Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Our Father of Spree Killers: James Holmes and the Breaker of Worlds

So what's so compelling about the Joker as a character? It may be that he's the ungovernable force of horrific violence. Almost all of Batman's adversaries are deranged fetishists of one kind or another. They're fixated on money or vengeance, compulsively acting out their obsessions with dualities or riddles or umbrellas... The Joker, though, is just deranged. He has no master plan, no grand scheme -- not even any particular desires, other than to be a wild card that, as Michael Caine's Alfred muses, just wants to watch the world burn Douglas Wolk, Hollywood Reporter
A little after midnight on July 20th, 2012 James Holmes walked into an Aurora, Colorado theater and opened fire on the audience. Twelve people died and fifty-eight were wounded in the barrage.  Upon his arrest Holmes declared that he was the Joker: since that time he has offered no other explanation for his actions. Yet despite and because of this silence his rampage has inspired no shortage of commentary. Some blamed lax gun control laws. Others suggested that the death toll would have been lower had more theatergoers been armed.  Satan and marijuana came under scrutiny: better mental health care and school prayer were touted as possible solutions.  


It is a  typical human response: we want to explain the unexplainable, to fathom the unfathomable, to make sense of the senseless.  If we can name the demon we can gain power over it. We can force it into our triangle of cause and effect, we can bind it to our rules and measurements, we can view it through our favorite rational or spiritual crystals.  But the answers we are offered ring hollow, their glaring flaws pointed out by detractors who offer their own equally hollow solutions.   We can continue this trend, our high tremulous arguments whistling off the stones as we walk past this latest graveyard. We can distract ourselves with platitudes or with fantasies of revenge. Or we can look through this wound in the veil of our expected order in search of Mystery.  In the place where knowledge fails, perhaps we may instead attain to Understanding. 
L'acte surréaliste le plus simple consiste, revolvers aux poings, à descendre dans la rue et à tirer au hasard, tant qu'on peut, dans la foule (The simplest Surrealist act consists of going into the street, revolvers in hands, and firing as quickly as you can into the crowd) - André Breton, Second Manifesto of Surrealism
According to the myth He lies on a rock deep beneath the earth, held fast with the entrails of His son. When He is finally released from His torment (or so the story goes) He will lead an army against Asgard in a conflagration that will destroy numerous universes.  This is one of Loki's most famous and least understood aspects, the one honored with the kenning "Breaker of Worlds." The Breaker of Worlds has lost everything save His cunning and His hate.  He knows full well the cost of His vengeance: He is ready to take out His pain on the just and unjust alike.

We need not like this face of Loki and we certainly don't need to use it as an excuse for antisocial behavior. But if we are going to understand Loki, we must engage with his thorny and unsettling aspects. Writing him off as a "Nordic Satan" misses the point. For pre-Christian northern Europe the important dichotomy was Fire/Ice rather than our post-Manichean split between Good/Evil. Neither should we emasculate Loki and turning him into a happy harmless prankster spirit.  Treating your cobra like a boa constrictor may work for a while, but sooner or later the cobra is going to teach you the difference.

The old Hermetic maxim tells us "as above, so below."  Those who have eyes to see may find the Gods in every aspect of being. If we have the courage to look into the shadowy places where James Holmes lovingly planned his terrible act, perhaps we will gain a furtive glimpse of the darkness underpinning Loki's light
By destroying we create. We create the feelings in you of what it is like to be the victim, what  it is like to be fucked and destroyed. Because of your annihilations, we create and raise new breeds of Children who will show you fuckers what you have done to us. Like Easter, it will be a day of rebirth. It will be a start of a revolution of the Children that you fucked. You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life, thus, by destroying you, by giving you pain, we attempt to show you responsibilities and meanings of other people’s lives.  - Cho Seung-Hui, before murdering 32 students at Virginia Tech
Today scholars refer to James Holmes and his colleagues-in-arms as rampage killers.  They come from all walks of life, all ethnicities, all religious groups.   James Holmes was a promising scholar: Martin Bryant, who in 1996 shot 35 people in Tasmania, has the IQ of an eleven-year old.  In 1984 an unemployed security guard named James Huberty went "hunting humans" at a McDonalds in San Ysidro, California, killing 21: a decade later Tian Mingjian, a first lieutenant in the People's Liberation Army, murdered 23 in Beijing.

Perhaps the only thing these disparate murderers have in common is their burning hatred of the world. Most rampage killers die in the act, either by their own hand or in the inevitable return fire from law enforcement. Their shooting spree is a swan song to their old lives. In ripping down the thin veneer of normality which protects their victims they destroy themselves as well. They knowingly and willfully annihilate themselves in the Ragnarok they call into being.

But yet this annihilation is also a transformation into a higher state, or at least a more famous one.  Once mocked and scorned - or worse yet, ignored - the rampage killer forces himself onto the world stage. And the world is quick to throw roses and rotten produce alike.  Charlie Starkweather was a garbageman with bad vision and a worse attitude. After a two-month murder spree with his underage girlfriend in tow he was memorialized in films like Badlands and Natural Born Killers.  Bullied at school, Eric Harris and Dylan Kleibold went on to become Columbine High's most famous alumni.  The dead are mourned and soon forgotten: their killers become celebrities.
You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve. - Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight Returns 
In the spring of 1940 Batman #1 introduced a malevolent clown called the Joker.  First presented as a psychopathic killer, over the years the Joker was mellowed into a   nutty but ultimately harmless criminal mastermind.  Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns hearkened back to the old, murderous Joker: Christopher Nolan's film of the same name brought him back in a big way and Heath Ledger's chilling performance brought him to life.

After Ledger's untimely death, The Dark Knight Rises featured Tom Hardy's Bane: the Joker did not even rate a mention. Still the audience at July 20th's midnight showing might even have been watching closely for his sudden appearance. (Persistent rumors had suggested Nolan would use CGI and Dark Night Returns outtakes to produce a Joker cameo).  It is impossible to ascertain Holmes' mental or spiritual state before and during this attack. But it is equally impossible to deny that a real-life cameo appearance from the Joker would look every bit as bloody and senseless as the Aurora slaying. Or that the audience would have met this shooting spree with delight rather than horror had it gone down onscreen rather than off.

Perhaps that is the greatest Mystery here: what is it that we find so fascinating about senseless violence?  We think it unusual that one person might decide to shoot into a crowded theatre. But we take it as a given that millions will sit in crowded theatres and watch people pretend to kill each other. We declare the Joker to be "a terrifying and humorous villain who will remain etched in our memories" with "the deranged threat of a punk star like Sid Vicious." Then we are surprised when people in Colorado, and Maryland, and Maine decide to follow his example.  Many are asking why James Holmes committed this crime. Perhaps they would do better to ask why nobody else did.