only search

About Tina Beattie

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England.

Articles by Tina Beattie

This week's editor

En Liang Khong

En Liang Khong is submissions editor at openDemocracy.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

2011, a year of wonder

A great scientific breakthrough is also a path to appreciating the core ingredient of our humanity, says Tina Beattie.

The Catholic church’s scandal: modern crisis, ancient roots

The sexual violation of young people within the Catholic church is the poisonous legacy of a long tradition of contempt for human sexuality in an institution which has privileged secrecy and unaccountable power over transparency and participation. But the silence and darkness revealed by the scandal must not be allowed to define the majority of Catholics who are the living church, says Tina Beattie.

Banksy in Bristol

I was walking past a Marks & Spencer store towards Edgware Road tube station in central London recently when a security-guard rushed out of the shop and ran past me. As I drew nearer, I saw that he was going to help his colleague who had apprehended a shoplifter. It was an old tramp who had, it seems, stolen a quarter-litre of milk.

Antichrist: the visual theology of Lars Von Trier

Lars von Trier is a tantalising film-director who provokes his audiences sometimes to the point of humiliation. He is also a master of visual theology. His Antichrist is the antithesis of Mel Gibson's tawdry and emotive The Passion of the Christ, offering as it does an exploration of the violent underbelly of the Christian story of sin and redemption. If Antichrist offers us any glimpse into the tortured psyche of its director, then it is a psyche sculpted around a visceral Catholicism of a much darker and more existentially credible kind than Gibson's lurid fantasies of crucifixion. A number of critics at the Cannes film festival derided von Trier for his dedication of Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky, and in doing so missed their affinity: for like the great Russian director, von Trier has a capacity to use the moving image as a celluloid icon through which to offer us glimpses into the depths of the Christian unconscious with its metaphysical terrors and yearnings.

In von Trier's Breaking the Waves, the female character Bess (Emily Watson) is a Christ-like figure, a disturbing representation of mysticism and madness who sacrifices her life to redeem the man she loves. It is a harrowing and controversial film, not least for the questions it raises about the extent to which Bess's prostitution and murder reinforce violent sexual stereotypes about female sexuality and martyrdom. Antichrist pushes these questions even further by asking us to contemplate what it would mean to portray woman not as a Christ figure but as Eve, who in the Christian theological tradition has been represented as the personification of evil and bringer of death to the world.

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Allen & Unwin, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists: The War on Religion and the Twilight of Reason (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here In the 2nd century, Tertullian wrote of women: "You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert - that is, death - even the Son of God had to die." Von Trier takes his audience into the malevolent brew of these masculine beliefs and the havoc they wreak in women's lives.

The elusive source

Antichrist is an allegory of the Genesis myth which exposes the psychological terrors of Christian beliefs about the origins of sin. It draws its imagery not only from modern horror films but also from the teeming fears of medieval imaginations with their pervasive sense of evil and the power of Satan. The Antichrist of the film's title is everywhere and nowhere - a viscous and elusive presence that seeps through nature, including human nature, and infects it with futility, death and decay. The Antichrist is perhaps also the God-man himself, alluded to in the figure of the husband, whose misogynistic cult has sacrificed generations of women through persecution, burning and torture, while implanting in women themselves a deeply rooted sense of guilt and self-loathing.

The film opens with a prologue of exquisite pathos, filmed in black and white and played in slow motion to ethereal music (the Lascio Chi'o Pianga aria from Handel's Rinaldo - "Let me weep over my cruel fate, and that I long for freedom"). As the nameless protagonists (superbly played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Dafoe) make love, their toddler climbs out of his cot and down the stairs, briefly witnessing his parents' entwined bodies before falling to his death in the snow outside. Thus von Trier begins his exploration of the shadow side - the feminine side - of the Christian story of salvation, focusing on the Mary/Eve figure whose child must die to bring redemption to man; but at what cost to her? Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

"Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words" (17 September 2006)

"Veiling the issues: a distractive debate" (24 October 2006)

"Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)

"Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa" (14 February 2007)

"The end of postmodernism: the ‘new atheists' and democracy" (20 December 2007)

"Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2007)

"The dark (k)night of a postmodern world" (21 August 2008)

"Along the precipice: visions of atheism in London" (6 November 2008)

"Banksy in Bristol" (24 June

Von Trier's woman is Madonna and whore, a tender and grieving pietà and a voracious and deadly seductress. In flashbacks we see how, the summer before her child's death, she had taken him to a cabin in a remote forest known as "Eden" to work on her doctoral thesis. Her topic was gynocide - a term coined by feminists to refer to the persecution and killing of women, particularly in the Christian tradition. As she studied she became convinced that the knowledge she sought was a lie, and that women really are guilty of the evil of which they have been accused. And so this young mother becomes von Trier's Eve, seeker of forbidden knowledge, bringer of death, bearer of the guilt of the human race, cause of the death of the Son of Man.

The husband is a therapist who decides to take control of his wife's rehabilitation, offering himself as her confessor and saviour as she plunges into the depths of inconsolable grief and madness over the death of her child. When she admits to him that she is terrified of the forest, he insists they go back there so that she can confront and rationalise her fears. Thus this human pair - Adam and Eve, everyman and everywoman - cross over a bridge which symbolises the boundary between culture and nature, reason and chaos, sanity and madness: the bridge into hell. The narrative of the film disintegrates as von Trier takes his archetypal western man of reason through the nightmares of his most repressed and irrational fears - the swamp of violent female sexuality and the savagery of nature.

There are several scenes where the husband tries to analyse his wife's fear of the forest. She tells him that her greatest fear is not the forest but something else. He draws a triangle and writes "Eden (garden)"  near the top, leaving a question-mark in the top position as he tries to find a word for the real source of her fear. At one point, she tells him that nature is "Satan's Church', and he puts Satan in the top position. Then, as he discovers the depths of her sense of personal evil and blame, he puts the word "me" - her ultimate fear is herself - only to cross it out again. I was reminded of Paul Ricoeur's study of Genesis, in which he ponders on the pre-existence of evil in the Garden of Eden, suggesting that we find ourselves in a world in which evil precedes us as an unnameable mystery. The symbols of the fall pervade this film, but the serpent never appears. Whatever the source of evil, it has already done its work before we enter this poisoned Eden.

The gynocidal story

Lars von Trier made Antichrist during a time of deep depression, and his antipathy to therapists is well known. Yet his target here is not just the therapy industry, but the controlling power of the rational masculine mind which refuses to acknowledge the mystery of good and evil, the primal chaos of nature, and those aspects of human experience which are beyond language and the control of reason. If it is a condemnation of modern psychotherapy, the film is also an oblique homage to Sigmund Freud who dared to venture into the forest of our darkest and most haunted dreams.

A recurring motif is the three beggars who symbolise grief, pain and despair and who provide the chapter titles for the film which, like Breaking the Waves, has its narrative interrupted by title pages: Grief, Pain (Chaos Reigns), Despair (Gynocide) and The Three Beggars. It might be pushing the symbolism too far to suggest that these allude to the beggars in Russian folklore who, like Christ, offer wisdom and compassion through suffering - it is hard to find any redemptive message in von Trier's portrayal of suffering here. The epilogue has a repeat of the Handel aria but it offers a kitsch fantasy of redemption. The man - saviour turned murderer - is wounded but alive in an Eden apparently restored to its original goodness, while the women whose dismembered bodies have recently littered the forest floor rise up in a general resurrection. But it is an ironic and mocking ending.

Whatever the meaning of redemption, the mystery of evil remains, and von Trier seems to imply that no resurrection or return to Eden can erase the gynocidal story which precipitates the biblical drama. As the closing credits rolled, I for one was left wondering whether those women were supposed to represent the redeemed at the heavenly banquet, or a hoard of vengeful harpies about to set upon the solitary man.

The mother of sorrows

So what to make of this? Antichrist has been condemned for being misogynistic and anti-Christian, but I think this is simplistic. Perhaps von Trier is even pointing a finger at those critics who seek to deny the chtonian depths of the human psyche by their moral posturing. The woman in this film is a vengeful and violent force of nature, but the film invites another reading too. She is also the mater dolorosa, the mother of sorrows whose grief is too vast to be contained in a world dominated by the forces of objective and rationalising masculinity. The more the man seeks to control her, the more uncontrollable she becomes, mutating into the woman of Genesis who is condemned to bear her children in pain and longs for the husband who will lord it over her (Genesis 3:16), but whose child will also be the source of their redemption.

There is a scene when the woman describes hearing her son's voice crying in the forest. She goes in search of him but he seems to be nowhere and everywhere. Suddenly, the camera pans up so that we have a God's eye view, and the child's cry becomes the cry of a cosmic Christ, suffering for the sins of the world. This imagery is reinforced by the mother's subsequent discovery of her child, playing in the cabin with a piece of wood in a pose reminiscent of paintings of the young Christ in his father's carpentry workshop, foreshadowing the wood of the cross. Later, the woman will use that same piece of wood in a castrating attack on her husband, in one of the film's most disturbing and explicit scenes of sexual mutilation and abuse.

This Eve is not the passive victim of male control. She seeks vengeance, allowing her terror of abandonment and forsakenness to drive her to extremes of sadistic and masochistic violence as she seeks to entrap the man, so that audiences have been appalled by the brutality of the film. But that may be part of its oblique message. Audiences of horror films have an apparently insatiable appetite for the penetration, mutilation and murder of female bodies. Just like those medieval images of burning and tortured women, the cinema reveals us to be a gynocidal culture, accepting as normal the mutilation and abuse of women by men, but horrified when it is women who become the abusers.

The missing half

Nevertheless, one is left with the uneasy question as to whether von Trier simply adds to the catalogue of gynocidal horrors which he exposes. Ultimately, it is not the woman but the man who survives, as the crucified one becoming the crucifier, and the woman inflicts upon herself the most savage sexual punishment for the evil of which she stands accused in her own eyes.

These ambiguities are part of the film's disturbing potency. Von Trier peels away the veneer of a domesticated, civilised religion and shows us the human condition as it appears in the darker, more pessimistic aspects of the Christian tradition, suggesting a fall into evil which plunges man, woman and nature into a state of savage alienation and violence.

One can of course argue that this is a deeply distorted reading of Christianity, for the woman at the heart of that tradition is Mary, the New Eve, whose divine motherhood symbolises God's peace with creation and the goodness and grace of woman redeemed. Yet as many feminists point out, Mary has occupied a position of unique purity and holiness in the texts and traditions of Catholic Christianity, while all other women have been identified with Eve as a primordial force of nature, chaos and death which must be resisted and controlled by the rational masculine mind. Von Trier might only tell half the story, but it is the half which has too often been allowed to define the whole in the history of western religion and culture.

Among openDemocracy's essays on world cinema:

Rosemary Bechler, "All our (Gothic) yesterdays: the really special relationship" (25 April 2002)

Maryam Maruf, "Spider-man!" (31 October 2002)

Geoff Andrews, "The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (1 November 2005)

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, "Letters to the past: Iwo Jima and Japanese memory" (23 February 2007)

Stephen Howe, "A murderous muse: Idi Amin and The Last King of Scotland" (12 January 2007)

Maggie Gee, "Babel: worlds within worlds" (17 January 2007)

Birgitta Steene, "Ingmar Bergman and Sweden: an epoch's end" (6 August 2007)

Patrice de Beer, "Calle Santa : between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

Grace Davies, "One day of life: a Romanian odyssey" (13 March 2008)

Tarek Osman, "Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film" (29 July 2008)





Along the precipice: visions of atheism in London

"One wants to do this thing of just walking along the edge of the precipice." (Francis Bacon)

An enterprising plan to display an atheist message on the side of sixty of London's red buses from January 2009 suggests that, if there is a God, she has a rather wicked sense of humour. The advertisement, which is sponsored by donors who include the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins, reads: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The idea may have struck more of a chord before the world's financial convulsions, when the popular Zeitgeist included indulging the extravagances of a consumer economy sustained by unlimited credit, than at a time when people are very worried about basic monetary security. It is in such a time, after all, that the search for faith and transcendent meaning often flourishes; when the easy comforts of a society whose only pursuit is of "enjoyment" can begin to seem hollow.  

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England.

Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Continuum, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists: The War on Religion and the Twilight of Reason (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here

Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

"Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words" (17 September 2006)

"Veiling the issues: a distractive debate" (24 October 2006)

"Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)

"Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa" (14 February 2007)

"The end of postmodernism: the ‘new atheists' and democracy" (20 December 2007)

"Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2007)
In any event, there is nothing original or provocative about that banal agnostic slogan. It has been the credo of our western consumerist societies since the 1960s. A "probably" non-existent God has been banished from the public square and confined to increasingly empty churches in the company of a few deluded pious souls, leaving a large part of society to make merry (and money) with a sense of glorious liberation from the repressive effects of religion.

For the followers of a new and more ruthless deity have been building their temples in this society's midst. The fervour of their worship is familiar: a horde of over-excited, gesticulating men (like most religions, this one is dominated by men), shouting their prayers and petitions at the great glowing icons above them, placing their faith in the random and unpredictable whims of the gods, offering human sacrifices when necessary and creating a cult of secrecy so dense that the rest of us failed to see what they were up to until their creed had insinuated itself into so many institutions - governments and political processes, workplaces, schools and universities, shops, even homes and families.

What is the name of this all-powerful, all-controlling God? It may have once been called Mammon, but most today know it as The Market, and his followers (this God is most certainly male) are called CEOs and hedge-fund managers and oligarchs and traders. The Market dictates, responds, demands, even suffers (it is common to hear broadcasters use phrases such as the markets have "endured a brutal week"); and its minions and worshippers - politicians, bankers and taxpayers alike - do its bidding.

The power of this God would make "The Market probably doesn't exist" a more challenging slogan for London's buses to carry. But if anyone in the city wants to know what it would be like if God does not exist, they should take one of those buses to Tate Britain to view the exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon. For this artist, there is no "probably" about it: God has been destroyed by the nihilistic horrors of 20th-century human behaviour, and the artist - recognising perhaps that people so often prefer the escapist route of consoling delusions - feels compelled to express the true face of a world without God.

A world inside out

Francis Bacon had an authoritarian Catholic father who expelled him from the family home on discovering the teenager wearing his mother's dresses. The remnants of this discarded Catholicism litter Bacon's art, like so much debris washed up by Matthew Arnold's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith. Bacon's many sources of inspiration included Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altar, though he turns Grünewald's vision inside out, forcing our gaze beyond its message of redemption and healing, to confront us with the mangled meat that we are: savage and savaged beasts in a God-less world.

Grünewald intended the graphic torment of the crucified Christ to be a symbol of hope for the dying patients who knelt before it in the hospital chapel of St Anthony's monastery in Isenheim; but Bacon's crucified and monstrous bodies have the opposite intention, that of destroying any lingering trace of faith in a benevolent deity, a rational or redeemable humanity or a better hereafter.

This is the artist who once said: "I think that man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason."

Bacon's paintings from the 1940s to the mid-1960s reveal his genius at its terrifying and relentless best. Life is mirrored in the art - the genocidal landscape of 20th-century history is gorged upon and spat out onto canvases in which paint and image, form and matter, congeal in visceral gloops of despair. In Head II (1949), a bestial shape oozes out of paint as thick and coarse as elephant-hide - is it winning or losing the struggle to take form against the suffocating sludge of primal matter? Why does it matter, if God is dead?  A series of early 1950s images inspired by Velásquez's Pope Innocent X howl from their entrapment in the dissolving and encroaching abyss. They look like popes should look, if there is no God.
Also in openDemocracy on matters of faith and unbelief:

Michael Walsh, "The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty" (19 September 2006)

Yves Gingras, "Science and mysticism: a tainted embrace" (17 August 2007)

Mark Vernon, "The bad faith of the secular age" (15 November 2007)

Keith Kahn-Harris, "How to talk about things we know nothing about" (21 February 2008)

John Casey, "Rediscovering traditionalism" (24 September 2008)

Then there are the paintings titled Man in Blue, also from the early 1950s. What astonishing serendipity that this exhibition appears in London at this time, with Bacon's tormented gaze seeing through the gloss and glaze of the City the faceless creatures trapped in its bureaucracies and institutions. His 1955 painting of a chimpanzee echoes the bestiality of his suited businessmen. We are animals, all of us: in the Darwinian fight some dissolve back into flesh and non-being even before they are formed, while others succeed at the business of becoming stronger beasts and get briefly ahead of the pack. But there is no God, so what's the point? Life is shit, and then we die.

This is what atheism looks like, to those who have eyes to see. This is what it feels like, to suffer without hope, to have the courage and the truthfulness to live in fidelity to a vision of Darwinian despair about the human condition. Like the master of Grünewald, Bacon sought to exploit the connection between the suffering human body and its artistic representation by dissolving the space of mediation between the two. He once said that he wanted his art to appeal directly to the nervous system, bypassing the process of interpretation and the search for meaning. In the Isenheim Altar, the fusion of body and art becomes a sign of incarnational hope, of flesh redeemed through the incarnate Word. In Bacon's repeated studies of crucifixion it becomes a sign of vicious and futile barbarity, of meaning devoured by the all-consuming flesh.

An act of defiance

Yet the paradox remains that the power of all great art - however nihilistic its message - depends upon the human capacity for transcendence. There are agnostic thinkers such as Peter Fuller and George Steiner who argue that only what Fuller called "a wager on transcendence" makes great art possible at all. In the obsession to represent, to create images which transcend the grip of the animal mind in order to explore a shared meaning and a common vision, Bacon must contradict the message he communicates. However much he resisted any attempt to find meaning in his art, its very existence depends upon the fact that humans are a meaning-making species - creative animals with a capacity for transcendence, imagination and linguistic and artistic expressiveness, all of which marks us out from the other life-forms with which we share the planet.

The howl of protest against the torment of the flesh is in itself an act of defiance against the void: a refusal to succumb to the nihilism that would render us mute and meaningless in the face of our human capacity for suffering and violence. We cannot short-circuit the quest for meaning which makes art possible, and within that possibility lingers the haunting question of what lies beyond the here and now, beyond the meat and the muck of our bodily selves.

There is a transition in Bacon's later works, so that by the 1980s the assault upon our senses becomes filtered through something less visceral and raw. The paint is less textured, the fusion of form and content yielding to a more stylised approach in which the dismembered and grotesque bodies have lost the pathos, the despair and vulnerability of the earlier work. There is a subtle shift from great art to something more akin to poster-painting. It is as if the artist's mourning and raging against the death of God has moved towards a reconciliation with the seductive message of modern consumerism: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

But the earlier work's insistence that God is dead makes it as theological in its meaning as all those great works of Christian art which inspired Bacon; a negation, after all, acquires its meaning from that which it negates and that which it refuses. The early crucifixion themes, for example, shock with the absence of God and the consequent dissolution of the humanist enterprise. Bacon once said: "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime."

A cosmic wager

But that snail's trail is a divine trail as well as a human one - because for nearly 2,000 years the western understanding of the human was inseparable from the western understanding of God. The mutual imaging between the human and the divine lingers in the recognition that the snail's trail of an abandoned humanity is also that of an abandoned divinity. In a later work, Triptych (1976), a chalice and a host are shown amidst the figures; though here they are empty symbols, suggesting a rebellious gesture more worthy of the so-called new atheists than the tortured anti-theological profundity of the earlier work.

Bacon may have been a nihilist, but like Nietzsche, he recognised that the death of God also signalled the death of the familiar, common-sense concept of the human. This is an atheism which is altogether different from the banal and bourgeois atheism emanating from the (predominantly) white male intelligentsia of little England. This atheism is rooted in a bewildering confidence - for it lacks foundation either in the Darwinian materialism to which it is wedded, or in the human capacity for rationality and progress to which it appeals. Intelligent atheism, like intelligent religion, offers few consolations if the challenges it poses to human knowledge, values and reasoning are taken seriously.

For some of us, faith is a positioning of our lives upon a fulcrum of possibility, challenging us to live with the unanswerability of the questions it poses and the doubts it accommodates. Such an outlook may find the mourning rituals for a dead God meaningful in themselves, and more worthy of time and attention than the kind of banal satisfaction promoted on the London buses. Whatever we mean by that word "God", there is inspiration and mystery to be discovered in the legacy which Christianity has bequeathed to our understanding of the world - in its music, art and architecture, in its Masses and devotions, in the compassionate and selfless endeavours of those who work in hospitals and refugee-camps around the world, witnessing to the existential possibility of a human world rooted in reconciling hope rather than competitive nihilism.

But for those who cannot take that wager on belief, atheism is a persuasive and respectable alternative. Go then to the Francis Bacon exhibition, and see what it entails. For Bacon shows the real thing, the savage beast that we are, suggesting that Martin Heidegger may have been right after all: only a God can save us now.

The dark (k)night of a postmodern world

Forget the gadgetry and stunts in Christopher Nolan's brooding Batman film, The Dark Knight. Clever though they are, they are only the visual props for a multi-layered philosophical reflection on our post-9/11 world, scripted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. Shortly after seeing the film I read Slavoj Žižek's essay, "Whither Oedipus?" (contained in his book The Ticklish Subject), and I was struck by the resonances between Žižek's theory and Nolan's film. If what follows titillates your appetite, then I recommend you take a deep breath and plunge into Žižek's infuriating, obscurantist and elliptical writings, to discover their shards of gleaming insight into the times we live in. What follows is indebted to him, although it is my own interpretation of the film - one which also reveals details of its narrative, such that potential viewers may prefer to defer their readerly gratification....

Tina Beattie is reader in Catholic studies, Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Allen & Unwin, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here

Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

"Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words" (17 September 2006)

"Veiling the issues: a distractive debate" (24 October 2006)

"Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)

"Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa" (14 February 2007)

"The end of postmodernism: the ‘new atheists' and democracy" (20 December 2007)

"Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2007)

The two sides

The Dark Knight unmasks the crisis of values in which America, and the west more widely, finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century. Cultural theorists portrayed the late 20th century in terms of "the postmodern condition": an era in which traditional values, identities and social institutions were disintegrating and being replaced by proliferating narratives, conflicting truth claims and multiple identities. For those secure and wealthy enough to enjoy the opportunities presented and the illusory freedoms offered, it was a time of parody and play; of irony and iconoclasm; of extravagance and experimentation. But since 9/11, the postmodern fantasy has become more nightmare than dream, as the rootless and drifting societies of the modern liberal democracies have come under assault by the violent forces of radical Islamism, and have in turn responded with war and the threat of war, and with new forms of terror and torture, surveillance and repression.

This is not the clash of civilisations between Islam and the west predicted by Samuel Huntington, although liberals and conservatives alike take refuge in this thesis because it offers at least some sense of stability, an "us" and "them" scenario which still allows for goodies and baddies, heroes and villains, the defenders of freedom and democracy against the forces of fanaticism and fundamentalism. However, what terrifies us is the dawning awareness that we are facing widespread social meltdown in which law and anarchy, heroism and terrorism, sanity and madness, are becoming more and more difficult to tell apart. It is this shifting, sliding, disintegrating world that Nolan evokes in The Dark Knight. Gotham is the postmodern state and we are its citizens. The choices we face are not those which are ranged around good and evil, right and wrong. They are the vicious and dreadful dilemmas we face when our own survival is a gamble which pits us against shadowy and unpredictable enemies who infiltrate and infect all our social and political institutions with fear and mistrust.

Gotham City is plagued by the Joker (not, in this film, explicitly identified as such), a role which Heath Ledger pushes to a psychopathic extreme. Ledger's untimely death is an unintentionally paradoxical epilogue to a film full of paradoxes, intensifying the stunning impact of his performance. His Joker is beyond the human, because he is outside all the conventions and values upon which our understanding of the human is formed. There is a moment early in the film, when the Joker first appears, when a character says, "Criminals in this town used to believe in things." This Joker is an analogy for anarchic, suicidal terrorism - an elemental force unconstrained by any glimmer of humanity, fear or vulnerability. It seems as if we can identify no object, no goal towards which his desire is directed; so we cannot placate him, bribe him, make deals with him, threaten him or subdue him. In the words of Bruce Wayne's loyal butler, Alfred (deftly portrayed by Michael Caine): "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

The Joker's invincibility rests not just on his ruthless cunning but on his knowledge that he is unique in his absolute freedom, not only from pain and the fear of death but from every human emotion or attachment which might limit his destructive power. Witness his manipulation of the sympathy of his victims as he explains how he acquired his ghoulish smile. We, the audience, are similarly manipulated. Only slowly do we realise that we have been "had". Or have we? Do we still want to rescue the Joker from the moral anarchy with which he confronts us? Do we want to believe that he is damaged rather than evil, wounded rather than wicked? Do we find ourselves incapable of staying in the psychopathic vacuum which his character represents, the abyss of the human which forms the dark heart of our most primal desires? This Joker simultaneously seduces and repels, fascinates and horrifies, and he provides the inescapable force to which Batman's own persona is tethered.

The relationship between Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker is one of mesmerising psychological complexity; it is not entirely fanciful to imagine them as two sides of the same human coin. As the Joker says to Batman, "I complete you." The relationship between the hero and the villain is here subverted and rendered deeply ambiguous. Just as the Joker is a villain who does not observe even the basic rules of criminality by which society might identify and punish him, so Batman is a hero who does not observe even the basic rules of heroism so that society might recognise and glorify him. The Joker is correct when he says that they are both "freaks".

Also in openDemocracy on films and filmmakers:

Geoff Andrews, "The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (1 November 2005)

Tom Nairn, "The Queen: an elegiac prophecy" (27 September 2006)

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, "Letters to the past: Iwo Jima and Japanese memory" (23 February 2007)

Maggie Gee, "Babel: worlds within worlds" (17 January 2007)

Birgitta Steene, "Ingmar Bergman and Sweden: an epoch's end" (6 August 2007)

Patrice de Beer, "Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

Grace Davies, "One day of life: a Romanian odyssey" (13 March 2008)

Tarek Osman, "Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film" (29 July 2008)

Indeed, at the end of the film, Batman and the Joker are monstrous aliens outside the closed ranks of the social order. But while the Joker is there willingly because of his own calculating inhumanity, Batman is the scapegoat, the reluctant outcast who takes upon himself the violence of society and its corrupted institutions, in order that its illusions of law and order might be preserved. (Here, one must read René Girard as well as Žižek to tease out the philosophical implications of this theme). If there is a messianic hint to this, it is one that is discovered not in some theology of a transcendent God as law-giver and judge, but in the humanity of the persecuted and reviled individual who sacrifices all in order to save people from themselves.

The cost of freedom

Batman's vulnerable and compromised humanity means that he is not a superhero. He must struggle with his inability to predict or control the sometimes disastrous outcomes of his well-intentioned actions. His refusal to violate his own ethical code allows the Joker to unleash terrible destruction on the city which he has dedicated himself to protecting. It is not entirely correct to say that the Joker has no identifiable desire. He is driven by the desire to corrupt and destroy goodness wherever he finds it, to show that, under extreme pressure, even the most noble individual can become a torturer and a murderer. The psychological compulsion of the film hinges on this dilemma - on power and its abuses, on the limits of the law in the face of anarchic terror, on the fragility of goodness when confronted by overwhelming evil.

This compulsion is exemplified when the Joker infiltrates a police force already infected with corruption and apathy - where the institutions which exist to protect the city have thus become its enemies, and terror is a miasma which spreads mistrust through all levels of society. The district attorney (DA), Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), is a rare example of courage and integrity in this institutional swamp, so that it seems as if he might take over the role of Gotham's protector, allowing Bruce Wayne to shed the terrible burden of being Batman. But with an act of destructive genius, the Joker turns Dent into a mutilated and murderous monster on a vengeful rampage against the police force for the death of his lover, assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is also the lifelong love of Bruce Wayne.

Thus Dent's loss is also Wayne's/Batman's loss, but while Dent abandons himself to the forces of vengeance and violence, Batman retains his ultimate freedom to choose an alternative path. The film's final message - simultaneously tragic and redemptive - is the cost of such freedom and the paradox at its heart. Even as Batman resists the system which Dent represents, he must uphold its illusory moral authority, for the loss of that authority would in itself be a capitulation to the forces of anarchy and chaos.

The terror within

This means that Batman becomes the humiliated victim of society's lust for vengeance, one who fits Žižek's description of the victim of terror as "destitute, unable to recompose the narrative of his life." This is what Žižek describes as "the monstrosity of heroism, when our fidelity to the Cause compels us to transgress the threshold of our ‘humanity'." Batman's fidelity to Gotham City demands his persecution and rejection by that same city, his positioning of himself as the destroyer of the very values which he is committed to defending, and his willingness to accept the role of the excluded other which is the price for the city's survival.

Žižek has this to say of the hero figure:

"In political terms, the difference between classical tragedy and modern tragedy is the difference between (traditional) tyranny and (modern) terror. The traditional hero sacrifices himself for the Cause; he resists the pressure of the Tyrant and accomplishes his Duty, cost what it may; as such, he is appreciated, his sacrifice confers on him a sublime aura, his act is inscribed in the register of Tradition as an example to be followed."

However, in "the domain of modern tragedy", the sacrifice takes place not in the space of conflicting opposites - right and wrong, good and bad - but in the context of moral quandaries in which, in order to preserve what we depend upon, we must destroy our own dependence upon it, our own place inside it. That is the terror. It arises not from any external threat, but from within the systems by which we order our lives. We experience an irreconcilable conflict between the symbolic order with its laws and institutions, its ethics and values (a value system which is associated with and underpinned by a God of universal law and order, of prohibitions and commands), and the individual imperative to act in response to a different calling and a different form of divine command, in the context of an "absolute singularity that suspends the dimension of the Universal". Žižek explores this in the context of Søren Kierkegaard's reading of the story of Abraham, but the same dilemma resonates through The Dark Knight. Like Kierkegaard's Abraham, Nolan's Batman is "the knight of faith [who] dwells in the horrible domain beyond or between the two deaths, since he (is ready to) sacrifice(s) what is most precious to him".

The order of the lie

Yet The Dark Knight is not a story about divine laws and faith in transcendent if conflicting imperatives. It is rather a film about two forms of nihilism, both of which are consequent upon the disintegration of the truths of religion and then of reason which underpinned the traditional social order and created trust in its institutions and structures. The Dark Knight is played out in the context of what Ulrich Beck calls the "second Enlightenment" which, in Žižek's interpretation, is "the exact reversal of the aim of the ‘first Enlightenment'": to bring about a society in which fundamental decisions would lose their "irrational character and become fully grounded in good reasons". But, suggests Žižek, "the ‘second Enlightenment' imposes on each of us the burden of making crucial decisions which may affect our very survival without any proper foundation in Knowledge."

The Dark Knight explores this "second Enlightenment", in which the disintegration of universal reason and transcendent truth means that each of us bears the full weight of moral responsibility for the decisions we make and the actions we initiate, sometimes in the face of terrifyingly irrational forces. For example, there is a breathtaking variation on what is known in game theory as the Prisoners' Dilemma, when two shiploads of people must decide whether to blow up the other ship and thus preserve themselves, or take a chance on neither side activating the detonator and both dying. These are moments when ordinary individuals must choose between two equally devastating options with no knowledge to guide them and no absolute moral code to call upon.

In such moments, the film does not offer us nihilism versus meaning, the lie versus the truth. Rather, it offers us two different faces of nihilism - the nihilism of meaninglessness, nothingness and futility represented by the Joker, or the kind of nihilism we discover in Albert Camus's novel, The Plague, in which individual acts of goodness are our only defence against futility and despair. Ultimately, the redemptive promise of The Dark Knight depends upon the quiet dignity of individual acts of courage, even - or perhaps especially - when these are cloaked in the guise of the criminal and the outlaw. The will of the people here is not the rational foundation upon which freedom and democracy are built, as it was for the thinkers of the Enlightenment, but a brute force which demands its own survival, whatever the moral cost. This is a parable for our time, and the citizens of Gotham city give us a bleak insight into the moral bankruptcy of democracy in a post-9/11 world.

The law-abiding, morally complacent citizenry will condone extremes of violence as the condition of its own self-preservation, while looking to politicians to manufacture the mythical heroes and illusions of goodness which sustain its belief in its institutions and identity. We want heroes, but for this we need scapegoats. Here again, Žižek provides a lens through which to interpret the film's message. We collude in our own deception because, although we know that the political values which govern us are lacking in legitimate authority and corrupted by abusive power relations, we still depend upon the legitimacy they confer upon our actions and values. The symbolic order of modernity is "the big Other", an empty and foundationless illusion of power which we experience as a form of alienation and repression, but nonetheless we are compelled to respect and obey its laws and institutions, and so it is, to quote Žižek, "the order of the lie, of lying sincerely". We invest in its symbols of authority and conform to its demands, even as we recognise its degeneracy and its impotence.

The haunted space

The Dark Knight invites reflection upon the cost of survival and the limits of goodness in a world of corrupted and decadent institutions, in which nonetheless we have no alternative but to preserve and uphold those same institutions. The Joker may be a metaphor for radical Islamism, but he is also the enemy within, the annihilating impulse which is woven into the fabric of society and the individual psyche, as its seductive and destructive other. Only our ability to recognise and accommodate this chaos will enable us to avoid the Manicheism of a world divided between good and evil, and to negotiate a space of fragile survival within the corrupted and vulnerable institutions of our modern liberal societies. We are bereft of viable alternatives. As John Gray has argued in his book, Black Mass, post-Enlightenment societies have been vulnerable to utopian and idealistic revolutionary urges which have unleashed waves of destruction, for they too readily translate into totalitarian and fascist regimes.

This then is the dilemma of our postmodern condition. We know that the political and economic institutions upon which we depend shelter behind a masquerade of legitimate authority which barely conceals their deceitful and manipulative operations. The very agents who are responsible for defending our freedoms and our securities have become agents of repression and violence. But we also know that neither anarchy nor revolution can deliver the society we long for, and therefore we must work to mend the social fabric through individual acts of resistance and courage, recognising that it is not capable of affording us the protection it promises.

The Dark Knight ventures into this haunted space of political and psychological terror. It taps into our deepest and most unanswerable fears, the world of adult nightmares in which there is no happy ending and no resolution, just an unending and anguished question posed to each of us: who am I, what do I value, and how far am I willing to go in order to feel safe, to belong, to survive? If this is a question which presses upon each of us with growing urgency, it is an unbearable question for that bright and hopeful politician, Barack Obama. What price is he willing to pay to become part of the system? And what price might he yet have to pay to resist its corruption?

Rowan Williams and sharia law

On 7 February 2008, Rowan Williams - the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual head of the Anglican church - delivered the foundation lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. His address, entitled "Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective" inaugurated a series of talks on Islam and English law.

The end of postmodernism: the “new atheists” and democracy

The Economist recently published a colour supplement titled "In God's Name: A Special Report on Religion and Public Life" (3 November 2007). The accompanying leading article included a rueful admission: "The Economist was so confident of the Almighty's demise that we published His obituary in our millennium issue." There is an almost palpable sense of discomfort at a leading international journal finding itself confronted with the unexpected resurgence of religion as a newsworthy topic which merits serious debate.

Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa

The experience of Christian-led work for human rights and social justice in Africa poses hard questions to the anti-religious discourse of intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, says Tina Beattie.

Religion in Britain in the Blair era

The increasing presence of faith issues in public life during Tony Blair's time in office is reflected in the messianic strain of his personal-political vision, says Tina Beattie.

Veiling the issues: a distractive debate

The face-veil worn by a small minority of Muslim women in Britain has become the site of fierce political controversy. The problem is that it is the wrong discussion, says Tina Beattie.

Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words

Pope Benedict XVI has provoked outrage in the Muslim world with a historical citation associating Islam with violence. Tina Beattie asks: was this calculated critique or well-meaning blunder?
Syndicate content