Few movies are as polarizing as David Fincher’s 1999 cult film Fight Club. It was reviled by most mainstream critics as “deeply misogynist” (Susan Stark), and suspiciously reminiscent of terror attacks (being pre-9/11, the film recalled both the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing). Even Roger Ebert described Fight Club as “frankly and cheerfully fascist” and concluded it was little more than “macho porn.” Movie analyst Rich Ingrassia agreed, reporting on the film’s exit polling he remarked “It’s a movie for ‘grunts,’ and it’s definitely speaking to a testosterone-based lowest common denominator.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Anita M. Busch went further, thinking the film was an outrage, characterized it as “exactly the kind of product lawmakers should target for being socially irresponsible in a nation that has deteriorated to the point of Columbine.” The mass shooting in Littleton, Colorado’s Columbine High School in April of 1999 fell into the trend of blaming violent and counter-cultural media for real-world violence, and by so lovingly embracing its own violent delights, Fight Club naturally became a fitting target of moral crusaders (not to mention, there was wide speculation at the time that Fight Club‘s release, originally slated for July of 1999, was pushed back to the fall because of the shooting). And although many critics recognized the significant social commentary the film was making, they believed the satire was incomplete, flawed, and ultimately overshadowed by the film’s violence, as Ebert put it: “sophisticates will be able to rationalize the movie as an argument against the behaviour it shows, my guess is that audiences will like the behaviour but not the argument. Certainly they’ll buy tickets because they can see Pitt and Norton pounding on each other; a lot more people will leave this movie and get in fights than will leave it discussing Tyler Durden’s moral philosophy.”
Well, perhaps. Certainly there will always be those who mistake art’s semblance for its substance, and no doubt there were people who left the movie looking for a fight (and a few people in Russia took it literally). And yet, almost all of its critics seemed to somehow miss the glaring fact that Fight Club is a film about depression. Jim Emerson, at least, describes the film as capturing “clinical depression more accurately than any other movie [he’s] ever seen.” Fight Club’s protagonist, unnamed in the film he is simply the Narrator (Ed Norton), suffers from insomnia, a condition which is so strongly linked with depression that the question of which one causes the other is still a matter of study. Before the emergence of Tyler (Brad Pitt), the Narrator displays no noticeable emotions other than ennui, has no interests, and apparently takes pleasure in nothing. Other than a father who deserted him, there is no mention of family, friends, or any social contact outside of his boss at work and the “single serving friends” he meets on his business trips. On one work flight he even muses that “Life insurance pays off triple if you die on a business trip,” but there is no evidence there’s anyone in his life who could collect. After discovering his condo has been destroyed in an explosion he realizes he doesn’t have anyone he can call or a place to stay. Outside of Tyler, the only emotional connection the Narrator makes is with the cynical and suicidal Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) – and even then, he hates her.
The utter lack of nourishment in the Narrators life is underlined by his refrigerator which is full of condiments, but no food. Likewise, his self-esteem amounts to the meaningless purchases he makes from catalogues and his ability to find a dining set that he hopes “defines [him] as a person.” The Narrator’s insomnia and depression has deteriorated to the point of developing depressive psychosis in which he loses touch with reality: “Nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy, of a copy, of a copy.” The depth of his depression, however, is revealed when he confesses that while flying, “Every time the plane banked too sharply on takeoff or landing, I prayed for a crash, or a midair collision. Anything.” In his ensuing fantasy, the Narrator watches his fellow passengers ripped from the torn plane with complacency. And his frequenting of support groups for those facing serious disease and even death, reflects his own desire to crawl into the grave.
That Fight Club so encapsulates depression may be part of the film’s problem, as Emerson explains: “the experience [of depression] is impossible to convey to someone who hasn’t also gone through it. It doesn’t make sense. … How do you explain a lack of feeling, or interest, or pleasure, that is both numbing and excruciatingly painful?” But it may also explain why in the 17 years that have passed since its release, it remains one of the strongest cult films of the 90s and is, to this day, widely quoted and referenced. For in expressing the inexpressable, as Jim Emerson suggests, to those who can relate to it, Fight Club is “liberating, exhilarating.”
Fight Club, isn’t, of course, only about depression, it just begins there. And the film’s detractors didn’t just dislike Fight Club, many were actively threatened by it. No doubt, had it merely been the Narrator loafing around with his imaginary friend being depressed, making soap in a derelict house, and pronouncing smug judgements on consumerism, it may have won an Oscar. But there is the small matter of the fighting, the blood, and the violent glee. Even those who like the film have trouble defending its considerable violence, though, it didn’t stop everyone from trying, but they invariably became Ebert’s “sophisticates,” desperately scraping the celluloid for some counter-intuitive case that “the movie [is] an argument against the behaviour it shows.” Not because this argument is really embedded in the film (it ain’t), but because it’s dangerous to admire Fight Club. Frankly, it’s easier to hide behind intellectualizations of such an unlikeable film than to confess to, you know, actually liking it. It’s one of those movies you can only admit to approving of if you use cerebral qualifiers like “satire,” and “social commentary.” But, as it is with any intense emotion, the territory of most great art, after a point, rationalizations fail. Rather like mythology, which reaches beyond the poverty of logic, as Joseph Campbell once wrote, film is “the picture-language of the soul.”
That Project Mayhem blows up Starbucks is not the film’s most treacherous crime. Fight Club’s threat – and appeal – is rather more elemental than cynicism. Fight Club is certainly not the first movie to revel in blood, but there is something different about Fight Club’s violence: it’s not just violence, it’s masochism. As the Narrator makes clear: “Fight Club wasn’t about winning or losing.” The fighting matches aren’t competitive, organized, or in any way productive, as the Narrator muses, “When the fight was over, nothing was solved.” The fights appeal for their expression of suppressed masculinity, no doubt, but in large part simply for the adrenaline rush of feeling pain. After all, the foundation of the Club itself arises from self-abuse. Fight Club also operates on consent. Even Project Mayhem, though it has zero respect for the ‘well-being’ or stability of corporations, goes out of its way to avoid injuring non-consenting parties. So Ebert’s conclusion that Fight Club is “cheerfully fascist” would be far closer to the truth had he instead pronounced it to be ‘cheerfully masochistic.’ The secret, of course, is that masochism is not just self-inflicted pain, but the marriage of pain and pleasure. The revulsion of many critics probably arises from the uncomfortable recognition that Fight Club is all too aware of the real allure of pain, something BBC’s Tom Brook found particularly disturbing: “it presents violence as a seductive ‘lifestyle choice.’”
It’s rational, and part of our successful survival as a species, no doubt, to fear pain. As the Narrator points out, after Tyler instructs the Club members to start a fight and lose, “Most people, normal people, do just about anything to avoid a fight.” Typically, because self-harm is a label associated with depression and a host of other mental disorders, it is often considered little more than aberrant behaviour. In the film, the Narrator’s self-harm is certainly an expression of his depression, but also, with the founding of Fight Club, masochism becomes the method through which the Narrator, Tyler, and the members challenge what Tyler calls the “assumptions of civilization.” In fact, that many, including Anita M. Busch, are morally revolted by the exultation of self-harm is a hint. Because masochism is considered to be so aberrant, it makes other people uncomfortable, and this discomfort is what Fight Club is trying to evoke. The Narrator purposefully intimidates his co-workers with his constantly bruised and bloodied face, at one point responding to a co-worker in a meeting by giving him a blood-filled smile. Later, he’s told his “unpresentable appearance” is a main reason he’s under review, and on another occasion when he’s sent home for having blood on this shirt, he reflects as his office mates stare at him walking out, “I got right in everyone’s hostile little face. Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I am enlightened.”
If the injuries of masochism indicate anything, it’s sorrow. And despair is, really, Fight Club’s greatest sin. As Robert Warshow once wrote, “America, as a social and political organization, is committed to a cheerful view of life. It could not be otherwise. … Modern equalitarian societies, however, whether democratic or authoritarian in their political forms, always base themselves on the claim that they are making life happier.” For Warshow, “the avowed function of the modern state” is “to determine the quality and the possibilities of human life,” and thus, “it becomes an obligation of citizenship to be cheerful.”
From this point of view, Anita M. Busch’s accusation that Fight Club is “socially irresponsible” seems defensible. After all, as Warshow deftly points out, mass culture has a major role to play in this game, as it should “conform with accepted notions of public good.” ‘Appropriate’ culture, therefore, either serves as “a source of consolation” or is “a means of pressure for maintaining ‘positive’ social attitudes.” Fight Club is “irresponsible” in the sense that it renounces this obligation to worship at the altar of Happiness. And it’s not much of a leap from there to see how the film’s masochism is a moral problem for many of its critics. Modern life is defined by its vast material comforts (not to mention profound advances in medical science). The Narrator even suggests consumerism is appropriating our natural instincts: “Like so many others I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct.” Rejecting the wealth of comfort through masochism, seems not only irrational, but unpatriotic. As Tyler points out to the Fight Club members, “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression.” There is no great cross for their generation to bear, and history has reached a point where we have so many readily available creature comforts that advertisers must sell us problems before they can sell us products. Which is precisely why so many of the film’s critics may find Fight Club’s joy in pain frankly immoral: its characters have absolutely no right to their disenfranchisement and, above all, their despair.
After all, it’s not just the state who promotes a “cheerful view of life,” consumerism’s entire sale’s pitch centres on Happiness. It’s in ‘civilization’s’ interest to bolster a narrative of progress toward greater fulfilment, which so often means an increase in material comfort and convenience. And of course this progress has been integral to improving our quality of life, but it is the continuing cultural insistence of optimism that leads to the assumption of “the importance of material possessions” to our intrinsic worth and sense of fulfilment. We are thus faced with a lot of external pressure to be “complete” in terms of what we own, as if our possessions are all happiness is made of. Unfortunately, as Warshow points out, all of “this optimism is fundamentally satisfying to no one.”
Masochism strips away society’s facade of cheerfulness as it tears off flesh. For self-inflicted pain not only rejects the social responsibility to be cheerful, but subverts the god of comfort. After his condo and all his possession are destroyed, the Narrator laments to Tyler, “I had it all. … I was close to being complete.” Yet, the Narrator struggles with one of the most basic human functions: sleep. Nor is the Narrator alone. The cold truth is that people are generally not happy. Occurrences of mental illness have only spiked as the progress of history has gifted us with more comfortable lives. Of course, better diagnostic tools and the softening of social stigmas has helped boost these figures, but there remains a steady increase in mental health issues between the 1930s and 1990s (recent research into this topic is summarized here).
Fight Club’s masochism is threatening in the same way Marla initially threatens the Narrator: “her lie reflected my lie.” The film’s self-abuse is only confrontational from the perspective that it reflects our own self-delusions about how happy and satisfied we really are in our consumer escapism. There is a sense that we can go on lying about being happy so long as we never have to stop and think about it: thankfully there’s always something else to buy to refill our ever-depleting feelings of fulfilment. It’s almost ironic that so many people are offended by the film because its contempt for “lifestyle obsession” is no secret. Most viewers, even among those who ultimately didn’t like the movie, are amused by many of the jokes at the expense of corporate culture and the rejection of consumerism. As the Narrator reiterates: “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.”
And yet, people are offended and put-off by Fight Club (even if it gave them a few laughs). The ability to joke about our collective addiction to Swedish furniture and Apple technology (Chuck Palahniuk was ahead of his time) is a defence against the realization that there is something far more profound going on here. Being genuinely open to Fight Club would require the willingness to seriously examine the assumptions that make your life tolerable. This is why Fight Club needs something as extreme, confrontational, and uncomfortable as masochism. Self-abuse is the perfect lens through which to reject “the assumptions of civilization,” and the assumptions of our own lives, because it does not trade in the currency of society. When Lou, the owner of the tavern which hosts Fight Club meetings, tries to confront Tyler about using his property without permission, Lou and his gun-wielding backup are disturbed and scared off by Tyler because he doesn’t care about money and isn’t brought to heel by pain. Tyler not only instigates, but delights in the beating Lou gives him, and perhaps no one in the room is made more insecure about Tyler’s pleasure than the man holding a gun who aims wildly around the room in confusion over why he isn’t in control of the situation. It’s essential to reject the social gods of bodily comfort and material gain because, as Tyler suggests, “Our Great War’s a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives.” Capitalism may have thought of every possible “[solution] for modern living,” but it has forgotten the soul.
Although critics like Stephen Hunter are adamant the movie is “against all that’s holy and noble in man,” Fight Club is a deeply spiritual film. And largely so because it embraces violence and pain. According to Colin Klein, a lecturer of philosophy at MacQuarie University, the key to masochism is understanding that its pleasure arises “right on the edge of what you can take.” This is also the third rule of Fight Club: “Someone yells stop, goes limp, taps out, the fight is over.” And when the Narrator describes new members as “a wad of cookie dough” but “after a few weeks, he was carved out of wood,” he is describing a common result of masochism, as Klein elaborates: “By reflecting on things at the edge of bearability, you slowly learn how to bear them.” While I wouldn’t argue that Fight Club is a Buddhist film (even though it directly references a movie starring Brad Pitt about Buddhists), it does conjure many Buddhist principles. Most strikingly, the film uses masochism as the doorway through which the Narrator reckons with the Buddha’s great revelation about the world: “All life is suffering.”
Let’s face it: if the purpose of life is to be happy, the world’s been set up wrong. Natural disasters level entire cities; wars wipe out generations; people get incurable diseases in their 20s and 30s; children are killed in random accidents; people starve and rot in poverty; lovers abandon each other; family ties breed abuse; friends disappoint and betray friends; old age robs us of strength; plans go wrong; good intentions deteriorate to misery. And death is coming for everyone of us without fail, or, as the Narrator would put it, “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”
To be alive is to be in pain, or at best, constantly on the brink of suffering and death. This is a reality the Narrator faces in his support group addiction, as he meets waves of people of all ages and backgrounds afflicted with all kinds of illnesses they didn’t ask for and from which they are desperately seeking relief: testicular cancer, lymphoma, tuberculosis, blood parasites, brain parasites, organic brain dementia, ascending bowel cancer (his favourite). He also encounters the randomness of death in his job as a recall coordinator for a major car manufacturer. At the scene of a grisly accident in which all the passengers were trapped and burned alive, he explains it was caused by “the rear differential [locking] up” and the plain bad luck of the owners having bought a ticking time bomb. He even admits that these kinds of accidents happen so often “you wouldn’t believe” it. No doubt, of course, a major purpose of the scene is his explanation that the manufacturer often knowingly sells dangerous cars if the recall would cost more than the settlement of an average lawsuit, but it’s also part of a running joke in the film about death lurking around every corner.
The Narrator fantasizes about all the ways his plane might crash. Tyler explains the emergency exit doors in planes are simply for “the illusion of safety” and aeroplanes have oxygen masks to make people high and docile to “accept [their] fate” if something goes wrong. Later, Project Mayhem replaces the emergency procedures pamphlet on planes with a more honest version which shows people panicking, on fire, and in pain. Tyler also underlines how “all kinds of explosives” can be made with simple household items. And after discovering a stack of articles written from the point of view of various organs, mentioning the article about “Jack’s colon,” Tyler jokes, “Yeah, I get cancer. I kill Jack.” Even in the absence of accidents or disease, the Narrator laments that even in our dullest moments, “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” The film is very much in touch with the unpredictable, and often unfair, precariousness of life. And Marla seems to be counting on it. The Narrator explains “Marla’s philosophy of life was that she might die at any moment. The tragedy, she said, was that she didn’t.” She makes a habit, for example, of crossing busy streets without looking for on-coming traffic and engages in basically every behaviour classified as “risky.”
Later in the film, Marla tells the Narrator that Chloe, a terminally ill women from the support groups, recently died and wistfully adds, “I think it was a smart move on her part.” Although this is the kind of despair in Fight Club many critics found nihilistic and off-putting, it’s also at the heart of the film’s wisdom. Marla in particular voices the simple but unpopular fact that sometimes, life just isn’t worth living. And the only reason people are disturbed by Fight Club’s dismissive attitude or sense the film has what Roger Ebert describes as a “numbing effect” is the belief the world is bound by intent, and that life is important: well, maybe it isn’t. Of course, dwelling on the pointlessness of life and the creeping feelings life’s just not worth it are hallmarks of depression, but they are also at the heart of existentialism, a philosophy whose foundation is that life is totally absurd, without meaning or purpose, and therefore is often, and indiscriminately, unfair and cruel. In other words, you are completely and totally responsible for yourself in a universe that doesn’t know, or particularly care, about your existence, and the only meaning possible is that which you yourself choose and honour. This led existentialist Albert Camus, in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, to suggest “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
This is, of course, simply another way of expressing ‘All life is suffering,’ and while Marla’s death wish is often a punch line, grappling with the pointlessness of life is a genuine concern in the film. No doubt the zealots of Warshow’s ‘optimism mandate’ will scramble to shove social pillars like family and love down your throat, and maybe some bullshit about serving others, or causes “bigger than yourself.” But frankly, not everyone has a warm and supportive family, and that doesn’t even include those born into abuse and neglect. Many people never experience great love by finding a life partner or “soul mate,” something our culture makes out to be the central purpose of life and evidence of your worth. Not for the good of your soul, mind you, but probably because houses, cars, and attractive lifestyles are more (or sometimes only) affordable with two incomes. And community service sounds wonderful until you realize it’s rarely based on compassion, but rather increases the ego by making you “grateful” you’re not in someone else’s shoes (thank God he blessed you and not this wretch). This kind of “self-sacrifice” actually requires there be a class of people less fortunate than you, but you get the privilege of feeling like a “good person” for your trouble. Not unlike the Narrator who ends up becoming addicted to the relief he finds being a “tourist” in support groups. Of course these can all be valid aspects of your life’s worth if they are truly and personally cultivated and valued, and not just adapted as part of civilization’s “life script” or as insulation for the ego, but they so rarely are.
True empathy, being able to really understand that everyone is wounded, requires you to bear your own suffering. Masochism can be a path to kindness and inner peace because it lets us “reflect on things at the edge of bearability” in order to “slowly learn how to bear them.” For while compassion is certainly rooted in your own pain, you can’t be obsessed by it. If Fight Club’s masochism advocates anything, it is learning how to bear the world, because, as Joseph Campbell warns, “Negativism to the pain and ferocity of life is negativism to life.” This is a difficult truth to face because our immediate response to pain (physical or emotional) is usually fear, followed by a frantic search for relief. And indeed, this is the Narrator’s first solution. Initially, the Narrator’s doctor suggests he visit the testicular cancer support group because “That’s pain” compared to the Narrator’s persistent insomnia. But the Narrator doesn’t learn to cope, he learns to reject life. He is taught, quite effectively, to meditate, to release his emotions by crying, find his power animal, and all about his chakras. When Tyler burns the Narrator’s hand with lye, the Narrator attempts to sedate his pain by meditating, but Tyler admonishes him: “Don’t deal with [pain] the way those dead people do!”
Tyler has a point. The Narrator himself describes the meetings as a “vacation” rather than ‘healing,’ and as they help him sleep at night, they are quite literally a sedative. He even characterizes the release he attains in the groups as a kind of death: “Every evening I died, and every evening I was born again. Resurrected.” This isn’t, however, cathartic, it’s avoidance: in the context of understanding that ‘All life is suffering,’ this is akin to suicide without actually dying. And while learning to accept death is no doubt important (and something Tyler does encourage), meditating and the like is “premature enlightenment” because there is no reckoning with life. Unless you’re facing imminent death the way Chloe is, it’s all the airy, New Age spirituality that sells you a yin-yang shaped coffee table, but emotionally, may serve as little more than escapism. Half the trouble is the word ‘healing’ is clean and clinical, it conjures up images of stainless steel and the smell of disinfectant, but real healing (particularly of the emotional stripe) has far more in common with a knife fight than it does with a stethoscope. Fight Club is just sincere about how messy, painful, vague and unfinished healing often is.
Fight Club’s violent masochism is not, then, the celebration of darkness many would have you believe. Rather, if Camus is right, that suicide is the only truly serious philosophical question, then masochism is the song of a heart that honestly wants to live, because life itself is so often little more than “the edge of bearability.” In Jim Emerson’s excellent essay on Fight Club and depression he makes the important insight that much of Fight Club’s violence is an expression of trying to “[punch] through a big ol’ sack of psychological insulation.” The fighting isn’t lashing out, but reaching out. Or, as the beautiful Leonard Cohen once sang: “I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch.” If the Narrator had truly wanted to die he wouldn’t have needed Tyler, and the film positions masochism as a genuine path out of the Narrator’s alienation. Before the Narrator “meets” Tyler sitting in the Emergency Exit row of a flight, Tyler appears four times in quick, almost subliminal inserts. The second and third inserts speak directly to how masochism is actually effective in helping the Narrator climb out of his depression. The second insert occurs in the Narrator’s doctor’s office:
What’s remarkable here is that Tyler appears exactly in sync with the doctor as he asserts, “That’s pain.” In the following scene, as the Narrator takes his doctor’s advice and attends the testicular cancer support meeting, the site of Tyler’s third insert, he appears after Thomas expresses the anguish of his current life situation:
Here, Tyler appears as the group organizer encourages them to “really open [themselves] up” (here are the first and fourth inserts if you missed them in the film). Facing pain and ‘opening up’ are precisely what Tyler counsels in Fight Club. The difference, of course, is Tyler’s definition of ‘opening up’ is rather more literal, as it is the body which ‘opens up’ through the wounds caused by fighting. Tyler also echoes the organizer’s speech to the group nearly perfectly. The organizer says: “I look around this room, and I see a lot of courage, and that gives me strength. We give each other strength.” Tyler tells his own followers: “Look around. Look around. … Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential. And I see squandering.” Tyler affirms that the members are already strong, this is not something they have ever lost (testicular cancer or not) or need to earn. And while the support group is right to counsel strength does not come from something as material as testosterone, Tyler goes a step further than the organizer who suggests strength comes from one another. For Tyler, true strength originates in the higher self, and is simply made tangible in our compassionate relationships with others.
It’s important to point out, too, that the Narrator is not actually suffering from any of the diseases the support groups address, but rather, is attending the meetings in the spirit of comparing his pain to that of others in the hope it will efface his suffering. This is generally the wisdom behind volunteering with people “less fortunate,” and the implied lesson is you have no right to your despair: a rationale produced by the state’s requirement that you be happy. And while the Narrator does find temporary release from his insomnia by the comparison, his pain is not thereby eclipsed. Insisting that dark feelings are somehow invalid only feeds the addiction cycle which eternally chases relief, so it’s important that there’s a stark comparison made between the doctor’s definition of “pain,” the emotional anguish the group members are encouraged to express, versus the existential pain Tyler pushes his followers to confront (by purposefully putting their bodies in physical pain). Unlike the story-telling of support groups, meant as a kind of catharsis, Tyler positions pain itself as self-discovery, and therefore necessary: as he encourages the Narrator “I want you to hit me as hard as you can,” and when the Narrator protests that it’s “a good thing” neither one of them have ever been in a fight, Tyler protests, “No it is not, how much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”
Masochism only blurs the lines between pleasure and pain because life does: they are not polar opposites, but dance partners, two sides of the same worldly illusion. Choosing to really live means you must embrace that life is often a brawl. Albert Camus suggests that suicide is, in plain fact, a confession “that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.” When Tyler tells the Narrator “I don’t want to die without any scars,” he accepts that living means being wounded. He pushes the Narrator to reach the same acceptance when he burns the Narrator’s hand and challenges him to bear the pain. Tyler realigns the Narrator’s early refrain “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time,” with “This is your pain. This is your burning hard. It’s right here.” Tyler is very clear about the fact that life, in the moment, is often painful, and fully experiencing your pain means facing yourself. The importance of tolerating pain without resistance applies to emotional distress as well, as psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains in her book The Willpower Instinct, “Studies show that the more you try to suppress negative thoughts, the more likely you are to become depressed.”
There is a critical distinction between pain, what the Buddha calls “suffering,” and anguish. Pain is the inevitable side effect of being alive, it arises externally, and is often something over which we have little control: things don’t go our way, or go wrong; relationships disintegrate; pain from an illness or injury; the death of a loved one. All of this is inevitable in the physical world. Anguish, however, comes from the mind. It is our mental and emotional reaction to suffering: we dwell on pain, resist it, condemn it, wish it away, berate and blame ourselves for going through it again. Why does everything always go wrong? Haven’t you learned your lesson yet? Why does this always happen to me? It is this resistance that transforms pain into misery. So on this we must be clear: the way to peace is neither in changing the world, nor denying your feelings about it, but rather, peace arises only by changing your mind. Fight Club’s revelation is not about Starbucks, khakis, or fist fights, but that it’s possible to be in pain, and yet be at peace.
But inner peace is not just about embracing pain. Tyler also continually pushes the Narrator to “[hit] bottom.” This is not meant in the usual sense of reaching the motivation to change, but letting go: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” In Buddhism, the root of anguish is attachment, whose symptoms are desire and fear. This is at the heart of Fight Club’s deconstruction of consumer culture, for desire and fear are the fuel upon which advertising runs. The Narrator remarks that the desire for consumer products has become so ravenous it has replaced the sex drive: “We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow collection.” The film also includes an amusing shot of the Narrator on the toilet, looking lustfully at the side-ways centrefold of a magazine, setting the expectation it’s porn, only to learn he’s ordering furniture from an IKEA catalogue. Consumerism also preys on our insecurities, our desire to be attractive, well liked, respected, and we’re driven to buy things to feel better about ourselves, making up for our deep-seated self-doubt by purchasing a socially acceptable dining set that “defines [you] as a person.” That advertising preys on our insecurities is also underlined when riding a bus, the Narrator notices an ad for men’s underwear and feels sorry for all the men “packed into gyms, trying to look like how Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger said they should.” He asks Tyler cynically, “Is that what a man looks like?”
The addiction to fear and desire which perpetuates consumerism is exactly what Tyler has overcome. After Tyler confronts a convenience store clerk about why he hasn’t pursued his dream of becoming a vet, the Narrator admires that Tyler has “No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.” Indeed, the ability to release all attachments is the message of the Narrator’s inner power animal, a penguin, who tells him, simply, “Slide.” In other words, Tyler’s “hitting bottom” means releasing the ego. The ego is the centre of our conscious identity, the familiar ‘voice’ in our heads. It is that in us which believes it is both unique and separate from everyone else on this planet, and because of this belief in separation, it believes it is competing with others for possessions, status, and worth. The ego is thus driven by an insatiable need to validate its specialness and importance, often by accumulating external trophies, possessions. Joseph Campbell wisely nicknames the ego “the Hoarder.” And it is only the ego which falls for the tricks of consumerism, for it mistakes the personality for the soul.
Prying loose an awareness for this distinction is Tyler’s intention behind professing to the Project Mayhem members they are “not special,” but rather the “all singing, all dancing, crap of the world,” for the ego is little more than a pageant of the self. No doubt, this is a primary source for what Roger Ebert thinks is Fight Club’s “numbing effect” which may “cause people to go a little crazy,” but this is precisely Tyler’s point. It’s only the ego which finds Tyler’s insistence “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same organic, decaying matter as everything else” to be particularly dark. It’s simply reckoning with the nature of the world. As the Buddha said, “The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve.” The revelation that you are not special is nothing to be mourned. Tyler doesn’t tell his comrades they are “maggots” to insult them, but to point out that no consciousness is above another. A maggot is as sacred as a human being. It is only our arrogance, and addiction to capitalist values like wealth and fame, which hears this as a challenge to our worth. We are not, despite our delusions of ‘holiness,’ above nature: just as every other living thing on the planet, humans are equally prone to death, disease, age, and decay. By releasing the ego’s self-importance, one realizes your suffering is not to be taken personally. The universe is not out to get you, as Ernest Hemingway once counselled, “The world breaks everyone.”
As Tyler warns the Narrator early on, “hitting bottom” is not “a weekend retreat” or “a goddamn seminar” (or support group). It is difficult, painful, exhausting work. It may require the psychic equivalent of voluntary amputation to release the ego. You must hit bottom so completely, that you are willing to let go of God. When Tyler burns the Narrator’s hand with lye, and prevents him from seeking relief from the pain, Tyler uses this ‘opening’ to suggest, “You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you, he never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen.” The Narrator is unconvinced: “It isn’t?!” It may seems strange to suggest that Fight Club is a deeply spiritual film when it includes a famous scene in which a main character argues “We are God’s unwanted children? So be it!” but God has nothing to do with it. Tyler has come to a similar conclusion as Carl Jung, who, following the devastation of World War II looked around and wondered ‘What kind of God would allow all of this to pass?’ Jung’s suspicion, beautifully stated in Answer to Job, is if God does exist, the only rational explanation is that he’s a malignant narcissist.
You are thus the sole author of your life’s meaning. Tyler is trying to push the Narrator to accept that he is completely responsible for himself. Whether Tyler believes God genuinely exists or not doesn’t matter. What he is really pushing the Narrator to abandon is the belief in a God that can, or will, save him. As Tyler insists, “We don’t need Him.” Buddhism holds a similar lesson. It’s important to note that Buddhism is non-theist, and while there are god-like figures in its sacred texts, there is no idol to be worshipped. In fact, Buddhism explicitly counsels against worship. Buddhism’s great warning, a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon, could be rephrased as Carl Jung’s insight: “Religion is a defence against the experience of god.” The Buddha is simply an example to be contemplated. Believing the Buddha is or has done anything you are incapable of being or doing unravels the whole thing (Joseph Campbell, among others, would suggest the same is true of other figures like Jesus, but I’m not trying to start an actual knife fight here). The trouble, thus, is in believing ‘the hand of God’ is going to suddenly and miraculously intervene in your life and fix everything, or lift you out of your angst. It won’t.
Ultimately what this amounts to is the necessity of accepting life as it is, not how you’d like it be or pray for it to be, and not how consumer corporations pretend it can be. This results in the evaporation of the pressure society puts on you to be perfect, complete, and happy. As Tyler tells the Narrator: “I say, never be complete. I say, stop being perfect. I say, let’s, let’s evolve. Let the chips fall where they may.” This is sly advice, because Tyler well knows that the chips will fall where they may. Margaret Fuller, a 19th century journalist, once proclaimed, as the culmination of her wisdom, “I accept the universe.” Upon hearing this, Thomas Carlyle, a writer and philosopher, replied, “Gad! She’d better!” (channelling his inner Tyler Durden, no doubt). Quite frankly, there isn’t much of an alternative option: you’re here, and the universe will universe regardless of your ideas about it. The difference between facing life and resisting it is simply this: the difference between pain and misery. And this need not be predicated on the assumption the world is strictly biological. You can ascribe to believing in God, and an intentional, ordered universe, but that does not fix the problem that ‘God’s plan’ is inaccessible to the human mind. The fact is, whether you mentally file this under ‘God’s will’ or ‘God’s dead’ makes little difference. If you are to carry on, you must accept that suffering is a condition of life, and you must learn to bear it. There are no white knights coming.
Although he appears that way, Tyler isn’t the Narrator’s white knight either. In fact, for the Narrator to truly hit bottom, he must also release Tyler. As it turns out, while Tyler is in his life, the Narrator continues to suffer bouts of insomnia. This is a hint that Tyler does not have the final key to inner peace, but has simply been ‘a finger pointing at the moon.’ Tyler appears almost exclusively at night, and often in basements or other liminal spaces like airports, parking lots, and an abandoned house. He is also often shot framed by doorways. Tyler is the Narrator’s shadow self, rather like Freud’s concept of the Id, and carries the wisdom of the forgotten self, but he is also, at least partially, a spectre of the ego. Tyler himself acknowledges that he is a projection of the Narrator’s fantasy: “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look. I fuck like you wanna fuck. I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” The doppelganger, or double, is always the ego trying to protect itself, and hence why Tyler, at the end of the film, insists on his own importance and is unable to recognize the Narrator has outgrown him.
Early in their relationship the Narrator does genuinely need many of Tyler’s qualities: the ability to accept the inevitable pain of life, radical self-honesty and the ability to release self-delusion, assertiveness, and the courage to be truly authentic, even if it means standing outside of society. The Narrator needs Tyler to learn how “to let that which does not matter truly slide,” and to reach out of the insulation of his own self-hatred. It could be that Ebert is right in asserting “more people will leave this movie and get in fights than will leave it discussing Tyler Durden’s moral philosophy.” But the film suggests the radical acceptance of suffering is the beginning of genuine compassion, not violence. For you are only able to look beyond your own pain when you learn to bear it, and understand that your suffering does not make you special. During the Narrator’s fantasy of his plane being hit mid-air, he watches his fellow passengers be thrown to their deaths with wry pleasure, and the only conclusion this horror conjures in his mind is “Life insurance pays off triple if you die on a business trip.” He also describes the relative value of human life as determined by an auto manufacturer in his recall formula. Later, after surviving a car accident Tyler induces, the Narrator finally connects: “I’d never been in a car accident. This must’ve been what all those statistics feel like before I filed them into my reports.” He later expresses genuine grief at Bob’s death and pleads to the Project members, “This is not a … piece of evidence, this is a person, he’s a friend of mine … this is Bob.” He’s even able to go from fantasizing about naming a tumour Marla, to admitting to her “I really like you, Marla … I really do. I care about you, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you because of me.”
But none of this is to say that Tyler is always right. Thinking so would transform Fight Club into a fascist manifesto, but to its credit, the film seems to understand as much. Tyler does become fascistic because, even though he has real wisdom, he falls into the very human trap of believing he’s the only one who’s right. Project Mayhem, likewise, becomes a fascist group from the perspective that its rank and file members take everything Tyler says as gospel, do not have the ability – or willingness – to question him, and are cut-off from the inner wisdom Tyler once taught them to hear. But by the time the Narrator breaks through to the truth of Tyler’s identity, the members of Project Mayhem seem naive and, frankly, stupid. It’s important to recognize that the film is sutured to the Narrator’s point of view, not Tyler’s, so when he repeatedly calls the Project members “Morons,” this is the position of the film itself (if you don’t believe him, it’s only because you yourself are too enamoured with Tyler).
The Narrator’s grand revelation is that he is the man he wants to be, he is the man he believes he’s following. This is the insight the Project members are missing, for they too are already the men they dream of being (and if they weren’t, Tyler would never have reached them). They follow Tyler blindly only because they have silenced their inner wisdom, and the Narrator is able to overcome Tyler only because he has discovered his. This is tantamount to the existential acceptance of total responsibility for yourself, or as Joseph Campbell puts it, true enlightenment is “[becoming] the authority for your own life.” Enlightenment requires all idols to be overcome, and eventually, discarded. Like Hercules on his funeral pyre, all heroes must be burned. As Meister Eckhart said, “The ultimate and highest leave taking is leaving God for GOD, leaving your notion of God for an experience of that which transcends all notions.” When the Narrator connects that Tyler’s wisdom is to “let that which does not matter truly slide,” it is the realization of something he already knew, well before Tyler’s emergence, as his inner power animal told him: “Slide.” All Fight Club is missing is Glinda the Good Witch, whose assurance to Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, “You don’t need to be helped any longer, you’ve always had the power,” could replace the Narrator shooting himself in the face in order to let Tyler go.
Why then, if Dorothy and the Narrator come to the same revelation, must Fight Club take the road through violence and nihilism? For it may be logical to worry, to Ebert’s point, that Fight Club’s cynicism may “cause people to go a little crazy.” Consoling the Narrator following the mysterious destruction of his apartment and everything he owns, Tyler asks him if he knows what a duvet is. The Narrator offers, “A comforter,” but Tyler insists “It’s a blanket. It’s just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No.” This line is often used as proof that what the film is really mourning is the loss of a time ‘when men were real men’ (and is therefore some sexist fantasy), but this misses the point. What Tyler recognizes here is how modern civilization and its incessant demand for comfort and happiness is a charade. Pain and suffering are the unavoidable consequence of life, and in civilization’s obsession with making us more comfortable, civilization rejects life, covers it up, and lies about it.
Optimism is an “assumption of civilization” Tyler wisely rejects because it is a sleight of hand. It is the lie that life should, or even can, be painless and it blocks the way to peace because you’ll never be willing to bear pain so long as our ‘optimism’ promises a future without suffering. Optimism isn’t interested in revelations, but only legitimizing the political foundation on which it is based. And happiness worship can, and does, do real harm. When optimism is required, suffering is not a valid, human experience, but a failure of character, and it alienates those in real pain. The overwhelming ‘survivor’ culture surrounding cancer patients, for example, has many great and noble qualities, but the truth it seems to gloss over is that many people with cancer die. Their deaths are not the result of a moral deficiency or failure to “fight” hard enough, but this is the unspoken, however unintentional, implication of the pressure to be optimistic. Not to mention, in the grand scheme of things, it’s delusional: “Survivor – for now” is a far more sincere crown – whether you have cancer or not – because, as the Narrator reminds us, “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” This is also why being able to get passed the surface of Fight Club as a social satire is so important: being unwilling to honestly admit to each other that pain is inevitable, that sometimes life has no redeeming quality and rarely makes sense, or the validity of despair, isolates and rejects the most vulnerable people around us.
It’s not that optimism is unimportant, but blind optimism is in far greater danger of pushing people to “go a little crazy” than nihilism. Stephen Hunter, who concluded Fight Club is against everything noble in man, describes it as a “yelp from the black hole.” He’s right. It’s unfortunate, though, that Hunter believes this is grounds to dismiss Fight Club as worthless. Those lost in the dark aren’t reached by being ignored and cast aside, at some point, they must be acknowledged. As the Narrator and Marla make clear, the simple act of feeling heard is their initial attraction to support groups: “When people think you’re dying they really listen, instead of waiting for their turn to speak.” It’s this prejudice that makes Anita M. Busch’s assertion Fight Club is the kind of film symptomatic of the Columbine shooting so disappointing. In 1999, singer Marilyn Manson was widely blamed for the shooting (there’s evidence the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, liked Manson’s music, but were not the die-hard fans the media portrayed immediately following the shooting). Upon his return to Colorado to perform as part of Ozzfest 2 years later, protesters repeated the accusation that his music “[promotes] hate, violence, suicide, death, drug-use and Columbine-like behaviour” (now that’s a resumé). In Michael Moore’s documentary about the shooting, Bowling for Columbine, he interviews Manson, who offers the film’s most striking moment. When Moore asks Manson what he would say to the students of Columbine if he had the chance, Manson replies “I wouldn’t say a single word to ‘em. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.”
However pure-hearted the moral crusaders of the world (but I doubt it), blaming the music of Marilyn Manson or films like Fight Club, and other happiness-rejecting works for real-world violence, depression, and despair isn’t just a failure of compassion, it’s dishonest. It’s not that true optimism is invalid, but moral superiority toward nihilism being somehow inappropriate masks the nature of the world. Death and its attendant grief touches everybody, and before you leave this planet things will be left undone and unsaid. Your heart will be broken many times over, and you are likely to learn, bitterly, that closure is a myth, and time, on its own, heals nothing. Of course there are beautiful things in life, too, but you will, more than once, wonder what all of this is about, whether it’s worth it, and whether you will ever feel anything other than vulnerable, lost, and afraid. Denying the ordinariness of despair does nothing but help it fester.
In his book, The Exploding Self, psychoanalyst Joseph Redfearn explores the pervasive imagery of the atomic bomb and the apocalypse in dreams and fantasies. Redfearn points out that there is a “collective suicidal drift” in the human unconscious, but in direct contradiction of Stephen Hunter’s claim Fight Club’s nihilism is “against all that is holy and noble in man,” Redfearn suggests apocalyptic desire is actually a manifestation of hope. He explains: “Certain values, certain traditions, certain people, certain places in the lives of each of us are judged to be worth dying for or risking death for. … this courage, this loyalty, this selflessness, this all-that-is-best-in-us naturally tends to feed the apocalyptic fires of world destruction in the hope of a better world.” Only a soul in utter despair but full of compassion would sacrifice the dying breath of his optimism to pray: “Dear God, bring the doom.” Tyler’s desire to destroy the credit card companies so “we all go back to zero” is not an attempt to self-aggrandize or honour the ego, but is rather an expression of his hope for a world where civilization’s promises of equality and peace of mind are not just marketed and sold, but made real. The trick is, even Tyler’s desire for a new world is delusional. Embedded in an apocalyptic wish is a judgement against the world as it is, that life is only so painful because something has ‘gone wrong,’ and in blowing up the world we could start over and ‘get it right’ (the ego always thinks it knows better).
The illumination in Fight Club, for it is a film about illumination, is not about reaching happily ever after, heaven, or transcending anything. And perhaps this is why so many have such a hard time with it. So much of our culture is about transcending, but it errs in presenting transcendence as conquering the world. Fight Club is honest that, so long as you are alive, there is nothing to overcome. The Narrator is delivered only in his mind, as he puts it: “Fight Club wasn’t about winning or losing. It wasn’t about words. The hysterical shouting was in tongues, like in a Pentecostal church. When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. Afterwards we all felt saved.” Fight Club is neither a political prescription, nor a protest. Consumerism is challenged as a way to question our attachment to desire and fear, and our denial of the horrific nature of life, not to turn the world into a socialist utopia. Of course, the film has a vein of social satire, but rabid consumerism is largely a symptom of a soul in misery, and the film’s point is simply that nothing of worth can be found in the world if you do not first find it in yourself. As the great writer Alan Moore (no stranger to ‘politically aware’ work) suggests, art is impoverished as propaganda for an ideology or a nation state, rather, “all art can, or should be, is propaganda for a state of mind.”
It is not, then, without irony that critic Rex Reed describes Fight Club as “a film without a single redeeming quality” and so, throwing the film away, it “may have to find its audience in hell.” One should not be under the illusion Fight Club takes place anywhere else. The Narrator’s first meeting with Tyler arises from his most desperate prayer: the desire for his plane to crash and kill everyone on board. It’s a moment reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy, when on the edge of his voyage through Inferno, Dante relates: “And as I fell to my soul’s ruin, a presence / gathered before me on the discoloured air.” Tyler, the film’s avatar of the underworld poet, then accompanies the Narrator through a world filled with “souls in fire,” including his own. What the Narrator called “hysterical shouting … in tongues” in Fight Club, Dante hears in hell: “grief so deep the tongue must wag in vain” for we “lack the language for such pain.” This is, perhaps, why the first and second rule of Fight Club is that you don’t speak about it, because you can’t. For, if you could talk about your pain, you wouldn’t need to bleed.
Yet, dwelling in the abyss should not be grounds to condemn the film as lost. For hell does not represent punishment or banishment, nor is it a physical place, as Joseph Campbell explains, hell is a state of mind: “Hell is the concretization of your life experiences, a place where you’re stuck, the wasteland. In hell, you are so bound to yourself that grace cannot enter,” and “Satan is the epitome of infractible ego.” Hell is not experiencing pain, it’s being trapped by it. Virgil, Dante’s guide through Inferno, points out that the souls in fire are “yet content in fire,” because they know “whensoever it may be / they will mount into the blessed choir” and “once more [see] the stars.” Or, as the beautiful film Jacob’s Ladder puts it, paraphrasing the great spiritual teacher Meister Eckhart, “the only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go.” Tyler recognizes the same thing when he tells the Narrator, “Fuck damnation, man. Fuck redemption!” Because hell isn’t really concerned with judgement, but is rather the state of the soul struggling to release the ego and all its attendant attachments. As Dante saw rightly, the underworld is a manifestation of love, not wickedness.
Fight Club is also very much a path for going through hell, the ability to experience your own pain without getting stuck in it. And by the end of the film, Tyler has reached the border of where he can accompany the Narrator, and must be left behind in the underworld. Not unlike Virgil, in Dante, who cannot lead him out of Inferno to the higher realms. Dante then meets the lovely Beatrice, his new guide; the Narrator can finally embrace Marla. Yet, Tyler isn’t abandoned completely, for his bombs go off, but they have been transformed. They are no longer the incarnation of Tyler’s nascent desire to change the world. They now represent the Narrator fully hitting bottom, for not only is the Narrator able to let Tyler go, but in the suicidal act of shooting himself, he even releases himself. That this moment is one of enlightenment, rather than violence, is reinforced by the Narrator who, before pulling the trigger, tells Tyler, “My eyes are open.” For hitting bottom is the only way out of hell. In the Divine Comedy, Dante is only able to leave Inferno after reaching its lowest circle: using Satan himself as a staircase, Dante turns the world upside down and climbs out of hell into purgatory, and eventually, the vaults of heaven. With Tyler’s bombs, the world has been turned upside down, returning to zero, and the Narrator can now climb out of despair. Why take the nihilistic road paved in blood and broken bones, rather than Oz’s yellow brick, in order to reach the same revelation? Because it’s honest: while the paths to illumination are countless, they must all travel through hell, for the shores of paradise are just beyond the underworld’s deepest pit.
The bombs are something, else, too: an admission. They confess that while they have turned the world over, and the Narrator can leave behind his depression, he is still in pain (he has a gunshot wound to the face). The destruction has not, thereby, cleansed the suffering from life. As Joseph Campbell makes clear, pain exists even beyond the abyss: “If hell is the wasteland, then purgatory would be the journey where you leave the place of pain. You are still in pain, but you’re in quest with a sense of possible realization. There is no longer despair.” This is the heart of inner peace: you may well be suffering, still, but you need not be overcome by it. And it is the soul of Fight Club’s masochism: you can be in pain and yet be at peace. But this peace is only within reach if we can accept that suffering is a condition of life, and therefore resist the temptation to reject the validity of those, including ourselves, still trapped in anguish. As Joseph Redfearn reiterates, we must be able to honour our darkest feelings: “Destructive wishes must first reach into consciousness and be acknowledged. … In order to emerge from our collective depression, it may be necessary to realize that part of us wants to blow the other fellow to bits, or to blow up the world.” This is not, however, the equivalent of following through. Redfearn underlines that indeed, part of our resistance to facing our own darkness is “we are afraid of knowing what we wish because we fear the fulfilment of our wish if it is acknowledged.”
The path out of despair is not found, as the doctrine of Happiness preaches, in denying or subduing pain, but rather in the radical acceptance of suffering. For as Albert Camus counsels, “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night,” because “the night has no end.” This is nothing to regret, it is simply a reminder that the true source of peace is from within. In its own way, Fight Club may be ultimately optimistic, as it looks up, out of despair. Though perhaps ‘human’ is a better term. And of course, not everyone will be saved, not even by the most sincere compassion, but trapping themselves in hell is well their right, and they will let go when they are ready, or they won’t, for in the words of Anaïs Nin: “You cannot save people, you can only love them.” But after considering the absurdity of the world, Albert Camus agrees with the long suffering Oedipus: “I conclude that all is well.” And Camus resolves “that remark is sacred.” This is the state in which we leave the Narrator, with “nothing solved” but feeling “saved.” In the end this is Fight Club’s illumination, that it’s possible to look at the world and all its horrors and not need it, or anyone in it, to change, in order to be at peace. All is well. Or, to give Leonard Cohen the final word: “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
Brilliant to read an analysis like this… I wonder if you have any thoughts on films that use symbolism and metaphors as means of propaganda? For example, I was struck by the Trump/symbolism that turned a sociopath into a hero in The Greatest Showman, which all reviewers missed. Likewise in Nolan’s Dunkirk which blatantly used so many symbols of the British empire while at the same time white-washing history (which, incidentally Showman also does). And yet again no film reviewers picking this up. This shows to me how dangerous it is when we have lost the ability to read the language if symbols and myths. Anyway great work. Thanks.
This analysis helped me write my whole critical thinking paper, which was a critique on modern society, thank you so much. You are so insightful and just wow.