Saturday, 14 July 2012

Batman and Aeneas... from Furor to Pietas

Let's roll back the clouds of time.  It's seventeen years ago.  I'm sitting at a desk next to my friend Jenny and I'm doodling.  I always did.  Mr Martin is standing up the front of the class and he's talking about Book 2 of the Aeneid in his southern drawl. He's talking about pietas and he's talking about furor, about the way the epic hero is transformed from the Greek ideal to the Roman.   He's describing Aeneas' exit from Troy - the moment he lifts his father onto his shoulders and becomes a veritable symbol for the value the Romans most prized: pietas. 

Fast forward three years. I'm in a portacabin masquerading as a seminar room, sitting at a desk scribbling about the Milton.  I'm tracing the emergence of a heroic ideal from the Iliad through to Paradise Lost. I'm winging it and writing about pietas and furor and thanking my lucky stars that Mr Martin was such a good teacher.  I love me a bit of epic tradition, so I ace the essay. Go me.   

Fast forward fourteen years and I'm setting the sofa in our cluttered study watching Batman Begins projecting onto a dirty white wall.  I'm watching Batman lifting the unconscious body of his mentor Henri Ducard (aka Ra's Al Ghul) onto his shoulders, saving him from an inferno.

It's a turning point in the movie.

The young Bruce Wayne has just made a monumental decision.  He has chosen to serve justice and law, instead of personal vengeance.  It  is crucial to his development as a heroic symbol and affects every decision he makes from that day forward.

HEY! Think I,  I've come across that before! 

In the film, Batman is torn between the philosophy of assassin Ra's Al Ghul who is a proponent of self and will: 
"The will is everything. If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely"
And the philosophy of Rachel Dawes, a childhood sweetheart who works in the DA's office and is a passionate believer in law and justice: 
"Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better, which is why we have an impartial system."
Batman chooses Rachel's path in his actions, but must always struggle with the emotion which drives him.  This is encapsulated in a line which Rachel says to Bruce Wayne and which later, as Batman, he repeats back to her:

Rachel to Bruce Wayne: "..But it's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you."

Later, Batman says to Rachel: "It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me."

Rachel is an emblem of pietas, the supreme value of the Roman ethos which embodies devotion to one's family, one's country and one's mission, a "self-less sense of duty".  She is stoical, believing in state and justice over self. 

Ra's Al Ghul is an emblem of furor, violent madness, senseless fury, passionate desire - albeit one disguised by the mantle of apparent physical control. He channels anger and will over state. 

The battle between the two, externally and internally is the central conflict of the film.  It is also a central theme in the Aeneid.  Where Homer's heroes, such as Achilles, are individualistic, prizing personal honor and glory above all else, Virgil's hero Aeneas redefines heroism.  His hero overcomes his individualism to strive for what is best for the state. 

And then we have Batman.  What does Batman say about our culture and our values?   What does his conflict mean for us? 


J.M. Blackman said...

I've always been so drawn to Batman because of his constant struggle with his inner turmoil and the conflicts that rile and challenge it from the outside. What I love about him is that it's always about choice. And he always chooses to be more, do more. I think we as people have this struggle all the time, as a species and on an individual basis. But we aren't all as noble (or stubborn) as Batman.

Excellently written post. Glad you shared.

Lisa Shambrook said...

Yes, it is a human struggle, like JM said. I often think we've been tried as a people and been found wanting, especially when you look at the selfish society we live in.
I've been a people-pleaser most of my life, wanting to be sure everyone's happy before I worry about myself. Now, I'm obviously nowhere Batman in the philanthropic sense, but I've had to try and redress the balance as I've got older and appreciated that my needs are important too!
This world needs Heroes though...and I think they need to be self-less to make a difference!

Sophie Moss said...

I think I need to see this movie now. Very well-written and thoughtful post. Interested to see how others respond to the question you raised.