Judgment: Public and Private, Finite and Infinite (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 2)

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, and Memento, but NOT The Dark Knight Rises)

We ended the first installment asking why Rachel’s admonition to Bruce in Batman Begins that revenge is “never the same” as justice should always hold true.  What if the public system of justice is broken, and only the private individual can set wrongs right?

Here we can turn back to O’Donovan for illumination.  The proper object of judgment, he says, is a “new public context, and in this way judgment is distinct from all actions that have as their object a private or restricted good.”  Harvey (or Wayne at the beginning of the trilogy) might contend that they do have the public good in mind, however much it may appear to be a mere private vendetta.  But in any case, this is not enough for legitimacy: “A political act with political authority occurs where not only the interests of the community are in play, but the agency of the community as well.”  Why is this so important? 

“Political judgment prevents the fragmentation of the public space into myriad private spaces, each construed according to the differing perceptions and emotions of individual agents.  This is necessary because the dissolution of the common world into mutual incomprehension is always possible.  The alternative to public judgment is not no judgment, but private judgments, multitudinous and conflicting, frustrating each other and denying everyone the space of freedom.  ‘There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judg. 21:25).  A private person acting only on his or her own behalf could not establish a new public context, and so could not perform an act of political judgment.  The private act of vengeance, even if it is intended to serve the common good, is not done ‘on behalf of’ the community.  There was a popular story-line used by more than one author in the heyday of the detective story, which concerned a public-spirited individual resolved, in a spirit of disinterested justice, to settle society’s unpaid debts by killing off its unpunished murderers.  The pleasing paradox in the idea was that the objects of this disinterested justice inevitably became victims rather than executed criminals.  Such informal dealings could never give society what it needs in response to crime, which is judgment.” (23-24)  

This “popular story-line” is of course one construal of Harvey Two-Face’s determination to hunt down the corrupt cops who colluded with the Joker’s schemes.  Such a resort to private judgment, “construed according to the perceptions and emotions of an individual agent,” cannot in the end remain a judgment according to truth, as Nolan is keen to show us.  Whereas Harvey begins by exacting or threatening vengeance on crime lord Maroni and on cops Wurtz and Ramirez who led Rachel to her death, he then extends this vengeance to Gordon and to Batman, whose crime is simply not having been fast enough to save her.  Indeed, he goes further than this, threatening to kill the family member Gordon loves most, simply so that Gordon will feel his pain, so that by the equal suffering of another, his own suffering may somehow be balanced.  Twisted into the demands of fulfilling a private agenda, the public context, in which truth must be served, is quickly swallowed up in a solipsistic desire to establish some kind of meaning for the avenger’s dark and tortured inner world.  Again, O’Donovan:

“There is, however, something in the private yearning for vengeance that political judgment can never satisfy.  The inner logic of grievance is to demand a cosmic reckoning. Wrong, as Hegel described it, is ‘infinite,’ and demands infinite judgment. The victim demands that the wrong should become the whole business of the universe.  In confronting his adversary and striking him down he will command the world, which is reduced to that one event on which it appears to depend for its vindication.”    

Thus Dent’s quest for private justice, while on the surface it may still seem quite different from the Joker’s indifference to any criteria for justice, resolves into much the same thing.  Both have discarded as useless and arbitrary the idea of a publicly intelligible and objectively valid narrative of truth which establishes an ordered world of meaning and sustains the pursuit of public justice.  In its place, what is true and hence what is just have no meaning beyond what each individual’s narrative gives them.  Truth becomes mere projection, mere illusion.


To reflect more profoundly on this theme we must turn to Nolan’s earlier film Memento, which explores with uncompromising severity the predicament of the individual who seeks to give meaning to his life through the pursuit of revenge.  

Memento tells the chilling tale of Leonard Shelby, a man who has short-term memory loss from a head injury inflicted by the man who raped and murdered his wife (”John G.”), an injury sustained right after he discovered his wife dead.  Henceforth, he lives an existence haunted by this last memory, unable to form new memories and thus trapped in a world devoid of any order and meaning beyond what he can superimpose upon it.  And superimpose he does, setting himself the task of tracking down his wife’s murderer, who escaped justice and is no longer being pursued by the police, ostensibly in hopes of setting right this wrong, but in reality, merely to give meaning to his otherwise pointless life.  He establishes a careful routine, writes himself notes, tattoos records of key evidence on his body, in a relentless search to find and kill his wife’s murderer.  Early in the film, one character asks him what the point is, if he won’t even remember gaining vengeance.  If the purpose of vengeance is satisfaction, how he can ever be satisfied if he cannot carry with him the memory of having achieved such vengeance?  “But even if you get your revenge, you won’t remember it.  You won’t remember it.  You won’t even know it’s happened,” she says.  Leonard’s immediate response is, “So I’ll take a picture, get a tattoo”—he’ll find a way to remember it.  But no, he has a better answer—it’s not about him.  “The world doesn’t disappear when you close your eyes, does it?  My actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them.  My wife deserves vengeance, and it doesn’t make any difference whether I know about it.”

The rest of the film mercilessly picks apart this assertion, this assertion that his private judgment will have objective meaning in the public world, the assertion that the world is out there beyond the confines of his mind.  Instead, we are shown, in a cataclysmic reveal at the end, that all he has is the narrative he tells himself, which is a projection of his desire to create meaning for himself in a world that no longer holds any.  The enactment of revenge, which will set his private world to rights, is the only means by which the world will hold any meaning for him.  And of course, unable to escape the confines of his own mind, he becomes subject to the manipulations of others, who may plant ideas in his head for their own purposes (a theme, of course, explored further in Nolan’s Inception).  So we find him throughout the film following a fabricated trail of evidence that leads to his friend Teddy as his wife’s murderer; the film begins with him killing Teddy and subsequently unfolds in reverse (treating its audience to the same ignorance about the past that would give meaning to the present that Leonard himself is forever doomed to).  Only at the end, which is of course the beginning, do we learn that it was Leonard himself who fabricated the first evidence. 

Teddy had revealed to him the terrible truth that Leonard has already taken vengeance; he tracked down and killed his wife’s assailant months or years ago, and has now by mistake killed at least innocent man as collateral damage.  If this is true, how does he not remember?  Teddy even took a picture to help him remember.  But Leonard has long since cast away the picture, wanting to forget.  Why?  Teddy has the answer: “I gave you a reason to live and you were more than happy to help.  You lie to yourself!  You don’t want the truth, the truth is a f***ing coward.  So you make up your own truth.”  Leonard, he charges, is the one who removed 12 pages from the police file that he uses to try to find the murderer.  “Why would I do that?” answers Leonard.  “To set yourself a puzzle you won’t ever be able to solve. . . . You just wander around playing detective.  You’re living a dream, kid.  A dead wife to pine for and a sense of purpose to your life.  A romantic quest which you wouldn’t end even if I wasn’t in the picture.”  Most damning of all is Teddy’s claim (which the film leaves us unsure whether to believe) that the man Leonard was tracking was not in fact his wife’s murderer, only her rapist.  She survived the assault, and later committed suicide because of Leonard’s condition.  Leonard, he says, has created this whole narrative in order to escape his guilt (again, this is a theme that Nolan will later brilliantly develop in Inception). 

In any case, Leonard cannot handle the truth.  Teddy is right.  He needs this quest for vengeance to give meaning to his world.  So Leonard provides himself with evidence that he knows will lead him in pursuit of Teddy, and drives off to tattoo this lie to his body, knowing he will forget the conversation.  As he drives, he says to himself, echoing his line earlier (later!) to Natalie: “I have to believe in the world outside my own mind.  I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them.  I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. . . . But do I?  Do I believe the world’s still there?  Is it still out there? (pause) Yes.”  And then he ends, trying to reassure himself.  “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are.  I’m no different.”  The mirror—in other words, the reflexive look back at oneself—is the only objectivity that he can have.  The world is only what he says it is.  


Private justice, in short, is not judgment according to truth; it is the attempt to compensate for a deficit of truth.  Gnawed by guilt and doubt, unable to be assured of the congruence between his perceptions and reality, Leonard turns to vengeance as the one thing that promises to bridge this gap and inject stable meaning back into the world.  The same themes can be found in Nolan’s 2006 The Prestige, similarly obsessed with the relationship between truth and illusion, the blinding quest for vengeance, and the gnawing doubt—the gap between perception and reality—that fuels the quest for vengeance.*  And we find it as well in Batman Begins, where we learn that Bruce’s desire for vengeance is in large part an effort to compensate for his own guilt and doubt—was it his fault that his parents were shot?  Evil and death, in short, turn the world upside down, they are the ultimate assertion of absurdity that shatters the meaningful ordered reality that we all seek to cling to, and leave us tormented by doubt.  The yearning for justice, then, is the yearning to restore order and meaning, the desire to regain certainty and to fully undo the absurdity that evil has thrown into the world.

The abandonment of private justice, therefore, and acceptance of public judgment, is a renunciation of this quest for full satisfaction, for an infinite justice that will compensate for the deficit of meaning in the world.  “The victim is required to accept a moment of renunciation, even disappointment, in allowing the community to give finite and limited recognition to the wrong by enacting judgment on it,” says O’Donovan.  But can the community achieve even this limited task?  Or is it doomed to fall subject to the inertia of bureaucracy, the taint of corruption, the shortage of public willpower?  Whereas Memento merely toys with this idea as the self-justification that Leonard offers himself for his pursuit of vengeance, Nolan’s Batman trilogy wrestles with the question with deadly seriousness.


We return then to Bruce’s response to Rachel—”Well your system of justice is broken.”  Rachel responds angrily, “Don’t you tell me the system’s broken, Bruce!  I’m out here every day trying to fix it while you mope around using your grief as an excuse to do nothing.  You care about justice?  Look beyond your own pain, Bruce.”  Although Bruce’s resort to private vengeance is clearly wrong, Nolan’s trilogy will go on to reveal Rachel’s idealistic faith that she can fix the system as tragically naive in the face of the ever-resourceful forces of injustice.  But her challenge to Bruce to take action, rather than merely wallowing in his own private grief, is heard, and he leaves Gotham on a quest to find a new meaning to his life, and new means to fight injustice.  Both seem to be provided in the form of the League of Shadows, which shares, he is told, his passion for justice.  The League offers a way of transcending his merely private quest for vengeance, which lacks truth, but also the weak “system” in which Rachel puts her faith, which lacks effectiveness.  The League promises to transcend any merely human justice and guarantee true, natural justice—”This world is run by tyrants and corrupt bureaucrats,” its leader Ducard says to Bruce.  “Our code respects only the natural order of things—we’re not bound by their hypocrisy.”  Later, before being permitted to join the League, Bruce is asked to “demonstrate his commitment to justice” by killing a local murderer whom they have captured.  Bruce recoils, falling back ultimately on Rachel’s faith in the “system.”  He protests, “I’m no executioner, this man should be tried.”  “By whom?  Corrupt bureaucrats?” Ducard spits back. “Criminals mock society’s laws.”  Ducard in turn mocks him for his compassion.  For the League’s justice according to “the natural order of things” is one that is without mercy.  As such, it too falls short of truth, for it treats all the citizens of Gotham as equally guilty and deserving of destruction.  Bruce is asked by the League to lead the force that will destroy Gotham, which is “beyond saving,” he is told.  The “justice” of the League of Shadows, therefore, is indiscriminate, just as Harvey Two-Face’s becomes, and of course, discrimination is central to the task of judgment.  O’Donovan comments, “It is a sign of inadequate judgment to rest content with the superficial description, a hallmark of ‘summary’ justice.”  The League’s justice shares with the quest for private justice the sense that justice must be infinite, final, eschatological, that every evildoer receive the full and final penalty—death—which evil deserves.  

So in becoming Batman, Wayne renounces both the way of private justice and of cosmic justice, both of which purport to be according to truth, to take seriously the evil of the world which public justice faces only halfheartedly, but which thus lie about the world by denying the possibility of redemption.  In refusing this infinite justice, Wayne commits himself to accepting the “finite and limited” judgment that politics can enact.  

Or does he?  He does not completely put his faith, as Rachel does, in Gotham’s system of public justice.  And therein lies the central ambiguity of his vocation, and the ambiguity of Gotham’s ability to enact judgment, to which we shall turn in the following segment.

* In The Prestige, Angier’s need for revenge against Borden for his wife’s death is intensified, rather than weakened, by the ambiguity surrounding it, the doubt as to whether Borden was really at fault or it was a mere accident.  Borden tells him, “How often I’ve fought with my self over that night .. one half of me swearing blind that I tied a simple slip knot… the other half convinced that I tied the Langford double [a riskier knot, which Angier’s wife was presumably unable to untie and thus drowned].  I suppose I’ll never know for sure.”  It is this uncertainty that angers Angier more than a straightforward admission of guilt, as he cries repeatedly, “How can he not know?”


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