It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
I’ve been thinking about insanity. What it entails. How is affects and infects. The ways in which we perceive madness in its many forms.
“So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness. Madness is the emergency exit…”
That’s a quote from the Joker in Alan Moore & Brian Bolland’s “Batman: The Killing Joke” and that line of dialogue in particular has always leapt out at me when considering psychosis. It’s the idea that, when confronted with things too terrible to comprehend or process, there is a way for the human mind to cope. A built in escape hatch from reality. Insanity.
One of the points that the Joker is trying to make in “The Killing Joke” is that with the correct stimuli anyone can find their way to crazy-town. Even someone as grounded and strong as Commissioner Gordon can fall off that ledge where reason stops and plummet into that endless, tumbling abyss that seems to have consumed many of the Arkham Crowd. And Joker doesn’t just see it as something he can inflict on others, he sees it as an inevitability. All it takes is one bad day and suddenly everyone is the Joker.
That’s how he sees it anyway.
I don’t necessarily agree and clearly neither did Batman but it is an interesting prospect. I believe it is also one of the ideas that makes a character like the Joker so alluring. As opposed to many other comic book rogues, those driven by greed or some morally twisted code, Mister J represents the complete and utter breakdown of order. Entropy and chaos. He’s the lone madman that can perpetrate unimaginable evil because no one can predict his goals. Because he may have none.
I used alluring before because I think there is something attractive about the concept of total freedom. Freedom of action. Freedom from conscience. Freedom to do what we wish, when we wish, consequences be damned. It’s a touch of anarchy that I can’t say hasn’t crossed my mind from time to time. Those little tiny urges that I ignore and put down and, for the most part, don’t even acknowledge. But they are there. Tiny little bursts of madness.
Is it crazy to ask whether or not giving yourself over to such thoughts is appealing? Do I sound insane if I ask if it would feel good to let go of all the rules and codes that you have built up around your everyday actions? Even if it was for a day? Or just a singular moment?
The scary part, at least for me, is contemplating what damage could be done with that sort of mindset. Even if for just a moment.
It’s what makes a character like Harley Quinn so fascinating to me. Here is someone who willingly gave themselves over to the madness. She wasn’t dragged, kicking and screaming, into the maniacal smile club. She chose it. In the Joker she saw someone or something so attractive and enticing that she decided to follow him into the abyss. Perhaps it was a piece of her Puddin’ that she just couldn’t resist or maybe it was a part of herself that was just waiting for an excuse to be released. Either way is scary and captivating, at least for me.
There’s something almost Lovecraftian about Harley’s journey. Here is a studied woman, a professional and master in her field, coming to a situation which her peers would kill to experience. In attempting to help the Joker she finds herself on the very edge of what psychology can understand, let alone treat. Others may have backed away from such a challenge, some may have called the task reckless or impossible. Harleen Quinzel is not one such as they. She is lured towards this unknowable thing, the psyche of the Joker, and in attempting to understand it she is instead corrupted by it. It twists her, making her into something different. Not wrong, not to herself anyway, but changed irrevocably.
That idea of being attracted to that dark place where sanity dare not tread is an old theme. I mentioned Lovecraft before because that is certainly where I got a lot of this fascination I have with insanity. In so many stories Howard Phillip Lovecraft circled the idea of “that which we were never meant to know”. Creatures and concepts outside our understanding of reality which, when confronted, break the minds of those who do.
Even that is tantalizing. Many characters in Lovecraftian works (I’m not just confining this to the stories of the man himself) start with someone trying to figure something out. They are confronted with a mystery or oddity, some dark corner of the world that they wish to shed light on. This inevitably leads down a rabbit hole filled with metaphorical cultists and tentacles (though sometimes it is literally filled cultists and tentacles).
There is a constant theme of immensity that fills these stories. Big things. Big concepts. Stuff so vastly hugely mindbogglingly big that the human mind simply can’t wrap itself around it. So it doesn’t, it breaks instead. Characters pick at a bit of the wrapper to try to get a peek at the gift beneath only to discover that the paper never stops tearing.
Michael Alan Nelson’s “Fall of Cthulhu” is a Lovecraftian epic in comic book form that deals with all of these themes and more. It also introduces a further wrinkle into the “emergency exit” concept posited by the Joker, adding new layers of escape from reality beyond even madness. In Nelson’s own iteration of the Cthulhu Mythos (the sprawling, underlying mythology and canon which most Lovecraftian stories use) there is a creature called The Harlot and she has her Boxes. The Harlot is a dealmaker and wishgranter of an old fey quality, you can get what you want but there is always a price. One of those prices, one that many beg for before the end, is entrance into one of The Harlot’s Boxes. They represent an escape. A total oblivion, enclosed from all other facets of reality so that one might flee from all thought and reason.
In a way it is like death. The ultimate and final escape. Though when dealing with things from the Mythos, sometimes death is the preferable option. One of the first stories in “Fall of Cthulhu” revolves around a man who chooses the Boxes over a reality in which his loved ones and life is being picked apart by eldritch forces he cannot understand.
Again it comes down to the idea of choice. Choosing whether or not to face a world that you think has gone mad or decisions that others would view as insane. Is oblivion preferable to endlessly resisting a waking nightmare or letting go and giving yourself over to the madness?
In some of the best and most inspiring stories we see characters rising above these choices. Pushing through to confront insanity with their own steely determination. It is never an easy struggle, fighting raw insanity almost always changes those involved. I don’t think it would be interesting otherwise.
Batman’s iron will stands as a storm-wall against the tempest that is the Joker. A young girl who calls herself Lucifer will work with The Harlot to try and save the world from greater evils.
These characters are warped by their flirtations with madness. They can’t help but be changed by their experiences and confrontations with things that defy understanding. But I think it is that resistance that keeps me coming back to these stories. These heroes can face insanity and muster up the courage to say, “no thanks, it’s not for me”.
It’s why I don’t agree with the Joker. It’s why I’m not a tentacle worshiping cultist. It’s the belief that our humanity and reason can overcome those little thoughts that come up from time to time. That it is a choice to give in to anarchy or insanity.
I can’t deny those errant thoughts. Those flashes of emotion that I would never act on but are still floating around in my head. Eat the fruit before you pay for it. Ram that car that cut you off. Knock that wine off the shelf.
Sometimes I do wonder though, are those little thoughts just the light creeping in under the door of the Emergency Exit that the Joker was talking about? If so, I’ve thrown a bar over that door and it’s not opening up any time soon.
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