Zeitgeist

New Dawn Fades

“It’s just a movie”, we so often hear in response to any criticism of a film’s suggestive power over the mass psyche. Thus propaganda emanating from Hollywood is made to appear a harmless diversion rather than the agent of social control and transformation it actually is. When a black-clad killer stormed the theater premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado on July 20th and proceeded to rake the audience with gunfire, the exact same scenario was transpiring on-screen before them in a preview of the upcoming picture Gangster Squad. For victims of the massacre and the American public at large, reality and fantasy have been fused in an alchemical wedding; it is in this realm that phantasms and flickering simulacra deceive men and lure them to destruction. Here, too, death is master. [1]
As the final installment of the Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is more than a movie, just as its hero Bruce Wayne sought to overcome limits imposed upon mere mortals. Director Christopher Nolan has crafted a film of grand and sinister sweep, though his cinematography provides only the backdrop to an explicit and inescapable theme: the ruin of the West, its reduction to ashes. Even standard liberal convention, special effects and pulverizing violence in the screenplay cannot conceal the apocalyptic vision that unfolds before us.

While Nolan’s story might be seen as a template for varied interpretations, certain symbols attain clear meaning within its plot. Gotham is not any imaginary city or simply a representation of New York, but the archetypal Western polis in its terminal stage of development. Modern man, with his technological wonders, his “rights”, his endless desires and entertainments, has liberated himself from all transcendent authority and stands in obedience to his passions alone. And one dream in particular never seems to leave him- the total organization of earthly happiness, an ideal justifying even the slaughter of innocents. Global civilization celebrates progress with ever-increasing fervor, seemingly oblivious to its descent into a subhuman state of anarchic savagery. As Gotham collapses, so, too does the American pluralist experiment- flimsy Enlightenment abstractions of liberty, equality and popular sovereignty are crushed by the exertion of a superior will.
The decadent polis is easy prey to oligarchs, bandits and utopian radicals. Gotham, built on lies and ruled by corrupt sociopaths, will soon be in the hands of violent psychopaths. Emerging from the underground, the ruthless mercenary Bane dons the mantle of Spartacus and carries out a revolutionary coup. In the name of “the people”, the deracinated mob, the arch-villain and his men unleash a reign of terror, replete with another storming of the Bastille and Jacobin-style tribunals presided over by the deranged Scarecrow, a latter-day De Sade. Yet amidst the chaos of proletarian dictatorship, we spot a noteworthy point of intrigue: Bane’s operation was bankrolled by none other than a capitalist. Looking to acquire the resources of the Wayne business empire, plutocratic rival Roland Daggett set the uprising in motion. Such details have their origin not in comic books, but historical context: the success of the 1917 Russian Revolution, along with the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, was facilitated by international finance.
Bane’s true mission is neither enrichment nor insurrection; he has been tasked with eliminating Gotham entirely. Behind the machinations of capital and spasms of “people power” stands the League of Shadows, the secret society that has sentenced the city to death. Charged with this assignment, Bane acts not only as Gotham’s executioner, but as the good doctor who assists in its suicide. As Plato saw tyranny to be the logical culmination of democracy, so Bane proclaims revolution as “a new era in Western civilization”, knowing full well he is accelerating its self-destruction. An image of the nihilist, postmodern West, Gotham is a land seemingly beyond redemption, and it is no more than Bruce Wayne’s noblesse oblige to its inhabitants that brings him to their defense. Beyond this intimation of moral scruple, the duel between Batman and Bane is purely a brutal combat between opposing wills, the protector and the predator. The new era has dawned, and its supermen are wrathful beasts.
Even if Gotham City were delivered from criminal gangs and external threats, it would still implode from despair. Contemporary society is relentless in pursuit of material gain and sensory pleasure, for it seeks to obliterate any trace of the eternal, raising a tower in defiance of the heaven it denies. Warriors, poets, artists and ascetics who knew Truth in the heavenly kingdom and struggled for it were but fools and psychotherapy cases- they were hung up about a lack of sex or didn’t have television to occupy their time, you see. Today’s hedonist consumers frantically proclaim themselves so much happier in self-worship. Yet everywhere the modern spirit dominates, we witness the wreckage of our vain endeavors in the race toward annihilation; suicide and madness are rational responses to a pointless existence. The early 20th-century expert on conspiracies and subversion Nesta Webster warned of a future imperial system single-mindedly committed to the death of the soul:
Now that civilization is world-wide the dream of a return to nature and the joys of savagery conjured up by Rousseau and Weishaupt can never be realized. Yet if civilization in a material sense cannot be destroyed, it is nonetheless possible to take the soul out of it, to reduce it to a dead and heartless machine without human feelings or divine aspirations. The Bolsheviks continue to exist amidst telephones, electric light, and other amenities of modern life, but they have almost killed the soul of Russia. In this sense then civilization may pass away, not as the civilizations of the ancient world passed away, leaving only desert sands and crumbling ruins behind them, but vanishing imperceptibly from beneath the outward structure of our existing institutions. Here is the final goal of the world revolution.
Christopher Nolan made The Dark Knight Rises both ominous and captivating, but there is no catharsis to complete the work. Its continuous foreboding reflects our own subconscious anticipation of the next great war, the next market crash, the next cataclysm and the end of all things. And what is Gotham but the depraved and dying polis, corrupted spiritually through transgression? The city nonetheless still awaits its redeemer. Having rejected salvation in Christ, Western man has murdered God in his heart, replacing the divine image with that of the beast[2]. He seeks an earthly kingdom and joyfully will welcome superman, the new god who is Antichrist. No political movements or military actions in themselves could stave off this day, but only a counter-revolution of love and repentance.


[1] Gangster Squad was promptly pulled by studio chiefs and a more appropriate trailer rolled out. Django Unchained, a sure Quentin Tarantino masterpiece set for Christmas, features Jamie Foxx as an escaped African slave-turned-bounty hunter in the antebellum South. When asked how he feels about his new profession, Django replies, “Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” Needless to say, this elicited a laugh-track response from many in the audience. And why should anyone be concerned over such incitement to murder? After all, it’s just a movie.
[2] 19th-century Russian thinker Ivan Aksakov gave a brilliant summation of the prideful self-will so characteristic of our age:
Progress that denies God and Christ ultimately becomes regression; civilization ends in savagery; liberty in despotism and slavery. Casting from himself God’s image, man will inevitably strip away, as he already is doing, his human image to manifest that of the beast.