A few more thoughts on wonder and contemporary culture, if you’ll bear with me. Wonder as a sought-after object (as opposed to a manner of apprehending what is found) becomes, perhaps, just another way of curing boredom—Walker Percy wasn’t advocating a Russian assault on Greece so that we could better appreciate the Parthenon, but pointing out how that situation, stumbled into, might force one to confront the sight as sublime.
Seeking to experience wonder only or intentionally through the experience of such a threat is dangerous. Jack Gladney, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, sees the experience of mortality—and, ultimately, the committing of acts of violence—as the only ways to escape the mind-numbing boredom of everyday reality. The novel is bleak precisely because he never experiences anything like the sublime—only moments that are too exciting to be called boredom, but which are nevertheless wholly unsatisfying. (The so-called nihilism of Joel and Ethan Coen might be understood as a related phenomenon.) Lighter, more comic versions of this can be found in novels like Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys or Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, where bored students and academics wreck their lives or the lives of those around them in search of moments of excitement.
The bleakest version of this experience might be best embodied by Heath Ledger’s performance of the Joker in The Dark Knight. “Some people,” the now well-known line goes, “just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker’s plots actively prevent him from being bored—he is what Jack Gladney, absent the realization that committing mindless violence is no way to lead a life, might have become.
The threat of boredom—perhaps a part of the decadence of Nolan’s Gotham—quietly helps differentiate this darkest of our contemporary dark re-boots from a movie like The Wrath of Khan. They don’t share an understanding of what’s at stake. Gotham City is sleek and modern, but doesn’t seem to touch the souls of its inhabitants. Wayne Manor has already burned to the ground; Batman’s “home” is alternately an antiseptic penthouse apartment and the Bat Cave. He is compelled by his knowledge of what he ought to do, but the audience never sees him find beauty in the city or lives he seeks to preserve. Star Trek’s Kirk loses his truest friend; Batman loses his love. But while Kirk is overwhelmed by the extraordinary, human beauty of his friend’s life, Batman has to move toward the Joker in order to stop him. Rather than feeling wonder at a new day, he takes on the mantle of “dark knight.”