Today I would like to take my cue from the 2019 movie by Todd Phillips, masterfully starring Joaquin Phoenix and give credit to this director for having captured and well represented many things that are not at all obvious. First, it makes it clear that mental illness does not have an organic origin but is due to disappointing human relationships. Having this theory supported by an American is no small thing, since in America (and not only unfortunately) the organic psychiatry is the master.
Arthur (Joker) always carries a paper from the psychiatric clinic to justify his sudden laughter attacks in which it is written that they are probably due to brain lesions or neurological disorders but that then it will be discovered that it is instead a mannerism related to the expectations of his mother towards him: “My mother always tells me to smile and make a happy face and that I am in the world to bring joy and laughter”.
Arthur – who lives in Gotham City, city where social degradation and inequality are very high – suffers at the beginning of the movie a series of gratuitous violence and here there is another great intuition of the director because the gratuitous violence is that one which occurs at the beginning of human life, that is, towards children. Unless you think, as some disgusting people do, that children are bad, the violence against them is always free.
Then there is another element well understood by Phillips and it is that the greatest violence, the one that hurts the mind, is indifference or, better to say, the anaffectivity. “I don’t want to die with people walking on me, I want people to see me”.
But precisely this legitimate need to be seen collides with his inability to see others. As if it were a party game, caged in his clown mask, he cannot see the violence hidden behind the masks of others. First, the one of his beloved mother, who in reality has always lied to him and allowed abuse against him, as he will find out later. Then the mask of his friend, who gives him the gun and charges him unfairly and gets him fired from his job. Finally, the one of the ideal father, the professional comedian (Robert De Niro) who tells him “I would give up anything to have a son like you” but in reality is only humiliating and exploiting him for his show.
So we can think that Arthur’s real problem is his inability to see beyond appearances. This blindness makes him castrated, furious, crazy. This inability to see condemns him to an eternal sadomasochistic relationship in which reigns the sick thought that says: “I’m sick because of you”. Sick thought because the real fault is in the own inability to see and get to the rejection, to the “No”. But Joker does not know what is the No. He cannot even possibly separate, he doesn’t know what it is. He is constantly trapped in this perverse and sick logic that forces him to kill the alleged cause of his own illness. His blindness – coming from his lack of affectivity that aims only to take for himself, in need of the recognition of others to compensate and support his uncertain identity (“All my life I never knew if I really existed”), unable to really care about the other to really know them – creates a deadly glue, a deadly alliance between victim and aggressor, even here in a party game where it is no longer possible to distinguish who is the one and who is the other.
The sick logic of which he is the victim leads him to the elimination, killing of the “cause of his malaise”, a mors tua vita mea that immediately turns into a mors tua mors mea, well represented by the continuous mimed suicide. Suicide that consists in the loss of his own human reality, in becoming increasingly cold, anaffective, inhuman. After the murders, he dances! There’s no sign of anger or even hate in his killings anymore. “You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a fucking commedy” he will say as he kills his mother. The transition from the initial anger, when he kicks garbage cans, to the final coldness with which he kills the comedian/father, tells us about the evolution of mental illness better than a book of psychiatry.
Joker becomes a criminal because he lost hope in a human relationship that is not only material but is above all love, attention, interest for the other and not only material milk and physical care. He does not succeed in transforming the affections of anger and hatred into a rejection, in No, but he also does not succeed in transforming them into the fantasy of killing the other mentally, cancelling them, making them disappear, this latter activity is present in the mental illness that in fact, in the vast majority of cases, does not give rise to manifestly aggressive behaviour. Within him the affections were never transformed nor in imagination (the No) but not even in fantasy (mental annulment of the other). He materially discharges the affections because he lost the human reality, he knows exclusively the material reality having blindly believed in those who, cancelling his human identity, treated him exclusively as a physical reality, that is, as an animal. And he, like an animal, discharges the violent affections against the body of the other, killing them.
The director is succesful in is masterpiece in showing us and I would say also letting us touch with hands, how even a ferocious criminal madman is not born as such but becomes like this because he is not able to face the constant disappointments suffered by a violent and false environment and it is probably for this reason that we have for him a feeling of pain and compassion and not of indignation or proper contempt for a murderer.
Where I disagree with the director is in the final part of the movie. To think that a mentally ill person can make a revolution – albeit absolutely legitimate and necessary – is something absurd that has already proved, in history, to be a failure. In order to make a real rebellion it is necessary first to transform oneself, to make one’s destructive, violent and blind instances disappear in order to find a certain identity that allows one to see and reject the other violent, with whom there is no kind of alliance or collusion. You cannot reject the violent mother or the false father if you need their recognition, you inevitably end up in homicide/suicide. You can’t refuse someone else’s violence if violence is within you. The mentally ill person is always structurally violent because they lost hope in the human relationship and the blind rebellion is always fascist and reactionary, because it destroys without building, thus ending up by proposing and legitimizing the status quo ante, making it even more oppressive than before.
Thanks to Chiara Fanasca for the translation of this article