Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!
A koan, in Western usage, generally refers to an unanswerable riddle or meaningless statement, usually in a quasi-derisive reference to Buddhist thought. The actual koans of Zen Buddhism, however, are neither riddles nor meaningless. Perhaps the most famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (a very loose translation of a koan by the Japanese Zen master Ekaku Hakuin) is not a question without an answer; rather, it is a metaphorical invitation to explore the rejection of duality. Two hands clapping represents our dualistic division of the universe into binaries–meaningful/meaningless, light/dark, good/bad, male/female, West/East; a single hand clapping would then represent an attempt to think about the world as a monad, that those apparent opposites are in fact manifestations of a single unified whole.
Superman is a well-defined character with a strong personality. Too strong; he’s so nice, so endlessly perfect and flawless that he becomes boring. He’s just nice–what does that even mean? It’s so vague, he has no personality of his own, no character, he’s just an empty shell that exists to serve as a moral center for the DC universe.
The Joker, now there’s a compelling character. So iconic, so cool, laughing and thumbing his nose at authority. A prankster, a monster, a loser desperate for attention. The last role of a great actor, so powerful and difficult that it killed him. Always lying, always joking, he believes in nothing, does nothing, is nothing, a pathetic loser child trying to get Bat-daddy’s attention. Absurdly easy to write or play, just have him laugh and be cruel, no need for rhyme or reason or personality, such a boring, superficial character only a child could find interesting.
Superman is a hero. He always does what’s right. He attacks someone whose potential for harm has already been neutralized, and threatens twice to kill him; that’s how we know he’s a hero. Batman is a hero. He never breaks his code. He lets the Joker run around endangering countless lives; that’s how we know he’s the hero. Batman tricks and tests Superman; Superman destroys Batman’s property; that’s how we know they’re allies.
We know the Joker is a villain because he never actually hurts anyone. That’s the villain’s job, after all: to try to hurt people, and fail.
Superman isn’t greater than anyone, but he’s better than you. He’s one small man who does what seems right to him. Always, without exception, he does what seems right to him. Can you say that?
Batman can’t. He doesn’t trust how things seem; he lives in a mask, after all. He needs a code, and sometimes he does things that seem wrong, but he tells himself it’s right because he’s following the code, sticking to his principles. Everything must be questioned, tested, subjected to experiment, even if that means endangering thousands of people in Metropolis.
We know Batman and the Joker are opposites: good and evil; hero and villain; order and chaos; the man who never laughs and the man who never stops.
We know Superman and Batman are opposites: light and dark; day and night; hope and fear; the famous, unmasked hero who hides as a bumbling nobody and the masked urban legend who hides as a rich celebrity.
We know Superman and the Joker are opposites: caring and callous; kind and cruel; protector and killer; truth, justice, and the American way and tricks, crime, and cheating.
But if Batman and the Joker are both opposites of Superman, they must be the same. If Superman and Batman are both opposites of the Joker, they must be the same. If the Joker and Superman are both opposites of Batman, they must be the same. Everyone is the opposite of everyone else, and everyone is the same.
Binaries don’t work. It’s more complicated than that, because everything is one.
“The sound of one hand clapping.”
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