Samuel Johnson’s poem London (p.1738) is written in the form of an imitation of Juvenal’s third satire, and critiques the corruption and moral perversion that has arisen after leaving the glorious days of the Renaissance far behind. The speaker of the poem, Thales, aligns himself with left wing politics and propounds the need for a revolution in the near future which would bring about a complete change in London’s current state of affairs. A similar view of corruption and the need for revolutionary action is depicted in in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The city of London and Gotham are comparable in terms of their moral decadence. In this essay, I will attempt to compare and contrast the cities London and Gotham in terms of the corruption, the need for mass rebellion and revolution and vigilante justice.
Johnson describes London as a place where “Malice, Rapine, Accident conspire”. Thales is most critical about foreign elements influencing British society and believes that the French and Spanish people who come and reside in London and shift the boundaries of ethics and morality. Johnson is also against the Walpole government, and attacks it with allegations of favouritism, nepotism and a callous attitude towards the citizens.As critic Harriet Raghunathan states in her Introduction to Johnson in the Worldview Critical Edition of the poem, “everyday life is a battle, in which the individual strives to maintain his integrity in the face of an insidious moral invasion, as a country tries to avoid military or political capitulation. England is now a mercantile capitalist country and this is reflected in Johnson’s picture of pervasive mercenary values and the competition and struggle everywhere apparent in the poem.”
Christopher Nolan’s Gotham is also a city exposed to chaos and anarchy, where criminals like the Joker and Bane are able to suppress the masses and create an atmosphere of apocalyptic frenzy. In Matthew Arnold’s terms, the Joker and Bane symbolise the populace “doing as they like.” It is a populace as the “sterner self,” which “likes bawling, hustling and smashing”. In The Dark Knight (2008), the villainous Joker posits a Nietzschean allusion. Early in the fil, he states, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger”. This line is a punning adaptation of the familiar Nietzschean aphorism, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” This allusion invites the viewer to consider the different aspects of the human struggle to maintain order against nihilism and chaos. It may suggest that while the city’s corruption and amorality may not kill the citizens, it will ignite in them the strength and fervour to bring about a revolution.
Thales, as the speaker of London, assumes the position of a vanguard by remarking on the shortcomings of political institutions and encouraging citizens to unite in protest. His vision of an ideal place is the countryside, which is still untarnished by moral corruption and is free of the foreign influences of the French. Thales is able to inspire because he is a citizen of London himself and thus harbours a sense of belonging and goodwill towards the city. In a way, he illustrates the link between the personal and the political. Because he is poor and unrewarded, with all his wealth dissipated, he is able to feel strongly for the Londoners. Since the whole land is in need of rejuvenation, the degenerate creatures must be replaced by such men who will prefer a virtuous simplicity to corrupting luxury, cultivate sturdy independence instead of a sycophantic dependence and bring to moral ugliness and decay, a new vitality and beauty. In the Gotham, this role is taken up by Batman. However, he, as a vigilante, operates outside of the law.
Batman seeks law, order, and justice for Gotham and its citizens; such is his justification for acting outside the law. In the first movie (Batman Begins, 2005) itself, the fact that it is necessary to sometimes step outside the rules of society in order to save it is established clearly. During his training Ducard tells Bruce, “Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’sunderstanding”. Like Thales, Batman is also accepted as a defender of justice because of his own personal experiences. Having seen his own parents being shot and murdered and being orphaned at a young age forces him to feel ardently for other innocent citizens.Batman is the double for Bruce Wayne, who clearly represents an Arnoldian liberal manifesting his best selfin a barbarian “with its characteristics of high spirit, choice manners, and distinguished bearing” searching for a best self in an attempt to express a “general humane spirit”.
In London, Johnson attacks the Walpole government for suppressing independent thinking and lays emphasis on the difficulties faced by outspoken writers in getting rewards and recognition. The lines “Since unrewarded Science toils in Vain”, and “Slow rises Worth by Poverty Deprest” convey that meritorious individuals and people with a genuine thirst for knowledge aren’t able to make a name for themselves in society. In order to be successful, one must be corrupt and more importantly, obsequious.In order to fit in, one must either ape the fawning Frenchman or be plunged into hated poverty. He implies that awkward flattery has become the status quo in London. This idea is also illustrated in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Swift contrasts the unfair way people were elected to the parliament in England with the absurd way people in Lilliput win their political positions, that is through rope dancing and leaping over sticks. The candidates for the ministerial positions are trained to dance on straight ropes from an early age and only those who are able to dance on ropes with dexterity become misters.The ones who manage to flatter and impress the Emperor with their dancing are the ones who are successful.
The idea that individuals lose their sense of selves in order to fit in is criticised by the Joker in The Dark Knight (2012). The Joker’s trademark phrase, “Why so serious?” is repeated several times throughout the film, emphasizing hisperpetual curiosity as to why people keep trying to stick to the system, follow the rules, do as others tell them to do, when nothing ever turns out the way they plan.The Joker simply aims to upset the status quo and introduce principles of anarchy to the people of Gotham (foreshadowing Bane’s campaign against Gotham’s elite in The Dark Knight Rises). Anarchy, the Joker argues, is much more fair than a judicial code because it is based on chaos, one of the universal constants; one can never expect the unexpected.Perhaps the anarchy that the Joker proposes is the same revolution and rebellion that Thales and Johnson want, the only difference being that while Thales offers it as a peaceful idea, the Joker tries to execute it in a psychopathic frenzy. In any case, both Thales and the Joker wish to disturb the current state of affairs. However, where such a revolution leads to is not addressed.
London also suggests that the corrupt surroundings consume every individual, forcing a loss of virtue in every heart. In the poem, the righteous are in fact singled out as victims, and villains and fools are favoured as beneficiaries of an unjust government. The good come to a bad end, and the bad go scot free. Essentially, begging becomes the mark of virtue. Johnson’s claims anticipate the idea of “mind forged manacles” suggested later by William Blake in his poem London (1794). The idea proposes that human beings were born free but are now trapped by ideological patterns. Johnson laments the Londoners being so naïve as to become entrenched in the ideology of Frenchmen.
Similarly, corrupt circumstances also drive Harvey Dent to a point of mental perversion in The Dark Knight.After the Joker kills Rachel, Dent undergoes a profound transformation into the villain Two Face, and seeks revenge on those responsible for her death. Dent, encouraged by the Joker, goes on a murderous rampage and eventually falls to his death. Nolan here warn us about how even the most innocent of people are liable to corruption and radical transformation.
Finally, as Thales retires from London at the end of the poem and leaves behind his agitated friend to lead the revolution, Batman too retires, entrusting police detective Blake with his responsibilities of protecting Gotham. In both cases, there is an unspoken promise of returning when the city is at the peak of revolution. Both Thales and Batman believe in idea of Kairos, that at an opportune moment, a revolution will arise that will change the city forever.