There’s something familiar about the deeper theme in “Joker.” It follows a character who is a victim of his own kindness, who is cast out and rejected by the world as it is, and in his isolation becomes a parody of society’s downfall.
He is eaten away by his expectations that the people around him should be kind and courteous. So he gives up, and in his disappointment follows the restlessness brooding beneath society’s façade, where he fuels the growing flames.
A Cruel World
After Civil War Gen. William Sherman burned homes of civilians in the South, he famously declared: “War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
Sherman lamented the cruelty of war. He stated, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will.” But he also saw himself as just a player in the drama, carried by the state of the world as it was.
The world is sometimes cruel, and the world is sometimes kind. The question is whether we can change the state of the world, or whether we need to find peace despite its cruelties.
People who look to change the state of their lives usually look to eliminate their sources of hardship—such as moving on to a new job or making a change to their daily routine.
But people who are at odds with the nature of reality itself are faced with a much larger trial. Escaping hardship on this scale requires the destruction of evil as they interpret it. The cruelty they fight against isn’t the cruelty of a single person or condition, but instead reality as it is.
This ties to one of history’s greatest, yet most overlooked, lessons: It’s often those who seek to eliminate cruelty from the world who themselves become the forces of cruelty, and those who would do away with evil in the world often become the forces of evil.
Thomas Molnar wrote in “Utopia: The Perennial Heresy,” that the “one intolerable fact to the utopian is the scandal that evil exists in an otherwise perfect or potentially perfect world.”
The problem, as Molnar explains, is that “utopian thinking is itself evil … and it leads people to commit evil.”
It’s the plight of the Utopian, the fate of the rebel whose fight is against the nature of reality itself. It’s what Friedrich Nietzsche warned of when he observed the coming age of nihilism: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.”
In his rebellion against cruelty as he sees it, a monster is what the Joker becomes—a comedic parody of cruelty itself.
The Death Trance
In “Joker,” we watch as a man kills and simulates his suicide. Through this, he’s shown as being liberated from his former cares. He discards his old identity, and in his new persona dances down the stairs of his own decline.
He enters the death trance spoken of in ancient literature—the fearful state of a man who has chosen to die.
In “Pharsalia,” Lucan recounts a group of Roman soldiers during Caesar’s civil wars, who find themselves cornered and outnumbered during a battle at sea. The leader turns to his men and asks them to “choose death; desire what fate decrees.”
From there, they fight without fear, and without care for worldly consequences. Lucan writes, “The band devoted stood, proud of their promised end, and life forsworn, and careless of the battle: no debate could shake their high resolve.”
Lucan tells the story of another battle where a soldier named Scaeva enters a similar trance, throwing himself over a wall into a sea of enemies where he fought and held off their advance. He was so badly injured as he continued fighting that Lucan wrote, “His vital parts were safeguarded by spears that bristled in his body. Fortune saw thus waged a novel combat, for there warred against one man an army.”
In the Japanese samurai text, the “Hagakure,” Yamamoto Tsunetomo explains a similar state: “The way of the warrior is to be found in dying. If one is faced with two options of life or death, simply settle for death.”
The principle is the same: Soldiers who decide to die don’t retreat, they ignore mortal wounds, and in their doomed resolve feel liberated from consequences.
There’s a destructive freedom in embracing death. For soldiers, crossing that line is what makes heroes. But for times outside of war, there are few states more dangerous for a person to enter.
People risk entering a type of metaphysical suicide, where rebellion turns not against ordinary conditions, but toward the basic foundations of life and existence. Albert Camus observed in his book, “The Rebel,” that we’re now living in an age influenced by this type of suicide—where movements of revolt seek to overturn reality as it is.
Camus said that this “absolute nihilism, which accepts suicide as legitimate, leads, even more easily, to logical murder.” At the root of this, he said, is an indifference to life, established by a logic that sees everything as equal—or rather, a belief that all things could be equal, were it not for certain worldly forces.
Such a person, Camus writes, “believes that he is destroying everything or taking everything with him; but from this act of self-destruction itself a value arises, which, perhaps, might have “made it worthwhile to live. Absolute negation is therefore not consummated by suicide. It can only be consummated by absolute destruction, of oneself and of others.”
He adds, “Here suicide and murder are two aspects of a single system, the system of a misguided intelligence, that prefers, to the suffering imposed by a limited situation, the dark victory in which heaven and earth are annihilated.”
A similar state was noted by Marcus Aurelius, who encouraged people to manage their expectations according to what life will naturally bring, and find contentment amidst it. Don’t expect people to be kind in unkind places, but also don’t let yourself be bothered by them.
He explained in his “Meditations” what happens when a person instead becomes at odds with the natural state of things: “The soul of a man harms itself, first and foremost, when it becomes (as far as it can) a separate growth, a sort of tumor on the universe; because to resent anything that happens is to separate oneself in revolt from nature, which holds in collective embrace the particular natures of all other things.”
Tests of Character
Jordan Peterson made a great observation in a presentation that good men are the ones most capable of great evil. A peaceful man is someone most capable of inflicting harm, because without that ability, he’s not peaceful, he’s just harmless. It’s only when we are given choices, when we have the options to do good or evil, that we can demonstrate our choice to do good.
Only when our souls are tested can we show our mettle.
The world is filled with trials, all of which could crush us if we allowed them.
If the world is cruel, then do we follow it into cruelty? And if it is harsh, then do we add to its harshness? Knowledge of good and evil was that first curse on mankind, yet in our recognition of all the wrongs in life, our gift is the free will to choose for ourselves between good and evil.
The Joker chooses the path of evil, and we witness the sad descent of a man into his own destruction. He expected life to be something it wasn’t, and in his banishment from society, he rebelled against the order of the world as it existed.
If “Joker” leaves us with any valuable lesson, it’s that we should learn to laugh at the chaos of the world. He achieved this, but in its shadow form. His downfall was that he laughed out of spite; while we should learn to laugh despite it.
It’s here we find the old humor that Dante observed as he climbed the mountains of heaven. When looking down on the evils of the world, he observed that people strive for power without realizing that the divine is in control; that in the wheel of karma or sin, those who harm others harm themselves. The victim is the victor in the eyes of God. That’s the heart of the divine comedy—and may we all learn to laugh at its humor.
Joshua Philipp is a senior investigative reporter and host of “Crossroads.”