Popular Culture

Szaszian—Zsaszian?—Shout Out in Batman Begins


There's a moment in the surprisingly watchable new flick Batman Begins when the psycho-medic running Arkham Asylum, Dr. Jonathan Crane (a.k.a. Scarecrow), mentions patient "Szasz" (as in Reason Contributing Editor Thomas) or, more likely, patient "Zsasz," a Batman character whose name is an inverted homage to everyone's favorite critic of involuntary commitment and many other coercive practices that hide under the rubric of helping people.

Read Szasz's excellent 2000 interview with Reason here. And then read Senior Editor Jacob Sullum's review of the new book Szasz Under Fire here. And then check out The Thomas S. Szasz Cybercenter for Liberty and Responsbility, which includes photos from the 85th birthday party Reason Foundation, the nonprofit publisher of Reason and Reason Online, here.


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  1. Well, Katie Holmes’ nipple indicators are far preferable to George Clooney’s, at least. All I have to say is, since when do female DAs refuse to wear bras, even in court?

  2. Have Dr. Crane and Alan Colmes ever been seen in the same room?


  3. Here’s a question I’ve had for years and this seems like an opportune thread to raise it in: How does one pronounce “Szasz”? I use “Szah-zuh” when I say it out loud, but I have no clue if that’s correct.

  4. Arkham Asylum? ARKHAM?

    If we’ve got a Lovecraft reference and a Szasz reference, there’s probably a libertarian in the studio somewhere.

  5. SR, I thought I had pronounced earlier but it turned out that I had just sneezed.

    For a serious answer: http://www.szasz.com/pronounce.html

  6. joe, Arkham Asylum’s name was established long ago in the comics. It wasn’t created specifically for the film. (Although it is a deliberate Lovecraft reference.)

    Matt, thank you for the link.

  7. interesting naming issues aside, Zsasz is an established (if lesser) Batman villian, having his debut in the Shadow of the Bat line of comics.


  8. …yeah, helps to read the full article before being helpful. never mind.

  9. Is that Zsasz as in Zsa Zsa ?

  10. Based on that Sullum interview, Szasz appears to be inconsistent, at best.

    Szasz has never denied that organic conditions–say, Alzheimer’s disease or untreated syphilis–can have an impact on thought and behavior. But he insists on evidence of an underlying physical defect

    Unless Szasz is not a physicalist, all thought and behaviour is physically-driven. If I say that I’ve a pain in my right hand, how is that different from saying that I hear voices? Both conditions will have some physical etiology, and theoretically, both can be subject to some physical reform that will remove or pacify the symptom.

    So, why should mental illness be a socially-devised phenomenon, if physical illness isn’t? In fact, both are.

    It comes down to two points

    1)As far as we, humans, are concerned, everything is mental. Our sole interaction and awareness of the world, is via consciousness. Hence deviancy from the mean in the mental domain is assumed to be more profoundly debilitating than a physical “illness”. In non-neurological physical illnesses, the illness may be disconcerting and a major afferent to your mental life, but the sovereignty of the mind, the seat of your existence, is still assumed to be intact. In mental illness, we have to come to grips with the fact that, as per physicalism, the mind is preceded by some essence, and that essence is mechanistic. Furthermore because the state of our mental faculties is a primary determiner of how we interact with other minds, mental deviancy is treated in a more confrontational manner than a broken leg or diseased liver.

    2)The reason why physical illnesses are uncontroversial, is, to put it in one word, empathy. Almost all of us have an aversion to pain, a need for comfort and an instinct for survival. Any “physical” deviancy that threatens this, is met by a common front of opposition and empathy for the afflicted. Consider this thought experiment, if 9 of 10 people didn’t have the three characteristics above, would physical illnesses be uniformly acknowledged as a Bad Thing? Just like Szasz says, this is not to deny that the conditions connected to the various labels of physical illness don’t exist, but that their labelling as an “illness” is a social phenomenon, which is only uncontroversial, because of the common empathy for those afflicted with such deviancy.

  11. I haven’t caught BB yet, so I don’t know if the Arkham inmate is a Szasz or Zsasz. I do know that Denny O’Neil retconned the alter ego of Steve Ditko’s The Question so that “Vic Sage” was a nom de television of “Charles Victor Szasz.”

    I spoke to Denny at ChicagoCon years ago, and he disavowed any connection between “Charlie” and Thomas, but I was always weirded out by the coincidence. I have my problems with his un-Ditko version of the character, anyway.


  12. Surprisingly watchable? I don’t know what crew you consult for your movies but everyone I know has been (rightly) expecting this thing to be awesome

  13. 85th anniversary?

  14. Zsasz’s appearance in the movie’s a little easter egg for fans: His name’s mentioned at the beginning, you see him for a split second later during a breakout at Arkham, and peeking above the collar of his shirt on his back, you can see a series of tally-mark scars, like he has in the comics.

  15. Is that Zsasz as in Zsa Zsa? – Russell

    I don’t think Minerva is in the new flick.


  16. Nueral damage, tumors, infalmmation, atrophy, etc., in the brain, are objectively measurable.
    The same applies to physical injury where there is physically discernable damage.

    Thought patterns are not subject to the same objective measurement. Many people have delusions of all kinds. When may they be determined to be an “illness”? What is the real difference between a mainstream religion and a cult? The proportion of members out of the general population.

    Is a person mentally ill if he believes he will be saved by a spaceship following a comet.
    How about if he believes that his object of worship came back from the dead?

  17. Or that when he injests wine and bread during a particular ceremony, these substances transmute into the blood and flesh of his savior?

  18. The reason I have been more partial to Batman than any of the other superheroes in the reference to Lovecraft’s Arkham as well as other references to his work. (None of which I could name now alas.)

  19. “What is the real difference between a mainstream religion and a cult? The proportion of members out of the general population.”

    Granted this derails the conversation a little but that’s more or less it. Just as the winners get to write the history, the majority get’s to decide what beliefs are right and proper for the rest of society. I’m always found weird that a few die-hard Christians I know are so willing to attack Wicca or Scientology as “cults” when the religion they practice are really no different. The conversation tends to go like this:

    “But, cults are focused around a charismatic leader who tells their believers what they should think, like John Jones or David Koresh.”

    You mean like the Pope, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, or–dare I say it–Jesus Christ (provided he existed at all).

    “Cults believe in weird things like UFOs, psychic powers, or that the Apocalypse will be arriving soon.”

    How is that any different than a guy who is said to have “risen from the dead,” “walked on water” and claimed he was “the son of God?” What makes their extraordinary claims “werid” and your claims rational? Besides, don’t many mainstream Protestant sects buy into the “End-Is-Near” crap. Look at who many copies of the “Left Behind” series got sold.

    “Cults use mind control to make desperate or gullible people follow them.”

    Define “mind control,” please. [They usually can’t.]

    “Cults use violence to make their followers adhere to their beliefs.”

    Have you cracked open a history book lately?

  20. kgsam: Nueral damage, tumors, infalmmation, atrophy, etc., in the brain, are objectively measurable.
    The same applies to physical injury where there is physically discernable damage.

    Thought patterns are not subject to the same objective measurement. Many people have delusions of all kinds. When may they be determined to be an “illness”?

    The problem is not of detection; it’s of determining and labelling abnormality.

  21. “Zsasz” would be pronounced “zhaass” in Hungarian. Blech.

  22. OT, but in my town there’s a car dealership group named Lou Fusz. A couple weeks ago I was told this is very close to the Hungarian word for “horse penis.” (I just looked it up and apparently the Hungarian word is “lofasz,” accent on the first syllable.)

    I’m not implying anything by that, as I’ve had no dealings with those auto dealerships, but it’s kind of funny.

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