1. I am Jack’s Most Devoted Space Monkey
I have hesitated to write an essay on Fight Club for some time, as it would mean breaking the first two rules of Fight Club. But I can no longer remain silent. And I’ve got a lot to say. So brew yourself a big pot of coffee and spend an hour with me. I promise I’ll make it worth your time.
Fight Club has now displaced Network (1977) as my favorite film. It’s not because Fight Club is a better piece of cinema, or “the greatest film of all time.” It is because Fight Club speaks to me in a way that no other film does. I have watched it countless times with countless people under all sorts of conditions (it seems to go particularly well with Jägermeister). This film addresses my problems and the problems of the age; it speaks to my own deepest dissatisfactions and darkest desires; and proposes (or at least seems to propose) many of the right solutions to what ails us (though, as I shall explain, there is one major lacuna in the film’s ideology).
Fight Club has the capacity to inspire me like no other film. If I am feeling down, depressed and discouraged by “things today” or by my own inability to put the chicken shit of my daily life into perspective, one late-night viewing of Fight Club is enough to get me back on track and restore my sense of “mission.” In a certain way, I have to admit that I feel slightly awkward about this. After all, Fight Club is (I think) a film intended for a much younger audience. In many ways its aesthetic belongs very much to the present. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that as great as this film is, it is a Hollywood product. I am a highly-educated man. I’ve read every major work in the Western canon. How can a recent Hollywood movie (with Brad Pitt for Christ’s sake!) be so important to me? And yet it is. And I make no apologies for it.
I’m also far from being alone. This film has struck a chord with countless young and youngish men. It has probably been responsible for recruiting more young guys to mixed martial arts academies than any pay per view broadcast of the UFC. (One of my best friends tried to interest me in Brazilian jiu-jitsu – in which he is now a brown belt—by telling me “it’s like Fight Club!”) Note that I’ve referred so far only to men, because if ever there was a “guy flick,” Fight Club is it. Fight Club has now surpassed the Three Stooges as the most effective way to drive women out of the living room. In terms of our struggle against the modern world Fight Club is the most important artwork of the last fifty years – and the only artwork to be directed exclusively at men. But in order to change the world one must always appeal, primarily, to men.
You will have noticed in all of the above that I have been referring solely to the film of Fight Club, not to the novel. There are two reasons for this. First, Fight Club belongs to a group of cinematic adaptations of novels that have almost completely eclipsed their original source. If I mention Gone With the Wind, do you think of the film or of the novel? Ditto The Wizard of Oz. And consider James Bond: nobody reads Fleming anymore. So, in writing of Fight Club it is the film, primarily, that I must speak of.
Second, the film improves upon the book in a number of significant ways. None of this is meant to disparage either the novel or its author, Chuck Palahniuk. In fact, one can really speak of the film and novel together because although the film does depart from the novel in some ways, for the most part it follows it very closely. (A huge amount of Edward Norton’s voiceover narration in the film is taken directly from the text.) Without Palahniuk, there would be no cinematic Fight Club, and so we must all bow to his genius. However, as I will discuss later on, his genius is of a very peculiar and problematic kind.
And this leads me to a very important point, which I must state up front: I am not the slightest bit interested in what Palahniuk has said about his novel, or its film version. The reasons for this have to do with that peculiar and problematic genius I will (I promise) elaborate on later. For now, I will simply invoke Roland Barthes’s infamous “death of the author” thesis: texts mean more than their authors think that they do, and an author’s intentions or personal understanding of his work is not the be-all-and-end-all of interpretation. I am also not the slightest bit interested in what director David Fincher or screenwriter Jim Uhls think of their film. (I will tell them what it means, thank you.)
2. I am Jack’s Thumos
No lengthy plot summary is necessary. I’ll wager virtually everyone reading this has seen Fight Club. The central character in both the novel (which is told in the first person) and the film is not named initially. And to keep matters straight we can’t begin by calling him by the name we later learn is actually his own. The screenplay refers to him as “Jack,” in reference to a series of brief anatomy primers that he discovers, bearing titles like “I Am Jack’s Colon.” (In the novel, it is “Joe.”)
Our friend Jack is the Last Man. He works as a “recall coordinator” for a major, unnamed car company and he is living “the American dream.” When not working, he spends his time stocking his climate-controlled, concrete-lined condo (in Wilmington, Delaware – though the film only hints at this) with IKEA furniture, duvets, and dust ruffles. He has it all: CK shirts, DKNY shoes, AX ties. And absolutely nothing else. Had this film been made (or the novel written) more recently no doubt a large portion of Jack’s evenings, and days off, would be spent looking at porn online and masturbating. (Sorry, guys. Did that hit too close to home?)
Jack says “I would flip through catalogues and wonder, ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?’” My God, I’ve done the exact same thing. I’ve spent many an afternoon winding my way through IKEA looking at their displays thinking “Is this the sort of couch a person like me would have?” Or, worse yet, “What do I want to say about myself by buying that bedspread?”
Fight Club does a marvelous job of conveying the utter barrenness of this modern life – especially the way it tries to cover its stench with the sickly-sweet perfume of moral superiority. Jack buys “Rislampa wire lamps of environmentally-friendly unbleached paper,” and “glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections. Proof they were crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of . . . wherever.” And, of course, there are the awful, smarmy support groups where everything is referred to in euphemisms, everyone who suffers is “heroic,” and every death is a “tragedy.”
And everywhere there is the oppressive vulgarity of a processed, homogenized, corporate world: “When deep space exploration ramps up it will be the corporations that name everything. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Microsoft Galaxy. Planet Starbucks.” (Of course, it seems now that the dream of deep space exploration has just been quietly dropped. Perhaps it’s a good thing that this planet is the only one we will trash.) Fight Club not only captures the ugliness and emptiness of today, it captures its inhumanity as well. The automated phone lines with their menus within menus, the corporations that knowingly put our lives at risk with shoddy products, the bosses who think your life belongs to them, and the complete and total lack of any sense of community, any sense of caring for others. This plush little Rislampa lit paradise we’ve created is hard and cold, filled with harried, angry people.
It’s the men who are angriest of all. The women, true enough, are awful: brittle, desiccated career harpies; emotionally stunted and even physically damaged by their religious commitment to infertility. And this is, in many ways, very much a woman’s world. It is soccer-mom safe. Oriented around material comfort, security, and the suppression of thumos.
Thumos is “spiritedness.” According to Plato (in The Republic) it’s that aspect of us that responds to a challenge against our values. Thumos is what makes us want to beat up those TSA screeners who pat us down and put us through that machine that allows them to view our naughty bits. It’s an affront to our dignity, and makes us want to fight. Anyone who does not feel affronted in this situation is not really a human being. This is because it is really thumos that makes us human; that separates us from the beasts. (It’s not just that we’re smarter than them; our possession of thumos makes us different in kind from other animals.) Thumos is the thing in us that responds to ideals: it motivates us to fight for principles, and to strive to be more than we are.
Now, what is important to understand is that although thumos is a human possession, it is pre-eminently a male possession. Actually, it’s even more complicated than that. It’s possible to be a male, a grown-up male, and not be a man (or as we sometimes say “a real man”). All men intuitively understand this, even drag queens. (Want to get slugged by a drag queen? Just impugn her manhood.) Becoming a man has everything to do with the expression and management of thumos.
Young men often think they will impress older men through an unbridled expression of thumotic rage. They quickly learn that this is greeted with disapproval. A real man doesn’t fight unnecessarily, and he sure as hell doesn’t fight in order to “prove something” (beyond a certain age, the desire to “prove you’re a man” is a sign of stunted emotional growth and narcissism).
But a real man will fight (physically or verbally) when something important is at stake – including his dignity and honor, or the dignity and honor of his family, or his people. Whereas the inability or unwillingness to fight when the situation calls for it – especially when this is due to fear – marks a man as unmanly, and exposes him to the contempt of other, manlier men.
How thumos gets expressed, and what counts as a situation calling for its expression, differs from culture to culture. For example, the phenomenon of “honor killings” fills us Westerners with horror – and indeed the dumber the humans, the dumber will be their expressions of thumos. But the Untermenschen at least have some thumos, whereas ours seems to have been sliced off some time ago.
Yes, it’s with emasculation that Fight Club begins. Literally. (And literal emasculation is a thread that runs through the entire film.) The world of Fight Club – our world – is a world where all healthy, male expressions of masculinity have been pathologized and suppressed. And the story of Fight Club starts when Jack, an emotionally repressed insomniac looking for some kind of catharsis, visits a support group for men with testicular cancer: “Remaining Men Together.” Some of these men have literally been emasculated. One of them, Bob, has developed “bitch tits” because testosterone therapy caused his body to up his estrogen level.
How did Bob get in this predicament? We are told that he was a “champion bodybuilder.” And like all champion bodybuilders he was a ‘roid head. (Bob gives us a litany of the drugs he used to use, saying of one of them “They use that on racehorses for Christ’s sake!”). It is implied that Bob’s steroid abuse led to his testicular cancer. How ironic. Here’s a guy who pumped himself full of synthetic man hormones and built enormous man muscles – why? Well, to be manly for gosh sakes. And it led to his manhood being removed.
Punishment from the gods, if you ask me. Like Jack and so many other men today, he felt a sense of masculine inferiority. And like so many men today he addressed it through the external, through the cosmetic. So he built big muscles (which, of course, any fairy can do in a gym in Chelsea). Others allow a quarter inch or so of stubble to accumulate on their faces, and carefully trim it every few days. Others buy snazzy cars.
Still others respond to those “penis enlargement” spam emails. Why is penis size such a big issue these days? Why are there countless websites and pills promising to give a guy three inches in three weeks? Why do guys in gyms now wear their underwear into the shower? (Something which would have been considered really weird in my father’s day, when guys swam naked at the Y without shame, and without anybody thinking it was “gay.”) Is it just because we’re exposed to more porn now than ever before, and have a distorted image of what’s “normal”? No, it’s because all the traditional ways in which men have proved their masculinity are now closed to us. And so masculinity becomes purely a matter of externals, of looks and size: height, size of muscles, size of penis, size of bank account, size of house, etc.
Fight Club is about reclaiming lost masculine rites of passage, and pathways to male self-actualization. It’s about reclaiming masculinity itself. Note that I did not say “reinventing” or (choke) “reimagining” masculinity. That’s what the phony “men’s movement” is all about: creating a new, feminist-approved masculinity. Sitting in sweat lodges, banging drums, and weeping about how the “traditional masculine gender role” has been “hurtful” to them. Palahniuk is, partly, parodying this with “Remaining Men Together.” But don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with men crying – so long as they don’t cry too often, too easily, and over too trivial a matter. Read The Iliad. Those guys cried more than Republican hopefuls in an election year.
When Bob embraces Jack at Remaining Men Together, after a moment’s hesitation Jack begins weeping freely. (When he releases Bob and we see the tear stains on Bob’s grey shirt it looks kind of like the image on the Shroud of Turin. This always gets big laughs from audiences, for some reason.) Why does Jack cry – or, better put, what is he crying over? He’s crying over the shrieking nothingness he lives the rest of the day (to borrow some words from Paddy Chayefsky’s Network). He has every reason to cry – and so do we. There’s nothing wrong with feeling sorry for yourself so long as you’ve really got something to be sorry over. We’re Last Men living at the End of History, in the wreckage of the Great Society, drowning in the brown tide. And to add insult to injury we’ve had our balls handed to us. “Go ahead, Cornelius. You can cry.”
But Tyler Durden put it best:
I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived — an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables; or they’re slaves with white collars. Advertisements have them chasing cars and clothes, working jobs they hate so they can buy shit they don’t need. We are the middle children of history, with no purpose or place. We have no great war, or great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We were raised by television to believe that we’d be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars — but we won’t. And we’re learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed-off.
Then, in the screenplay (but not in the finished film), Tyler says: “We are the quiet young men who listen until it’s time to decide.” A very significant line, as we shall see . . .
3. I Am Jack’s Dialectic
I said earlier that expressions of male thumos differ from culture to culture. But what remains constant in masculine identity is this central role of thumos, however expressed. For women, femininity is a state of being. For men, masculinity is an ideal to be achieved and maintained. As Derek Hawthorne put it, “Women are, but men must become.”
Femininity has to do primarily with a woman’s attractiveness to a man. But a man who’s “masculinity” was pinned principally on his attractiveness to women would be regarded by other men – real men –with contempt. (This was what so disgusted American men about Rudolph Valentino in the 1920s.)
Males have an innate drive to become men, and this means to strive, to compete, to fight, to risk, or die trying. He who doesn’t, isn’t. (Isn’t a man, that is.) Again, to quote Derek Hawthorne:
If men did not feel driven to make their mark on the world and prove themselves worthy of being called men, there would be no science, no philosophy, no art, no music, no technology, no exploration. “There would also be no war, no conflict, no competition!” feminists and male geldings will shriek in response. They’re right: there would be none of these things. And the world would be colorless and unutterably boring.
But, as I have said, our modern world makes it virtually impossible for men to become men, and beats them down with avalanches of drivel about “sensitivity.”
In truth, Fight Club really begins not with Jack’s visit to Remaining Men Together. (This is simply the moment when he meets men who express physically and externally what he feels spiritually and internally.) Fight Club begins when Jack meets Tyler Durden. There’s no need for me to cry “Spoiler Alert!” at this point, for everybody in the world by now knows that Jack eventually discovers that Tyler is his alter ego, and that he suffers from what shrinks now call “dissociative identity disorder.” So, when Jack meets Tyler Durden, it’s really Tyler Durden meeting Tyler Durden.
The Tyler he meets (played by Brad Pitt) is the Tyler that Jack (i.e., Tyler) has the potential to be, but has not yet consciously become: absolutely self-confident, strong, charismatic, and free in every possible sense of the word. Free of materialism, free of the desire for the approval of others, free of the desire for comfort, free of the desire for security, and free of desire as such (he is an awakened one, a Buddha, and the novel and film actually make a number of references to Buddhism).
In the film, Jack meets Tyler on a plane. (In the novel, oddly enough, they meet on a nude beach.) But the crucial moment comes after Jack’s condo has been blown to smithereens, and after Jack and Tyler have had three pitchers of beer and are standing outside Lou’s Tavern. That’s when Tyler asks Jack to hit him. “I don’t want to die without any scars,” Tyler says. “How much can you really know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” (How true. Most men today have never been in a fight, and somewhere, at the back of their minds, Tyler’s question nags all of them.) And so Jack and Tyler begin to fight; or rather, Jack/Tyler begins to fight himself. Fight himself for what?
What is absolutely brilliant here is that both novel and film initially present this conflict as man vs. man, and then later present the same conflict as man vs. himself. But in both cases, two personalities are struggling for dominance. To understand all this, we will have to go three rounds with Hegel.
Just about the only part of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that anybody can understand is what scholars have dubbed “the master-slave dialectic.” Hegel posits a primal scene, the Beginning of History, in fact, where two adversaries confront each other and battle it out, risking death. But at a certain point, one yields to the other. The one who will not yield, who is truly willing to die rather than give in, is Master. The one who yields has placed love of life over honor. He is the Slave. It is the Master who is truly human, for he places an ideal (his honor) over mere life. (Animals place nothing above survival; they cannot conceive of ideals like honor.)
On that fateful night behind Lou’s Tavern, Jack and Tyler, like two infants learning to fight, take the first baby steps towards a recovered manhood. The initial point, as any viewer of the scene will realize, is for their benumbed modern Bonobo bodies to actually feel something again. Note the way they linger over their sensations. Note the wonder in Jack’s voice when he says “Wow, that really hurt . . .” But soon it moves from a gleeful “Now you hit me again . . .” to the two just pounding each other. Now they’re fighting. They’re one step closer to that primal scene where the object is to see who will be Master and who will be Slave. But, in this first fight, neither seems to emerge as Master. They fight and finish as equals.
Of course, what is really going on is that the two sides of Jack/Tyler’s soul are fighting each other. And in the interior of his psyche, there really is a struggle for dominance going on. Jack has lived all this time as a Slave – a slave to the corporation, “a slave to the IKEA Nesting instinct.” “Tyler” (Brad Pitt) is his Masterful alter ego, the man he could be. The man who has realized that “the things you own, end up owning you” (perhaps the film’s most memorable line). And behind Lou’s Tavern the ordinary, everyday slavish Jack is taking his first steps towards submission to his higher self. But in this particular submission, there is no shame: he is yielding to the better, stronger side of himself. In reality, two individuals do not struggle: one individual struggles to become an Übermensch.
Tyler Durden is an Übermensch who aims to destroy our Last Mannish utopia, squatting fat and happy at the End of History. How? By restarting history. By recreating that primal scene at the Beginning of History where manhood first flowered; where men struggled against each other using only their own strength and will, some becoming Masters, others Slaves.
Jack’s submission to the Tyler persona is a complicated issue in Fight Club. As everyone knows, in the end, when he realizes that Tyler (Pitt) is his alter ego, he seems to rebel against Tyler, to attempt to thwart Tyler’s plans, and, ultimately, to kill the Tyler in himself. Some interpreted this as Jack’s “emphatic rejection” of the “amateur fascism” fomented by Tyler (that’s what the British Board of Film Classification claimed, at any rate). I’m not so sure. Not all. But I’ll have more to say about this later on . . .
4. I Am Jack’s Unorganized Grabastic Piece of Amphibian Shit
Now let’s be honest: the countless young (and, in my case, youngish) men who have responded so strongly to this film all want to be Tyler Durden. I’m actually torn between wanting to be Tyler Durden and wanting to be Tyler Durden’s best friend. (After all, if I were Tyler I’d be awfully lonely. My Space Monkeys would keep me company, but let’s face it, there’s nothing like the comradeship of equals.) You can actually find sites online that will sell you replicas of Brad Pitt’s red leather jacket, pimp sunglasses, and “Sock It To Me” tee shirt. So sad. For some becoming Tyler Durden means dressing like him. But everything gets commodified in our culture, even an icon of anti-commodification.
So, how do you become Tyler Durden? Well, this is obviously where lots of young guys can go radically wrong, and the film and novel have actually inspired real-life (and very silly) acts of violence and vandalism. Obviously, guys wanting to prove they’re Tyler. In Fight Club, however, the path to becoming Tyler Durden requires a Master. This comes out, of course, in the Jack-Tyler relationship (where, in effect, a higher part of the psyche is mentoring a lower). When I saw the film for the first time, the “plot twist” really bothered me: I wanted Tyler to be real. But later I came to understand why this was necessary, and appreciated Palahniuk’s brilliance. We are all Jack and “Tyler” is not “somebody else.” He is the higher part of ourselves. We must become that. We must become who we are.
Nevertheless, in accomplishing this it is useful to have a spiritual Master. This really comes into play once Jack and Tyler form Fight Club – and especially once Fight Club morphs into Project Mayhem. The cult Tyler forms is made up of equal parts military boot camp, Zen, and skinhead zaniness. “Applicants” must wait outside the door of the house on Paper Street for three days and three nights, enduring constant, brutal discouragement from Jack and Tyler before they are allowed to enter and begin their “training.” This is a Zen thing, in case you didn’t know. But what does the training consist in?
Well, of course part of what’s going on here is that Tyler is building a revolutionary army, and his “Space Monkeys” are being trained to do mischief. But the real training is in becoming a man, and it is modeled closely on boot camp. The Space Monkeys buzz off all of their hair (except for Angel Face, who for some reason is allowed to keep his). They abandon all their possessions except for two black shirts, two black trousers, two black socks, one black coat, and “three hundred dollars of personal burial money.” The discipline and denial is martial. The resulting aesthetic is pure Romper Stomper.
Once inside the house, shorn of hair and dressed in basic black, the Space Monkeys will find themselves part of what can accurately be called the anti-support group. The novel and film draw numerous sly parallels between Remaining Men Together and Fight Club. In one meeting of Remaining Men Together, the leader says “I look around this room and I see a lot of courage . . .” Tyler opens one meeting of Fight Club with the words “I look around . . .” The screenplay refers to all the support group leaders simply as “The Leader.” In the film Jack says in one voice over commentary during a Fight Club meeting (referring to Tyler), “The leader walked around in the crowd, out in the darkness.”
But all the New Agey support group garbage is tossed out: opening the heart chakra, power animals, inner childs. (The only yoga Tyler teaches is a kind of karmayoga, but that’s a tale for another time.) The Space Monkeys are not supported. They are torn down. “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake,” Tyler tells them. “You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We are all part of the same compost heap.” In classic boot camp fashion, they are broken down and then built back up again; given a new identity that centers on their membership in a warrior band, serving a common purpose. In this case, the purpose is the destruction of the modern world. Fight Club and Operation Mayhem are a re-creation of the classical Germanic Männerbund – living on the fringes of society; a volatile force that can be used for good or ill.
The way Fight Club approaches this process of male self-transformation is often disturbingly (and unnecessarily) nihilistic. (This is especially true of the novel.) Tyler tells us (as worded in the original screenplay): “Self-improvement is masturbation. Self-destruction is the answer.” After Tyler gives Jack the chemical burn kiss (a Männerbund rite of passage if there ever was one), he tells him “Congratulations. You’re one step closer to hitting bottom.”
All of this can be very easily misunderstood. I’ve known guys like Jack who drank or drugged themselves into oblivion over despair at life in the modern world. They were truly engaged in self-destruction, with no higher purpose. This is pure nihilism. What Tyler is actually doing, however, is breaking down that portion Jack’s (and the Space Monkeys’) self-image that is built on conformity to the norms of modern, consumerist society. Fighting, drinking, theft, vandalism, self-mutilation, living in filth (the whole antifa lifestyle, actually) – these are all “hitting bottom” by the standards of our Brave New World. But for Tyler and his followers these are means to self-realization. And these men do become awakened, transformed beings.
Death (like castration) is everywhere in this film. There are the dying people Jack meets at his support groups (like the unforgettable Chloe: “I have pornographic movies in my apartment and lubricants and amyl nitrate . . .”). Jack’s job as recall coordinator puts him in constant contact with death. (“Here’s where the infant went through the windshield. Three points.”) And it is primarily through brushes with death that Jack and these other men are learning to recover their lost manhood. Tyler’s terrorizing the convenience store worker, Raymond K. Hessel, is an effort to shock this man out of his complacency and give him a second birth (“Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you or I have ever eaten”). The major example of this, of course, is the car accident Tyler deliberately causes and that almost claims his (and Jack’s) life and that of their two Space Monkey passengers. “We just had a near-life experience,” Tyler says afterwards. It’s a very significant line.
Most people don’t set out to make such experiences happen in their lives. And all things considered that’s a very good thing. (How’d you like to be in the lane opposite Tyler’s?) Instead, this is simply the sort of thing that fate hands people from time to time, and it has the beneficial effect of putting the garbage of life into perspective and making you a stronger person. The trouble is that the modern world greatly minimizes the possibility of brushes with death, of “near-life experiences.” Everything has to be made “safe,” so that mom doesn’t have to worry about you. Risk-taking in young men is frowned upon and often punished institutionally with a kind of inhuman rigidity, as if being a boy itself were a crime. So Tyler has to break the rules and bring us close to death so that we can truly learn to live. The effect on those around him is dramatic.
Jack tells us that “After Fight Club, everything else in your life got the volume turned down. You could deal with anything.” Jack says this (in voice over) at work, while dealing with his idiot boss. And in a line that does not appear in the finished film, he adds “The people who had power over you had less and less.” Like Jack, most of the men in Fight Club lead double lives, with one foot in the modern and the other in the primal masculine world of Tyler Durden. “Even if I could tell someone they had a good fight, I wouldn’t be talking to the same man. Who you were in Fight Club is not who you were in the rest of the world. You weren’t alive anywhere like you were there. But Fight Club only exists in the hours between when Fight Club starts and when Fight Club ends.”
Tyler makes soap, but his main enterprise is making men. And men are made by challenges to the spirit, not by means of free weights and machines. “I felt sorry for all the guys packed into gyms, trying to look like what Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger said they should.” Standing on the bus, Jack and Tyler spot a fashion ad featuring one of those hairless muscle twinks. “Is that what a man looks like?” Jack says to Tyler, derisively. At just that moment a long-haired lard ass rudely pushes past Jack and moves to the rear of the bus. This is a very deliberate inclusion on the part of the filmmakers. Why doesn’t Jack react? Why doesn’t he challenge this S.O.B.? Why doesn’t he get into a fight with him? Answer: he no longer has anything to prove. He’s no longer “a thirty-year-old boy.” He’s a man now.
5. I Am Jack’s Burning Bush
Membership in the Fight Club Männerbund confers meaning on even the most mundane aspects of their lives. Jacks says, “Fight Club became the reason to cut your hair short and trim your fingernails.” Even soap takes on a spiritual significance: “The first soap was made from the ashes of heroes. Like the first monkeys shot into space.” Their lives have been given a purpose, and that purpose contextualizes everything else and gives it significance: everything becomes meaningful simply by being something one does as a means to the end of . . .
Well, what exactly is the end? Fight Club seems to form itself – seemingly without Jack/Tyler and any of the other men involved being aware of its having any special or higher purpose. It was a response to a need these men all dimly felt. “It was right in everyone’s face. Tyler and I just made it visible. It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Tyler and I just gave it a name.” But Fight Club has a logic all its own, that no one owns and no one (it turns out) can control. Because whether these men realized it or not, the formation of Fight Club was the rejection of the modern world.
They recovered their manhood and the next thought was, “Now what?” You cannot achieve that kind of psychic transformation and keep it confined to a basement forever. And so Fight Club had to come out of the basement: it had to achieve something in this world (namely, this world’s destruction; the resuscitation of history). “Fight club was the beginning,” Tyler says. “Now it’s out of the basement and there’s a name for it – Project Mayhem.”
Tyler says, “Our great war is a spiritual war.” He means, of course, that theirs is a war to reclaim their souls from modern corruption. But things in Fight Club are “spiritual” in another sense, however. There is undeniably a religious dimension to these proceedings. On the surface, however, there is a rejection of religion, a rejection of God. Tyler tells Jack:
Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? Listen to me. You have to consider the possibility that God doesn’t like you, he never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen. We don’t need him. Fuck damnation. Fuck redemption. We are God’s unwanted children.
Superficially, one has to say that Fight Club is atheistic, and even nihilistic (or at least pessimistic, in a Schopenhaurean way). Remember, you are “the same decaying organic matter as everything else”; and we are “all part of the same compost heap.” In short, we’re just meat; nothing special. No souls; no cosmic significance. But, of course, if we take a step back from this rhetoric and look at Tyler and the men he creates we can easily see that these words are simply false.
In recovering their thumos, in fighting for an ideal we become more than mere “organic matter.” We set ourselves apart from the animals and actualize in ourselves a little piece of something that the gods have too. This is why virtually all philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel to Nietzsche have seen humans as super-natural beings, part beast and part god. And this is why, in Germanic mythology – our sacred scriptures, folks – human beings are created from the ash and the elm when the brothers Odin, Vili, and Ve confer on them, respectively, odhr (equivalent to thumos), will, and openness to transcendence (i.e., what is now often called “spirituality”).
Tyler’s words should not be taken at face value as Fight Club’s metaphysics: an existentialist metaphysics of cosmic meaninglessness. He directs these statements at Jack and at the Space Monkeys as part of their “training”; part of breaking them down and building them back up again. Building them back up again involves, as I have said before, actualizing their thumos. But thumos is always directed toward some ideal or other. In this case, the ideal is really their own manhood. The objective of Project Mayhem is the destruction of the modern world – but what sets the Space Monkeys on that course is the (correct) perception that the modern world stunts and denigrates their manhood.
Make no mistake: there is a religious dimension to Fight Club. What Tyler and the Space Monkeys are worshipping is manhood itself. I know this may seem peculiar and even, to guys who smoke Newports, suspiciously “gay.” So let me explain. Minimally, religion always involves orientation toward some ideal that always remains just out of reach, that pulls us on and causes us to strive and do more and be more. But that’s what manhood is to men. As I said earlier, for women femininity is a state of being. For men, manhood is an ideal to be achieved and maintained.
Even the men most confident in their manliness always seek new challenges, new ways to express their manliness, and avoid anything that would diminish their manliness in the eyes of themselves or others (like wearing anything made by that Bonobos company). Men admire manliness in others, and it inspires them. When Jack asks Tyler who he would most like to fight (alive or dead) he says “Hemingway.” Why? Because Hemingway is an icon of rugged, straight-talking, two-fisted, hard-drinking, terse-prosed manliness. If you can beat Hemingway, well . . .
Men are always striving to climb upwards. Femininity is horizontal: radiating out warmth and nurturing toward surrounding others, and producing new others to warm and nurture. Masculinity is vertical. It’s aiming upwards, towards an ideal to be achieved in a man’s self. And women are always screaming at us to get down off the damned ladder before we break our necks. (It has to be this way. Always has been and always will be.)
All religions have been “created” by men, and I have a pet theory that all religions are just covert ways in which men worship themselves. I don’t mean that Tom, Dick, and Harry are worshiping Tom, Dick, and Harry. I mean that they’re worshiping what they could be and calling that God. There’s a reason why God is He and Him and His. And Our Father (or All Father). And it’s the same reason why “virtue” comes from “vir-”, an Indo-European root that means “manly” (we get “virile” from this too). And have you ever seen a lingam? God, Allah, Shiva, Buddha, Mithras, whatever, are not just guys, they’re guyness. Tyler is being more honest with his men when he says “You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.” (Jesus was a guy too, but Tyler could beat the shit out of him.)
There are a great many religious allusions in Fight Club, and matters are cast in religious terms both in the dialogue and in the screenwriter’s descriptions. (As for the novel, it’s been so long since I read it that I can’t remember.) In one of Jack’s voice overs during an evening at Fight Club he says, “Their hysterical shouting was in tongues, like at a Pentecostal church. Afterwards, we all felt saved.” When Jack encounters Bob again after a long separation and Bob tells him he’s joined Fight Club, the screenwriter says “An intense look of born-again fervor comes over Bob’s face.” Later, after Jack and Bob exit Fight Club one evening, the script says “They both grin with religious serenity.”
Bob, of course, becomes Fight Club’s first martyr, and a religious ritual grows up around him, with Fight Club members throughout the country huddled together in secrecy chanting “His name is Robert Paulson. His name is Robert Paulson. His name is Robert Paulson . . .”
6. I Am Jack’s Gay Panic
And now we come to the part that bothers a lot of guys who love Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk is gay.
The interesting thing, however, is that in contrast to gay authors who basically have made careers out of being gay, Palahniuk really doesn’t seem to want people to know it. Sort of. He allowed a 1999 newspaper profile to state that he had a wife and “was not planning on having kids.” In fact, he was and is living with a male partner. In 2003 Palahniuk granted an interview to Entertainment Weekly, then got wind of the fact that their report intended to “out” him. Palahniuk went on the war path. He later stated, admirably, “Of all the things we’d talked about, now it boiled down to, ‘where do you put your dick?’ I felt so pissed that I couldn’t be a human being, that the only thing interesting about me was this one aspect of my persona.” (Shades of Jack Donovan denouncing gay as “sexuality as ethnicity” and asking “Why should I identify more closely with a lesbian folk singer than with [straight] men my age who share my interests?”)
The quote above from Palahniuk comes from a 2008 interview he gave to The Advocate (yech!). Interestingly, however, after meeting with their reporter Palahniuk abruptly cancelled their photo shoot and refused to cooperate further with the magazine. It seems pretty obvious that he isn’t entirely comfortable with people knowing that he’s gay. He states part of the reason in the Advocate interview: “I know people who have spun their nationality or their sexuality or their race, but after a few books it’s really limiting . . . They find themselves pigeonholed, documenting the same small aspect of self over and over.”
But I think that there is another, unstated reason why Palahniuk initially hid his sexuality. He feared that if his young, male fans found out about his sexuality, some of them would take another look at Fight Club, his masterpiece, do a spit take with a mouthful of Bud, and bellow “Dude, it’s gay!”
And let’s face it. If you’re really trying to look for something “gay” in Fight Club you’re going to find it. Plenty of it. All the shirtlessness, particularly that of Brad Pitt (hey, why is it a “rule” of Fight Club that you have to be shirtless?). All the “male bonding.” And – egads! – there’s that scene where Jack watches Tyler take a bath and Tyler says, “We’re a generation raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” Holy hell! Fight Club is trying to punk us all out!
Calm yourself, for this is all a product of your fevered imagination. When Tyler says “We’re a generation raised by women” he’s alluding to the fact that so many young men today either grow up without fathers, or with fathers who are ineffectual or AWOL much of the time. (Remember: “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”) And so they were raised, and dominated by women. As I have alluded to already, this modern world is really, to a great extent, a world dominated by woman’s preferences, in which men are asked to “redefine” their masculinity to suit women’s desires. The “thirty-year-old boys” of this world, like Jack, grow up wayward, callow, and spiritually empty, enduring schools that must drug them to make them sit still, so that they can find jobs that take the best years of their lives and offer them nothing in return save the means to procure status symbols.
What’s the answer to this? Well, quite naturally a lot of these guys think it’s cohabiting with a woman. At least they’ll get regular sex and companionship and – who knows? – maybe love. But this is a trap. We all need love, but this won’t address the contempt we feel for ourselves. Latching himself onto another woman and seeking to meet her needs won’t turn that thirty-year-old boy into a man. And this is why Tyler wonders if “another woman is really the answer we need.” (Anybody who seriously thinks this means “let’s go out and have gay sex” is really too stupid to deserve Fight Club.)
As for the rampant shirtlessness, Fight Club specifies no shirts (and no shoes) for basically the same reason we see this in boxing and MMA. If there’s something “gay” about Fight Club, then there’s something “gay” about the UFC.
Of course, there are plenty of “clever” people who would say there’s something gay about the UFC. Those are the same genderbending P.C. morons, pumped full of the Freudian-Lacanian-Frankfurt Schoolian hermeneutic of suspicion, who announced a few years ago that Abe Lincoln was gay because for a while he was so poor he had to share a bed with another guy. These people see Fight Club as “homoerotic,” or latently gay. They want to ruin it for us men, precisely because Fight Club has such tremendous potential to awaken us.
These are the people who saddled us with the “man hug.” They’ve worked to destroy every male-dominated institution or activity. They’ve introduced women into the Citadel and sued clubs for men only. What they couldn’t wreck through infiltration and litigation they’ve wrecked by sowing the seeds of suspicion and insecurity. (“Is it gay?” “Was that gay?” “Is he gay?” “Am I gay?”)
Male bonding involves, at various times, competition, horsing around, boasting, showing off, working together, suffering together, innocent physical closeness, and innocent affection. By contaminating all these things with the terror of “latent” gayness, they (you know who they are) have virtually destroyed male bonding in the West. And that’s a tragedy of epic proportions, since the formation of Männerbünde (of various kinds) is absolutely necessary not just to the survival of a nation, but to its excellence. It is the male bands that protect the future, biological survival of the race, the women and children. And it is in male bands – chiefly – that the sublime virtues of courage and loyalty manifest themselves and make us worthy of survival.
Is there something “homoerotic” about male bonding, and about Fight Club? Well, things only seem “erotic” to those who find them erotic. Male bonding, and Fight Club, are erotic, but only to (pardon me) homos. Notoriously, male bonding – in all-male bands and all-male environments (boy’s schools, prisons, ships, etc.) – sometimes leads to sexual activity among men. The Army used to have what it called a “queen for a day policy,” which recognized that sometimes guys with overactive hormones will, well, you know . . . and shouldn’t necessarily be punished for it, because it’s almost always a one shot deal. And, of course, ancient cultures like that of the Spartans or Samurai had no moral problem with men forming sexual bonds, and even in some ways encouraged it. But it wasn’t “gay.” There’s a big difference between the Spartan Three Hundred and the Radical Faeries.
The “gay lifestyle” is a modern invention, not a timeless category. Palahniuk wants very little to do with that “lifestyle,” and least of all to be defined by it. But the important thing for fans of Fight Club to understand is that while Palahniuk may have embraced the loathsome self-descriptive term “gay,” and though he may have made the mistake of talking to the loathsome Advocate, he is nevertheless not a “gay writer.” And there is nothing “gay” about Fight Club. It’s a book for every man.
7. I Am Jack’s Anima
Of course, one important reason for thinking Fight Club isn’t “gay” is the central importance of a character I have thus far not even mentioned: Marla Singer.
The acting in Fight Club is actually quite good. Brad Pitt – an underrated actor – is perfect as Tyler. (After you’ve seen the film, can you imagine anyone else in the role?) And Edward Norton is really fine as well.
But I’m torn: I actually think the best performance comes from Helena Bonham Carter as Marla. First of all, Bonham Carter makes the character far more interesting than she is in the novel. The Marla of the film is not only fascinatingly quirky, and genuinely funny, you also feel for her. My heart goes out to poor Marla in a way it doesn’t go out to Jack (with whom I identify, somewhat) or to Tyler (who’s admirable, but inspires no sympathy).
In the first scene of the film, Jack (in voice over) says he suddenly realizes that everything that is now happening to him (Tyler’s “controlled demolition,” etc.) has “something to do with a girl named Marla Singer.” The language is much stronger in the original script, and in the novel: “Somehow, I realize all of this . . . is really about Marla Singer.” About her?
As I have argued, Fight Club is all about the recovery (or revivification) of manhood. And I have argued that manhood is achieved through orientation towards some ideal that we strive to actualize, preserve, or protect. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that man is one half of a dyad, and that part of being a man is defined in relation to a woman. To be very frank, since it’s just us guys here (mostly), there is something undeniably misogynistic about the ideal of manhood. The feminists are just a little bit right. In part, we define manhood as not being like a woman. The degree to which a man is “womanish” is the degree to which he has failed to be a man, the degree to which he is contemptible.
Not every man thinks this way, just 99.9% of them. And perhaps they shouldn’t think this way; but it’s never going to change. Feminists imagine they’re making some progress in re-educating men. In fact, men just pretend to think the way feminists want them to for the same reason men have pretended to go along with all the other shit women have ever come out with: they want to get along with them and receive regular meals and regular sex.
But though men consciously define themselves in opposition to women and the feminine, being a man involves achieving some positive relationship to these as well. Putting it mildly, this requires a delicate balance. Women are most strongly attracted to actualized, masculine men who are not totally absorbed by them and who want to achieve something in the world. In part, it’s because they see such “alpha males” as capable of protecting them and their offspring. Of course, once a woman has snared a man like that she usually works overtime trying to stop him from taking risks. More often than not, he goes along with this – and dies a straw death, resenting her, and dreaming about what might have been. And she winds up feeling contempt for him, because he failed to say no to her (though she is never consciously aware of this).
For his part, the man wants a woman he thinks will be faithful to him. Quite simply, he wants some assurance that the children he raises will be his own. The primary sign of faithfulness he looks for is devotion: he wants a woman who truly believes in him before all others; who believes in him, in his mission, and in his ability to accomplish it. He wants, in a way, to be worshipped. If a man is able to find a woman like this and pursue his mission in life, he becomes the happiest and most self-actualized of men. This is because the twin, and sometimes antagonistic, impulses of his nature have – through alliance with the ideal women – achieved harmony: his impulse to fight for or achieve an ideal, and his impulse to mate and reproduce himself. Such a man has found a way to produce a family and pursue his ideals, by aligning himself with a woman whose devotion actually fuels his quest for his ideal.
As Derek Hawthorne puts it in his essay on the film Storm over Mont Blanc:
Without a woman a man lacks a sense of being grounded. Men tend to be so focused upon doing that they miss out on being. Their quest to achieve their purpose in life becomes something cold and barren. Ultimately, without a home and hearth and woman to return to for sustenance, they burn themselves out along the path. They feel a sense of emptiness, and drift into despair.
The Männerbund exists in a state of tension with society. It has the potential to protect and preserve the society from which it emerges, but it is also something wild, volatile, and transgressive. Ultimately, its members, to be truly fulfilled as men, must strike a balance between their devotion to each other, and their desire for a wife and family. These two things can co-exist. But in order for a man to make it work, he has to overcome the influence of his comrades, who will always pull him off to some adventure rather than see him “pussy whipped.” And he must resist the influence of the woman, who will (unless she is truly exceptional) always try and sabotage his relationship with his comrades. He must learn how to say “no” to both, but saying “no” to the woman will be more difficult.
Jack’s relationship to Marla dramatizes this whole dynamic. But who is Marla?
She is a disaffected wanderer, like Jack. She is Palahniuk’s portrait of the female half of the broken modern person. As such, she is very different from Jack. Jack responds to modern emasculation by doing something. He splits his personality in two, hypostatizing his higher potential for masculine self-actualization as “Tyler Durden.” And then he and that higher self create Fight Club, which then morphs into a nationwide revolutionary movement.
Marla’s response to modern emasculation is quite different. Having nothing to emasculate, she cannot, of course, respond to our modern predicament quite the way that Jack does. She is, for lack of a better word, “unfulfilled.” And this is primarily because of the emasculation of the men around her. As I said earlier, when women get their way with men and get men to stop taking risks and play it safe, they get what they want – but they wind up feeling contempt for their men, and feeling that something is missing from their lives.
That household you may have grown up in where Dad gave up his dreams to make Mom happy, played by her rules, and painted plastic soldiers in his man cave – that was the microcosmic model for what is now the macrocosm. We live in a woman’s world, where the Man has said a great, World-Historical “Yes, dear” to Woman. And now Woman is Marla: angry, drifting, addictive, self-destructive, slutty, weepy, and waiting. Waiting for some thing or some one to deliver her, like a wasted, slatternly princess locked in a tower. Only in this world she’s locked herself in, and denounced the key as “oppressor.”
Jack is a pessimist. Not a nihilist. His despair leads him to try to change the world. Marla, on the other hand, is the real nihilist. She never graduates past being a tourist at support groups. She is simply waiting to die. Her whole life is one giant “cry for help,” typified by her overdosing on Zanax.
It’s that overdose that really brings Jack and Marla together. In his “Tyler” persona, he screws Marla repeatedly and is, by her own admission, extremely good at it. She apparently needs this rather badly, but what she really wants and really finds fulfilling is simply being with Jack, for whom she begins to genuinely care. (Women are not good at casual sex. They want to bond with their sexual partners. This is why women are the real victims of the sexual revolution.) Real pathos is introduced into the story, of course, by the fact that Jack keeps reverting to Jack, and kicking poor Marla out of the house. This is Fight Club’s “love angle.”
And it makes us care about the story and the characters a lot more. Why? Well, we don’t want to see poor Marla hurt. But we also want to see Jack “get together” with her. When you watch the film for the first time and don’t know that Jack is Tyler, you think that Jack is secretly in love with Marla (and perhaps Marla with him) and you’re waiting for Jack to come to his senses and claim Marla from the callous Tyler. When you see the film again, knowing the twist, a different sort of suspense takes over: you’re waiting for Jack to realize he’s Tyler and that he’s been screwing Marla all along, and you want him to come to his senses before he loses Marla entirely.
Again, why? Because you know that Jack, as a man, can’t be satisfied with Fight Club alone. He needs Marla. But for a man’s having a woman to mean anything (and for being had to mean anything to her), a man must win the woman through his manly qualities. Fight Club becomes a means to win Marla. It’s Tyler she’s attracted to, but Tyler is simply Jack’s manly, self-confident alter ego. Marla is initially drawn to Jack at the support group meetings because she sees that they are both lost souls. But it’s only when he becomes Tyler Durden that she feels truly bound to him.
In becoming Tyler Durden, Jack becomes Man, and attracts and repairs and redeems broken Woman. Or so it seems in the end as Jack and Marla hold hands as the buildings explode and collapse around them.
In the end, Jack doesn’t kill Tyler Durden. That’s a misinterpretation. “Tyler Durden” just ceases to exist as a separate persona. Jack becomes Tyler. Note what happens in the film after Jack shoots himself and “kills” Tyler. Note how authoritatively he issues commands to the Space Monkeys. He’s no longer screaming at them, treating them like he thinks they’re insane, treating them as adversaries. Note how calmly he watches the buildings come down. The lower, “Jack” part of his psyche had not wanted this. Now it’s happened. And to paraphrase Nietzsche, he must become a god, simply to be worthy of the deed. He must own everything that “Tyler” has said and done.
8. I Am Jack’s Implicit Whiteness
Since the film was released in 1999, people have debated the question of whether the film, or at least the organization depicted in it, is “fascist.” Is Fight Club fascist?
Fight Club and Fight Club are both fascist. Meaning: the film and the organization it depicts (later, Project Mayhem) are both implicitly fascist. Now, to repeat: I don’t care what Chuck Palahniuk or anyone connected with the film has said about it. The organization in the film is clearly fascist, and the film, whatever its makers’ intentions might have been, is as convincing and inspiring a cinematic argument for fascism as I have ever seen. (It’s more effective than Triumph of the Will, which merely shows us how happy and smartly dressed everyone will be after fascism is installed – but gives the uninformed no sense as to why its installation is necessary.)
In the most essential terms, fascism is the idea that the Männerbund should rule. Fight Club is the formation of the Männerbund. Project Mayhem is the inescapable conclusion drawn by the men of the Bund once they are awakened: that it is they who should rule. In real-life fascism, those men have been moved by the desire to use their thumos to protect their people, their land, and their culture.
The problem with Fight Club’s fascism is that it’s not at all clear that the Space Monkeys will channel their thumos in this direction. And the reason for my doubt about this has to do with the one major thing that those of our ilk find distasteful about Fight Club, those who otherwise love the film: Fight Club/Project Mayhem is depicted as “racially diverse.” I can’t remember if this is how it is depicted in the novel or not. (Please don’t clobber me on this, guys: I just haven’t had the time to re-read it.)
The fascism of Fight Club is clearly not racialist or National Socialist (though the soap made from human fat seems to be a rather grisly reference to one of the myths about the Nazis). Fight Club’s fascism is essentially Traditionalist and vaguely anarcho-primitivist. Project Mayhem essentially aims to do three things.
The first is to destroy symbols of American capitalism and cultural degeneracy: blowing up corporate art, trashing a franchise coffee bar, feeding laxatives to pigeons to make them crap on a lot full of luxury cars, etc.
Second, they are out to destroy the means by which Americans distract and anesthetize themselves: blowing up computers, erasing videotapes, smashing satellite dishes, etc.
Third, and most important, they are out to destroy the financial structure of the U.S. (of the world, really) by destroying the headquarters of the credit card companies, and similar targets.
There are also, in addition to these, some rather senseless acts of mischief, like “befouling fountains,” and building an “excrement catapult.”
To what end? Well, Tyler gives us a very clear picture of the future he’s hoping to build, in one of Fight Club’s most famous scenes:
In the world I see — you’re stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You will wear leather clothes that last you the rest of your life. You will climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. You will see tiny figures pounding corn and laying-strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of the ruins of a superhighway.
Again, Tyler’s aim is to re-start history: to destroy capitalism, globalism, technology, consumer culture, class divisions based upon wealth, etc. Is he aware that once we’ve returned to the semi-primitive state he dreams of, divisions will again be drawn along racial and ethnic lines and felt more keenly than ever before? Tyler may be aware of this, but Palahniuk and the filmmakers are almost certainly not.
Yes, Fight Club and Project Mayhem are racially mixed. However, one thing that I don’t think viewers recognize is that they actually get whiter as the film goes along. What I am referring to, specifically, is the racial makeup of the Space Monkeys living in the Paper Street house.
Several things annoy me about Fight Club. One is that animated penguin. But the biggest thing is that long-haired, queer-looking Asian in some of the Fight Club basement scenes who’s constantly posturing and trying to act “macho.” I avert my eyes when he’s on screen (just like I avert my eyes in the scene where Jack disfigures poor Angel Face). There are also some blacks in the Fight Club scenes, one of whom has a brief speaking role. When we get to the house, however, it is overwhelmingly white. It’s one thing to meet a racial variety of guys once or twice a week in somebody’s basement. It’s quite another thing to live with them.
We’re all more comfortable with our own kind. And so what we find in the house is almost entirely a bunch of beefy, white, buzz cut Space Monkeys. A black is glimpsed briefly in a couple scenes. He has no lines and if you blink you’ll miss him. Also on screen for a millisecond is what appears to be that Asian, now with hair shorn. (It might be a different Asian – but hell, I can’t tell the difference.) All the key scenes in the house – especially the scene where Bob’s lifeless body is hauled in – are dominated by white actors. It’s as if the filmmakers realized dimly and subconsciously that a true racial mixture in that house would simply not be plausible. The Paper Street Soap Company is implicitly white.
There’s much in the film that seems to speak directly to whites. When Tyler tells Fight Club that they are “an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables; or they’re slaves with white collars,” I think of white guys.
I think of all those working class guys out there who can’t find decent jobs because the good jobs have been sent overseas and given to non-white wage slaves. Or, worse yet, all those guys who can’t find jobs because right here at home they’re being given to aliens – invaders whose “rights” are being defended by the same people who feel free to crack jokes about guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. I think about all those middle class, college-educated white guys who’ve lost a job or a promotion to somebody who says “aks.” And I think about all those smart, eighteen-year-old white guys who’ve been denied admission to Harvard or MIT because some other guy’s great great grandparents owned slaves. We are “the middle children of history,” guys and “we’re very, very pissed off.”
But remember: we are also “the quiet young men who listen until it’s time to decide.”
9. I Am Jack’s Conclusion
Some time ago, Greg Johnson pointed out to me (correctly) that one way in which the novel improves on the film is that the film is far less nihilistic. In the novel, Tyler is planning to blow up a museum, not the credit card companies. What’s the point of that? Why destroy a building full of the good things our culture has produced? Twice in the novel, Jack says he wants to “wipe [his] ass with the Mona Lisa.” “Burn the Louvre,” one character says. “This way at least God would know our names.” But this reminds me of the infamous Herostratus, who burned the Temple of Diana at Ephesus in 356 B.C. so that his name would go down in history. His name went down in history, all right, as one of the most pathetic, narcissistic monsters of all time.
Some of this stuff creeps into the film. I understand the point of destroying satellite dishes and trashing corporate coffee bars. But what’s the point of pissing in people’s soup and splicing single frames of porn into children’s films? (I understand that Tyler is very, very pissed off. But let’s agree to be pissed off productively, and to direct our rage at the right targets.)
This is what bothers me about Palahniuk, and why my allegiance is mostly to the film of Fight Club, not to the novel. The stuff Palahniuk has produced since Fight Club is of very uneven quality, and opens itself, again, to the charge of nihilism. (He seems committed to producing a novel a year, each of which he writes very quickly. This is a good strategy if you are Yukio Mishima. But Palahniuk is no Mishima. Not yet, anyway.) One critic has said that Palahniuk’s books “traffic in the half-baked nihilism of a stoned high school student who has just discovered Nietzsche and Nine Inch Nails.” Foolishly, Palahniuk dashed off an angry riposte to this. (The Great-Souled Man would have greeted it with silence.)
Perhaps Palahniuk’s most infamous work since Fight Club is a short story called “Guts,” which deals with grisly masturbation accidents. Palahniuk has read the story numerous times to audiences over the years, causing, as of May 2007, a grand total of 73 people to faint (I’m not kidding). Another critic has said of him “it seems like Palahniuk is just double-daring himself to top each new vile degradation with something worse.” One wonders if this man really has anything to say at all, or if he’s just a kind of two-bit nihilist out to titillate our jaded sensibilities with ever more dark and “daring” penetrations of the cultural rectum.
So, at this point – if indeed you’ve come all this way – you might be wondering whether I have just “read a lot into” Fight Club. A fair question. First, a disclaimer: I did warn you that I’m writing almost exclusively about the film, not the novel. As already discussed, the film improves upon the novel. However, as I have also already said, the film does follow the novel closely. Much of what is good about the film is there in Palahniuk’s text. And all the “messages” that I have found latent in the film are also latent in the text. It’s just as if the film has drawn them out and made them more explicit.
The simple truth is that Fight Club is bigger than Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher, or Jim Uhls. It means a hell of a lot more than they think it does. Fight Club means what it means to us. It is almost as if this novel and film have been gifted to us by the gods, and that Palahniuk, et al, were merely vehicles for its expression. This story is so powerful to us; says so much to us about our world and our generation. It moves us so much that it is a thing that belongs to the age and to us, not to any man or any film studio.
It is an extraordinarily rich text, and I have merely scratched the surface of all that it has to say to our time and to our predicament.