A couple Saturdays ago I attended the monthly protest near the drone base located on what used to be the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Horsham, PA, outside Philadelphia. The vigil has been going on monthly for a number of years, peopled by some of the most spiritual, peace-loving people I know. I’d say many of them also qualify as Cassandras, people who have consistently spoken out in an ethical and reasonable manner against the morally confusing reality of our imperial wars. Cassandra was a mythic Greek figure who spurned Apollo and was, thus, doomed to prophesize correctly; the catch was no one would listen to her. Marginalization with a mythic spin.
When all the protesters wrapped up their signs and bullhorns, I left the Horsham intersection where we had proselytized passing motorists for a few hours. On the way home, as I often do, I stopped at the gun shop down the road from the protest. It was jammed with people looking over the guns in glass cases and on a wall jammed five or six deep with every sort of hunting rifle, shotgun and semi-automatic combat weapon imaginable. Dozens of companies make some variant of the M16/AR15, and each month in slick magazines like Recoil and Ballistic, they advertise more and more nifty accessories. You leaf through these “gun porn” magazines and you realize why it’s impossible to effectively regulate military-style semi-automatic weapons.
Potential customers were fondling and sighting pistols and long guns and getting the latest info on the latest guns from a handful of salesmen. If someone sees you fondling a gun they like, they might say: “That’s a really nice gun!” At the end of the counter, a clerk was explaining to two black women in their 30s how a 9mm automatic pistol worked; what they lacked in experience, they made up in being ready to buy a gun.
One of the clerks had a .45 caliber big-animal hunting rifle in a vice on the counter and was working with a precision, torque screwdriver on a telescopic sight attached to the rifle. I asked him some questions I’ve always had about how such a delicate thing as a telescopic sight can remain accurate under rough conditions. It would seem the slightest jiggle could put it way off. He tried to explain it to me; in the end, the conclusion seemed to be: “you get what you pay for.” The better the equipment, the tighter and more secure a scope will be from getting knocked off alignment.
I was wearing a Veterans For Peace sweatshirt, which triggered another clerk to come over and join our chat; he was an ex cop. We chatted guns and war for a while; then I smiled and asked: “OK. What do you guys think? Are we at civil war yet?” The man working on the gun-sight said nothing, while the ex-cop said: “Yeh, we’re in a civil war. Now.” Sensing what was in the air, the clerk working the rifle sight volunteered that he was a Democrat who’d voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but because of how Trump had just screwed the Kurds he was now opposed to Trump. The way Trump did it was just too much.
I hung around a while longer, myself fondling and sighting various guns. I hefted a few small, concealable 9mm pistols. I gripped a compact, metal 9mm semi-automatic affair with a 35-round banana clip, a 21st century version of the WWII grease gun. I hefted a shotgun and jacked the cocking mechanism back just to hear that daunting sound. As I left, I was intensely eyeballed by a large pit bull nesting near the door.
That evening, I went to see the film Joker. It had ironically been recommended to me by one of those spiritual peace-movement Cassandras at the drone protest. Joker is derived from the Batman comic-book narrative, but in this case, the story focuses not on the hero, but on the villain. The film Joker is nothing like a Batman movie; it’s not a superhero movie at all and it’s the anti-thesis of a vacuous piece of crap like Aquaman. Joker is art. We do meet Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne as a kid and see his ultra-rich parents killed, all part of the Batman origin story. One review nailed it as “a mash-up of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy”. It did remind me of Taxi Driver and other realistic dark narratives that deal with male alienation and violence. The film is the top box-office R-rated film ever, and it won a big prize at the Venice Film Festival in Italy. Variety film critic Owen Glieberman called it “the rare comic-book movie that expresses what’s happening in the real world.” The film works for a moment in history when a cartoon-scale president dominates center stage like a larger-than-life character in a mythic city like the one in Joker.
Michael Andre Bernstein wrote a book of literary criticism back in 1992 called Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero. It’s a great book about all those dark, European novels many of us love. My dictionary defines ressentiment as “a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self-abasement.” I think of the psychiatrist I read who said when one is in-extremis and at the end of one’s rope one can react in two ways: Strike outward. Strike inward. Or some degree of both.
Bernstein discusses a range of real and literary characters, including K in Kafka’s The Trial, Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, even Charles Manson, who he quotes as saying: “I do not think like you people. You people put importance on your lives. Well, my life has never been important to anyone. I haven’t got any guilt about anything.” Bernstein’s puts his abject hero in the tradition of the “Saturnalian dialogue” between masters and slaves, which goes back to Roman times when a day or a festival was designated for slaves to let off steam and send up their masters. Bernstein writes that these “dialogues” could be “optimistic and celebratory.” Think Carnival or Mardi Gras. But Bernstein’s concern is how the Abject Hero turns the Saturnalian dialogue into something very dark and violent. His ideas of ressentiment and the abject hero seem to me rooted in European history and literature, which may explain why Europeans at the Venice Film Festival loved the movie.
Here’s Bernstein on the abject hero:
“[I]t is their bitter commentary on the society in which they have been unable to secure a place commensurate with their intelligence and vanity that makes them such powerful satiric voices. Yet, the fact that they are speaking from a position of rejection and humiliation distorts their sharpest insights and distances both the reader and their fictional antagonists at the instant their embittered eloquence should be most convincing.”
That describes the ironies of Arthur Fleck’s mythic tale quite nicely. The film’s dark brilliance is in taking a case of male alienation relevant to the current loose-lunatic, corrupt world we live in and, then, enhance the tale with the mythic narrative juices inherent in the superhero comic book genre, while keeping the tale grounded in human grit. Arthur Fleck’s transition into the demonic Joker works as a narrative metaphor for today’s archetypal loser/mass-shooter. I’d even argue Joker works as a metaphor for understanding the rise of ISIS out of the brutal US invasion/occupation of Anbar Province in Iraq.
The movie is no more violent than the run-of-the-mill action-hero movie. Joker is controversial because it humanizes sadism, especially the life of someone who’s sadistically abused to the point he’s fed up absorbing it and mirrors the sadism outward back at society as an act of survival. It made me think of the French writer/convict Jean Genet, a prime example of ressentiment. Genet is the product of a cruel French social underbelly who became a cause-celebre after he was written about by the famous philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Genet wrote somewhere that he had been brutalized and demonized by society so thoroughly and was seen as such a violent pariah that he decided, if you can’t see me as I am and insist on seeing me as a monster, then that’s who I’m gonna be. So beware.
Joaquin Phoenix became Auschwitz-thin for the Joker role. His Arthur Fleck lives with his mother and works as a low-rent clown. As in the famous opera Pagliacci, where the clown protagonist must perform as a funny clown after killing his beloved wife, the Joker’s forced, demonic laugh becomes a signature for the character’s deep-rooted psychic pain. In the final scene, the Joker is surrounded by wreckage and fire and thousands of other abject heroes, all in clown masks and ready for mayhem. Joker dances a goofy, mad jig on the hood of a wrecked NYPD patrol car. It’s the culmination of all the sadistic humiliations, abuses and pain suffered by the Fleck character from childhood into adulthood. The character’s future? Will there be a sequel? It’s all left in images and sounds of anarchy in the streets.
That Saturday that began protesting drone warfare and ended with sadistic Joker madness left me pondering the state of things. Why has our culture’s narrative and mythic inclinations gravitated to such a film drenched in inner psychic pain and sadism, while our government is gearing up to kill more people 12,000 miles away by flying robots? I see it all as symptoms of imperial decline. On one hand, the society is threatened within from an implosion of self-destructive, polarizing forces; while on the other, thanks to a faltering consensus for military interventions abroad, the government is relying more and more on remotely operated machines to kill its enemies beyond its borders — machines that don’t entail dead American servicemen and -women. It’s a case of technological progress contributing to, and exacerbating, decadence and decline. As all the Cassandras at Horsham would tell us: The real problem is the aggressive Militarism. How you invade, kill and destroy is a detail.
There’s all that Freudian writing from between the world wars about the life- and death-instincts and how cultures can become self-destructively saturated with death-oriented art and entertainment. Freud, of course, had no clue how his concept of a death-instinct might be manifested in an internet and social-media enhanced culture. Money — who has it and who doesn’t? — always matters in a capitalist culture like ours; but at what point does simple, human decency become a balancing value? Or do they take it to it’s logical extreme and start legislating the creation of camps. Of course, simple, human decency (sometimes a conservative talking point) was the question that broke Joe McCarthy’s back. “Sir, have you no decency?”
Then there’s Rodney King in his press conference after his beating at the hands of the LAPD stirred up a riot. He stumbles as he presents what is a nice counter to the Arthur Fleck/Joker reaction to abuse. King seems astonished at the rioting his suffering has set off.
“Can we all just get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?”