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Sublimity and the Brightside of Being Terrorized

Posted in Consciousness, conspiracy, critical thinking, emotion, Enlightenment, Ethics, Existentialism, fiction, freedom, Freud, God, Gothic, Horror, humanities, Literature, Lovecraft, Lovecraftian, Morality, nihilism, paranoia, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, reason, Religion, religious, Romanticism, superheroes, terror, Terror Management Theory, The Walking Dead, theory, theory of mind, Uroboros, Zombies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2013 by Uroboros
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sleep_of_Reason_Produces_Monsters

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

We live in a terrorized age. At the dawn of the 21st century, the world is not only coping with the constant threat of violent extremism, we face global warming, potential pandemic diseases, economic uncertainty, Middle Eastern conflicts, the debilitating consequences of partisan politics, and so on. The list grows each time you click on the news. Fear seems to be infecting the collective consciousness like a virus, resulting in a culture of anxiety and a rising tide of helplessness, despair, and anger. In the U.S.,  symptoms of this chronic unease can be seen in the proliferation of apocalyptic paranoia and conspiracy theories coupled with the record sales of both weapons and tickets for Hollywood’s superhero blockbusters, fables that reflect post-9/11 fears and the desire for a hero to sweep in and save us.

That’s why I want to take the time to analyze some complex but important concepts like the sublime, the Gothic, and the uncanny, ideas which, I believe, can help people get a rational grip on the forces that terrorize the soul. Let’s begin with the sublime.

18c philosopher Immanuel Kant

18C Philosopher Immanuel Kant

The word is Latin in origin and means rising up to meet a threshold. To Enlightenment thinkers, it referred to those experiences that challenged or transcended the limits of thought, to overwhelming forces that left humans feeling vulnerable and in need of paternal protection. Edmund Burke, one of the great theorists of the sublime, distinguished this feeling from the experience of beauty. The beautiful is tame, pleasant. It comes from the recognition of order, the harmony of symmetrical form, as in the appreciation of a flower or a healthy human body. You can behold them without being unnerved, without feeling subtly terrorized. Beautiful things speak of a universe with intrinsic meaning, tucking the mind into a world that is hospitable to human endeavors. Contrast this with the awe and astonishment one feels when contemplating the dimensions of a starry sky or a rugged, mist-wreathed mountain. From a distance, of course, they can appear ‘beautiful,’ but, as Immanuel Kant points out in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, it is a different kind of pleasure because it contains a “certain dread, or melancholy, in some cases merely the quiet wonder; and in still others with a beauty completely pervading a sublime plan.”

This description captures the ambivalence in sublime experiences, moments where we are at once paradoxically terrified and fascinated by the same thing. It is important here to distinguish ‘terror’ from ‘horror.’ Terror is the experience of danger at a safe distance, the potential of a threat, as opposed to horror, which refers to imminent dangers that actually threaten our existence. If I’m standing on the shore, staring out across a vast, breathtaking sea, entranced by the hissing surf, terror is the goose-pimply, weirded-out feeling I get while contemplating the dimensions and unfathomable power before me. Horror would be what I feel if a tsunami reared up and came crashing in. There’s nothing sublime in horror. It’s too intense to allow for the odd mix of pleasure and fear, no gap in the feeling for some kind of deeper revelation to emerge.

Friedrich's Monk by the Sea

Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea

While Burke located the power of the sublime in the external world, in the recognition of an authority ‘out there,’ Kant has a more sophisticated take. Without digging too deeply into the jargon-laden minutia of his critique, suffice it to say that Kant ‘subjectivizes’ the concept, locating the sublime in the mind itself. I interpret Kant as pointing to a recursive, self-referential quality in the heart of the sublime, an openness that stimulates our imagination in profound ways. When contemplating stormy seas and dark skies, we experience our both nervous system’s anxious reaction to the environment along with a weird sense of wonder and awe. Beneath this thrill, however, is a humbling sense of futility and isolation in the face of the Infinite, in the awesome cycles that evaporate seas, crush mountains, and dissolve stars without a care in the cosmos as to any ‘meaning’ they may have to us. Rising up to the threshold of consciousness is the haunting suspicion that the universe is a harsh place devoid of a predetermined purpose that validates its existence. These contradictory feelings give rise to a self-awareness of the ambivalence itself, allowing ‘meta-cognitive’ processes to emerge. This is the mind’s means of understanding the fissure and trying to close the gap in a meaningful way.

Furthermore, by experiencing forms and magnitudes that stagger and disturb the imagination, the mind can actually grasp its own liberation from the deterministic workings of nature, from the blind mechanisms of a clockwork universe. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant says “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and a superiority over nature…whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion.” One is now thinking about their own thinking, after all, reflecting upon the complexity of the subject-object feedback loop, which, I assert, is the very dynamic that makes self-consciousness and freedom possible in the first place. We can’t feel terrorized by life’s machinations if we aren’t somehow psychologically distant from them, and this gap entails our ability to think intelligently and make decisions about how best to react to our feelings.

Van Gogh's Starry Night

Van Gogh’s Starry Night

I think this is in line with Kant’s claim that the sublime is symbolic of our moral freedom—an aesthetic validation of our ethical intentions and existential purposes over and above our biological inclinations and physical limitations. We are autonomous creatures who can trust our capacity to understand the cosmos and govern ourselves precisely because we are also capable of being terrorized by a universe that appears indifferent to our hopes and dreams. Seen in this light, the sublime is like a secularized burning bush, an enlightened version of God coming out of the whirlwind and parting seas. It is a more mature way of getting in touch with and listening to the divine, a reasonable basis for faith.

My faith is in the dawn of a post-Terrorized Age. What Kant’s critique of the sublime teaches me is that, paradoxically, we need to be terrorized in order to get there. The concept of the sublime allows us to reflect on our fears in order to resist their potentially debilitating, destructive effects. The antidote is in the poison, so to speak. The sublime elevates these feelings: the more sublime the terror, the freer you are, the more moral you can be. So, may you live in terrifying times.

Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

The Dark Knight: Why So Existential?

Posted in Alan More, Batman, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, Christopher Nolan, comic books, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, DC Comics, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Film, Frank Miller, Gotham, graphic literature, graphic novels, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Knight of Faith, Literature, Morality, Nietzsche, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, superheroes, teleological suspension of the ethical, The Dark Knight Returns, The Joker, The Killing Joke, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2012 by Uroboros

Four years after first seeing The Dark Knight, I still marvel at how Christopher Nolan managed to sneak so much thought-provoking material into such an action-packed Hollywood flick—how, amidst all the clever heists, over-the-top chase sequences, and ear-popping explosions, this sleek auteur didn’t shy away from post 9/11 political commentary; he neither neglected the psycho-social dimensions of the characters, nor waved his hand at the existential implications of the film’s wildly suspenseful dilemmas. Like no other filmmaker before him, Nolan and his co-writers, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, respect the literary depth of the comic source material. They see, and unapologetically embrace, the existential potency at the heart of the Batman mythos.

Influenced by the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, existentialism focuses on the individual’s struggle to find meaning in the modern world, one increasingly devoid of traditional notions of order and authority and constantly threatened by the specter of post-Darwinian nihilism. Existentialists argue that the cosmos doesn’t have a clear, predetermined plan. There’s not even an essential ‘human nature’ to help guide us through life’s obstacle course. There is only the purpose we create through our choices, and we can’t know with absolute, God-like certainty whether we’ve made the right ones. Rational debate and scientific research can help, but ultimately such truths, being contingent upon the evidence we have at the time, are provisional and may be revised in the future. Free will, an existentialist is likely to argue, is predicated on a state of inescapable doubt.

Kierkegaard, a 19th century Protestant theologian, coped by imagining a kind of philosophical hero tailor made for an uncertain reality. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Knight of Faith.’ Exemplified by the biblical patriarch Abraham, a Knight of Faith doesn’t tremble at life’s uncertainties or delude himself about its fundamental absurdities. He embraces them as a call to adventure, a test of one’s commitment to his or her most cherished beliefs.

Kierkegaard’s paragon of faith resembles the Dark Knight in several key ways. Existential quests begin with absurd events that defy easy explanation and haunt our thoughts long after they’ve passed. For Bruce Wayne, of course, it’s his parents’ senseless murder. At eight years old, the orphaned Bruce inherits a fortune but is robbed of one of life’s true treasures: the sense of security that comes from belonging to a loving family. He spends the rest of his adolescence struggling to overcome grief, terror, and rage–the deafening psychological echo of the gun shots fired in Crime Alley on that fateful night.

Existentialists are quick to point out that we don’t choose to exist (our parents do that for us), but at some point, we do get the chance to take the reins and make decisions that shape our destinies. As Bruce matures, he refuses to become a helpless slave to his emotions. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he says, “We must believe that our private demons can be defeated.” His parents’ murder teaches him that “the world only makes sense when you force it to.” Instead of becoming fatalistic, Bruce takes up the cape and cowl in pursuit of something that will bring meaning back to his life: a sense of justice.

The choice of the bat totem isn’t arbitrary. It symbolizes Bruce’s mastery of the fear and rage that threaten to turn him into the very criminals he’s battling against. In Nolan’s Batman Begins, Alfred, Bruce’s butler, asks him about his preoccupation with bats. “They frighten me,” Bruce replies, “and it’s time my enemies share my dread.” Batman takes on Gotham’s underworld and tries to rectify the forces that victimize people. This is how Bruce atones for the loss of his parents, who used their wealth and power to make Gotham a safer city.

While Bruce embraces conventional philanthropy, too, his fractured psyche craves a more concrete way of pursuing his goals. Batman turns fear and grief into an existential weapon, stalking the shadowy space between institutional order and criminal chaos, placing himself beyond the law, but not above it. It’s a place of paradox and uncertainty—a place also explored by Kierkeggard’s Knight of Faith. Through what Kierkegaard calls the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical,‘ the Knight Faith doesn’t have to limit his passion for moral order to conventional understandings, which are always temporal and flawed. Likewise, Bruce never lets the letter of the law get in the way of preserving its spirit, especially when the institutions charged with protecting us are so corrupt. That’s why he feels compelled to dress up as a bat and “strike fear in the hearts of those who prey upon the fearful.” It’s a leap of faith that, to others, looks irrational and absurd, but, according to Kierkegaard, that’s a risk the Knight of Faith has to be willing to take, and Bruce/Batman does, using all of his physical and mental abilities toward his teleological end.

A superhero’s greatness, however, depends on the nature of the nemeses who stand in his or her way, and arguably there’s no better rogue in any graphic lit gallery than the Joker. His relationship with Batman is a yin-yang of stark existential contrasts. For example, while Batman struggles to create order, Joker revels in disorder. Where Bruce’s world revolves around his parents’ murder, the Joker’s past, prior to the chemical bath that hideously deformed him, is ill-defined. In Alan More’s The Killing Joke, the Clown Prince quips, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” In Nolan’s The Dark Knight, each time the Joker explains how he got his scars, he puts a different spin on the story.

These dichotomous hero-villain origins reflect the diametrically-opposed nature of their subsequent crusades. Born of a singular act of random violence, Bruce channels his passions and focuses on a clear, if ultimately unachievable, goal: a war on crime itself in order to create a safer, more just society. The Joker, on the other hand, lives to create total chaos and debilitating fear. In the spirit of his ‘multiple choice’ origins, he is an advocate for meaninglessness, a champion of the purely arbitrary.

The Joker mocks Batman’s attempt to protect Gotham’s citizenry. In The Killing Joke, he claims the average man is “nature’s mistake.” With an air of dark, Nietzschean glee, he argues that it takes a “deformed set of values” and a “clubfooted social conscience” to pretend that life is anything but “mad, random, and pointless.” This was the point of his ‘social experiment’ in The Dark Knight. The Joker puts seemingly ‘good’ Gothamites in a situation where the corrosive power of fear would erode their consciences and reveal what lies beneath: a horde of primitive, selfish little ids only pretending to be civilized folk governed by high-minded morals. To him, the Dark Knight’s quest is the ultimate absurdity because life itself is just one big cosmic joke: “Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for,” he says in The Killing Joke, “it’s all a monstrous, demented gag.”

This contrast is part of what makes the Batman mythos one of the most profound in all of graphic literature. It speaks to the fundamental things we cherish and fear. The philosopher Heidegger says we are ‘thrown’ into existence, and once we wake up to the reality of our predicament, the rest is up to us. The true challenge is to face one’s fears and be an authentic person. As for the anxiety and dread of being a self-conscious creature, it’s the price of free will, and the suffering that comes with it is what makes the pursuit of happiness worth the effort—it’s the dark background against which moments of illumination stand out in joyous relief, the bitter seasoning that makes little successes along the way taste so sweet.

Batman and Joker represent divergent paths in the struggle. There’s Bruce’s effort to accept his past and prevail, not in spite of his suffering, but because of it. He chooses to make it meaningful. Then there’s The Joker’s quest, which starts with the question: “Why so serious?” and ends in chaos. He embodies the nihilistic suspicions that haunt anyone trying to lead a sensible, purpose-driven life. Batman overcomes these suspicions and commits himself to a worthy cause—even if it requires a seemingly absurd leap of faith in order to sustain it. Nolan brilliantly captured this yin-yang dialectic in The Dark Knight, and I never get tired of watching the interplay of all those wonderful ideas.

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