November 5, 2019

After watching Joker last month I walked out of the cinema into the drizzle of a London street. The last tents of the Extinction Rebellion were spotted with torchlight and a banner reading “Rage and Love” bucked in the wind. In the offices above, computers whirred softly in the warmth.

Joker is the story of a lonely man who has been crushed by a materialistic society. He finds a new, stronger self through violence, laughter and the chaos of the crowd. “Rage and Love” summarise it well. But the mischievous anger of the Joker has sunk deeper into the bones of our society over the past 10 years than the latent urges for community. It made me wonder who this mythic figure is that so dominates our age. A half-remembered quote of Lewis Hyde’s came into my head and I looked it up:

“We live in an era of savage order. We have seen bureaucratic finesse used to cause and at the same time justify unimaginable extremes of human suffering… in this model when human culture turns against human beings themselves, the Trickster appears as a kind of saviour.”

Hyde is an American poet and cultural critic. In 1998 he wrote the book Trickster Makes this World, a description of how and why energy turns against order. It traces the Trickster archetype (Hermes, Loki, Coyote, Puck) through myth and art, and shows that he is the direct antecedent of the Joker. They share the same energy and cunning: both are amoral, antisocial and creative reinterpreters of ‘truths’ they recognise as malleable. However elementally mischievous, their trickery has an ancillary social function in burning down and building new orders when those truths become too distant from reality.

Hyde notes of the Trickster: “Just as he can slip a trap then turn round and make his own, so he can debunk an illusion then turn around and conjure up another.”

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Hyde’s book was informed by the cultural victories the Left had won in the 1960s and 1970s. The Trickster was then more associated with iconoclastic artists ripping down the certainties of conventional society and morality, and Hyde pointed out how necessary the Trickster’s mischievous energy was to the rigid order of the other gods:

“The Norse gods are ‘organising powers’ and by themselves cannot bring the world to life; they need the touch of disorder and vulnerability that Loki brings, a point we see by its reverse: when Loki is suppressed the world collapses; when he — and disorder — returns, the world is reborn.”

You couldn’t say that now. The Trickster (if that is who the Joker is, not to mention darker clowns such as the one in It) is feared as the anarchic and dangerous face of populism. Photoshopped images of ‘Boris the Clown’ show a red gash of paint beneath a green wig; Buzzfeed runs pieces such as “Can you pick if Donald Trump or the Joker said these quotes?” Anarchic, localised and tactically cunning, he seems to be a demon of the Right.

This is a misconception though. The Trickster is neither of the Right nor of the Left. He comes from below, his energy and mischievous intelligence arising in response to excessive order. In the 1950s and 1960s, the stultifying order was a societal one: overly conservative after the Second World War, it needed dismemberment and loosening up, a fragmentation that has perhaps gone too far.

Today, the Trickster has a different target: the monoliths of order are economic, political and systemic.

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Markets are no longer free, having been captured by multinational monopolies. Political systems play out on top of huge ziggurats, distant and unresponsive to constituent needs. Metropolitan exclusion zones of wealth and political correctness denigrate the unlucky as unworthy (or stupid). Corporate and governmental systems have come to resemble the software they run on. As a friend said on leaving London recently: “Everyone’s a robot, or else they programme robots.”

However much we fear the Joker of populism and chaos, we half understand that he has risen in response to excessive order and rules. Batman, the humourless wielder of technology, wealth and power, is as much a villain as the Joker.

Indeed The Dark Knight, released in 2008 and the best Joker film before this one, has been impressively prophetic of the past 10 years. At one point in the film, Christian Bale’s Batman claims the mob crossed the line by hiring the Joker but Michael Caine, who plays his butler, Alfred, disagrees: “You crossed the line, sir. You hammered them, you squeezed them to the point of desperation and in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” Later, a mob boss tells him: “You got rules. The Joker, he’s got no rules.”

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The Joker himself, in one of a series of broadsides, says:

“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? I just do things… the others have plans, they’re schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer, I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are… nobody panics if things go ‘according to plan’, even if the plan is horrifying… I’m an agent of chaos, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.”

Whatever your political beliefs, you’ll recognise this in the unreasoning energy that has been unleashed over the past decade. At best it is creatively destructive but it is hardly a state anyone (other than Mao) would see as an end. It is, however, a test: can western democracies accommodate the turmoil excessive order has created or will we double down on order, turning to autocracy to try to end it? Hyde continues:

“There is no way to suppress change, the story says, not even in heaven; there is only a choice of a way of living that allows constant, if gradual, alterations and a way of living that combines great control and cataclysmic upheavals. Those who panic and bind the Trickster choose the latter path. It would be better to play with him, better especially to develop styles (cultural, spiritual, artistic) that allow some commerce with accident and some acceptance of the changes contingency will always engender.”

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The Joker understands the significance of their roles more than Batman, who sees order as an end. There is a telling scene in The Dark Knight when the Joker is willing Batman to crash into him, merging their energies. Batman swerves. As the Joker later says: “I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? No, you complete me.” The Joker acknowledges the necessity of opposition. Perhaps, even, of synthesis.

The true culture hero goes beyond opposition into rebirth. Is this still possible? Recent Western history is actually quite promising: the 1970s were if anything more violent and, perhaps through exhaustion as much as anything else, society came to an accommodation with itself. It is hard to find signs of genuine dialogue but there are cultural figures starting to talk to each other across the divide. For me, the brightest glimmer of hope has come from an unlikely source: a series of online discussions between a reformed Joker, Russell Brand, and an awkward Batman, Jordan Peterson.

There are now a couple of videos on YouTube of the two men talking to each other. Both came from working-class backgrounds and rose through the hierarchy, both have an element of mischief and Trickster in them, both are articulate, slightly narcissistic performers. But Peterson is more obviously interested in order, logic and the right while Brand, a comedian who openly draws the links between himself and the Joker, is driven by energy, lateral jumps and Left-wing concerns.

I find it strangely moving seeing the two of them overcome their differences and discover common ground. I challenge you to watch the latest as it warms up an hour or so in when they’re discussing power, myth and markets and not say: “Yes, you’re both right.”

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It is not without effort. The dress sense and body language of the two could not be more different. Brand lunges out of his plunging T-shirt, finger cocked in the air, hand on the back of his hip, arms suddenly flung wide. Peterson’s thumb is locked in his other hand except when the two make small, precise box movements or pyramid shapes. He wears a green three-piece suit, the jacket lapels edged in leather. Despite their Herculean efforts and the shared, questing parts of their nature, they are plainly uncomfortable in each other’s company.

The awkward dance continues until right at the end when Brand says: “Hm! Thesis, antithesis, synthesis: we require synthesis… there needs to be necessary collusion between distinctions, but for that to happen there needs to be acknowledgement and recognition of difference: trying to achieve equality with the annihilation of category is not a successful route.”

At this point, much to both of their surprise, Peterson beams widely, points and bobs up and down in his chair saying: “Yes, that is exactly right! That’s exactly right! That is not a successful route!” Brand, clearly close to the end of his tether having had so little physical response from his guest until then, looks as puzzled as he is pleased. But it has been achieved: synthesis. Brand had packaged both their beliefs in the logic of Peterson’s language in an act of imaginative empathy.

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What marks the discussion out most is the spirit rather than the content. And here it is Brand who deserves most of the credit. Once adversarial, over-certain and needy he has retained his warmth while becoming conciliatory, interested in the other and seeking synthesis. I struggled to come up with a word better than ‘Christian’. Peterson espouses the values of Western Judeo-Christian culture; Brand actually lives them, moving out of rage and into love.

The Trickster lives in adversarial energy and has an important purpose when order becomes too overpowering. But Loki also brings about Ragnarok (the end of the Norse world) — his disruptive energies can destroy as easily as remake an ossified order. When Peterson talks to Brand you can see a new centre beginning to be formed. But it is only possible because of a change in spirit. Brand has managed this.

It is the challenge we all must meet if we’re to move beyond the current polarisation. The Joker is a necessary, dangerous wrecker of illusions. But he needs to be put to rest if a fresh synthesis between energy and order is to be achieved, and new illusions sustained.