Knight is not a Dark Knight by the end. He’s something more than even that and the key to understanding the film is not The Joker, but Two Face. Two Face is short hand for Janus, the two-faced god, who stood over beginnings and endings of peace and war — the god of transitions. And if Batman is to fight the new class of criminal that his very presence has unleashed, he must make the ultimate transition in laying down his armor and even laying down his arms upon his armor. By the end, I believe we find ourselves encountering Mr. Two Face Dark Knight and something like le Jongleur de Dieu.
You see, every character in the film, even any given civilian, struggles with a duality of their own personhood: the dark and the light. Let’s start with the easy ones:
Commander VS. Father
White Knight VS. Dark Knight
Bright Lady VS. Femme Fatale
Troubadour VS. Jongleur
We’ll come to Batman’s polarity in a second, but we get a glimpse of everyone’s struggle early on. Jim Gordon’s wrestling with the publicity he could get from taking on the mob and therefore isn’t cleaning up his own house like Dent asked him to do. Corruption happens right under his nose because he’s trying to take on the mob and so as leader of a people he’s forsaking his role as leader of his family and vice versa — he even subjects his wife and kids into faking his own death and it’s only through that anonymity that he can even win against The Joker. He fails to face his addiction to notoriety and therefore keeps lying to his family about his — and their — well-being. Lying your way through the problem, or ignoring it when it’s under your nose, won’t save Gotham. So Gordon fails.
Harvey Dent is called “Two Face” early on in the film for good reason: the kind of rage he exhibits when he doesn’t get his way is more in line with a Dark Knight than a White Knight and, as Dr. Cirilla said, this is a beheading game. A refusal to face one’s sins will undo you in such a game. Harvey fails to face the darkness within and therefore falls victim to the darkness without. He has the classic weaknesses you see in a White Knight — right down to his discomfort with the “court” and its social circles with which the Bright Lady regularly interacts. Often this insecurity exposes the deeper insecurity: that of the imposter syndrome, of one who risks being “found out.” And becoming an object of faith makes it all the more interesting to hear the line, “Where’s Harvey? Have you seen him?” But the white knight — or any white knight — cannot be found.
I find Rachel particularly interesting because she alternates between the Bright Lady to compliment Harvey Dent’s White Knight and the Femme Fatale to compliment Bruce Wayne’s Dark Knight. You see this most in the warring kingdoms talk (featuring a Russian ballerina, no less) when Bruce and Harvey banter about “jurisdiction.” Even they are at a standstill, competing — even when they don’t want to be and don’t try to be competing — for the seat as Gotham’s champion. This too brings out Harvey’s dark side — that of pride (and self-pity) — and therefore exposes his real duality. It’s right there in Rachel’s struggle. On Bruce’s side of the fence, Rachel plays the opposite role, that of Dark Lady, of Femme Fatale, and Bruce’s love for her puts him in contact with mortal peril again and again and again. In the truest sense, Nolan’s is a flawless adaptation of a Detective Comic for it taps into the oldest notions of a cinema detective we have: the detective we meet in Film Noir. Rachel pulls Batman down with her, the impetus for the entire spiral towards the Joker, literally being thrown out the window so that Batman can expose his main weakness. “The way you threw yourself after her.” Rachel fails precisely because she fails to be the Bright Lady: her nobility, her character, is left in question for all but her last moments and by the time she choses the White Knight, it is too late to chose for her choice has now been neutered by a greater choice — Batman’s choice between their respective lives.
The Joker fails too, but for different reasons. He claims when he speaks with Harvey to “just do things” rather than to scheme like the rest of the schemers, but this — just like his mouth scars backstory — is a lie. Moreover it’s a lie even he believes himself. How do we know he plans? Because we find the man in the opening scene participating in quite possibly the most meticulously planned on-screen heist available to us. Had the whole story been told like a caper leading up to that opening scene, it would rank alongside Oceans Eleven, The Italian Job, and Heat. Heat is pertinent also because the narrative structure of The Dark Knight follows it down to the slightest detail, the main narrative differences of course being the shoot-out at the end and the presence of the White Knight. (Another modern remake would be The Town.) Point being, The Joker is a planner and his planned chaos is still a type of order. He can’t see that through his masochism. Dent can’t see it through his strict legal code and arrogance. Gordon can’t see it through his quest for notoriety. Rachel can’t see it through her personal compromise. In fact, it’s the sins inside of each character — down to the compromising lieutenants, the “unimaginative” mob-bosses, and the told-you-so antagonism of even Alfred the Wise — that blind them to the real plan. It reminds me, in many ways, of The Order of the Phoenix, in which Harry Potter must confront his inner Voldemort before he can ever hope to confront the outer Voldemort. Not even The Joker makes this move: he remains the immovable object.
But not Batman.
The key, of course, is seeing the sins of The Joker in light of that same test of faith that exposes the White Knight, the king (mayor), the sheriff (Commissioner Gordon), the army of the king (police force), the Bright Lady, and the wizards Alfred (the great) and Lucius Fox (the illuminating wise-one). The Joker’s test of faith is to see whether he can make the move from Troubador to Jongleur de Dieu. He seeks, ultimately, genuine laughter and nothing will make him laugh anymore after his trauma. This means he seeks the joke to end all jokes — what Sarah Ruhl might have called “the joke so good it’ll kill you” in her Clean House. You see this in the way he practically begs for death and not simply to undo various knights throughout the film: he tries to sacrifice himself on the altar of a cosmic joke whenever he can. He has Harvey put his gun to his head. He begs Batman, “Hit me. Come on hit me! I want you to hit me.” That’s not a statement about undoing Batman anymore. That’s existential. He doesn’t just want to watch the world burn. He wants to watch the world burn while he’s burning in the middle of it. He wants, in short, to become both arsonist and martyr which can only be summed up in the word “suicide.” And if anyone doubts this, I ask him to consider Suicide Squade. The Joker’s is an attempt at kamikaze without the honor of suppuku. He wants to take the world down with him in his crash, but his plane bears no standard, holds no honor, seeks no cause other than the infamy of chaos. Bruce asks Alfred at one point, “Did you ever catch the theif?”
“Yes,” Alfred says.
“We burnt the forest down.”
Some men want to watch the world burn while they’re burning. Hell he almost does just that, putting an explosive that close to his cell while Harvey’s face is covered in flaming oil and Rachel herself burns. It’s there in the irony of his burning firetruck. You can hear it in the absolute delight of his laughter as Batman throws him finally and fully off the tower: at last his masochism can find its relief not only in breaking Batman’s rule but — more importantly — in giving him the joke to end all jokes. The cosmic joke of death itself which has evaded him for far too long. For that is the natural conclusion of the true nihilist. Chesterton said it well in Orthodoxy:
Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may life.
The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. And then I remembered the stake and the cross-roads , and the queer fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide. For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr. Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason, of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death with a horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flowers. All this has seemed to many the very poetry of pessimism. Yet there is the stake at the crossroads to show what Christianity thought of the pessimist.
The Joker does not succeed, then, for he doesn’t get the last laugh. The supposed non-planner literally needs a backup plan: an ace in the hole. He could have transitioned from the role of Troubadour into the role of Jongleur, but he fails. And it’s high time I define what I mean by those two terms. Here’s where Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi comes in:
The particular point to be noted here is not concerned so much with the word Troubadour as with the word Jongleur. It is especially concerned with the transition from one to the other; and for this it is necessary to grasp another detail about the Gay Science. A jongleur was not the same thing as a troubadour, even if the same man were both a troubadour and a jongleur. More often, I believe, they were separate men as well as separate trades. In many cases, apparently the two men would walk the world together like companions in arms, or rather companions in arts. The jongleur was properly a jocular or jester; sometimes he was what we should call a juggler. This is the point, I imagine, of the tale about Tallifer the Jongleur at the battle of Hastings, who sang the death of Roland while he tossed up his sword and caught it, as a juggler catches balls. Sometimes he may have been even a tumbler; like that acrobat in the beautiful legend who was called “The Tumbler of Our Lady,” because he turned head over heels and stood on his head before the image of the Blessed Virgin, for which he was nobly thanked and comforted by her and the whole company of heaven.
In the ordinary way, we may imagine, the troubadour would exalt the company with earnest and solemn strains of love and then the jongleur would do his turn as a sort of comic relief. A glorious medieval romance remains to be written about two such companions wandering through the world.
We’ll get deeper into that Chesterton chapter in a moment, but for now I want to highlight — again — that last line. The Troubadour is the heavy. The Jongleur is the light. And I mean both terms in both ways. For the Troubadour talks about both things that weigh us down and things that make us want to heave while the Jongleur speaks of the weightless and the bright. The Troubadour sings the tragic and somber songs of love — of Beren and Luthien, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde. And in the case of The Joker, he uses the gay science to create Gay Science. Nietzche said:
He whose soul longs to experience the whole range of hitherto recognised values and desirabilities, and to circumnavigate all the coasts of this ideal “Mediterranean Sea,” who, from the adventures of his most personal experience, wants to know how it feels to be a conqueror and discoverer of the ideal – as likewise how it is with the artist, the saint, the legislator, the sage, the scholar, the devotee, the prophet, and the godly Nonconformist of the old style: – requires one thing above all for that purpose, great healthiness – such healthiness as one not only possesses, but also constantly acquires and must acquire, because one continually sacrifices it again, and must sacrifice it!
And now, after having been long on the way in this fashion, we Argonauts of the ideal, who are more courageous perhaps than prudent, and often enough shipwrecked and brought to grief, nevertheless, as said above, healthier than people would like to admit, dangerously healthy, always healthy again, – it would seem, as if in recompense for it all, that we have a still undiscovered country before us, the boundaries of which no one has yet seen, a beyond to all countries and corners of the ideal known hitherto, a world so over-rich in the beautiful, the strange, the questionable, the frightful, and the divine, that our curiosity as well as our thirst for possession thereof, have got out of hand – alas! that nothing will now any longer satisfy us!
How could we still be content with the man of the present day after such peeps, and with such a craving in our conscience and consciousness? What a pity; but it is unavoidable that we should look on the worthiest aims and hopes of the man of the present day with ill-concealed amusement, and perhaps should no longer look at them. Another ideal runs on before us, a strange, tempting ideal, full of danger, to which we should not like to persuade any one, because we do not so readily acknowledge any one’s right thereto: the ideal of a spirit who plays naively (that is to say involuntarily and from overflowing abundance and power) with everything that has hitherto been called holy, good, inviolable, divine; to whom the loftiest conception which the people have reasonably made their measure of value, would already imply danger, ruin, abasement, or at least relaxation, blindness, or temporary self-forgetfulness; the ideal of a humanly superhuman welfare and benevolence, which may often enough appear inhuman for example, when put by the side of all past seriousness on earth, and in comparison with all past solemnities in bearing, word, tone, look, morality and pursuit, as their truest involuntary parody, but with which, nevertheless, perhaps the great seriousness only commences, the proper interrogation mark is set up, the fate of the soul changes, the hour-hand moves, and tragedy begins…
(As an aside, I find it telling that Donald Trump does not laugh. )
The Joker fails because though he says he wants to bring a sense of humor back — why so serious? — the very plain method to this schemer’s madness fails to tumble, fails to invert himself that he might see the world aright. He fails because he fails to confront the seriousness of his own soul and ends not in the masochistic joke to end all jokes, not in the laughter his soul has sought for years, but in a plain and boring prison cell. Boredom and status quo: that is the worst punishment for the Joker. To be caught, hanging. As the intro to The Man Who Was Thursday says, “We have found common things at last…”
You see, there is one last person who must confront the person within and see if they have “such healthiness… [and] constantly acquires [it] and must acquire [it], because one continually sacrifices it again, and must sacrifice it.” But the person inside is not who you’d expect. Not even who he himself expected. We expect The Dark Knight to be one of the dark knights. We expect him to rise to become a white knight, even, or a commoner with cash. We might even expect him to fail miserably and become something like another Two Face or Bane.
We do not expect him — nor would we ever expect him — deep down in his soul, to be tempted towards becoming Le Jongleur de Dieu. I hesitated at first, but if you’ve followed me this far, you surely trust me enough to ask you to follow me a bit further in quoting the rest of that Chesterton chapter. Take it as a grace that you need not read the whole book:
Somewhere in that transition from the ambition of the Troubadour to the antics of the Tumbler is hidden, as under a parable, the truth of St. Francis. Of the two minstrels or entertainers, the jester was presumably the servant or at least the secondary figure. St. Francis really meant what he said when he said he had found the secret of life in being the servant and secondary figure. There was to be found ultimately in such service a freedom almost amounting to frivolity. It was comparable to the condition of the jongleur because it almost amounted to frivolity. The jester could be free when the knight was rigid; and it was possible to be a jester in the service which is perfect freedom. This parallel of the two poets or minstrels is perhaps the best preliminary and external statement of the Franciscan change of heart, being conceived under an image with which the imagination of the modern world has a certain sympathy. There was, of course, a great deal more than this involved; and we must endeavour however insufficiently to penetrate past the image to the idea. It is so far like the tumblers that it is really to many people a topsy-turvy idea.
Francis, at the time or somewhere about the time when he disappeared into the prison or the dark cavern, underwent a reversal of a certain psychological kind; which was really like the reversal of a complete somersault, in that by coming full circle it came back, or apparently came back, to the same normal posture. It is necessary to use the grotesque simile of an acrobatic antic, because there is hardly any other figure that will make the fact clear. But in the inward sense it was a profound spiritual evolution. The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit. And the effects of this on his attitude towards the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.
… Now it really is a fact that any scene such as a landscape can sometimes be more clearly and freshly seen if it is seen upside down. There have been landscape-painters who adopted the most startling and pantomimic postures in order to look at it for a moment in that fashion. Thus that inverted vision, so much more bright and quaint and arresting, does bear a certain resemblance to the world which a mystic like St. Francis sees every day. But herein is the essential part of the parable. Our Lady’s Tumbler did not stand on his head in order to see flowers and trees as a clearer or quainter vision. He did not do so; and it would never have occurred to him to do so. Our Lady’s Tumbler stood on his head to please Our Lady. If St. Francis had done the same thing, as he was quite capable of doing, it would originally have been from the same motive; a motive of a purely supernatural thought. It would be after this that his enthusiasm would extend itself and give a sort of halo to the edges of all earthly things. This is why it is not true to represent St. Francis as a mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of natural pleasures for their own sake. The whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure. In other words, he repeated in his own person that historic process noted in the introductory chapter; the vigil of asceticism which ends in the vision of a natural world made new. But in the personal case there was even more than this; there were elements that make the parallel of the Jongleur or Tumbler even more appropriate than this.
It may be suspected that in that black cell or cave Francis passed the blackest hours of his life. By nature he was the sort of man who has that vanity which is the opposite of pride; that vanity which is very near to humility. He never despised his fellow creatures and therefore he never despised the opinion of his fellow creatures; including the admiration of his fellow creatures. All that part of his human nature had suffered the heaviest and most crushing blows. It is possible that after his humiliating return from his frustrated military campaign he was called a coward. It is certain that after his quarrel with his father about the bales of cloth he was called a thief. And even those who had sympathised most with him, the priest whose church he had restored, the bishop whose blessing he had received, had evidently treated him with an almost humorous amiability which left only too clear the ultimate conclusion of the matter. He had made a fool of himself. Any man who has been young, who has ridden horses or thought himself ready for a fight, who has fancied himself as a troubadour and accepted the conventions of comradeship, will appreciate the ponderous and crushing weight of that simple phrase. The conversion of St. Francis, like the conversion of St. Paul, involved his being in some sense flung suddenly from a horse; but in a sense it was an even worse fall; for it was a war-horse. Anyhow, there was not a rag of him left that was not ridiculous. Everybody knew that at the best he had made a fool of himself. It was a solid objective fact, like the stones in the road, that he had made a fool of himself. He saw himself as an object, very small and distinct like a fly walking on a clear window pane; and it was unmistakably a fool. And as he stared at the word “fool” written in luminous letters before him, the word itself began to shine and change.
We used to be told in the nursery that if a man were to bore a hole through the centre of the earth and climb continually down and down, there would come a moment at the centre when he would seem to be climbing up and up. I do not know whether this is true. The reason I do not know whether it is true is that I never happened to bore a hole through the centre of the earth, still less to crawl through it. If I do not know what this reversal or inversion feels like, it is because I have never been there. And this also is an allegory. It is certain that the writer, it is even possible that the reader, is an ordinary person who has never been there. We cannot follow St. Francis to that final spiritual overturn in which complete humiliation becomes complete holiness or happiness, because we have never been there. I for one do not profess to follow it any further than that first breaking down of the romantic barricades of boyish vanity, which I have suggested in the last paragraph. And even that paragraph, of course, is merely conjectural, an individual guess at what he may have felt; but he may have felt something quite different. But whatever else it was, it was so far analogous to the story of the man making a tunnel through the earth that it did mean a man going down and down until at some mysterious moment he begins to go up and up. We have never gone up like that because we have never gone down like that; we are obviously incapable of saying that it does not happen; and the more candidly and calmly we read human history, and especially the history of the wisest men, the more we shall come to the conclusion that it does happen. Of the intrinsic internal essence of the experience, I make no pretence of writing at all. But the external effect of it, for the purpose of this narrative, may be expressed by saying that when Francis came forth from his cave of vision, he was wearing the same word “fool” as a feather in his cap; as a crest or even a crown. He would go on being a fool; he would become more and more of a fool; he would be the court fool of the King of Paradise.
This state can only be represented in symbol; but the symbol of inversion is true in another way. If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasise the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hung the world upon nothing. If St. Francis had seen, in one of his strange dreams, the town of Assisi upside down, it need not have differed in a single detail from itself except in being entirely the other way round. But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact. St. Francis might love his little town as much as before, or more than before; but the nature of the love would be altered even in being increased. He might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence. Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards.
It is commonly in a somewhat cynical sense that men have said, “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero, from the dark nothingness of his own deserts, that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them; and they are in themselves the best working example of the idea. For there is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset. But there is more than this involved, and more indeed than is easily to be expressed in words. It is not only true that the less a man thinks of himself, the more he thinks of his good luck and of all the gifts of God. It is also true that he sees more of the things themselves when he sees more of their origin; for their origin is a part of them and indeed the most important part of them. Thus they become more extraordinary by being explained. He has more wonder at them but less fear of them; for a thing is really wonderful when it is significant and not when it is insignificant; and a monster, shapeless or dumb or merely destructive, may be larger than the mountains, but is still in a literal sense insignificant. For a mystic like St. Francis the monsters had a meaning; that is, they had delivered their message. They spoke no longer in an unknown tongue. That is the meaning of all those stories whether legendary or historical, in which he appears as a magician speaking the language of beasts and birds. The mystic will have nothing to do with mere mystery; mere mystery is generally a mystery of iniquity.
The transition from the good man to the saint is a sort of revolution; by which one for whom all things illustrate and illuminate God becomes one for whom God illustrates and illuminates all things. It is rather like the reversal whereby a lover might say at first sight that a lady looked like a flower, and say afterwards that all flowers reminded him of his lady. A saint and a poet standing by the same flower might seem to say the same thing; but indeed though they would both be telling the truth, they would be telling different truths. For one the joy of life is a cause of faith, for the other rather a result of faith. But one effect of the difference is that the sense of a divine dependence, which for the artist is like the brilliant levin-blaze, for the saint is like the broad daylight. Being in some mystical sense on the other side of things, he sees things go forth from the divine as children going forth from a familiar and accepted home, instead of meeting them as they come out, as most of us do, upon the roads of the world. And it is the paradox that by this privilege he is more familiar, more free and fraternal, more carelessly hospitable than we. For us the elements are like heralds who tell us with trumpet and tabard that we are drawing near the city of a great king; but he hails them with an old familiarity that is almost an old frivolity. He calls them his Brother Fire and his Sister Water.
So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism. When we say that a poet praises the whole creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his archaic and mysterious name. The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made. In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy. That is but a distant adumbration of the reason why the Franciscan, ragged, penniless, homeless and apparently hopeless, did indeed come forth singing such songs as might come from the stars of morning; and shouting, a son of God.
This sense of the great gratitude and the sublime dependence was not a phrase or even a sentiment; it is the whole point that this was the very rock of reality. It was not a fancy but a fact; rather it is true that beside it all facts are fancies. That we all depend in every detail, at every instant, as a Christian would say upon God, as even an agnostic would say upon existence and the nature of things, is not an illusion of imagination; on the contrary, it is the fundamental fact which we cover up, as with curtains, with the illusion of ordinary life. That ordinary life is an admirable thing in itself, just as imagination is an admirable thing in itself. But it is much more the ordinary life that is made of imagination than the contemplative life. He who has seen the whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God has seen the truth; we might almost say the cold truth. He who has seen the vision of his city upside-down has seen it the right way up.
Rossetti makes the remark somewhere, bitterly but with great truth, that the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank. The converse of this proposition is also true; and it is certain that this gratitude produced, in such men as we are here considering, the most purely joyful moments that have been known to man. The great painter boasted that he mixed all his colours with brains, and the great saint may be said to mix all his thoughts with thanks. All goods look better when they look like gifts. In this sense it is certain that the mystical method establishes a very healthy external relation to everything else. But it must always be remembered that everything else has for ever fallen into a second place, in comparison with this simple fact of dependence on the divine reality. In so far as ordinary social relations have in them something that seems solid and self-supporting, some sense of being at once buttressed and cushioned; in so far as they establish sanity in the sense of security and security in the sense of self-sufficiency, the man who has seen the world hanging on a hair does have some difficulty in taking them so seriously as that. In so far as even the secular authorities and hierarchies, even the most natural superiorities and the most necessary subordinations, tend at once to put a man in his place, and to make him sure of his position, the man who has seen the human hierarchy upside down will always have something of a smile for its superiorities. In this sense the direct vision of divine reality does disturb solemnities that are sane enough in themselves. The mystic may have added a cubit to his stature; but he generally loses something of his status. He can no longer take himself for granted, merely because he can verify his own existence in a parish register or a family Bible. Such a man may have something of the appearance of the lunatic who has lost his name while preserving his nature; who straightway forgets what manner of man he was. “Hitherto I have called Pietro Bernardone father; but now I am the servant of God.”
All these profound matters must be suggested in short and imperfect phrases; and the shortest statement of one aspect of this illumination is to say that it is the discovery of an infinite debt. It may seem a paradox to say that a man may be transported with joy to discover that he is in debt. But this is only because in commercial cases the creditor does not generally share the transports of joy; especially when the debt is by hypothesis infinite and therefore unrecoverable. But here again the parallel of a natural love-story of the nobler sort disposes of the difficulty in a flash. There the infinite creditor does share the joy of the infinite debtor; for indeed they are both debtors and both creditors. In other words debt and dependence do become pleasures in the presence of unspoilt love; the word is used too loosely and luxuriously in popular simplifications like the present; but here the word is really the key. It is the key of all the problems of Franciscan morality which puzzle the merely modern mind; but above all it is the key of asceticism. It is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it. He will be for ever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks. Men who think they are too modern to understand this are in fact too mean to understand it; we are most of us too mean to practise it. We are not generous enough to be ascetics; one might almost say not genial enough to be ascetics. A man must have magnanimity of surrender, of which he commonly only catches a glimpse in first love, like a glimpse of our lost Eden. But whether he sees it or not, the truth is in that riddle; that the whole world has, or is, only one good thing; and it is a bad debt.
If ever that rarer sort of romantic love, which was the truth that sustained the Troubadours, falls out of fashion and is treated as fiction, we may see some such misunderstanding as that of the modern world about asceticism. For it seems conceivable that some barbarians might try to destroy chivalry in love, as the barbarians ruling in Berlin destroyed chivalry in war. If that were ever so, we should have the same sort of unintelligent sneers and unimaginative questions. Men will ask what selfish sort of woman it must have been who ruthlessly exacted tribute in the form of flowers, or what an avaricious creature she can have been to demand solid gold in the form of a ring; just as they ask what cruel kind of God can have demanded sacrifice and self-denial. They will have lost the clue to all that lovers have meant by love; and will not understand that it was because the thing was not demanded that it was done.
But whether or no any such lesser things will throw a light on the greater, it is utterly useless to study a great thing like the Franciscan movement while remaining in the modern mood that murmurs against gloomy asceticism. The whole point about St.
Francis of Assisi is that he certainly was ascetical and he certainly was not gloomy. As soon as ever he had been unhorsed by the glorious humiliation of his vision of dependence on the divine love, he flung himself into fasting and vigil exactly as he had flung himself furiously into battle. He had wheeled his charger clean round, but there was no halt or check in the thundering impetuosity of his charge. There was nothing negative about it; it was not a regimen or a stoical simplicity of life. It was not self-denial merely in the sense of self-control. It was as positive as a passion; it had all the air of being as positive as a pleasure. He devoured fasting as a man devours food. He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold. And it is precisely the positive and passionate quality of this part of his personality that is a challenge to the modern mind in the whole problem of the pursuit of pleasure.
There undeniably is the historical fact; and there attached to it is another moral fact almost as undeniable. It is certain that he held on this heroic or unnatural course from the moment when he went forth in his hair-shirt into the winter woods to the moment when he desired even in his death agony to lie bare upon the bare ground, to prove that he had and that he was nothing. And we can say, with almost as deep a certainty, that the stars which passed above that gaunt and wasted corpse stark upon the rocky floor had for once, in all their shining cycles round the world of labouring humanity, looked down upon a happy man.
The comparisons — particularly the bolding — should be clear, but I want to make a couple things clearer that show The Dark Knight cut of the same cloth as le Jongleur de Dieu. For one, he did see his city upside down and therefore right side up finally. The camera even shows us his shift of mind. He argues with the Joker as the Joker hangs, caught, that the city showed him that good people are there. And yet the camera slowly rotates so that the hanging Troubadour (and failed Jongleur) is right side up and the city upside down. But only in that hanging can Batman finally see the city and the landscape behind the villain. Those towers that schemers have built do not hang by the power of architecture. Those stacks of money the greedy have piled do not hang by the power of economy or bribery or organized crime. Law and order does not hang by lawyers or judges, mayors or police commissioners. And even marriage and family does not hang by the power of faithful husbands and meek fathers, noble brides and obedient children. Batman saw Gotham upside down finally and unlike all who failed, he saw his frailty and that he truly had nothing to do with all of his strength. He saw Gotham literally hanging on nothing and the moment it turned upside down, the same weight that made it strong made it weak and helpless. The only solution was to become weightless and found himself merely thankful that Gotham had not been dropped.
For decent men in an indecent time do not themselves give grounds for existence. And in the end, both knights fall — the white to his inner and unconfronted sin and the dark knight to his attempt to save a child. Both knights fall and the suicide of the Joker overtakes the white but not the dark. The Joker can’t win because Batman can turn his head and Harvey’s. He can turn Harvey’s head so that only the memory of his goodness remains, not the abyss that swallowed it, and become in himself Sir Two Face Dark Knight. The second face is not a knight at all, you see. Not even a dark one as Gordon claims. Harvey said it: you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. Well Harvey’s heart became villainous, but Batman became a fool. That’s why the white knight is not the hero we deserve, but the one we need: we need his memory. But it’s also why the dark knight is not the hero we need, but the one we deserve.
He didn’t do anything wrong. He’s innocent. And he took upon himself the guilt of Harvey and The Joker and the rest of that hanging city. A silent guardian. A watchful protector. Because the dark knight can set down his standard, set down his sword, allow himself to be thrown from his war-horse and become the fool — become le Jongleur de Dieu — he can tumble and turn his head not from left to right as Two Face did, but rather from up to down. He becomes not the primary figurehead that Harvey wanted, not the powerhouse that Gordon wanted — nor even the father, he becomes not the lover of the Bright Lady nor even a Troubadour himself.
Batman, the primary and point-of-view character, indeed our hero, becomes utterly — totally — secondary.
This is why we must hunt him. Because he’s tumbling forward. He’s not a knight. And in becoming the fool of the city and letting Gordon sick the dogs upon him, he doesn’t even remain a true jester and joker in that moment. He has the last laugh because it’s the joke to end all jokes. For in the end, the hunter becomes the hunted and through a jester’s tumble The Dark Knight transforms into The White Stag.