This is an attempt to contextualise the protagonist of the latest DC movie, Joker, using the personality theory of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung. For readers with an interest in psychology, I hope that you can provide your ideas on the work of Jung relative to the character. For those of you who are fans of the Joker, I hope you can provide details of his character that can help support or dispute these ideas.
The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. Aleksandr Solzhentisyn – The Gulag Archipelago
More than any other comic book, the characters from DC’s Batman are by far the the most grounded in our psychological understanding of the development of personality and behaviour. Through the advent of psychoanalysis in the early part of the twentieth century, the ideas of how symbols, archetypes and the unconscious, influence personality were beginning to be recognized. Batman, Joker, Riddler, Harvey Two Face, Cat Woman, Poison Ivy, all serve as archetypal reflections of the unconscious mind. They are all alter egos, all serve as characterizations of Freud’s Id overcoming the Superego, or Jung’s Shadow taking control of a persona.The word persona derives from either the Greek, or Etruscan, for mask. Jung was well aware of this when he chose to use it in his theory of personality. Jung identifies the persona as the mask we wear in certain social situations. It’s possible, and often necessary, for a person to have a number of personae depending on their surroundings at any given time. We would think it completely natural for a father of a young family to act differently when he’s at home to how he does working as a policeman, or prison guard. Although this example is extreme most of us can identify with adapting our persona to a situation; to wearing different masks. Jung’s acknowledgement that a persona is not stable, but a dynamic reaction to its environment, serves as a central theme that runs through many characters of DC Comics, and it’s fundamental to the plot of the most recent incarnation of the Joker.
Of all the DC characters it’s the Joker who most effectively transcends the world of comic books. This is due to the character being an archetype that’s rooted deeply in both the psyche of the individual and the collective psyche of society. Whether we start by looking at Cesar Romero’s initial performance in 1966, go on to look at Nicholson’s 1985 portrayal, Ledger in The Dark Knight, or Phoenix’s latest interpretation, the role of the Joker has evolved. This evolution of the Joker over time, serves as one of cinema’s greatest examples of art imitating life. Each metamorphosis of the character is a reflection of American society at the time it was made. That is why audiences relate to him, and that is why the most recent film is so disturbing. Phoenix’s Joker, beguiles and enthralls, because he’s the symbolic embodiment of the chaos and nihilism found in western society at the time of this latest manifestation. It’s for this reason that we are either appalled, or fascinated by the character, but if we’re honest, we all know the character is not just a reflection of our society, but it’s also deeply embedded inside all of us, and that’s what makes the Joker accessible and terrifying. We’re shocked by Phoenix’s Joker because we don’t find it repulsive, which we should do if we’re the moral beings we would like to think we are, because we find it so easy to identify with him. The underlying reason for this appeal might be explained through the Jungian terms of archetypes, and the shadow persona.
Carl Gustav Jung was a student of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. As with any student teacher relationship, the student goes onto support some of their teacher’s ideas while ejecting others. The influence of Freud’s ideas on Jung is clear to see. Both identify a boundary between the conscious and unconscious self. For Freud, the id represents our unconscious animal instincts, lusts for sex and desires. These are suppressed by the ego which acts as our usual persona, moderating between the animal instincts of the id and the aspirations of the values desired by the superego. For Freud, repressed desires would be the cause of a person being stuck in one of the stage of psychosexual development.
For Jung, the shadow is a part of everyone’s personality, functioning in a way similar to Freud’s id in that it is buried in our unconscious, but unlike the id, and as the name suggests, the shadow contains the darkest aspects of human being. Jung’s approach to psychoanalysis differed from Freud’s in one fundamental aspect as Jung attempted to integrate a spiritual dynamic. Jung encourages the individual to acknowledge their shadow, to fully understand the evil that each of us is capable of. It’s only once we understand and can control our shadow that we can go on to achieve self-actualization, or what Jung refers to as the individuation process. Unfortunately for Arthur Fleck, he can’t control his shadow, but is instead overwhelmed by it.
“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”
C. G. Jung
The Evolution of the Joker Archetype
Archetypes are the unknowable basic forms personified or concretized in motifs such as the quest or the heavenly ascent, recognizable character types such as the trickster or the hero, symbols such as the apple or snake, or images such as crucifixion (Biddle, 1989: P. 25).
It would appear that there is some crossover between the idea of archetypes and memes, a topic that I previously wrote about Echo Chambers, Memes, and Brain Viruses – Weaponizing the Internet, a thought that was written about in 1998 by C. M. H. Nunn in their work entitled, Archeytypes and memes: their structure, relationships and behaviour. The main distinction being the longevity of an archetype. It’s common to be able to trace archetypes back to early human consciousness, while memes are nothing more than short term cultural trends of thought.
Jung proposed twelve archetypes of personality, Jung also believed that these archetypes operate on two levels:
Firstly they represent patterns of behaviour on a personal level; and
Secondly, archetypes act as cultural images and symbols which affect us all on a subconscious level.
To really understand the Joker it’s necessary to look far back beyond his birth in the pages of DC comics. The Joker’s legacy extends back through several thousand years, and is more commonly referred to in folktale lore as, the trickster. Jung identifies the trickster as:
An archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity.
In his clearest manifestations,“ he is a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level.”
C. G. Jung
Jung identifies the god, Loki, as the embodiment of the trickster archetype, appearing in Norse Mythology over a thousand years ago. As Jung describes through his use of the word, persona, Loki is a shape shifter; a character at ease with changing their identity; a wearer of masks.
Professor of literature, Joseph Campbell claims that the archetype of the trickster is very much evident in the god of the Old Testament, Yahweh. Through his actions of the flood, and destroying the Tower of Babel Campbell identifies the propensity for mischief associated with the trickster.
In Chinese culture the best example of the trickster archetype is, Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King. This character is remarkably like the Joker, rampaging around the spiritual realm causing chaos before the Buddha incarcerates him in a rock for five hundred years. The story is based on a real life Monk from dating back to the 7th century.
In Celtic mythology, and English folklore the trickster is represented by the sprite, demon, fairy, Puck, most famously immortalized through his misdeeds in Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although apparent in Celtic mythology and English folklore, it’s thought that his origins might be Norse, and that he might be a descendant of Loki. Like Loki, Puck is attributed with the ability to change form as required. It’s believed that he’s been a part of Celtic and pagan oral tradition for over a thousand years.
In Native American Indian mythology the coyote is commonly used for the role of trickster. It is a role that has consistently been used in the narrative of stories ever since humans first started to tell stories. As such it is a character deeply embedded in individual minds, across cultures and time. Joker is the quintessential archetype.
If we chart the evolution of the character’s portrayal starting with the television show of the 1960’s, we see an anarchic, psychedelic, but pretty harmless Joker. Nicholson’s Joker, played in an era of American wealth and domination, was mostly pantomime with some dark undertones. There was little emphasis on a decaying Gotham. Heath Ledgers interpretation of the character shifted the dynamic of hero and villain in a subtle but crucial way. Up until Ledger, the Joker was always the nemesis of Batman, with a desire to carry out a plan. Ledger gave birth to a nihilistic villain, one who isn’t limited by a plan, one that is only interested in destroying everything, or as Michael Caine says:
There can be little doubting that Ledger’s interpretation enabled the Joker to become the most complete incarnation of the trickster archetype, to date.
In the character’s most recent incarnation we see the Joker’s sexual desires. An aspect that was hinted at briefly in the characters played by Nicholson and Ledger, but the most recent character clearly displays an emotional need towards sexual contact and to be part of a functioning relationship. This sexual, emotional desire lends Phoenix’s Joker greater credibility by showing his underlying humanity. Things then go very Greek for Phoenix’s Joker discovers that his childhood rivals the dysfunction of Oedipus, with a mentally ill mother, and a father whom he believes denies him. This origin story of the Joker clearly paints him as the victim of a cruel society, failed by his parents, failed by health services, and assaulted by the children of the city. Nothing is his fault, he’s a product of society. In the Jack Nicholson version, Joker was created as a result of being dropped into a vat of acid. In the Joaquin Phoenix version, the Joker is created by being dropped into society. This message might be disturbing. It sets the example that the Joker had no alternatives, he was a result of a declining society, in essence his free will was usurped by his environment, all of his actions are attributable to the declining society. This message resonates so strongly throughout the movie, and at a time when many feel their society is declining it’s easy to see people adopting this excuse at the expense of personal responsibility.
What seems apparent is that incarnation of the Joker serves to capture the zeitgeist of societal nihilism. Each incarnation moves closer to what’s, as Jung describes, “wrapped up in the archetypes that reside universally in the subconscious”.
As an origin story the plot serves as an explanation of how the character evolves from being a slightly dysfunctional, enigmatic loner, someone Camus might call, ‘a stranger’, in to an anarchic nihilist. The movie charts his fall using a path similar to that identified by Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, the difference being that Joker never returns from what Campbell refers to as the the, special world or sometimes the, underworld, but what Jung would unquestionably call his shadow. You will quickly notice a number of similarities between Jung’s model of the psyche, and Campbell’s, Hero’s Journey. Campbell himself admits to Jung’s work being a fundamental component of his work on the mono-myth. Where Joker departs from Campbell’s path is at stage eight. We clearly witness the death of Arthur Fleck when he kills his mother, and his rebirth as Joker. The difference being, Joker doesn’t to complete his journey to be reintegrated into society, instead he becomes grounded in the persona born out of his shadow, the underworld.
Are We Born Evil, or Are We Made?
The movie treads a fine line explaining the reasons that cause Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the archetypal trickster and sociopath. Although not in keeping with the general feel of the movie, it’s explained in a conservative manner, failing to commit to either side of the nature, nurture debate. Instead a politically correct explanation attributes Arthur’s fall as being equally attributable to a morally corrupt society, childhood abuse, and the genetic predisposition of his mother towards mental illness. The nature of his own condition is never disclosed, although we do discover that his mother suffers delusions and was a patient in a mental hospital. This all plays into the realm of providing Arthur with the biological disposition for a personality disorder that could potentially manifest into something of the magnitude of the Joker.Add to this the withdrawal of Arthur’s psychiatric medication, and you have both nature and nurture conspiring against Arthur, and what ultimately leads to his being overwhelmed by his shadow. This explanation for the Joker’s origin draws more from reality than a comic universe. We are left to believe that Arthur’s fate was decided by society. That Arthur was denied the free will to escape the fate of becoming Joker. The movie makes Arthur out to be a stereotypical, clichéd victim. This is the trick behind the movie, making the audience sympathize with the Joker, creating cognitive dissonance and unease in the audience. But in order to achieve this they must abnegate Arthur of all personal responsibility in his becoming the Joker.
Possibly the most infamous example of social conditions influencing behaviour was produced by American psychologist Philip Zimbardo, a topic looked at more closely in, Contagions of Madness and Evil, in his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which Zimbardo coins the phrase, ‘not a rotten apple, but a rotten barrel, as a way of explaining the behaviour his experiment uncovered. The movie clearly depicts Gotham as the rotten barrel causing a rotten Arthur. Zimbardo supports the the importance of the environment on behaviour, but doesn’t go as far as using it as an excuse.
The reason for the impact this movie has had is that the trickster archetype has beguiled and taken over declining, modern western democracies. Whether they’re making promises that they’ll, “drain the swamp,” or threatening to restructure a nations economy without a clearly defined plan, the trickster offers hope through the annihilation of the system that the masses have come to recognize as having failed them. The Trickster exploits an opportunity to create chaos, taking control of a legitimate grievance and using it to control the people. These are exactly the circumstances that allowed for the rise of fascism throughout Europe in the 1930’s. The Trickster is an exponent of populism, appealing to the desperate who can be easily motivated upon hearing the rhetoric and empty promises they’re so desperate to hear.
In Jung’s Psychology and Literature, one of his essays found in the collection, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, he suggests that what influences the artist can not be separated from their creation. The artist’s creation, no matter how much they try and disguise it, is a reflection of their own mind, which in turn reflects the society that surrounds it. When looking at this latest incarnation of the Joker, through this lens provided by Jung, is it surprising that we find both obvious and subtle depictions of our world today throughout the movie? These are times of unprecedented change, economically, politically, technologically, and socially. It’s because of this that no literary archetype represents our current society better than the trickster.
So excited to see this post! Will start reading now 🙂 here from reddit
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I hope it comes close to meeting your expectations. There’s plenty of room for your own ideas. Please let me know what you think.
I had such a great read. Thank you very much for this article.
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Thank you very much, for the kind comment.
A really thought provoking analysis James. Thanks for putting it out there. I wonder how Jung’s concept of synchronicity may be enter the mix?
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That’s a fascinating way of looking at the Joker’s story. There appears to be synchronicity between a number of unrelated events that conspire to have a profound result in Arthur’s transformation into the Joker. In fact, do you think it reasonable to say, the whole movie is a record of the synchronicity of events that resulted in the character, Joker?
Does Jung’s idea of synchronicity cancel out the possibility of free will?
Two separate event coming together and having meaning. I think this occurred a lot in Arthur’s tormented mind. In fact, his mind looked for and created its own moments of synchronicity. Trying to find meaning and understanding. Perhaps, even trying to escape the pain of reality.
The question you ask at the end is the one I asked myself. Jung undoubtedly had a spiritual edge in his thinking and was Arthur’s transformation something he had a choice in…..I suspect not. Events seemed to conspire from a very early age.
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Your idea about synchronicity, is a fascinating way at looking at the development of the character.