Friday, July 27, 2012

Batman, Dickens, and the Church

This post is only for those who have already seen the Dark Knight Rises

Charles' Dickens' Tale of Two Cities has always been a novel that has stuck with me.  I think I've recounted before how I sought to get some seminary books knocked out over the Summer, whereupon a professor told me "Hollowell, Summers are for fiction.  If you want something that will knock you on your butt, read Red Badge of Courage, Brothers Karamazov, or Tale of Two Cities."

I took his advice to heart, and I was rewarded for my efforts.  I must say that I cried at the end of a Tale of Two Cities, and I found the last paragraph to be one of the most beautiful pieces of fiction I've come across.

So as I watched the Dark Knight Rises, and especially as the final 5 minutes of the film were unfolding (has there been a better ending sequence in cinema than Dark Knight Rises?) I was into it as the music was accelerating, and one cool revelation followed another, but the hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I heard Jim Gordon reciting that same last paragraph of a Tale of Two Cities at Bruce Wayne's "funeral" (Christopher Nolan cut some of the original quote out because parts only pertained to the plot of a Tale of Two Cities - here is the quote as it happens in the movie)

"I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."

In a Tale of Two Cities, the quote is from a man who goes to the guillotine so that others may escape and live, the connection quite clear to Bruce Wayne in the film.

A brief word about the plot of a Tale of Two Cities.  The novel begins with the brief calm before the storm which was the French Revolution.  The French Revolution came about because the poor working class was so tired of being oppressed by those who owned the companies, those who ran the government (and the Church at the time was also part of this "power structure").  While the characters are fictional in Dickens' work, the history is very accurate.  What began as an uprising against unjust social structures, quickly turned into madness.  For some reason, in history classes, we never hear about the absolute madness that reigned for several years, we only hear about the "storming of the Bastille" and the anarchy and violence that reigned for so long are often glossed over.

In the French Revolution, "people's courts" were erected and dummy trials were set up where people were tried and then guillotined (the blood lust is portrayed vividly in the novel), and most estimates suggest that up to 10,000 people were being guillotined a day at the height of the revolution.  Of course, in the movie, we see this "people's court" portrayed on several occasions as well, and again, as in the novel, it is the insane who run the courts and hand down the sentences.

Nolan, who is separating himself as one of the true artists in mainstream film right now, has made an entertaining film that pays homage to its Dickensonian inspiration.  And I think there is a good reason why Nolan took Tale of Two Cities as the basis for his script.

Dickens' novel served two purposes for his fellow Brits who were, at the time, approaching a similar state of disharmony and anxiety among the classes.  Dickens novel was a warning to BOTH sides - it was a warning to the upper class and a warning to the lower class.  Nolan's movie is also a simultaneous shot across the bow of America, both the "1%" and the "99%", and his “shot” is well-timed and VERY needed.

Nolan sees what many of us see - the idea that we are standing on the breaking point as a society.  We seem to be getting more and more polarized, more and more agitated, and unrest seems to be rising (“the fire rises” as they say in the film).

Nolan's film, then, is a reminder to both sides, it is a reminder to "anarchists", those who would burn the social structures down and start over, of what "anarchy" really looks like; anarchy INEVITABLY and UNAVOIDABLY turns into madness.  The film, like the novel 150 years before it, is also a shot over the bow of the 1%, a reminder that a Machiavellian grab for power without the requisite compassion on the less fortunate and the powerless will result in nothing less than the anarchy that Karl Marx so fervently preached.

Where does the Church come in, then?  The Church shares Nolan's and Dickens' understanding of proper governance and what constitutes a healthy and just society.  The Church says to anarchists "governance is a good thing, and NOT because it is a means of control; it CAN produce good and allow good to flourish."  The Church says government is necessary, and that anarchy will ultimately lead to a flourishing of evil, every time.

HOWEVER, the Church isn't just there to beat the 99% back into submission, because it warns that simply HAVING a government in place, simply HAVING laws, rules, social structures etc. is not enough.  The powerful can't simply say what Scrooge said to those asking for alms for the poor when he in effect says "aren't there government programs that take care of the poor...then what business is it of mine if people are suffering from poverty or anything else."  The Church has been warning people that government and order are needed, but that if "governance" and "laws" and social structures somehow interfere with people caring for each other, then injustice arises from this scenario just as much as it does from the anarchy scenario.

Freedom lies neither in casting off societal structures as a whole and starting completely over, nor does it lie in simply sitting back and letting societal structures care for the vulnerable and the poor and the marginalized.  Both of the above solutions are wrong because they are LAZY and also because they lack the key virtue for Catholics, namely charity, concern for the other person.  The solutions of anarchy and also of “continuing to let the government take care of other people” don't require anything of the INDIVIDUAL PERSON.

The Church, Nolan, and Dickens all seem to suggest the same thing - if you want to reform society, start with yourself.  If we become good virtuous people (heroes) then our society's ills will mend themselves.  If we lazily and guiltlessly see solutions only on a massive scale, if we think the solution will be found either in destroying government, or in making it more powerful so that we don't have to worry about each other, then we are doomed to a vicious cycle of destruction where governments arise promising hope and then are eventually burned to the ground by the governed.  We have to instead look to change hearts and convert individuals; if we don't then all efforts at reform will be fruitless. 


  1. Fantastic insight. I too wept at the end of Dicken's novel (all those years ago when I read it in highschool). I'd long forgotten that ending quote until I had the pleasant surprise of hearing it again in the new Batman. The movie was amazing, and its parallels to Cities makes it especially so. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. God bless!

  2. Marx didn't preach anarchy. You should read his works instead of relying on other's distortions of his ideas.

  3. No, he preached anarchy. He believed traditional governmental structures were unnecessary. Anarchy is his mind was the elimination of all class structures. Once men live in socialist utopian harmony, they no longer need government...

    “Does this mean that after the fall of the old society there will be a new class domination culminating in a new political power? No ... The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called." - Karl Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, 1847

    “All socialists see anarchy as the following program: Once the aim of the proletarian movement – i.e., abolition of classes – is attained, the power of the state, which serves to keep the great majority of producers in bondage to a very small exploiter minority, disappears, and the functions of government become simple administrative functions.” - Karl Marx, Fictitious Splits in the International, 1872