Is the Joker Hypersane?

The psychology and philosophy of Batman’s Joker.

Posted Sep 18, 2019

Source: ilikeyellow/Shutterstock

The fear of clowns is called coulrophobia. With his bleached white skin, green hair, bright red lips, and rictus grin, the Joker can evoke a similar fear.

In 1970, the robotics professor Masahiro Mori posited the theory of the uncanny valley. For the most part, our emotional response toward machines is fairly neutral, while our emotional response towards human beings and objects such as teddy bears, is fairly positive. But if something looks almost but not quite human, it arouses negative feelings of eeriness and revulsion: the so-called uncanny valley.

What explains the uncanny valley? It could be that humanoids such as the Joker evoke death or illness. Or it could be that they mess with our minds in some way—by violating norms and expectations, or by being deceptive and difficult to read.

The Joker’s rictus grin certainly makes him both deceptive and difficult to read. The Joker sometimes wears on his lapel a flower that can shoot deadly venom: That a flower is normally harmless, even charming, underscores his deeply deceptive nature.

Even so, the Joker has, over his several incarnations, become a cultural icon, one of the most recognizable villains in all of fiction. Some people even root for him. Why, despite all the negative feelings that he elicits, is the Joker such a compelling character? What do we see in him? And what does he do for us?

As a psychiatrist, I am tempted to diagnose the Joker with elements of mental disorder. But the Joker is a fictional character that need not and does not comply with natural norms and patterns. To diagnose him would also be to unfairly stigmatize people with mental disorders.

What I will say is that, unlike people with a mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, the Joker is consistent, calculating, and purposeful, and does not appear to suffer, or at least not directly, from his “condition." The Joker has a plan, even if it is merely to upset and overturn the established order, to create chaos. And he relishes that plan. 

In Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, the Joker says: "Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos..."

This impulse for chaos and irrationality is deeply ingrained in our human nature. The Dionysian orgy of the Ancient Greeks with its drunken dancing and debauchery can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual “Apollonian” order and restraint imposed by society and epitomized, of course, by Batman.

In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche recognizes this Dionysian impulse as a primal and universal force:

"Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St John’s and St Vitus’s dancing we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea."

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy kept it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it was transformed into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force. It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles and regress to a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id and the Jungian shadow. The Joker is an extreme embodiment of what we would or could become without the civilizing influence of culture and society.

The Dionysian orgy of the Ancient Greeks has echoes in the Egyptian festivals of drunkenness, the Roman bacchanalia, and carnival, among many others. Today, our pent-up desire for disorder is vented by other means, including drug-fueled raves, sadomasochistic sex, and fictional characters such as the Joker—which, rather than inciting chaos, as some people fear, act more as an outlet and catharsis for our own dark impulses.

When the Joker says, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger," he is nodding to Nietzsche, who wrote, in the Twilight of Idols (1889), "Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger." Moreover, the Joker is a personification of Nietzsche’s Superman or "Hyperhuman" (Übermensch), who eschews slave (Christian) morality and even master (Ancient) morality in favor of unbridled power. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), Nietzsche contrasts the Superman with the degenerate last man of egalitarian modernity, with his bourgeois aspirations, self-satisfied moral superiority, and rank hypocrisy.

What the Joker most wants is to make Batman break his rule not to kill, and thereby expose his phoniness and reveal him as not so different from himself. In Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), he says: “I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”

This “one bad day” principle recalls Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger (1942), in which the protagonist, Meursault, kills a man because he is bothered by the heat and bright sunlight.

If the Joker is not mentally ill, is he, as has been suggested, hypersane? In my new book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, I define hypersanity as a free state of higher consciousness and argue that hypersane people are calm, contained, and constructive—that is, very much the opposite of the Joker. The orgy and even S&M sex are forms of controlled chaos, even creative chaos. Certainly, no real harm is done or intended. Similarly, hypersane people are able to embrace their shadow, to harness it without being driven or dominated by it.

But the Joker, having maimed or killed thousands of people, is so completely overrun by his shadow that he is nothing but an undifferentiated shadow, nothing but sheer darkness.

Unlike the Joker, and indeed Batman, who are flat, one-dimensional characters, hypersane people are able to unite the Apollonian and Dionysian and, like the Ancient Greeks, realize the ever-receding dream of civilization.