Giuseppe Ungaretti, “My House”

I believe I have located a parallel in Ungaretti’s “My House” and a verse from Heidegger’s “The Thinker as Poet” which may be of use to those asking what exactly philosophical thinking is. Classically, philosophical thinking contrasts with making poetry. In the Phaedo, Socrates puts Aesop into verse and composes a hymn to Apollo under peculiar circumstances. He has been sentenced to death, but Athens will not put him to death immediately because they are observing a religious festival which celebrates the saving of Athenians long ago. It is as if philosophy does not need to exist when myth is the ruling element and, speaking loosely, death is forbidden. Heidegger’s “The Thinker as Poet” was composed under very different, less-than-noble circumstances. Not too long after the war, alone in the forest, Heidegger wrote verse that sometimes sounds like it comes from an anime villain about to raise his laser sword. To wit: “When thought’s courage stems from the bidding of Being, then destiny’s language thrives.” —I guess this is better than some of Heidegger’s previous work, which includes hits like the “Declaration of Support for Adolf Hitler.”— Still, Heidegger’s musing brings us back to the Socratic problem. What, exactly, is philosophical thinking? Can we see it in contrast to poetic thinking?


A short poem of Ungaretti’s, “My House,” expresses ecstatic joy after so long of a love. “So long of a love,” in one way, is ambiguous. Has one loved, been loved, or experienced both? The poem does not provide clarity on that matter. In another way, it is anything but ambiguous. Love has been constant longer than memory:

My House (from A Major Selection of the Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti; tr. Diego Bastianutti)

The surprise
after so long
of a love

I thought I’d scattered
round the world

Original Italian:

Mi Casa

dopo tanto
d’un amore

Credevo di averlo sparpagliato
per il mondo

The duration of love alone entails a drama. I cannot ask if the love described has ended—is the surprise, say, a broken relationship?—because there is a prior question. Did Ungaretti even realize he was loved or loving? He did not, until a “surprise.” I submit the surprise is the mere recognition of durable love.

Love is a choice, exercised and developed, but properly speaking this poem treats it is as a being undergoing disclosure. Not a condition, not a state of affairs, but a part of the world with a distinct nature, a dwelling in which other beings realize themselves. It may be argued the being is relational, but it does feature a transhuman longevity.

How is love disclosed as a being? As a real presence, shaping and nurturing, it stands necessary but invisible. Awareness of love only comes about through the unexpected. The unexpected makes a forceful impact—I thought I’d scattered round the world. As if everything one was, everything one believed, shattered and had to be found again, put back together. Disclosure destroys a false perspective, a governing complacency, but this does not destroy the love in question itself. Rather, the realization one has loved or been loved creates that much more love.


The movement of Ungaretti’s poem parallels that of a verse from Heidegger’s “The Thinker as Poet.” Heidegger there describes the beginnings of a thunderstorm; in his telling, the wind picks up, the sky grows darker. The anticipation of thunder and lightning frames this verse: As soon as we have the thing before our eyes, and in our hearts an ear for the word, thinking prospers. “The thing before our eyes” and Ungaretti’s scattering “surprise” are in a way the same event. In order to apprehend a thing, one must become aware of it, as if lightning illumined it. “The thing before our eyes” is accompanied by “an ear for the word” in our hearts. Love does not stand incidental to Ungaretti’s revelation, and it serves what seems a lesser but just as important function in the verse at hand. The ear for the word—the want to hear, the want to articulate—depends on love.

The thing seen in truth and a desire to hear cause thinking to prosper, Heidegger claims. If Ungaretti’s poem depends on a type of development specific to poetry, namely that reflection upon emotion begets authentic emotion, then does Heidegger’s thought, quoted above, show a development specific to philosophy? It may be objected that the parallel between Heidegger and Ungaretti in this case is too strong. It is all emotion: Heidegger just says “thinking prospers” whereas Ungaretti proclaims he has learned to love that much more. The Phaedo, however, gives us the philosopher par excellence writing poetry at the hour of his death. Ungaretti opens to joy because of time. A love long had reveals itself to be no less than a miracle. “Thinking prospers” for Heidegger as the senses recede. The eyes want to comprehend each facet of the thing; the ears want to hear so as to aid speech. Thinking wants to understand the parts as parts, grasp the whole it can, be able to give a name for its discoveries. Poetry cultivates emotions, philosophy concerns knowledge-production.


Is anything I wrote true? The Presocratics put what they thought science into verse. They wondered aloud about the conditions making a statement true and had a goddess speak about them.

I don’t need truth as much as I need a truth. A quick way of checking to see if these musings have any use: What emotion does Socrates seek to develop when he puts Aesop into verse? Aesop takes childlike wonder and turns it into a story. A way to explain the world and tell us how to act in it. There is an emotional register here, but it is extremely subtle. It ultimately depends on how Socrates sees himself. One could say his story is primarily that of childlike wonder, and what corresponds.

Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Eternal”

The inexpressible nothing. It is meant in a lovely way, encapsulating an affectionate gesture. But it bridges two complicated realities hinted in the gesture. “The inexpressible nothing” emerges from one flower picked and the other given. A picked flower suggests growth and death, both at once; in like manner, a given flower suggests the entanglement of beauty and sacrifice.

A number of us are trying to be far more empathetic than we’ve ever been. We’re not doing this because we’re good people, but because it’s necessary to try to be better. It’s likely we will make gestures that are insincere or overdone, and in the hope of addressing that, I understand Ungaretti’s short poem as a meditation on this problem:

Ungaretti (tr. Patrick Creagh)

Between one flower picked and the other given
the inexpressible nothing

Original Italian:


Tra un fiore colto e l’altro donato
l’inesprimibile nulla

The poem’s title and last word frame its content as between what is eternal and nothingness (h/t Eugenia Loffredo). The content is a gesture characteristic of romantic love: finding a pretty flower, plucking it, giving it away to a beloved. It does not seem, though, that this celebrates romantic love as “eternal” or “all there is in the face of nothing.” After all, between one flower picked and the other given lacks continuity. It would have been easier to say “between the time a flower is picked and given,” but Ungaretti consciously avoided any construction of that sort. He wants us to inquire about two discrete moments which can be treated separately.

I suspect he is asking about the meaning of memory. Two discrete moments imply that the problem of the poem is how we put our memories together. To be sure, I won’t confuse the time I gave flowers to one lover with the reaction I got from another. But if I’m wondering about what might be worth having for eternity, e.g. the feeling of love’s sweetness, then I must admit indulging a jumble of memories. The point is to recreate the feeling, and therein lies the trap. I’ll talk to myself about how I’ve grown and forgotten what I’ve left behind. I’ll focus on what made someone beautiful and forget how much I gave up, rightly or wrongly, for it.

Ungaretti isn’t saying any of these tendencies are particularly wrong. If my reading works, I may have located a gentle comedy. It doesn’t look like we can be entirely true to ourselves when pursuing the memories we believe we most treasure. Hence, the inexpressible nothing—the fact we wanted to think something beautiful, gentle, and sweet is itself ennobling. I do need to qualify this thought, as there are a lot of men who believe they deserve love and attention no matter what and are dedicated to grand romantic gestures as opposed to leaving people alone. The poem doesn’t endorse that confusion or selfishness. It quietly asks you to think about how your conception of love or happiness is a construct, and asserts what’s most beautiful is the limits of that construct.

It asks you, in other words, to find how you can be more empathetic with a self you may have rejected or need to reject. A self too obsessed with one memory or another, a self devoted to the wrong causes, a self that was clueless and couldn’t be reasoned with. If I can be empathetic with the idiot I’ve been and am, maybe I can consistently give others the benefit of the doubt and support they need. They didn’t do the stupid things I did, after all.

Giuseppe Ungaretti, “A Dove”

To speak of hope or possibility in these times looks foolish, if not dangerous. Plenty will say any advocacy for change risks disproportionate response from those who hold power. Some have companies and investments which receive massive infusions of cash from the government if there is the slightest chance of damage to them. Others have been armed with military-grade weaponry and deputized. They have been given the tools and permission to pursue violence. Still others have been given honors, privileges, and access unthinkable in any reasonable age. That the so-called leader of the free world pardons war criminals turned in by their own units demonstrates not just contempt for sanity, but a relishing of power where it can do no wrong. The abuse of power is cause for celebration.

Ungaretti presents an image of being eager to hear a dove like the one sent to find land after the Biblical flood. This makes me desire more clarity as regards the antediluvian world. Genesis 6 declares there were “sons of God” who married whomever they wanted, having their own children and bloodline. Genesis 6:4–“They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” The problem seems to resemble the Iliad. Achilles knows his divine lineage but wonders what it is worth, and Hector acts from jealousy that he is not so favored. In both cases, one might accuse them of being full of pride, absorbed in their exploits, wishing to build dynasties featuring their name instead of accepting the humility of a flawed, all-too-human ancestor.

One might say the world before the flood needs humility in order to be just and lawful. Then again, I might be accused of not being humble enough if I believe that fighting back against those stealing wealth and honor is worthwhile. The outstanding question: humble with regard to what? I hearken to a dove from other Floods:

A Dove (tr. Diego Bastianutti)

I hearken to a dove from other Floods.

Original Italian:

Una Colomba

D’altri diluvi una colomba ascolto.

What does it mean to listen to a dove? Central to Ungaretti’s image is yearning. The world has flooded. In the multiplicity of disasters, a lot of people, good and bad, have drowned. The possibility of pride has drowned, replaced with a desire to survive.

I imagine he voices an accompanying desire to obey. It is true our modern age tends to celebrate those with survival skills, skills considered manly and necessary for true independence. Does he “hearken to a dove” to be free? I hold that the tone of the poem sounds quietly but powerfully desperate to me. One depends on a dove for the mere hint that dry land exists. One doesn’t learn skills from a dove, but is instead in thrall to what it finds and communicates.

In the midst of many disasters, what Ungaretti wants to hear—what he wants to obey—is a hope which leads to more hope. I read “Floods” not only as a number of events which destroy the world, but a chain of hopelessness. In like manner, I’d like to believe one hope can build from another hope, so on and so forth. And if I do believe that, then there is humility, there is obedience. A belief in Providence has snuck in, and whatever its limitations, it will not abide mindless defeatism. Injustice has unleashed a blood-dimmed tide many times. That we have a world is testament to how many times it has been rebuilt.

Eavan Boland, “A Habitable Grief”

This is what language is: a habitable grief. Reading those words back to myself, I struggle to understand how they apply to the current situation. I watched a group of wealthy young men enter a store and shame another for wearing a protective face mask. The one shamed promptly took the mask off. Nothing I would consider grief hung in the air when that happened, but the death toll from the virus was around 70,000 then.

Not much time has passed since that day. Are we grieving at the current toll of 100,000? Will we ever mourn together? Language is a habitable grief–I do believe that Boland is correct–but while those in the United States of America speak English, they don’t speak a common language. We say words to each other, but we mean entirely different things. There are many who believe they are terribly inconvenienced for wearing a mask in public. They have no idea what it’s like to not have light in one’s home because the power company wasn’t paid.

I have too many thoughts about this subject. I’m not sure how to provide a proper framework for approaching the matter. The typical interlocutor I encounter will argue that it is possible to speak a language with agreed upon meanings and morals. What we need to do, he will say, is embrace a specific religion or set of traditions. A much more advanced expression of this line of thought can be glimpsed in Seamus Heaney’s Nobel lecture, where he demonstrates concern that some narratives lend credence to colonialist/imperialist endeavors. Nonetheless, he holds that “if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se.”

I believe I’ve learned enough the past 4 years to expand ever so slightly on Heaney’s comment. Authoritarian ideology and attitudes are not separable from profound laziness and ignorance. I haven’t seen much genuine “pride in an ethnic and religious heritage,” but I have witnessed fear of anything that challenges the most self-serving, obnoxious fragment of a myth. Take, for example, “my ancestors made it in America through hard work and following rules.” This is only said to oppose the prospect of the simplest reforms, such as an adequate social safety net or criminal justice reform. A small sample of what is not accounted for: the open borders which existed for a large part of the 19th century; the reality of Reconstruction, sharecropping, and racial terrorism; the Chinese Exclusion Act; the ways in which segregation found its way into policy and law well beyond the South; eugenics. It’s a stunningly ignorant statement that no educated person should even consider, let alone make. Yet it represents the governing ideology of the United States.

On that note, I feel like Heidegger’s comment about a Germany caught between communism and capitalism in “Introduction to Metaphysics” speaks fear above all. It endorses national disgrace and unspeakable atrocities for the sake of a vague pride and imaginary threats to sovereignty. I find this hard to reconcile with his playfulness with Greek philosophical terminology, a playfulness which helps drive my own inquiry. I think a lot about telos being the literal end of matter, the limits which make it a being in the world. The limits are reached because it reaches fulfillment, perhaps fulfillment of its nature, its phusis. One can accuse Heidegger of making high-sounding noises, but those of us who’ve spent a lot of time struggling with the Presocratics, Plato, and Aristotle may be more keen on how he reads. He’s not letting the terms collapse into pedantry; he’s trying to recover the spirit in which the Greeks themselves fought about these notions. You can see the outlines of how earlier thinkers could emphasize different ideas and debate what was fundamentally at stake.

All of this is to say that laziness and ignorance concerning the most important matters can be had by anyone, even those who demonstrate especial sensitivity to how language works. So what would it mean to have genuine “love and trust in the good of the indigenous,” as Heaney says? Would that bring us to a place where we mourn collectively?

Boland speaks as if her individual experience encompasses far more than personal growth. This is what language is: a habitable grief is an earned conclusion. In childhood, “long ago,” she was “in a strange country:”

A Habitable Grief
Eavan Boland

Long ago
I was a child in a strange country:

I was Irish in England.

I learned
a second language there
which has stood me in good stead--

the lingua franca of a lost land.

A dialect in which
what had never been could still be found.

The infinite horizon. Always far
and impossible. That contrary passion
to be whole.

This is what language is:
a habitable grief. A turn of speech
for the everyday and ordinary abrasion
of losses such as this

which hurts 
just enough to be a scar.

And heals just enough to be a nation.

She opens the poem as if she’s telling a story to children. When she declares I was Irish in England, she’s speaking about being lost and hurt in ways only a child can understand and being lost and hurt in ways which can only be understood decades later.

The poem places the audience in the position of being children. Whatever skill we obtain will be immediately helpful given from where we’re starting. For her: I learned a second language there which has stood me in good stead. She learned English and it provided a home of sorts, a “good stead.” This is a most complicated proposition, as those of us who’ve struggled with being treated as an outsider can attest. –I know I’m speaking the same language as those ignoring or mistreating me. Why am I not being heard?–

Using the language of the colonizer as the colonized creates a strange sense of home. The “good stead,” the “second language” is the lingua franca of a lost land. Home is universal, the realm of the possible, and a lost land all at once. It’s communication oscillating between everyone and no one. Boland focuses on being Irish as a product of confrontation with England and using English itself. The trouble, if I’ve posed the problem correctly, is that “Irish” can entirely occupy a space which is simply “not English.” Occupation of that space does not merely fail to do justice to the Irish or the English. What about all the others the Empire has colonized and hurt, declared superiority over just because? Surely they also had to learn English in order to discover and assert their identity.

English is a lingua franca for pains and yearnings yet to be discovered, explored, and understood. Because of imperialism, it constitutes a dialect in which what had never been could still be found. Our pains point the way to our joys; in like manner, being an individual points the way to solidarity. Imperfect regimes and injustices gesture simultaneously toward a more perfect union and the world beyond.

Boland understands that hers is a logic of anticipation. I turned to this poem for insight on how collective mourning is possible in a land that gets its religion and civics from sensationalist cable news and radio designed to continually feed anger. I believe the poem wants me to pay closer attention to how mourning is learned. I remember being an angry, self-absorbed kid who could not understand the suffering others endured. I remember there wasn’t much to tell me to get over myself. Religious rhetoric was about following rules, not getting in trouble, and being nice. If it touched on other areas, it did so in the name of ritual and tradition. It wasn’t really concerned about being a certain sort of person, even though some picked up on that and followed through. The primary civic emphasis I’ve seen with regard to grief is “the troops.” As if John Lewis didn’t get his head split open for the sake of Civil Rights, or in other words, making America a full democracy by sacrificing for its creed.

Grief is not just a reaction to loss. It’s a reflection of all the values which comprise a society. After all, what we often hold to be most noble–what we esteem most–is how people deal with difficulties, how they confront the starkest circumstances and most profound injuries. To live in a society which adores the cheapest sort of celebrity, where acting out gets attention and adulation, is to live in a society which hasn’t grown beyond where I was at 14 years of age. We can’t mourn, because the rhetoric of The infinite horizon. Always far and impossible. That contrary passion to be whole demands a certain maturity. One has to recognize that one speaks to oneself continually about the impossible, creating losses in addition to the losses already had. Expectations are a vengeance upon the self. The “contrary passion to be whole” is a torment which an individual embraces, hoping for a happiness which need not be spoken, but never resolves. Ironically, embracing it makes one more of an individual and can create a greater solidarity with everyone else who has high, almost spiritual expectations for themselves.

In order to mourn, what is needed is a language of the spirit. To be sure, this is a way of speaking ripe for grift and exploitation. When Boland details “a habitable grief,” she specifies its content: A turn of speech for the everyday and ordinary abrasion of losses such as this which hurts just enough to be a scar. She’s not talking about long simmering resentment that boils over into revolution as much as the pains of the “everyday” and the “ordinary.” Her focus is on the legacy of pain each endures. It’s not hard to see this language as a reaction to a daily stream of news from a war where neighbors have turned on each other. If one can appreciate what everyone endures–if one can build from that scarring–a new nation is possible. It is more a spiritual realm than anything else, where as her final line attests, language has been harnessed into mutual recognition and healing. Still, it’s a real possibility for a nation, maybe the only morally responsible possibility. It hard to imagine the United States of Fox News getting there any time soon, as mutual recognition of pain does not mean weighting others’ pain equally. Media observers have talked about the consistent use of “both sides” rhetoric in commentary on current events, where those who jail children are treated with as much legitimacy as those who feed the hungry. One thing missing from that discussion is how horribly infantile this way of approaching things is, as if what matters most is who wins a high school debate tournament. If the “everyday and ordinary abrasion of losses…. heals just enough to be a nation,” it does so because people want to hear voices other than their own, want to hear about experience and loss, how a limit reached constituted a sense of being.

“The Dark Knight” (2008)

It sounds strange to say a superhero movie constitutes a serious comment about the War on Terror. But that’s what The Dark Knight is, and it is understandable if people find themselves unnerved by its apologies for sweeping police powers or a vision of justice framed in starkly militaristic terms.

In what follows, I want to address those concerns not so much because of the film but because of the film’s thoughtfulness. It seems to me that it approaches hard questions with especial sensitivity. Then I want to go further, as this country has been deranged in large part because of the War on Terror. (This is Spencer Ackerman’s thought, which will be detailed in his forthcoming book. Follow him on Twitter and preorder his book.) Is it possible to see in the way The Dark Knight treats the subject what has created our present predicament? I submit the film’s presentation of political problems does not map cleanly onto our problems, but there are moments of insight. Still, it’s impossible to envision the Joker telling Batman that he should drink bleach to cure COVID-19 or that wearing a protective face mask makes him less of a man because the Joker is not an idiot. He doesn’t take his instruction from the television or a pulpit which wishes to broadcast above all things.


The film opens with the force and shock of a window being violently shattered. We are then shown who shattered it: a man in a clown mask, calmly readying his cable gun for his next action. He and his fellow robber slide down a cable from that high window to the roof of a bank. It doesn’t look like either have the slightest hesitation as they fly from building to building.

We’re introduced to other murderous clown criminals, a ground team. They also move with military precision. They enter the bank and spend a few seconds surveying the situation. Then they set to work quickly. One fires a small machine gun burst in a location which will echo, freezing everyone inside. Another moves to the opposite side of the bank, flanking the customers and staff.

The clowns demonstrate impressive technical expertise. About two minutes after the smashed window, the bank’s alarm is down. The “alarm guy” is immediately murdered by his fellow robber, who skillfully drills through the vault door. The vault unlocker is murdered by the one who moved to keep the customers and bank staff in line. Even the getaway driver, who runs over that last clown and shows no awareness of what happened to his fellow robbers, makes his entrance on time.

One might see the robbers as a parody of capitalist culture. Later in the movie, Joker jokes about his organization being “small” but having “potential for aggressive expansion.” I grant there is a critique of capitalism here, but don’t believe it alone does full justice to what we’re watching. The United States of America has teams of soldiers who can execute complicated raids in mere minutes. It’s useful to ask what the robbers feel they are accomplishing. Each one wants as much money as possible; the silent implication is that each believes they deserve the largest share possible. Each is skilled, capable, and has practiced his craft. We are seeing soldiers of a sort at work–it’s much easier to think of the robbers as soldiers if we recall the phrase “spoils of war.”

Joker is emphatically not one of the clowns he encourages to kill each other. The deaths of the clowns are near bloodless; the bank in which most of the action takes place is a rich, elegant interior. When Joker reveals his scars and patchy makeup in order to say “whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger,” the effect is jarring. He reveals his scars for a specific purpose. The bank manager whom he’s wounded has watched all the other clowns murder each other and loudly proclaims that criminals once stood for something. That they had “honor” and “respect.” Joker’s reveal and comment shut down that discussion completely. Nothing like it ever explicitly happens in the film again.

What the film does engage is the problem of assuming power and the psychic costs of violence. Its hero, Bruce Wayne, only comes to awareness of the problem in stages and in the end does not fully understand it. His partial understanding is still awesome and most necessary. In the scene introducing Batman, fake volunteer Batmen who want to take their city back try to attack Scarecrow and a Chechen gangster during a drug deal. Batman has to stop the fake Batmen from shooting guns, protect them from the dogs of the gangster, and apprehend who he can. The scene is heavy on the toll being Batman takes on Bruce Wayne. He gets bitten by at least one of the dogs; he hits a wall while trying to attach himself to a moving van; he stops Scarecrow by jumping from a high level of the parking garage onto that van, using the weight of his suit like a wrecking ball.

Batman is power. Bruce Wayne tells us that “Batman has no limits,” and it is clear he enjoys the thrill of pushing himself to become Batman. Maybe more importantly, he understands morality primarily by trying to be Batman. This can be a trap. Asked by one of the fake Batmen why he alone can act as a vigilante–“What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?”–Wayne’s answer, “I’m not wearing hockey pads,” does not inspire confidence. Truth be told, he’s right on a deeper level. What Bruce Wayne properly speaking wears is a mask for the sake of inspiring a greater good. To that end, he has rules. He will not take a life, not even Joker’s at the end of the film. But Wayne can’t explain this in the least to the fake Batmen; he can only complain to Alfred later that people aren’t being inspired the way he hoped. At the least, he could have explicitly stated that he doesn’t use guns.

Moreover, he fails to credit what he actually has inspired. The fake Batmen take punishment during the busted drug deal that Batman would have taken. One of them is hit with a direct dose of Scarecrow’s drug. It isn’t hard to believe this was meant for Batman himself. Further, because the dogs jumped on one of the other Batmen, Batman escapes the brunt of their attack. When Joker kidnaps one of the Batmen and mockingly asks why he’s dressed that way, he tells Joker that Batman is a symbol that he doesn’t have to be afraid of scum. One might say this is too crude, but it’s effectively Bruce Wayne’s own rationale, where he confronts his fear by actively fighting it.

Bruce Wayne’s incomplete understanding isn’t attributable to a simple character flaw like “greed” or “lack of maturity.” The problem is near the same as the small time crooks Joker hired and encouraged to kill each other. When Batman retrieved Lau from his fortified skyscraper in Hong Kong, what struck me was how he flew from building to building, how he too disabled alarms, how he had a getaway vehicle. In short, he ran his own bank heist with military precision. But when Gordon had previously asked whether the Joker, who did set up his own men to die, should be a priority, Bruce Wayne answered that they could get the entire mob and Joker could wait. The callousness toward the lives of “small timers” is gross and unjustifiable, though somewhat understandable. It is true the mob is plenty murderous and a lot of lives could be spared or improved if it collapses. But it’s also true that Batman’s infatuation with his technical expertise has led to a narrowmindedness which reduces justice to a matter of a mere plan. Since his and Gordon’s plan was to take down the mob, stick with it, even if bodies are piling up elsewhere. This mirrors the Joker’s exact complaint to Dent later in the film–no one cares if a “truckload of soldiers” dies if its part of the “plan”–and it inspires Dent to embrace his hatred and kill without remorse.

I don’t know if “pride” is quite the right word for what I’ve been describing. It has connotations of “sin” which mark the bearer of pride as needing redemption. I think that’s more likely true of the small time crooks, even though Batman should not have been as cavalier about their deaths. I don’t think the problem Bruce Wayne is dealing with is simple in the least. He is trying to be his best with Batman. If he doesn’t have significant accomplishments as a vigilante, if he doesn’t become a symbol, a legend, what is it all worth? One might say it was presumptuous to assume so much power in the first place, but that ignores the hand he was dealt. Batman is a most necessary aid to the one good cop, a cop who doesn’t seem to judge his fellow cops. Batman, as initially conceived in the Nolan trilogy, is an attempt to give back to Jim Gordon.


The entire film moves at a frantic pace; nearly everything is a response to the Joker’s plans, his attempt to push Gotham into madness. His methods are quite literally terrorism. Assassinations of prominent officials; videos in which hostages are tortured and killed on camera; continual public threats so as to keep others on edge.

It is notable that Batman’s attempts to torture Joker–and Maroni, for that matter–do not work. After Joker has been punched quite a few times in the interrogation room, Joker just laughs that much more. Batman clearly wants to hit him more but holds off. The Dark Knight does evince some skepticism about the efficacy of torture.

Where the film delves into far murkier territory is with regard to police powers and surveillance. Are the “lightly irradiated bills” Batman has given Gordon good for privacy and civil liberties? Obviously not. And should Batman be listening in to a host of conversations or using the entire phone network to track one criminal? These are gross abuses of power. The film gets around this by giving us a Batman who is singular in purpose and “incorruptible,” as Joker himself says. He has the device most destructive of liberty self-destruct once its use has been served. One can also argue that the drug money of the mob gives them far too much power. They have bought a good portion of the police force, and the Joker only unleashes a remorseless, murderous intent already within the mob. That Gotham city’s mob sits on tens of billions only underscores the scope of the problem: there isn’t anything beyond their corruption or their desire to dominate others.

I do not see the film as an endorsement of the Patriot Act. I see it as engaging this counterfactual: if someone were incorruptible, and that someone saw a judge and police commissioner get murdered, a mayor nearly get assassinated, a number of cops and civilians die, an explosive assault on a jail, a DA get murdered, and a mass evacuation of hospitals, all accompanied by terrorist threats and hostage videos, then maybe that someone would create a device to track the terrorist causing all that havoc and have the device promptly self-destruct. A lot rides on the integrity of Bruce Wayne, and he doesn’t disappoint. By implication, those without this sort of integrity need to steer clear from even conceiving such measures. I also see this. There are plenty of Punisher skulls among certain factions eager to continue the War on Terror, so much so they have trouble recognizing the citizenship and full humanity of others in their country. But this Batman, while certainly no civil liberties advocate, is far too humane a figure for them. The essential point is this: he doesn’t kill. (You could rightly argue that he should be a lot more concerned about keeping people out of jail and far more sensitive to what he has in common with murderous psychotic freaks, but that’s another argument entirely.)

Why does the Joker want to break Gotham? The two stories he tells before he’s about to slash Gamble and Rachel Dawes to death have a key commonality: the feeling of being nothing but collateral damage. Whether it was an abusive father slicing up a mother then turning on a child, or a marriage gone terribly wrong, he voices terror at being neglected, at being good for nothing except receiving pain. The film has him recruit those with a tenuous grip on reality–Batman in the most derisive tone calls one a “paranoid schizophrenic”–and it is abundantly clear that the war to make Gotham’s streets safer occurs with little or no regard for who gets hurt in the crossfire. Joker sees Batman as the ultimate joke. Someone empowered by the law yet beyond it, someone empowered by schemes and plans and somehow finding dignity. This is not the case for 99.9% of Gotham; “the soul of Gotham,” what Joker declares he’s fighting for, would be a lot more honest if it simply embraced “madness.” Gotham’s extreme class inequality, even prior to the third movie, creates the problem that Bruce Wayne can violate all the laws he likes in the name of a greater good while those wearing hockey pads can draw inspiration and still get arrested and murdered.

Joker experiences a most existential terror. Justice is nothing but people making plans for him, and if that’s the case, why not come up with crazy terrorist schemes that work and call that justice? Can’t be much crazier than dressing up as a bat to fight crime. His disciple is Two Face, whom he turned from “I make my own luck” to “the only thing approximating fairness in the universe is random chance.” Two Face’s attempt to hurt Gordon at the end of the film can feel shrill–we all know the death of Rachel Dawes was a loss for him and Bruce Wayne–but the complaints he speaks there demonstrate the deeper problem with trying to make Gotham lawful. Two Face feels like he was lied to, and he’s absolutely right. It’s Gordon’s cops, the ones he wanted to get off the force, who betrayed him and Rachel Dawes to the mob. He feels that the burden of pain landed disproportionately on him, and it’s notable that Bruce Wayne doesn’t angrily yell at him, but looks at a man blown half to pieces and says he’s not the only one who lost.

The project to make Gotham lawful and just requires more than a powerful police department and DA willing to stand up to the mob. It requires enormous sensitivity. What of people who were corrupt cops because they had to pay hospital bills? What about schizophrenics unable to get help? What about orphans like Bruce Wayne? What about criminals who wanted to steal something but got their face smashed in by Batman? It’s the fact that sensitivity can’t even be addressed–everything is “you’re either lawful or you’re not,” “you have or you don’t”–that makes the Joker’s and Two Face’s anger potent. It is in this spirit that Bruce Wayne decides Batman deserves to be hunted, that a continual war against crime is unsustainable. But this does nothing to address the very real injustices and losses people have already suffered. It isn’t entirely clear Bruce Wayne can articulate the sufferings of others, though he’s far more aware of them by movie’s end.


In this concluding section, I want to focus on how The Dark Knight can and cannot speak to our present situation. It does depict a more or less militarized police force working with a super solider of sorts. It depicts a terroristic threat which gets even Jim Gordon panicked (witness how eager he is for his snipers to shoot those dressed as Joker’s henchmen).

Yet it also backs away from the idea that extreme militarization solves everything. Batman stands down at the end of The Dark Knight. He wants to be hunted, he wants the city to have a symbol of justice tied to what is legal, not extra legal. In the third film, the authoritarian, draconian measures we learn were passed in Harvey Dent’s name do not necessarily follow from the story of The Dark Knight. More than once in this film Alfred says the mob was pushed too far, and the inequality leading people, including cops, to become criminals is evident to the audience and not endorsed by any of the main characters. I do believe, as I’ve outlined above, the possibility for a richer discussion of justice exists by film’s end.

Where we are now as a country is a combination of factors: 1) white supremacy as a potent force in US politics 2) a culture of grift and grifters indulged by American evangelism 3) the War on Terror and its attendant habits of dehumanization 4) incredible concentrations of wealth which by their very nature shatter democratic processes. I think it is quite remarkable that The Dark Knight can speak to two of these factors with insight. I think I’ve said plenty about dehumanization. It’s time now to speak of Bruce Wayne as a potential reformer.

This is where things get tricky. Nolan’s trilogy indulges the notion that Bruce Wayne depends on being Batman, and it is true he does not put in the work of being Bruce Wayne. Most of what we see of Wayne in The Dark Knight is a pose. Sleeping during board meetings, acting like a boor in front his Russian ballerina date, pretending to Jim Gordon that he was trying to beat a traffic light instead of intentionally ramming a potential killer.

The only time we see him vulnerable is with regard to Rachel Dawes, but he barely talks to her anymore. He’s possessive, but his love for her is complicated. On the one hand, he doesn’t deal with rejection or loss well. She’s a childhood friend and he’s obsessed with the memory of his parents. On the other, they’re both passionate about justice, and he does feel like his extralegal endeavors are meant to complement the work she and Jim Gordon do. He’s imagining her to be someone she isn’t, and while this has unmistakable overtones of “Bruce Wayne needs to grow up” about it, I’d be lying if I said imagining people to be something they’re not had nothing to do with love.

One of the things that’s striking about our ultrarich, the billionaires at the very top, is how little they know about anything. By this I don’t mean they can’t speak about problems. They certainly have views about space travel, what city is giving them the best deal on their HQ, employee productivity, and testifying before Congress. Bruce Wayne contrasts favorably with them. He does care about his city, and it goes without saying that he believes destroying organized crime will improve the lot of all Gotham’s citizens.

But a vague awareness of “if this is gone, your life will improve” isn’t much different in spirit than “we’re both devoted to the same cause. We must love each other, right?” There’s a lack of attentiveness to individuals. Wayne doesn’t really pay attention to Rachel Dawes or any of the numerous women he parties with. In the third movie, he begins to address this deficit. It’s a little detail, one easily skipped, but when he emerges from the pit he’s been trapped in, he makes sure a rope is thrown down for the other prisoners to climb up.

To see others as individuals is more than listening or even embracing their causes. It’s attention to how they become who they want to be. Throughout the trilogy, Bruce Wayne pays this sort of attention to his enemies. His ninja training is primarily from Ra’s Al Ghul; when the SWAT team tells him to stand down, he borrows a move from Joker, who threw Rachel Dawes out the window to get away. Knowing all the SWAT are tied together by a cable, he throws one off so they all dangle by a cable from the building.

I would imagine if someone could learn so deeply from their enemies, they couldn’t possibly shatter democratic processes. The truth is, though, that Bruce Wayne has a lot to learn about being a good citizen despite the amount he gives. And if that’s true for Batman, alarm bells should be ringing continually regarding those sitting on piles of money who have never thought of sacrificing for others, but think others should be sacrificed for their sake.