It’s still far too early in the aftermath of the lethal game which James Holmes played out in an Aurora, Colorado multiplex to get more than a shadow of a read about his motivation. his narrative. Psychoanalysts possess a native madness to interpret – it’s in our blood. Few verified details have emerged about Holmes prior life, hardly enough to piece together a coherent pictures of the inner man, or the external circumstances which might have precipitated his murderous scenario.
At this point, I will only address some aspects of the Aurora massacre relevant to popular culture, and share some free – very free – associations. The Joker of the Batman mythos leapt immediately to mind after I first heard about the Aurora debacle: not the comic book character; nor Caesar Romero’s Joker in the television series; nor Jack Nicholson’s Joker of the 1989 Batman movie. But Heath Ledger’s Joker of The Dark Knight, the second film of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Subject to correction, I recall that the 1989 film attributed Joker’s hideous rictus sardonicus to his tumbling into a vat of chemical waste, which somehow incited a yen for homicidal practical jokes. (I believe his criminality was well entrenched beforehand.) In the comic books, then in his screen incarnations, Joker became Batman’s arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty to the Caped Crusdader’s Holmes, as it were.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is one of the most astonishing portrayals of pure manic malevolence in cinema history. At one point in The Dark Knight he elicits a tincture of pity by describing how, as a child, his sadistic father carved out his appalling smile with the same knife he had just used to slaughter Joker’s mother. Later in the film, Joker says he disfigured himself with a razor blade to show his beloved wife, herself hideously scarred in a fire, that he still loved her – only to incur her disgust and rejection. Not only did one realize the second tale was yet another perverse joke: it was apparent that the Joker’s entire persona was an ongoing improvisation.
In effect, Ledger’s Joker comprised a huge, grotesque cipher. The central truth, the raison d’etre of his existence was his insatiable appetite for anarchic violence. In this context, one is reminded of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s analysis of Iago. After reviewing the possible reasons for Iago’s evil; those offered by the character himself (Othello passing him over for promotion; bedding his wife; so forth), then citing the arguments of previous critics, Coleridge coined the term “motiveless malignity” to categorize a wickedness so profound as to lie beyond interpretation; unknowing, indeed uncaring about its’ origins. For Coleridge, Iago simply delighted doing awful deeds for the sheer pleasure of doing them, absolutely sans remorse. His last utterance before being lead away to a slow execution is:
“Demand me nothing: what you know you know.
From this time forth, I never will speak word.”
Coleridge’s Iago embodies the essence of primordial misrule, as does Ledger/Nolan’s Joker. (The Biblical Hebrew for this ultimate chaos is tohu v’bohu.) Both committed the most heinous, repulsive acts; dare us to contemplate their motives; mock us for doing so. It’s alleged that Holmes, surrendering to police, called himself “Joker”. (On a note of caution, most of what we’ve heard about Holmes’ behavior and statements outside that carnage-filled theater is still “alleged”.)
I have to wonder – again, pure speculation – if Ledger’s Joker lurked somewhere in Holmes’ fantasy world: Joker the anarchist; Joker, the rank enemy of puny law and order; defier and defiler of the social contract; Joker who, no matter how you tried to constrain or label him (and labelling would constitute yet another form of abhorred constraint for him) always eluded definition; always escaped your clutches literally and figuratively; always left you guessing with the world murderously exploding around you.
One further has heard – this isn’t ‘alleged’ – that Holmes protected himself with full body armor, including throat and groin armor. Although his purpose in all things is unknown, it’s reasonably plausible that – unlike the Columbine duo – he did not want to be killed. Authorities have theorized that he hoped to escape by blending in with the SWAT team after the shootings. At any rate, he gave himself up without a struggle, has a darkly riveting story to tell; has enabled the possibility of telling it to police, psychiatrists, a courtroom, future biographers, so forth. Will he want to tell it himself, or will he have others narrate and interpret it, de juris or de facto?
Will he, in effect, surrender his voice to the police, the lawyers, doctors, and other assorted ‘experts’ who will predictably descend upon his ‘case’. It would surely be the ultimate malignant provocation to only offer Iago’s silence (“From this time forth, I never will speak word.”) while the world dances madly around his actions and motives. Somehow, I don’t think this likely.
Holmes narrative will assuredly be unfolded, but whether Holmes himself will ever speak his truth, or indeed what constitutes the truth behind the apocalyptic devastation he wrought, who can say. One contemplates the disconcerting possibility that there may be a great deal we will learn about him – and still know very little.
Other free associations. I wonder if it’s only the Batman narrative – notably its retelling by Nolan, inspired by Frank Miller’s great comic book re-invention – which has informed Holmes’ actions. His booby-trapped apartment seems to have come straight from the film Speed, for instance – and that’s only the most famous booby-trapped apartment in action cinema.
Holmes’ macabre ‘performance’ contains plentiful referents to other action pictures – inter alia, his swat-team garb; shots fired from an attack rifle into the ceiling; followed by mowing down innocents willy-nilly – this sort of stuff is native to many classic action pictures – e.g., from the Die Hard and Matrix franchises. Is the action genre, replete with comic book – or comic book-ish superheroes and supervillains, embedded in Holmes intrapychic story? I am also reminded of David Fincher’s Fight Club, in which an angry army of disenfrachised men is recruited to detonate the society which has trashed them.
I emphasize again that all is so much surmise. I do not think we’ll have the answers soon, as the apparatus of the criminal justice system closes in around Holmes, and the engine of forensic psychiatry begins to hum. It develops tha he has been involved with a psychiatrist, but the nature of his treatment – if indeed treatment occurred – is unknown. Experts, often with dubious expertise, are rushing to diagnose him, ignoring the ethical directive of the American Psychiatric Association to pass no diagnostic judgements on those one does not know at first hand (and if one was asked to diagnose a patient in therapy, their consent would have to be granted except under very special circumstances. Tarasoff, anyone?)
I recur to the issue of anarchic violence. Anarchist political movements have been with us for at least two centuries, of different stripes. Advocating violence has been crucial to the regime of some movements: others pointedly eschewed violence. But there’s also a species of intense personal anarchy, which at base advances no real explanation about its motives beyond contemplating, Iago-like, the world’s utter ruination for its’ own sweet sake. A connection to anarchist philosophy may be tenuous in such spirits, or not exist at all.
Finally, I submit there’s a different anarchic spirit which has been gathering force in America for decades. How the Aurora masacre relates to it, I cannot begin to fathom. It is light years away from radical anarchist agendas. It is embodied in the gradual, relentless breakdown of the American social contract, manifested by a diminishing concern for, and withering away of social, governmental, communal structures which have traditionally sustained us through the toughest of times.
I sense the deterioration has been evolving at least since the Reagan era, with its commendation of trickle-down, hands-off social/economic policies. The causes of “1% anarchism” are subtle, complex; its’ enablers eminently sane. They inhabit radio and TV programs; boardrooms; war-rooms; and the highest reaches of government. I tremble for its’ consequences to my children and grandchildren.
The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats surely had this massive social breakdown in mind, when he wrote The Second Coming amidst the catastrophic European aftermath of World War I.
“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are filled with passionate intensity . . .
And what rough beast, its hour home round at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem, waiting to be born.”