The movie Joker (2019) garnered both acclaim and concerns from a wide range of viewers and critics. Based on the aggregate ratings of critic scores, the movie sure seems controversial. However, ratings of the viewers do, almost unambiguously, imply that the Joker is a cinematic masterpiece. Either way, there’s no denying that the impact the movie makes about mental health and societal dysfunction would be huge or everlasting.
The movie ventures into depicting the nature of many mental illnesses in a dark world, and it’s representation thereof is nothing short of great in my books. However, I’ve also noticed something that Joaquin Phoenix’s joker embodies so well. It’s something that lies on the thin line dividing norm and deviance. For me, the final iteration of the Joker’s personality does not only represent mental illness, but also a very sinister side of the unfettered human psyche. I suppose this can be well explained with reference to the basics of the psyche model introduced by the world-renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud.
Freud’s Three Agents
Id, ego and super-ego are three distinct agents which make up the psyche of an individual. These agents were first defined by the renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, the thought flow of an individual is a result of the interaction between these three agents. Consciousness is initiated by Id, which comprises of base instincts of the human condition. The ego bridges the stream of consciousness created by Id with the super-ego, which is the critical faculty which evaluates and reforms a thought process through rationalization and moralization. These three agents are purely psychological concepts, and do not correspond to actual physiological features of the brain.
The id is said to be the most base part of the human psyche. It encompasses raw emotions, impulses and instincts of the human condition. Instinctual drives such as lust and aggression are formed in the id. The id exists in a person often in the same state since birth.
The ego is a more higher-level component of the concept of the human psyche. It reconciles the conscious arising from id with the conditions outlined by the super-ego. It actively does reasoning and engages in other rational processes to reform a person’s raw conscious based on the requirements of the super-ego.
The super-ego is the top-most level component of the human psyche in Freudian psychology. It sets moral, rational and other standards to which an ego should adjust a particular consciousness to. As opined by Freud, the super-ego is often a by-product of the social or cultural conditioning of an individual; It is the embodiment of the internalization of cultural norms in an individual.
Arthur Fleck, the beginnings
It is evident that an average human with a sound mental health is able to act on his thoughts in a more civil and restrained manner. This could be argued as an example of the three psychic agents functioning well.
The movie begins with Arthur Fleck, despite his mental illnesses caused by previous trauma, doing his best to fit his demeanour to prevalent social norms in the environment (Which is, Gotham City) that he lives in. He was, at most times, an average city dweller as far as norms and beliefs of the people of Gotham were concerned. He had gone through episodes of rage and sadness due to various injustices, mishaps and failures that he has encountered, but manages to cope them without venting his reactions causing harm to others. This would imply that the agents ego and super-ego were functioning on high gear to suppress the id from materialising its outburst of insanity.
Arthur was considerate of what people in Gotham thought. He was narcissistic, as he was constantly trying to look “normal” in order to be more accepted by people. In his notebook, he writes that society expects people having mental illnesses to pretend that they do not have them, and thereafter proceeds to conceal symptoms of his illnesses and pursue a career as a comedian. Arthur’s psyche had a semblance of a workable interaction between the Freudian psychic agents. His ego was able to transform the instinctively driven impulsive consciousness — which arose from Id — into a more rational and moral one based on the demands of the super-ego. This was possible arguably due to his ego defence mechanisms working on high gear.
According to Freudian psychology, an individual utilizes defence mechanisms to prevent an individual being overwhelmed by Id and super-ego or feelings such as guilt and anxiety. The subject of ego defence mechanisms have been expanded ever since it was first introduced by Sigmund Freud, and now it elaborates many types of defences.
Descent into madness
As the story progresses, Arthur’s ability to suppress his mental illnesses begins to recede. This causes him to act abruptly, purely involuntarily at some times. His impulsive nature begins to show. He vents the frustrations that arise from bullying, shaming, harassment and finally, his mental illnesses, actively rather than passively as shown earlier in the movie. This is a sign of the deterioration of the super-ego as well as the ego’s lose of restraint over Id.
As Arthur begins to lose faith in humanity, he loses interest in everything that makes a society or a community from spiralling into anarchy and chaos. This includes the moral fabric (regardless of its state) of the community that he lives in and the respect for authority and the status quo. The ego’s failure to reconcile Id and the super-ego becomes more apparent as Arthur becomes more indifferent towards everything that was once supposed to mean something to him. This includes his job as a comedian, his worries over how people perceive him, and even the current political crisis that is growing in the city.
Enter the Joker
It’s arguable that the climactic phase of the development of the character: Joker begins with the shocking truth Arthur discovers after reading about his mother’s clinical records. In an episode of unchecked rage, fuelled by an overwhelming feeling of betrayal, Arthur destroys the only person he lived for, and the only person who had genuinely cared about him.
Embracing nihilism, and shedding almost every sense of morality and common good, Arthur begins to tread on a dark pathway of humanity. His reins over his demons have vanquished. The moment in which he proceeds to shoot a TV talk show host in front of many people can be regarded as the culmination of the Id’s unfettered manifestation in his psyche. All the basest of instinctual drives of the human condition operate unchecked and unadulterated within his mind.
It is quite widely regarded that psychopaths have little to no sense of conscience. According to Freudian psychology, conscience is mostly present in the super-ego. It’s the super-ego where feelings such as sense of morality and empathy reside. Psychopaths operate on their basest instincts and impulses with no further thought. In a way, psychopaths are the embodiment of the harmful side of unadulterated human instincts.
The Joker, formerly known as Arthur, can be well regarded as a psychopath. His behaviour isn’t anti-social per se, though he can be clinically diagnosed of antisocial behaviour. An antisocial person’s behaviour stems from a deep-seeded hatred for society. The Joker’s agenda isn’t any hatred for society. His agenda is nothing but his impulses. This does not imply that the Joker is an egocentric person. He is not. An egocentric person has a well functioning conscience. A sociopath can be an egocentric individual since he/she has a well functioning conscience which fuels the agenda behind their actions. The joker isn’t. The joker is driven by pure impulse, not conscience.
The entire content of this article represents one of my observation on explaining a man’s spiralling into insanity using a renowned model in psychology. I should disclaim that I am no professional in this field; My knowledge on the matter is elementary. I’m just an individual who’s interested in reading about these themes and subjects.
The bulk of the content of this article is about explaining the changes in the psyche of Arthur which finally transforms him into the Joker. There are many other content in this movie which serve as an incisive commentary on mental health, and how the activities of various segments in society have a profound impact on it. My observation is that, the primary focus of the subtext of this movie is not hating society for being indifferent or brutal, it’s about realizing how subtly mental illnesses manifest in a person’s psyche. As for many things in life, I have no coherent answer to this. However, I believe the world is certainly doing better than before to tackle the issue of mental illness profoundly. I could only hope that, for the betterment of mankind, mental health issues are dealt with more compassionately such that individuals of the like of Arthur Fleck would do well in life.