This is a bit different from what I normally post (I suppose the real question is what do I normally post?) but I thought I would share it. This last semester I had a class on Sören Kierkegaard and existentialism. The following is my final paper for that class. Hopefully, even if you don’t have a general understanding of Kierkegaard this is still interesting.
A grim and gritty fog hovers over the city of Gotham, clinging to the slate-gray buildings and coating everything with a thin film of despair. A shadow flutters overhead, grappling up buildings and fading into shadows, gradually moving towards the bat-shaped light in the sky. Meanwhile, in the hazy, blue glow of an LCD screen, a butler takes a sip of tea. Watching, waiting, and hoping for the Batman to return to his cave. Two individuals bound to a similar goal, but with two distinct methods. Kierkegaard speaks of the Knight of Resignation and the Knight of Faith, both of whom are on a similar trajectory, but one stops short of achieving their full existence. When you examine the canon of Batman, particularly in the Christopher Nolan trilogy1, you find that Batman is an example of a potential Knight of Resignation, whereas his loyal butler, Alfred, is akin to the Knight of Faith.
It starts, as any retelling of the Batman narrative, in a dirty alley soaked in blood and scattered with pearls. Bruce Wayne has a promise to keep to his parents, a promise that he will rid Gotham of crime, fear, and despair and find victory in justice once and for all. A lofty goal, to be certain. But one that he cannot escape from due to his grief.
He is not cowardly; he is not afraid to let it steal into his most secret, his most remote thoughts, to let it twist and entwine itself intricately around every ligament of his consciousness—if his love comes to grief, he will never be able to wrench himself out of it. (Fear and Trembling, 42)
Because of this individual event, Bruce is not only thrown into despair, but he is made aware of the infinite nature of that despair. He will never fully recover from that loss, as he will never recover his parents. The only solution is to fulfill his impossible promise and become the hero that Gotham deserves.
Gotham itself is a hot mess. Most individuals are involved in some shady deal or another whether it involves drugs, trafficking, murder, and the like. In the early days of the Batman, there weren’t even psychological killers like the Joker, but that didn’t mean the city didn’t have problems. “Gotham is a city immersed in a long, drawn out existential crisis: it has lost its order and its meaning, and it has nowhere to turn” (Walker, 17). The struggle to pull Gotham out of the shadows of crime is practically an impossible one, but one that Bruce takes onto his shoulders.
At first, Bruce decides to take matters into his own hands, going after his parents’ killer as himself. This revenge plot further solidifies his place as a Knight of Resignation. If he were truly a Knight of Faith, he would have faith that his parents would be brought back to him, regardless of how absurd that belief would be. Instead, he goes after Joe Chill, only to be thwarted when a member of the mafia kills him first. Confronting the head of the mafia, Falcone, he learns that there is power to be had from being feared.
There are several examples of fear used in Batman Begins. “Falcone uses fear as leverage against the justice system and citizens of Gotham in order to keep his illegal empire running. Scarecrow uses his potent hallucinogen to subdue his enemies” (Walker, 27), and Bruce’s mentor Ducard teaches Bruce that “to conquer fear, you must become fear, and men fear most what they cannot see” (Batman Begins).
Bruce takes this lesson to heart, creating the persona of Batman from his childhood fear of bats. He uses this persona to strike fear into the heart of Gotham’s criminal underground, bringing them face to face with the reality of their despair.
By allying himself with his fears, Batman allows them to pass from his heart into the hearts of his enemies. Accordingly, we must look at the suit, the car, the bat-signal, and so on as artistic and therapeutic creations whereby Bruce Wayne converts his internal fears into external objects so that those who oppose justice can see the terror they truly inspire, ironically making these villains suffer the same violent trauma they try to inflict upon others. (White, 191)
And since the criminals in Gotham do not fear the police, the law, or even death, he causes them to fear him, to the point that some wish for death. Fear is certainly a powerful motivator and is a tactic that you don’t see from most heroes.
Another major difference between Batman and most other heroes that exist is that he is fundamentally human. He doesn’t have the alien powers of Superman, isn’t descended from the gods like Wonder Woman or Aquaman, and didn’t receive powers in a freak accident like the Flash or from a magical artifact like Green Lantern. Underneath his Kevlar, cowl, and gadgets, he is only a man. And so his methods for fighting crime come directly from human nature—hence the use of fear tactics. Even as he dons the suit and becomes something that appears to be more than human, that doesn’t change the fact that he is.
Through this transformation, Batman doesn’t forget who he is. Kierkegaard states that the “knight does not contradict himself, and it is a contradiction to forget the whole substance of his life and yet remain the same. He feels no inclination to become another person” (Fear and Trembling, 43). You might think that Bruce has become another person, or that he’s become two separate people, because of his Batman persona and “Brucie Wayne” playboy persona, and therefore cannot be a Knight of any kind. This is not the case. At the heart of his choice is the recollection of a small boy who has just witnessed his parents’ murder. “The knight, then will recollect everything, but this recollection is precisely the pain, and yet in infinite resignation he is reconciled with existence” (Fear and Trembling, 43). In a way, Batman is simply the personification of Bruce’s despair, his dark shadows coming to protect the night.
As Bruce acts as Batman, he is required to teleologically suspend the ethical through his vigilantism. According to the law, it would be illegal to assault and threaten muggers, and even illegal to own some of the weaponry and gadgets that he uses to accomplish his tasks. He still acts in spite of this for the greater good of Gotham. “Batman is the first to break the law if he deems it unjust, and the first to work against the police if they overstep the boundaries of either law or justice” (White, 185). He acts outside of the bounds of the law in an attempt to serve his own justice. In this way, he isn’t all that different from some of his villains, including Two-Face.The difference lies in the fact that there is still a higher power at play in Batman’s motivations. “Batman is not superior to universal ethical law because of a special relationship with God; instead, Batman receives his justification from his special relationship with an ideal. He is willing to sacrifice and devote his life to the ideal of justice” (Walker, 25). It may not be a religious power, but he does believe in the potential of Gotham and holds himself to a standard that will uphold that ideal. Batman, for the most part, moves outside of the boundaries of ethics with the one major exception being that of killing.
This is where another split from the Knight of Faith comes in. A Knight of Faith would be entirely willing to sacrifice anything, and everything in order to adhere to their ideal or their faith. “Here it holds true that only the one who works gets bread, that only the one who was in anxiety finds rest, that only the one who draws the knife gets Isaac” (Fear and Trembling, 27). Bruce may have been in anxiety and found rest through his stint as Batman, but he never really got the chance to draw the knife on Isaac. Not only does he not teleologically suspend the ethical, but he doesn’t particularly get the chance to sacrifice anything. One could say that he was prepared to sacrifice his “ethics” in order to kill Joe Chill in Batman Begins, but he is never required to follow through on that. He was prepared to sacrifice his identity in The Dark Knight, but Harvey Dent steps instead. He never was prepared to sacrifice Rachel at all. In this way, once again, Batman can’t be a Knight of Faith. He did sacrifice quite a bit to become the Batman, but his motivations were not based on faith.
At the beginning of Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard gives four examples of potential outcomes of the story of Abraham and Isaac. The first seems to examine what it would look like if Abraham were a Knight of Infinite Resignation, leaving his faith at the bottom of the mountain. Abraham says “Stupid boy, do you think I am your father? I am an idolator. Do you think it is god’s command? No, it is my desire” (Fear and Trembling, 10). Isaac immediately prays to God in faith, and Abraham is resigned in the act of killing him, and even being viewed as a monster by Isaac, because at least his son still had faith in God.
Batman has a similar ethical dilemma at the end of The Dark Knight. After Harvey Dent’s transition into Two-Face and his subsequent death, Batman has the decision to make Dent’s final actions known to the general populace of Gotham, thereby remaining a hero in the eyes of the city or take responsibility for the murders that Dent committed. “The people of Gotham City have entered the picture in the role of Isaac, those whose faith must be maintained through deception” (Moret). Knowing that Gotham will lose hope, and therefore fall into an even greater despair, Batman takes the role of Abraham and convinces the city that he is a monster. He says, “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded” (The Dark Knight). Unfortunately for Batman, his faith is not the one being rewarded in this case. This is partially because Batman’s foundation is not based on faith, but rather on the universal good of Gotham. He would rather be seen as a killer to maintain that universal good than have faith that the universal good will be maintained regardless of his actions.
Of course, Batman is anything but a killer. Once Bruce becomes the Batman, he is not willing to cross the line of killing as, from his perspective, that would make him the same as the criminals he is acting against. He avoids it at all costs. This places him firmly in the camp of the ethical. “The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is very obvious. The tragic hero is still within the ethical” (Fear and Trembling, 59). If he were truly a Knight of Faith, he would be able to teleologically suspend the ethical in all cases, not just when it serves him.
Speaking of serving, let’s return our focus to the mild-mannered butler waiting back at the cave. He has been with Bruce since the beginning, since before the event that caused the boy’s spiral into existential dread. He was the sole caregiver, practically his father figure, of the boy until he left on his seven-year journey of self-discovery and continued to wait for him back at Wayne Manor. There is an absurdity to the loyalty that Alfred exhibits. “His devotion to Wayne reveals his belief in a higher duty, an ethical obligation to serve another to the best of one’s ability” (184). Why else would he stay in the service of a man with so little self-preservation?
Alfred has a belief that he can save Bruce from his inner demons, but he also has the faith to “sacrifice” Bruce for the good of Gotham. Heaven knows that Alfred doesn’t agree with Batman’s tactics, and yet for years he stays by the vigilante’s side to keep Bruce together—and I mean that quite literally. And in all of this, he is incredibly quiet about his mission. “He attends to his job. To see him makes one think of him as a pen-pusher who has lost his soul to Italian bookkeeping, so punctilious is he. Sunday is for him a holiday. He goes to church” (Fear and Trembling, 39).
Alfred is also generally silent. While he is able to express his devotion to Bruce and his hopes for him, he doesn’t fully explain all that he’s done,and continued to do in order for Bruce to obtain those hopes. He stays silent in his anxiety, he “cannot speak, because he cannot say that which would explain everything” (Fear and Trembling, 115). When he discusses his fantasy for Bruce, he mentions that he and Bruce would not speak, but that they would both know that they both ended up where they needed to be. Alfred is in the depths of anxiety when it comes to Bruce being Batman, and even when it comes to Bruce and his grief. Alfred’s and “Abraham’s paradox is that of a completely altruistic father, who loves his child despite knowing that his son may be destined to suffer from forces he can never protect the boy from” (White, 196). So, Alfred is resigned.
In order to be either of the Knights, it is necessary to have that state of infinite resignation.
Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith so that anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation do I become conscious of my eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by the virtue of faith. (Fear and Trembling, 46).
Alfred’s form of infinite resignation is that he is resigned to the fact that Bruce is Batman and is resigned to his status as butler and caregiver. Alfred has enough influence on Bruce that he could stop him from becoming Batman, but he also believes in the justice that Batman can bring to Gotham.
Batman’s mission to free Gotham of all crime is not a concrete goal. It is vast and abstract and has the potential to last into the eternities, and yet Batman is resigned to his fate—he will fight crime in Gotham until it is eradicated or until he dies trying. Alfred’s goal is finite. “Alfred Pennyworth is a knight of a different breed. He is not devoted to some infinite and ideal virtue, but to a humble trade. He strives not to make the infinite real, but to preserve only one man: Bruce Wayne” (White, 192). And yet, the man he wishes to preserve is the same man that he has to sacrifice. Any key difference between Alfred and Bruce is that “he makes one more movement even more wonderful than all the others, for he says: Nevertheless I have faith that I will get her—that is, by virtue of the absurd, by virtue of the fact that for God all things are possible” (Fear and Trembling, 46). The most important factor here is that he has faith that Bruce will eventually be returned to him.
Alfred also teleologically suspends the ethical in the pursuit of his goals. He helps Master Wayne to create the Batman, tends to him, and doesn’t find it necessary to report his vigilantism. Michael Caine, the actor for Alfred in the Christopher Nolan films, described the backstory of Mr. Pennyworth as being an ex-Special Air Service member that Bruce’s father hired as a butler with a bit of an edge (Schwartz). With this description, I can’t imagine that Alfred would do practically anything to ensure Bruce is safe, from carrying him out of a burning Wayne Manor (which we see in Batman Begins) to killing someone if necessary (not seen, but certainly possible) to confronting him with the truth knowing full well that he may lose Bruce entirely (The Dark Knight Rises).
The only difference between Alfred and the quintessential Knight of Faith, Abraham, is that Alfred exists primarily in a kinetic state. That is to say, when one reads the story of Abraham and Isaac, we come to the sacrifice and resolution fairly quickly. It is still difficult to understand, but it is a quick transition. For Alfred, we have three movies wherein we see him come to the state of resignation and exist there for a period of time, before Bruce finally sacrifices himself for Gotham city in The Dark Knight Rises. Alfred doesn’t see a return of his “son” figure until the very end of the trilogy, when he recognizes Bruce and Selina Kyle in Florence and realizes that Bruce didn’t end up sacrificing himself for Gotham after all.
And here, we get to an issue of semantics with Batman being a true Knight of Infinite Resignation. “The authentic tragic hero sacrifices himself and everything that is his for the universal; his act and every emotion in him belong to the universal; he is open, and in this disclosure he is the beloved son of ethics” (Fear and Trembling, 113). One could argue that since Bruce doesn’t die at the end of The Dark Knight Rises that he doesn’t sacrifice himself. “A knight does not cancel his resignation, he keeps his love just as young as it was in the first moment; he never loses it simply because he has made the movement infinitely” (Fear and Trembling, 44). So how can we reconcile this?
Based on all of our previous analyses, it would seem that while Alfred ends up personifying the Knight of Faith, having his “son” brought back to him, Bruce can’t be a Knight of Resignation. But that doesn’t mean that Batman himself is not. On the contrary. Batman is an entity outside of the realms of mortality. He is a tragic hero that can live on infinitely simply because of the nature of his symbol. The Dark Knight Rises has an open ending, wherein John Blake, a police officer crucial to the plot thus far, is revealed to actually be named Robin and he is brought to the Batcave. We don’t know if he picks up the mantle of Batman, or if this is suggesting that Bruce will return to become Batman again. Regardless, this ending makes it clear that while Bruce may have moved on, Batman has not.
Bruce’s arc throughout the trilogy comes down to his final line. “A hero can be anyone. Even someone doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hasn’t ended” (The Dark Knight Rises). Bruce needed to find his faith in the world again, and that is what Alfred wanted for him all along. “This oath and this remembrance are a constant pain for Alfred, for he is the one who must stand by and watch Batman struggle to attain his faith, a faith that Batman remains ignorant of because of his complete resignation to an infinite and ideal (and therefore impossible) justice” (White, 196). It is only through Bruce’s experience as the Batman that he is able to come to find faith again.
Nolan’s trilogy truly is an investigation into some of the most fundamental human emotions and questions that exist in existentialism. What do we do when we are confronted with impossible choices, despair, loneliness, and grief? How can we come to find ourselves? How can we find faith in the midst of uncertainty? Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, faith generally doesn’t make sense because it is a paradox. But that paradox can make or break a person. Batman is simultaneously a symbol of hope for Gotham, and a symbol of fear. Alfred, on the other hand, is devastatingly loyal, and yet ready to sacrifice that loyalty in a heartbeat, losing Bruce, if he can save him. Yet, at the center of it all, there is a hope for our existence, and for Gotham. Batman is and always will be “the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A Dark Knight” (The Dark Knight) of Infinite Resignation and a Tragic Hero.