about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

The Dice Man, free will, and the question of whether or not Harvey even has a true "self" anymore

In an interview for his one-shot story, Joker's Asylum: Two-Face (which I'll look at on its own later), writer David Hine explained the appeal of writing Harvey:

"Two-Face is the perfect distillation of the Dice Man character. 'The Dice Man' was a novel by Luke Rhinehart that featured a guy who led his life according to the role of a dice. I read that novel when I was a teenager and I loved the idea that you could actually reject any kind of moral choice and let Fate decide for you. No guilt feelings, or anxiety about the future. The Dice made me do it. Of course, he had six alternatives every time he came to a turning point, which leaves a whole range of possibilities in any given situation. With Two-Face there are no shades of grey. It’s just heads or tails, good or bad. But the philosophy is the same."

Is it the same? Let's look at The Dice Man itself, which I immediately tracked down after reading Hine's interview.

Have any of you read this book? It seems to have been quite the cult classic, based on the fact that those very few who knew of it loved it.

It has the kind of following that I'd normally see ascribed to Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves or Chuck Palahniuk. Especially Palahniuk. I can easily see the same people taking Fight Club to heart doing the same with The Dice Man. Similarly, those are the same kinds of fans I want to smack in the face with a large-print copy of The Brothers Karamazov.

I read 7/8th of the novel, but never finished the rest, because there seemed little point once I suspected that the novel was a celebration of the philosophy, rather than some kind of satire. Now, I've heard that the actual author (Rhinehart is a pseudonym, and the actual main character of The Dice Man) isn't serious in his advocation that people "live by the die," and that this subsequent handbook was intended to be tongue-in-cheek:

But many have taken Dice Living to heart. At least one philosopher considers it a bold way to live, while others have decided to use Dice Living in their daily practice.

That last link is what really stuck with me, because that author chose to give his will over to the Die for the same reasons that the fictional Luke Rhinehart did: because he was bored. In the book, the character is a successful family man steeped in ennui, and he starts using the Die on a whim, only to be converted in a way that's explicitly linked to being born again in religion. It's the ultimate answer to people who feel stuck in a rut, directionless, bored in modern society.

In other words, it's for self-centered, well-off jackholes who need to get a life but are too lazy/scared to make it happen themselves. Or at least, that's how it reads to me.

Bad enough that it's already a relic of the same sort of egocentric philosophical leftovers from the 60's and 70's which inspired the Sutherland Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. But the thought that someone could think it applies to Two-Face, it just speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding about what the character's about, right alongside the people who think that he's Taoist.

Yeah, not really. Although that question has been explored by others.

Look, there are definitely aspects of the Dice Man in Harvey, depending on the writer. There have definitely been stories where he's spoken of the coin and chance and fate in reverent, holy tones. Take Batman Forever, where he's virtually delivering a sermon on the coin! But even in that shallow, lousy version, Harvey's motivation isn't ennui from the tedium of everyday life. It's rage and insanity.

And that's the biggest difference between Two-Face and the Dice Man. In almost every version of the character, Harvey went to the coin only after suffering a severe mental and emotional breakdown. The coin is a crutch, a coping mechanism, and while he may celebrate its virtues as the true way to live, he cannot actually function without it. Whether the coin is a crutch keeping him insane, or the only thing keeping the true monster within him at bay, he's a broken man either way, and the coin is the only way he can live. Without it, he breaks down again.

The Dice Man, on the other hand, is sane. He made the conscious decision to give himself over to the Die, and knowingly, willfully allows his true sense of "self" be slowly eroded away.

But then, it occurs to me, could that description not also apply to Harvey? Even if the impetus to employ the coin greatly differs from Rhinehart's use of the die, what if they result in the same thing? abqreviews raised similar thoughts about the possibility that there IS no true "Harvey Dent" left. What if Two-Face is no real character at all, just shifting personalities depending on... on...

... On what? That's the next messy, murky question here. Here we enter a realm entirely devoted to personal interpretation of the character, since there's no consistent canon. In fact, making the "no true self" aspect canon is perhaps the only way one can reconcile the many inconsistent takes on the character, much like Grant Morrison's ideas about how the Joker reinvents himself.

Wank wank wank. Sorry, thought I needed to break up my WALL O' TEXT with something.

The problem with Harvey having no true "self" is that he becomes a nothing character. Now, you folks know as well as I do that Harvey Dent is capable of being a rich, complex character. But thanks to several writers over the years, Two-Face has often been written as a nothing villain. He's not even a cipher upon which readers can project themselves, like Bella Swan. And when Bella's a more resonant character than Harvey Dent, you KNOW there's something wrong.

This could get to the heart of why so many people write Two-Face badly, and why so many fans don't really care for the character. But if we accept that Harvey's lack of self is why he's not so popular, how to explain the cult phenomenon of The Dice Man? Because people can at least identify with the philosophy, especially bored, self-centered people who want an easy route to adventure while being free from responsibility.

Maybe someone should write Harvey as being in the right. Maybe readers need to be challenged with a story that asserts the notion that Harvey is correct to give his free will over to the coin. Do I agree with this? Hell no. But nothing could stir up shit quite like a controversial, provocative story like that. Then again, do we really need people like the Dice Man fans actually letting coins make their decisions for them? Last thing we need are real-life Two-Face cultists, and the sad part is, I can easily imagine that happening.

Know what I'd love to read? I'd love to see a story where someone in Gotham actually DOES start up a coin-flipping movement, "inspired" by Two-Face, and see how Harvey reacts to his coping mechanism, his way of life, being co-opted by the average, bored Gothamite.

I can think of no better person to react to the Dice Man philosophy, especially one that refutes the attitudes of people like David Hine. If you think he might be right in comparing Harvey to the Dice Man, then you haven't yet read Joker's Asylum: Two-Face, which I'll be posting here sometime.
Tags: comic strips, dave mckean, grant morrison, judd winnick, mark bagley, novel(ization)s, philosophy, related media, the coin

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