Margaret Atwood explores science fiction, fantasy and mythology in her newest book In Other Worlds. This excerpt contains her look at Batman through a Jungian lens. Enjoy...
In addition to his disguising "normal" alter-ego, the superhero of the 1940s was required to have a powerful enemy or two. Carl Jung made no secret of the fact that he based much of his mapping of the psyche on literature and art. … A comic-book character leading a split life and engaged in a battle between Good and Evil might well be expected to show Jungian characteristics, and in fact Batman is an almost perfect case study.
Batman has three main enemies, who to a Jungian would obviously be projections of Bruce Wayne that Wayne himself has not come to terms with. (In Blakean terms, the two male enemies would be called his Spectres and the female one might be his Emanation.) For Bruce, the female element is conflicted - he's a confirmed bachelor, and has no nice-girl Lois Lane sentimental figure in his life. But the sinuous and desirable Catwoman with whom he frequently skirmishes must be his Jungian "dark anima" figure: even a child could recognize that there was a lot of unresolved electricity going on between those two.
The sadistic card-playing Joker, with his sinister-clown appearance, is Batman's Jungian Shadow - his own interest in dress-up and jokes turned malicious. There's another Shadow villain - the Penguin - who wears an outfit reminiscent of period cartoons of capitalists, with spats, cigarette holder, and top hat. His civilian alias even has a three-barrelled, pretentious, old-plutocrat faux-English name: Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot. The Penguin is the "rich" side of playboy Bruce Wayne gone rancid.
Then there's Robin, the Boy Wonder, who is Bruce's ward. Is Bruce gay? Don't even think about it. From the point of view of we mythosophists, Robin as an elemental spirit, like Shakespeare's Puck and Ariel - note the bird name, which links him to the air. His function in the plot is to aid the benevolent master trickster, Batman, with his plans. From the point of view of we Jungians, however, Robin is a Peter Pan figure - he never grows up - and he represents the repressed child within Bruce Wayne, whose parents you'll recall, were murdered when he was very young, thus stunting Bruce's emotional growth.
This is the kind of hay, or perhaps hash, that can be made of such comic-book superheroes once you really get going. Both they and Jung himself can be viewed through Hoffmanesque* magic spectacles and seen to be part of the same mythology.
But from the point of view of we kids - the primary readers - Robin was simply ourselves - what we would be like if we, too, had masks and capes and could go running around in them under the delusion that nobody would know who we were, and - better still - stay up long after our bedtimes, allowed to participate in the doings of what we fondly hoped was the adult world.
*This is a reference to The Tales of Hoffman, Offenbach's opera. Protagonist E.T.A. Hoffman falls in love with a mechanical doll and when he wears magic glasses, sees her as a real person.