‘The Dark Knight and the rebirth of tragedy out of the spirit of cinema’

University of the West of England (2023).
Visiting Speaker Seminar.
Philosophy Department, School of Social Sciences, UWE Bristol. 11 October 2023.
Host: Niall Keane and Katrina Mitcheson (UWE).

Face daubed carelessly in white paint, now flaking. Red gloss smeared over mouth, accentuating a rather nasty Glasgow grin. Eye sockets painted as black as the abyss. Such is the figure cut by the Joker in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan 2008). The Clown Prince of Crime, the Harlequin of Hate, the Jester of Genocide. Virtuoso thief. Merciless killer. Yet whenever this monster is in camera we hang on every chewed-up word, every furtive dart of the eyes, every glissade through the mise-en-scène. The Joker is joyful.

‘How can things which are ugly and disharmonious,’ asks Nietzsche ‘induce aesthetic delight?’ (BT §24). His response lies in a form of art known as tragedy. Tragedy goes beyond the idea of art as the perfection of representation and the representation of perfection by incorporating what he names Dionysian drives. And it is in this way that the Joker is the essence of Nietzsche’s Dionysus.

Accordingly, we can trace the forces of tragedy in The Dark Knight back to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which – in turn – traces these forces back to Greek drama… and beyond. However, Nietzsche is not simply concerned with the birth of tragedy, but also its death, then rebirth in the ‘present’ (§16). In this way, The Dark Knight is a lens on The Birth of Tragedy and an exemplar par excellence of the rebirth of tragedy through cinema. Thus proving Nietzsche’s first book to be of the utmost relevance today. Art is more than ‘jingling of fool’s bells’ (§F). Rather, proclaims Nietzsche, ‘only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified’ (§5).

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