“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabit it, and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit, and it goes by the name of London.”
(Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd,
in Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton, 2007.))
In many ways, the developing and expanding England (1700s-1800s, where it peaked with its industrial boom), known for its lack of values and moral degradation (the almost oxymoronic ‘Victorian values’) and exemplified in particular by the city of London, is reminiscent of the money-grubbing culture of the US of the 1980s and 1990s, with its war and increased crime, epitomised in New York City in which the abject ethical decay as well as the disparity between classes (with the rich growing richer and the poor, poorer) could be seen. Both these cities stand for the growth and development of two of the most powerful countries of the world, that have retained their dominance and withstood the test of time, have in recent years (the so-called ‘modern’ age) been seen to exhibit problematic principles in the utilitarian fight for further authority and wealth.
In this context, it is possible to compare and contrast the two cities in this light, examining literature and films that have dealt with the subject, pitting apparent modernity and progression against the sordid reality, and thus the need for revolution. The Batman films and comics (set in the Big Apple, a.k.a Gotham City) as well as Johnson’s poem ‘London’ deal primarily with these issues. These lands of ‘opportunity’ and ‘wealth’ are actually anything but for the ones that do not belong to the privileged few.
The phrase ‘the dark knight,’ a moniker given to the character Batman, as well as the title of the most successful (2008) of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy (2005-2012) on him and of one of the ongoing comic book series featuring him, seems to suit both fictional character Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego, ‘Batman,’ as well as Johnson’s narrator Thales from the poem ‘London’ (1738). They both are disillusioned and disturbed (thus ‘dark,’ brooding characters) and feel the desire to change society and bring a change, a revolution of sorts (thus ‘knights’). However, where on the one hand Bruce Wayne (Batman’s true, secret identity) attempts to protect his city, Gotham, as he believes in the intrinsic good of the people, Thales on the other hand believes that corruption has seeped into all of London, due to a variety of factors, such as people’s capitalistic greed, Robert Walpole’s government and foreign influences from France and Spain. Thales’s wish to leave the city of London so as to escape to the countryside mirrors Wayne’s leaving Gotham City to live in Asia for seven years (in the first film, Batman Begins, 2005) after witnessing his parents’ death.
However, just as Thales cannot simply escape the corruption (as the fraudulent conduct he finds is endemic and all-pervasive, and can surely debase pastoral life, too), Batman returns to Gotham—though Thales ironically remains unaware of the folly of his final decision. Much like in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1603, 1623), where the audience does not find out whether the countryside (or the forest of Arden) remains a preserved, Edenic space or if it, too, becomes corrupted as the city (or the court) is, the reader is kept guessing about the same in Johnson’s ‘London.’ Knowing human nature, all signs point to it becoming just as saturated and contaminated with corruption. Wayne’s persistent belief in people’s goodness is a hope he keeps kindled because of what he sees in the character of Rachel Dawes. In writing and penciling Batman: The Dark Knight, the comic book series that deals with Bruce being unable to completely separate himself from his hometown and battleground for so many years, David Finch found that “It’s not easy […] for Bruce to just completely walk away from a fight he’s been fighting his whole life. And then there’s something in particular that keeps him interested as we kick off the series. […] Batman, in my book, is entirely in Gotham City. And yeah, this is the Batman we all know and love, and have for 70 years. Although Batman is spending time all over the world, he still has Gotham City as his home base, and he still has so many connections and ties and grudges and friendships in Gotham City.” (Newsarama, 2010.) This desire to save the city contrasts with the Biblical incident of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by the angel Gabriel (the Book of Genesis, 18:16-32), cities saturated with vices and ‘deviant’ behaviour (as homosexuality is considered a sin in Christianity), that have only one righteous man (Lot) as a citizen. Thus in the Bible, only Lot’s family is spared while the city is destroyed. Thales, too, has disdain rather than sympathy for his city and desires a revolution so it may be rebuilt.
Similar to the Biblical cities, both Gotham and London are in a state of moral decay- in Batman Begins, Gotham is overrun by organised crime circuits, moral depravity, and dangerous individuals manipulating the system. Similar elements are seen in Johnson’s ‘London,’ in which corrupt traders mock the poor, and courtiers, the “flatt’ring sycophants” (as accurately described by Webster’s Antonio from The Duchess of Malfi) crack the same joke in “a thousand ways” (s XVIII, l xi). This makes Thales feel that all citizens displaying loyalty to Robert Walpole are corrupt and engaged in what Johnson earlier described as “awkward flattery” (as they were mourning the fire his estate caught). He universalises suffering in this, as something not only an individual feels—everyone, he believes, is subject to Walpole’s dishonesty. The same notion also comes up in the 2007 Tim Burton film Sweeney Todd, quoted above, wherein a crooked judge (portrayed by Alan Rickman) represents the debauched society run by the powerful. In the words of the film’s titular character, in the city of London as represented in the film, “At the top of the hole sit a privileged few, making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo, turning beauty into filth and greed.” Therefore, cultural values called into question and a sense of a complete disintegration of morals is displayed, in Gotham as in London.
London has been nicknamed, due to the moral as well as physical pollution that pervades the city, ‘the Smoke’ (archaic). This is almost like a Dickens novel, many of which are set in London, with its stifling atmosphere, soot and squalor. His fictional, London-like city of Coketown (Hard Times, 1845.), for instance, is a monotonous jungle of red bricks, with snakes of smoke coiling out of factories—like London during the industrial revolution. The dreary tediousness is also brought out here as in his Oliver Twist (1837), with the impression of isolation and hopelessness felt in the settings, despite (or perhaps because of) these cities being ‘industrialised.’ The true impoverishment of these depraved cities is highlighted through Dickens’s repetition of the word “same” in Hard Times as well as “neglect” in Oliver Twist, allowing for heavy meaning and emphasis to be carried by a single word. Just as London has been called ‘the Smoke,’ New York City is referred to as Gotham and has been since before the Batman comics. The nickname has been traced back to November, 1807 (while the character of Batman first appeared in 1939), in Washington Irving’s Salmagundi Papers, where he lampooned the city by referring to it as “craftily crazy” (Mental Floss, 2015), and this nickname was adopted by New Yorkers with pride, with many local establishments named for this monicker (Gotham Comedy Club, Gotham Writers). Further, as been quoted as describing the pastiche city of fictional Gotham as “New York at night.” (Popik, 2008.)
The city of London is in this regard analogous to Gotham City, despite their temporal as well as spacial differences (as Gotham is anther name for New York City in the US), as they both have become wastelands. T.S. Eliot’s poetry therefore becomes relevant to this analysis of a degraded society as his works, such as ‘The Waste Land’ lament the ruin of society as brought about by modern culture. His disenchanted narrative brings into focus the splinters in society and gives a sense of frustration, particularly through his use of fragmentation wherein the reader must piece together various parts in order to get a hint of the whole. He believed prostitution to be the lowest form of moral degradation and hints at it in most of his poems in order to criticise society. He makes use the incoherence and inadequacy of language in this poem as well as ‘Preludes,’ where the grimy, sordid reality of society is brought sharply into focus. Johnson attempts the same in his ‘London,’ employing the Juvenalian satire (that is, the pessimistic form of satire working through scorn, outrage and ridicule), in his imitation of Juvenal’s Third Satire, which seems closer to Saint Augustine’s ‘the City of Man’ from his text The City of God (354-430 A.D.) The book along with his The Enchiridion (translating to the ‘manual’ or ‘handbook’), 420 A.D., is the basis for the fictional book of the same name from Adventure Time (TV series, 2010-present), that allows tears between dimensions.
William Blake’s ‘London,’ from his Songs of Experience (1794), also criticises the city in a similar manner and through a similar play with language. His repetition of the word “charter’d” implies that every aspect of the city has been structured, and that even the River Thames itself has been tamed into submission. There is a sense of hemming-in, a restriction. With the use of repetition, the city’s claustrophobic sense is revealed and all the members of the society—be they men, prostitutes, soldiers or chimney-sweeps—are known only by what they leave behind. As Thales pronounces his judgement, unlike the narrator of Johnson’s ‘Vanity of Human Wishes,’ who merely observes as an outsider, he highlights the deplorable conditions just as Eliot and Blake do. In the poem ‘London,’ the righteous are singled-out as victims while villains and fools are favoured, benefitting from an unjust government. The good meet a bad end and the bad go free. Folly is exalted and virtue spurned. Thus only knaves prosper in Johnson’s London, since “slow rises worth, by poverty deprest.” He pits virtues against vices and says that the latter prosper while the former are punished in the twisted society. Moreover, any form of defiance is punished. “Behold rebellious Virtue,” Jonson writes, “quite o’erthrown,/Behold our Fame, our Wealth, our Lives your own.” He is aware that revolution necessarily involves bloodshed, and is referring to it as virtuous. This moment of breaking off, of rebelling, is spoken of, reminiscent of Satan rebelling against god and having to face the wrath of heaven- thrown into purgatory. It is just the same in Tim Burton’s London, where his Sweeney Todd finds, “In these once familiar streets, I feel shadows everywhere.”
Blake, further, talks of “mind-forg’d manacles,” a concept that becomes intrinsically relevant to Johnson’s poem of the same title, as it deals with entrapment being mental, that restrictive chains can be broken free of by a strong enough thought. This is why Johnson seeks to inspire a revolution through his narrator Thales: in order to provoke people to think and be free of the mental chains of anguish and suffering. Despite his deeply skeptical outlook of society, he holds out for the possibility of revolution and in this he is a vigilante, like Nolan’s Batman who moves against and outside of the law to bring justice to the citizens of his city. Lieutenant Robin John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a vanguard in this context, working with the system. David Finch, writer/artist with DC Comics (publisher of the Batman comics) discusses the character of Batman as “very driven and black and white. I love that in a world of so much grey he can cut through it with so much clarity. Right or wrong, he never has to question. And there’s something very engaging about a character that pushes his limits and never surrenders.” (Newsarama, 2010.) Bruce Wayne, when in his persona as the vigilante Batman, is known to go to great lengths to avoid killing people. However, in the original film series, of which the first two have been directed by Tim Burton, he is seen to deliberately kill numerous people who may be considered innocent, whereas in Nolan’d trilogy, he is more cautious in comparison. This mirrors the comic books in which Batman can be seen to kill people more unscrupulously initially. Similarly, the character Deadpool (Marvel comics) also kills people mercilessly and is therefore a mercenary rather than a vigilante, and claims that he us “not a superhero,” in the comics as in the recent film (2016).
In context of this vigilantism and drive for revolution, Marxist sociologist Antonio Negri’s interpretation of the Greek concept of ‘kairos,’ that is, the opportune moment, becomes important. There were two words used by the ancient Greek for time- of chronological time (chronos), and of a time lapse, or an undefined time in which everything happens (kairos). Kairos deals with the latter. Negri explains this concept as an arrow leaving a bow which progresses in a particular direction and cannot come back once it sets off towards its target. Similarly, a revolution, once incited, progresses in the required direction, towards its goal. Provided that the correct catalyst is provided, a revolution holds immense ability to arouse a change, which cannot be turned back or stopped. Negri writes, “Kairos is an extremely temporal point, because Being is an opening up in time; and at each instant that it opens up, it must be invented—it must invent itself. Kairos is just this: the moment when the arrow of Being is shot, the moment of opening, the invention of Being on the edge of time. We live each instant on this margin of Being that is endlessly being constructed. […] If one stops, it stops. Kairos is the way in which one sees the world, a point of view.” (Negri on Negri, 2004.)
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Argentine guerrilla leader and Marxist revolutionary, also talks of similar notions of revolution, as a vanguard (as he worked within the system). He famously remarks, “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall,” implying that a one must provoke a revolution into action by taking charge, and not waiting for it to come about. He led a civil war in Argentina, much like the wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe in an almost repetition of the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, fictionalised in the novels and TV series A Song of Ice and Fire (the novels by George R. R. Martin), or A Game of Thrones (the HBO original). In ‘London,’ Thales attempts to incite an unstoppable civil war against Robert Walpole’s government, while less than forty years later, America’s war for independence is fought (1776). A similar civil war took place in France, where a period of violence known as The Reign of Terror (1793-1794) took place at the onset of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and saw mass executions, particularly of the nobility and political figures, who had lost their inherited power. This Revolution saw the emergence of the horrifying figure of Napoleon.
The Joker’s wars in The Dark Knight, as in Warner Brothers’ original Batman series, is beyond the system in that he does not attempt to be an icon or a vigilante. His suffering has been so great that he has surpassed it and feels the desire to change the world, seen in his iconic line “Do you want to know how I got these scars?” He is, as Shakespeare’s King Lear, never taken seriously and yet is, as he himself declares, the “better class of criminal this city deserves,” just as Batman is “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” (2008)
Negri’s essay ‘The Constitution of Time’ from his Time for Revolution also deals with such themes, tracing the fracture lines which force capitalist society into perpetual crisis. This is the very calamity that Johnson writes of, where the deprivation (along with other factors) has led people to let go of their scruples and lead an existence devoid of principles or moral codes. Thus, in a society with a social as well as economic crisis on its hands, a vigilante necessarily must come from a certain position of advantage, due to the social inequality present. This play of power is deeply ingrained in ideological patterns and is hard (or nearly impossible) to break. For instance, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) in the film Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) was only able to save as many Jews as he did due to his superior position; had he himself been a Jew, he would not possess the power to save any. Bruce Wayne, in The Dark Knight films is wealthy and thus wields the power to act and criticise. Further, it is necessary to remain anonymous, as he and Thales both do (with the latter fleeing to the countryside at the moment of revolution coming upon them) as an accessible leader or figurehead can be killed off, leading to pandemonium among the people following them. An idea, however, cannot be destroyed and is thus the most powerful tool in a revolution as the one being dealt with in both the text and the film. As Che Guevara puts it in his The Motorcycle Diaries, “ I know you are here to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.” (1995.)
Hope can be seen at the end in both The Dark Knight trilogy as well as ‘London,’ in that the collective public mourning signifies that there is hope for London, just as Bruce Wayne continues to watch over and believe in Gotham City. However, there is an element of misguided unity that can be seen—Johnson criticises people’s unity in support of Robert Walpole, thinking them ignorant for it as he considers Walpole to be an unscrupulous figure. Further, the citizens of Gotham, too, were united against Wayne at the start of The Dark Knight Rises, as he had taken the blame for Harvey Dent’s misdeeds in the previous film. (Batman and Police Commissioner James Gordon concealed the crimes of Harvey Dent and preserved “Harvey’s value as the White Knight,” so Batman “will only be the Dark Knight,” as they did not want to attribute conflicting embodiments of both chaos and order to him. (Langley, T. 2012.)) However, this is simply the humanity of the citizens, as it is in human nature to come together, even if they are doing so in their follies, as their mistakes bind them together and make them human: corruptible but intrinsically good at heart. We can see this as one ray of hope in the otherwise darkly pessimistic poem. In the films, the ray of hope comes in the form of Wayne passing the baton on to Lieutenant Robin John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) at the end of the final film (2012) to signify that hope remains for Gotham City, much as Thales passes over to his agitated young friend when he leaves for the countryside, since he feels the leader must come from the masses (whereas he is privileged and therefore able to start the revolution). This cyclical design can be seen in Blake’s ‘London,’ too, where the sequence of misery recommences at the end, in the form of a new human being starting life: a baby born into poverty, to a cursing, prostitute mother.