Saturday, May 10, 2008

Inner Conflict

One of the things I like in comics is when the characters aren't simply characters, but are also symbols of some sort. In enriches their stories, because their actions and interactions become not just plot but an exploration of ideas and concepts.

I hold that part of the appeal of many characters, particularly in the Gotham City stable, is that they represent natural desires or human defense mechanisms "gone wild". The Joker can be viewed as the very useful, very human "sense of humor" gone very, very bad. The Catwoman can be seen as personifying self-interest taken to the point of amorality, the Riddler as intellectual curiosity fallen into obsession, and the Penguin as ambition rotting into ruthlessness. To some degree, this applies even to Batman, who can be seen as the natural desire for justice taken to the extreme (assuming you consider dressing as a bat and hurling boomerangs at people's heads "extreme"; tastes vary).

That's why Two-Face (who's featured in the forthcoming Batman Dark Knight film) has always been one of my favorite characters. He's certainly not the first figure in literature to reflect man's inherent duality; Two-Face was very consciously adapted from R.L. Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (in fact, it's the book he's reading on the splash page of his first appearance). But he's certainly one of the best, because instead of just representing the "angel and the devil on our shoulders", he also shows the often-difficult process of making a decision based on conflicting impulses. And, you may be interested to know, science backs him up... .

Yesterday, I read "The Conflicted Brain" (by ingenious evolutionary theorist Jon Wilkins, Sante Fe Institute Bulletin, Spring 2008). The article examines the question of how one person -- their brain, really -- can be at odds with itself, and shows that the brain is physically "designed" to be in self-conflict as the result of evolution.
"Brain-imaging studies suggest that different brain regions come into conflict with each other over certain decisions. At the same time, many genes that are expressed in the brain show evidence of having been in a long-term evolutionary conflict with each other. It is possible that when we feel as if we are of two minds, it is precisely because different sets of our own genes have effective control over different regions of our brains, and these different brain regions are exerting antagonistic influences on the decision-making processes. ... In fact, it may turn out to be misleading to talk about the notion of individuals having a single 'self' at all. "
You can read the article for more details, but it demonstrates how adaptively useful such an internal split can be. For example, having different areas of the brain competing to control every decision leads to "an escalatory 'arms race' between different brain regions. ... Eventually, we might expect this to produce an increase in overall brain size. In fact, this may have happened; over the past hundred million years, the size of the mammalian brain has increase disproportionately relative to body size."

The downside, however, is that it leaves us more susceptible to "human behavorial dysfunctions, including schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, and bipolar disorder."

As I've said before, it always disappoints me when Two-Face is represented as a strict 'split-personality'. It robs him of most of his power, which comes from his ability to reflect the human attempt to maintain a unified self despite internal conflict. It's not 'Harvey Dent versus Two-Face'; that's too facile, unsophisticated, and doesn't respect the original concept of the character. Harvey Dent, as an identity, wasn't able to reconcile his inner conflicts; he is replaced by Two-Face precisely because Two-Face CAN resolve those conflicts, simply, effectively, and as quickly as you can flip a coin. As I've stated, the reason Two-Face is so hard to cure is because he's not Harvey Dent's problem; he's his solution.


That's what makes him scary; he represents a malfunction of one of our own human defense mechanisms. Like many Batman villains, he's a cautionary figure, his physical deformities symbolic of the personality deformities he represents. Two-Face isn't a Jason Voorhees, an external monster come to attack us; he's the monster we fear lurking within us all...
"As humans, we routinely engage in a wide variety of self-destructive behaviors. We cheat on our diets. We don't exercise. We smoke and gamble and get addicted to a wide range of substances. It is perhaps time to stop thinking of the human brain as evolution's crowning achievement and the physical embodiment of the 'self'. Rather, our brains are casualties of million of years of internal conflict. Every decision we make is argued out by at least two distinct evolutionary 'selves'. We may eventually discover that multiple personality disorder is simply the most extreme manifestation of a dynamic that governs even the most mundane behaviors in each of us."

13 comments:

Gustavo said...

Of course Freud said all this, in less techno and biological sense, some 120 years ago.
And they said it was just an ad hoc theory.

Here's to you Sigmund, some of us are still willing to follow in your steps, both when we are laughed at and when suddenly "hard"( or approaching so ) science tells us that we were right all along.

Frank Lee Delano said...

For years Two-Face was among my least liked super-villains, as he was so often played as a simple thug with a garish sight and a narrative crutch. It wasn't until Frank Miller and the Batman:TAS began playing up Harvey Dent and the character's moral duality that he began to interest me. In fact, Aaron Eakhart's role is the only reason I have any interest in seeing "The Dark Knight," and that grotesque visage is as shocking today as Dick Sprang's take must have been in the 50's.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Hey, Scipio. Still enjoying the blog. Re: your post, look up the word bicameral on wiki or Google it...

JD48 said...

Nice post, I read the previous ones you linked. But after reading, I'm not sure how the portrayal in Long Halloween comes in conflict with it, hush sure, but LH never showed the two sides as distinct, and the speil about justice before he kills the roman seems to hold with you idea. Now the other portrayls you sited I agree with, but other than the fact that they didn't show dent as violent before the scarring, I can't see the same problem.

SallyP said...

Nicely reasoned, your idea that Two-Face isn't the problem, but the solution, is particularly apt. Which makes me believe that Harvey Dent would STILL be flipping that coin whether he was disfigured or not.

Derek said...

I think Two-Face represents sharing- I mean, self-justifying.

I've heard the idea advanced that we don't actually make any decisions. That we are all exceedingly complex "robots" running along tracks determined by biology and environment. We have no control over our lives; what we perceive to be decision-making is really just our brains justifying our actions as (or after) we make them.

Which brings me back to Two-Face.

As you've said before, when Two-Face was originally conceived, he was a synthesis of his good and evil impulses. Often, he would decide what he was going to do, and the set up the coin toss so that either outcome would have pretty much the same result.

"Bad side, I kill you. Slowly. Good side, I'll make it quick." sort of thing.

And this fits nicely into your "natural desires or human defense mechanisms 'gone wild'" theory.

Self-justification is an extremely important brain function. It allows us to explain our actions to others, as well as assuage guilt. "Putting grandma in a home was best for everyone."

Dwayne "the canoe guy" said...

And, of course, we can only hope that this is what Jonah Hex will look like in the upcoming movie

SallyP said...

Except slightly less toasty.

Tony said...

That's a really good take on Two-Face. I don't have any real comment, just "right on."

Harvey Jerkwater said...

You could argue that Two-Face is the abrogation of responsibility made flesh. He over-simplifies situations into simple dualities and then flips a coin to absolve himself of the burden of choice. However, his simplification of the world into only two sides involves tremendous amounts of choice. To frame the world into dualities takes a lot of shutting-out and selective vision.

And then there's the question of when he "lets fate decide" and flips the coin; yet another choice. But to Harvey, he's not really choosing anything at all.

Two-Face is that guy who does what he wants and later proclaims it was necessity that forced his hand. He's the guy who screws up his life and everyone else's, then proclaims it was due to "bad luck" and "fate." He's the guy who can't handle complexity, and will spend his life trying to cram a round peg into a square hole rather than reframe a problem. He's capable of seeing only two sides in a world with billions of them.

Imagine him murdering a string of cops for some trivial failing because, to Two-Face, Good Cops Don't Do [Whatever].

Harvey Jerkwater said...

To yammer on, Two-Face pairs with both the Joker and Batman brilliantly. It's great they're all in the new movie together.

The Joker is chaos in purple pants. He is no one, he comes from nowhere, and he lives to randomize the world as much as he can. He destroys order and life. Batman is all about order. He spends his life imposing that order and trying to achieve justice in an unjust world, preserving life and seeing that the good are rewarded and the evil punished.

Two-Face is not a halfway point. He refutes them both. He doesn't believe that all is madness, like the Joker, nor does he believe that Batman's quest for order is meaningful. Rather, he believes that there is an order, but that it's "fate," a force that cannot be steered. Two-Face sees himself as the stone-cold realist, the man who sees what's really going on, and he's just going along with it.

(Sorry to take up so much commenting space. Two-Face is such a great character, he gets me chatty.)

plok said...

Since reading the original Two-Face stories a few years ago, he's become my all-time favourite Bat-villain. Not saying anything against the B:TAS origin, which was great, but...I like the Two-Face who's "queer...frightening...!" precisely because he's not crazy.

As Batman isn't crazy, either!

No wonder kids loved comics, when they had stories that vibrated with such gruesome meaning in 'em! Many's the time, on the old school playground, that I wished I had a scarred coin to flip!

Baldric said...

Thanks for the article, very helpful information.
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