They chose nothing.
Mad old Billy Blake’s World of Innocence is a beautifully self-sustainable construct, whose crucial renewable resource is empathy. This is demonstrated admirably by its anthem, “The Divine Image,” where “Mercy Pity Peace and Love” bind humanity and its creator together in a mutual process of call and responsive echo – a bond which is envisioned in “the human form divine” – divinity and humanity ever more closely intertwined and nourished by imaginative acts of respect and care.
What a terrifyingly different world Experience is. Here, imagination is squeezed into a vice, and each human feels divorced from any possible creator, let alone its fellow citizen.
This sombre chord of alienation and lack of agency is struck with devastating force in “The Human Abstract”, the contrary to “The Divine Image”. Here, the “virtues of delight” are seen to be exposed as cynical ploys that breed inequality and oppression.
So-called “pity, mercy, peace and love(s)”, once abstracted from a world of empathy and compassion, soon become uncontrollably corrupted and corrupting; ultimately yielding a dark tree of Mystery. This tree, pullulating on “the Human Brain,” engenders endless sources of pain and horror for the now-helpless, isolated individual.
No prizes for guessing in which world Gotham is set.
Very nearly every face you see in Gotham is marked by weakness; marked by woe. The Tree of Mystery shades this city in eternal night. Each individual is chained up within its self, kept at arm’s length from its fellow citizens by mutual fear and selfish loves.
The Bat Symbol rakes the sky with searing insistence; a sign of fear, not empathy. Batman stands for Justice, Right, and Order. Gotham is a ruined city and needs an incorruptible, stoic – and feared – pillar of strength to rebuild it.
In the dynamics of The Dark Knight, this force is inevitably a dark, mysterious one. Nobody can know who exactly wields the power, how it works, or where it will exercise its strength next. Bruce Wayne (whose super-power is money) is convinced that the only way to put things right is to live a double life half in the shadows, to be the ever-moving centre of a city-wide panopticon which will breed correct behavior and, ultimately, just citizens.
Mutual fear brings peace.
In the opening of the movie, these dynamics have bred an environment in which those with the power to instil fear in their fellow citizens have carved up little worlds of profit just for themselves. Even those who are inspired by Batman to stand up for justice are revealed to be only scared thugs hiding behind hockey masks.
It is in nobody’s interest to speak truth to power. That is, until a manic, pale figure steps out from under the shade, intent on revealing to all the truth in a blinding flash of light.
Batman will be completed by the Joker.
The Joker, like everyone else in Gotham, has been weaned on mystery. However, he sees right through the deception and is ready to expose the reality to all. Unlike Batman’s mask, which cloaks its wearer in darkness and mystery, the Joker’s garish war-paint emphasises the scars and frailties that plague Gotham’s residents.
He is the speaker who sees through all the tricks of those who rule Blake’s world of Experience. He doesn’t try to hide the marks of woe on Gotham’s face. He focuses our attention on them.
Through these two figures – two sides of the same coin – we can experience the full force of the despair and alienation which sustains the world of Experience.
When these two poles collide in a closed room during the pivotal interrogation scene, this is a force that hits home with a violence shocking in its brilliant intensity. We see how the alienated cruelty of the Joker feeds off the faceless, brutal power deployed by the Dark Knight. The point at which Batman drops a cackling, punch-drunk Joker in disgust is the axis upon which Gotham’s world of Experience spins.
Batman realizes that his gloved fist alone can’t punch his city into the shape he desires as it is precisely this blow the Joker longs for. The Joker wants to teach this lesson: given the right conditions, everything burns and everyone is corruptible.
“Law and Order” is only a blind, brute force and the Batman is just another amoral thug.
The failure of Gotham, represented by the Batman and the Joker, is a failure of imagination. Batman, trusting in his own strength, can’t envisage a world not based on fear. The Joker is so intent on revealing what he sees as the only truth that he has no interest in producing new truths.
This failure splits Gotham’s best chance of healing itself, Harvey Dent, right down the middle. Dent strives to graft the Joker’s urge to expose the truth onto Batman’s sense of righteous power. It doesn’t take.
In Blake’s world of Innocence, we can catch a glimpse of a strikingly different world — one in which imagination has all the space it needs to flourish.
A world where the needs of the other, not the fears of the self, are central.
A world in which each voice is heard and answered by others, instead of being enveloped in silence.
A world where community is fostered through the mutual growth of each individual, instead of one where the growth of the individual is gained at the cost of community.
Maybe one day we can sit both of those headstrong lads down to read a comic book version of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. I’m sure Hollywood would snap at the chance of such a storyline.