Jordan Peterson and Joker
I don’t go to the movies much these days, partly because everything is on Netflix or can be procured elsewhere. But also because movie theaters have lost their appeal: they are like empty temples to a deity who has long departed.
And then there is a general sense of movie fatigue: of what has been called ‘superhero fatigue’, but also romantic comedy fatigue, and action movie fatigue, and fatigue of just about every genre that Hollywood produces. Hollywood movies don’t have the communal appeal that they used to, and the creative spirit has moved to TV. Television today is more expansive, daring, darker, and has richer, broader narratives.
That is not to say that cinema is dead. It is just sleeping. Certainly there are some diamonds in the trash heap of modern movies. Like Joker.
I don’t know if Joker is the best film I have seen in a while, but it is the one that made me feel the most.
Director Todd Phillip has dared to paint broad strokes, to be dark and emotional, to be physical, to go to the extreme of the cultural gestalt. And he avoids the emotion that plagues American cinema and American culture in general: that is, sentimentality.
This is not a superhero movie by any means. There are no superheroes in sight.
Arthur Fleck’s transformation
Even critics who hate the film have to acknowledge that Joaquin Phoenix does a masterful job at embodying the torments, the ecstasies, and the painful descent of Arthur Fleck and his crowning as the king of hell. His Joker comes off as the cross between Charlie Chaplin and the antichrist, a truly terrifying apparition.
Arthur Fleck’s name is significant, as Jonathan Pageau has pointed out in his brilliant commentary. He is the the ‘fleck’ or the refuse of our culture, the monster bred in apartment towers of neglect and abuse. But also he is the bastard king, as the name Arthur indicates. There is peculiar and kingly beauty to him—a foil to his ugliness and deformity.
Arthur Fleck’s lack of talent is Joker’s artistic genius, his ugliness is Joker’s strange beauty — we cannot avert our eyes from this super-freak. In fact, we cannot help suspect that Arthur Fleck represents our own freakishness, resentment, and self-pity — a wish fulfilment of our desire to just not give a fuck anymore. The Joker card is seductive because it frees us from all responsibility. (A point which Jordan Peterson relentlessly makes—and which I will return to shortly.)
Arthur Fleck, above all, wants to be seen and noticed: he is therefore the anti-hero of the social media age, suicidally depressed because no one gives him the ‘likes’ or happy emoji faces he craves so deeply. He is an overgrown man-child, who still lives with his mother, believing that his mission is ‘to bring joy and laughter into the world’. But the joy and laughter turn out to be a big cosmic joke at his expense.
There has been much resistance to the film Joker, which is understandable. After all, Joker, doesn’t give us any any ideological comfort, any exit. Joker’s catharsis is not moral but demonic—he has no other aim but chaos—which is irritating to people in search of a clear ideological message. The Joker tears the curtain off all of our sentimental notions of mental illness, of poverty and crime, of social justice, of the artist, of entertainment.
Joker, in contrast to Arthur Fleck, is not trying to save the planet but wants to be an agent of its destruction. He represents the shadow of a self-help movement that tells us we can be anything we want to be, that our deepest desires can magically come true. But what if our deepest desires happen to be chaos and revenge?
Joker has no idealism, no dream of self-improvement like his previous incarnation Arthur Fleck. There is no story of redemption for Joker, only a negative ‘will to power’. Arthur Fleck will not be saved —but he will be spiritually reborn as the Joker, or the ultimate nihilist, the Nietzschean antichrist.
Joker is beyond politics — he doesn’t believe in any of that stuff. His dark satori or enlightenment is the realization of ‘selfhood’, that only his own desires matter. Joker sees only reflection of himself in the world, people walking around with clown masks—their words and ideals are empty reflections too. But beneath the clown mask of idealism is the body in the mad contortions of loneliness and atomization. The mind spins all kinds of dreams and fabrications — but the body never lies.
All the narratives of Arthur Fleck’s life are lies. He is the unfunny comedian—what could be worse than that? He laughs when he wants to cry, discovers he is not the illegitimate child of a billionaire; the affair he is having with the beautiful neighbour is a fantasy; his mother is not an innocent victim but his abuser. And finally—the icing on the cake—he finds out that he was adopted. Arthur Fleck finds out that he is not the savior of children he wants to be, but the dancing freak show at the heart of a decadent society. On the other hand, Joker is somebody else.
‘Everything must go’ is the sign Arthur Fleck twirls around at the beginning of the movie. The father and mother must go first, and then the structure of society will be unravelled. But actually the father and mother were also lies: he has no father or mother, no God or Goddess. The discovery that he is an orphan, that be belongs to nobody, is all the permission he needs to be free, to get his revenge against a false God and a demented Mother nature. Ritual matricide and patricide leave him free from the demands of rationality or compassion.
As a portrayal of evil, Joker is sophisticated because there is a logic to his murders, like the complex villains in a Dostoevsky novel. Arthur Fleck is a genuine victim, and we feel a deep empathy for him. Who is to say that we wouldn’t do the same thing if we were dealt such an awful hand? Moreover, there is something attractive about Arthur Fleck’s anarchism, his transfiguration, and his glee. This is the glee of the terrorist, who has finally found a reason for living and a reason for dying in a landscape of nihilism. Joker’s dance and his bow to the crowd, his bloody demonic smile, are totally chilling for this reason. He lives somewhere deep in all of us.
In Jordan Peterson’s first book, Maps of Meaning, he describes a couple of early experiences which marked him. The first was meeting a serial killer in prison. Peterson describes his shock at how absolutely ordinary this man appeared to be, the literal face of the ‘banality of evil’. The second realization was much worse: that he also had the same homicidal urges.
The point Peterson makes is: there isn’t much separating ourselves from the chaos of Joker’s world, if we are truly honest about it. How do we know we wouldn’t fall into the same homicidal glee, if the walls of civilization would suddenly collapse? A study of Nazi German and Stalinist Russia indicates that most of us wouldn’t be very heroic, to understate the case.
Many of Peterson’s insights are of this nature and have been disturbing to people for the same reason that the recent Joker movie is disturbing; it cuts a little too close to the bone. Who really wants to see, in viceral form, the darkest aspect of our own nature that Joker embodies, and which Peterson constantly points us towards?
Some of Peterson’s most interesting articulations have been in describing how somebody like Arthur Fleck, the failed artist, becomes Adolf Hitler, the clown dictator, through failure and resentment. And Peterson has written and taught extensively about how ‘ideological possession’ has caused whole populations to descend into murderous genocide. The shadow, says Carl Jung, reaches right down to hell.
But Arthur Fleck has no ideology, nor principle to guide him. He is not animated by Marxism or Fascism or any other kind of ideology. In a way, this is all more terrifying: Joker is one without any grand narrative or promise land to believe in. Such a person can only smash things; he cannot create anything but chaos.
Perhaps Jordan Peterson, in his political fury, has conflated the pathologies of the idealistic protester with the pathologies of pure nihilism—which are antisocial and ‘beyond good and evil’. Not that he isn’t correct to show how idealism leads to nihilism, which is actually the lesson of Joker.
But today it is not dogmatic marxism or fascism that we have to contend with, but something much worse: the one who is invisible, but who screeches with laughter and wants to drown the world in blood. He has no name. And his name is Arthur Fleck.
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