The Joker and Jung’s Shadow
“I hope my death makes more cents than my life.”
Ashley L. Whitaker
R. D. Laing, well-known for his innovative approaches to working with patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, spoke of insanity as “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” Fittingly, in an early scene from Joker, Arthur Fleck asks his counselor, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
The issues bringing many clients into psychotherapy these days involve anxiety about localized (personal), national, and global chaos and upheaval, along with dwindling recreation due to increasing demands on time and attention. Furthermore, questions of meaning and whether a single person can create lasting positive change in the world are all genuine, serious concerns without quick or easy solutions. The therapeutic adage “go slow to go fast” implies that deep-rooted internal change takes time. But time and resources are in short supply for marginalized people in Gotham.
In Arthur Fleck’s journal we read, “I hope my death makes more cents than my life.” The hauntingly cryptic sentence, scribbled in the shaky handwriting indicative of moderate-to-severe motor impairment, bears witness to the impact of upbringing (nurture) on the character’s mental health. Fleck wasn’t born a monstrosity. He did not simply experience one lousy day and decide on a whim to abandon all conventional morality. Rather, on his path he experienced one heartbreak after another.
Ultimately, he chooses to reinterpret his circumstances. “I used to think that my life was a tragedy. But now, I realize it’s a comedy,” Fleck utters before strangling his ailing mother. The Joker is chaos personified.
Batman is to order as the Joker is to chaos. And if Gotham’s hero is light, then certainly the Joker is akin to the Jungian Shadow. Carl Jung stressed the importance of acknowledging our Shadow sides for healthy psychological development. It’s not surprising, then, that people are attracted to the Joker. Everyone needs permission to be bad and break free of social expectations now and then. The Shadow is the part inside us all that thinks it would be amazing to don a clown mask and pull off a heist. It’s the part of us that loves getting away with setting off fireworks in a quiet suburban neighborhood at inopportune times late at night or pulling the fire alarm in a residential building while the tenants are sound asleep. It’s the part of us that asks for a complimentary cup for water in a fast food restaurant, but then sneaks off to the Coca-Cola dispenser and walks off with a free soda.
Despite such behaviors, we don’t think of ourselves as bad people. Rather, we explain away our actions as moral hiccups or fleeting moments of deviancy. We prefer not to acknowledge our Shadow, but Jung would advise us to recognize our dark impulses. The Joker serves as a reminder of the baser qualities of human nature, and he sounds a cautionary note concerning the destructive force of the Shadow when its power is unchecked or unacknowledged.
Trying to cure Fleck of his madness is akin to trying to cure disorder itself. Despite his illness, the Joker ultimately chooses to live as he does. As a guest on The Murray Franklin Show, before confessing to the triple homicide committed in the subway, Fleck says that he had nothing left to lose. As someone with nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Joker isn’t curable. Rather, he is infectious.
According to Fleck, “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” Faced with the Camusian absurdity plaguing life, the Joker has surrendered to the void. He, quite rationally, disregards rationality altogether. Given how little that rationality has served him in the past, this is hardly surprising.
Ultimately, the Joker is quite human, which is unsettling because it means that we all have the potential for significant evil. Jung concludes that “to confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light.” The Joker may be beyond repair, but he can save us to the extent that he prompts us to acknowledge our own shadow.
Ashley L. Whitaker is a neurodivergent psychological researcher specializing in existential, humanistic, and transpersonal approaches to psychology. Her primary scholarly interests center on applying transpersonal perspectives in addressing existential concerns and the juxtaposition of existential thought with popular culture.