As a big fan of Fight Club, I find it incredibly difficult to understand how someone can not appreciate the beauty of the film. Maybe I am biased, Fight Club is a movie which has impacted my world view so much that I have part of the script tattooed on me for life. I’ve even made reference to it in my academic endeavors and as I’ve grown up, many aspects of the film which I had not even considered before have come to my attention, peeling back the layers of what I believe to be simultaneously the greatest fictional story ever told and one of the most powerful social commentaries that a young man can learn from. Fight Club has everything you could possibly want from a film and the thing that excites me the most, is that it probably has even more that I am yet to discover. I have split this post up into four sections, each representing the four different, but inter-connected issues, which I interpret the film to address. I find it only right to address the issue which is probably most integral to the movie’s plot line first, the issue of social conditioning and in particular consumerism, which is a literal theme present throughout the film.
“With insomnia, nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy. Socially conditioned materialistic life”
The movie starts out with the protagonist’s story of insomnia and getting over insomnia. In my opinion, Palahniuk refers back to insomnia a number of times, with the purpose of likening it to social conditioning. He is using it as a metaphor for people’s lives, people who never get to truly live an enlightened life with their eyes completely open, because they are so tied down by social norms and beliefs. What they perceive life to be is a “copy of a copy of a copy” of what life is truly like. The Narrator talks about how he “flipped through catalogs and wondered: What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” amongst many other references to consumerism, which just like insomnia, Palahniuk likens to the futile search for meaning in life, looking in all of the wrong places. Another theme of this part of the movie is the groups which the Narrator attends. The Narrator starts attending groups of people with diseases such as cancer because he finds that crying at these meeting allows him to finally fall asleep. This is the Narrator’s first glimpse into a meaningful life. He finds a group of people, who “really listen to you” instead of “just waiting for their turn to speak”. These people have been put into a situation where social conditioning and consumerism has become completely irrelevant. They now lead enlightened lives and the Narrator is able to free himself of the “copy of a copy of a copy” he experiences during insomnia when a little bit of this enlightenment rubs off on him.
This phase of the movie ends with the Narrator coming home to his flat having been blown up. This is a key moment in the film, because this is the moment in which Tyler becomes a main character in the movie. The Narrator already knows that there is more important things out there than what society says is important, as he has already experienced it at the support groups. He experiences cognitive dissonance though, which prevents him from taking real and complete action, thus he creates the character of Tyler Durden, someone who allows him to become the man he wants to be. The creation of Tyler materializes on a flight and during the brief conversation on the plane Tyler challenges the way in which the Narrator thinks. This is all wisdom which is seeded in the Narrator’s mind from the experience of attending support groups. The Narrator is unable to consciously challenge his own beliefs in such an aggressive manner, without the help of Tyler.
Narrator: What do you do for a living?
Tyler Durden: Why? So you can pretend like you’re interested?
This is a direct challenge to social norms, the norms which say you should behave in a certain way towards people, ask them certain questions and pretend you’re interested. This is the moment which gets the ball rolling for the main plot line of the film and the Narrator goes home and blows up all of his worldly possessions shortly after. At this moment in time, the narrator has not really done much but question the meaning of social norms. This section of the movie should be your own Tyler experience, the thing which makes you start to question everything you think you know about the world.
Challenging our concept of happiness
The movie progresses into its next stage when the Narrator calls Tyler.
Tyler Durden: Do you know what a duvet is?
Narrator: It’s a comforter…
Tyler Durden: It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?
Tyler Durden: Right. We are consumers. We’re the bi-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.
This is the part in the movie in which Tyler’s view of the world starts getting pushed in a more aggressive way. Tyler’s words become more than just a way to seed doubt about the Narrator’s life, they become an all out assault on social norms. I think that this dialogue is integral to this stage in the movie, in particular Tyler’s last line. Tyler points out how ridiculous consumerism is, while simultaneously criticizing the modern male, a big theme in itself which I will come back to later in this article. This scene in the movie accumulates in the first fight, the start of Fight Club.
Narrator: What do you want me to do? You want me to hit you?
Tyler Durden: Come on, do me this one favor.
Tyler Durden: Why? I don’t know why, I don’t know. Never been in a fight, you?
Narrator: No, but that’s a good thing.
Tyler Durden: No, man it’s not. How much can you know yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? I don’t wanna die without any scars.
The last line in this piece of dialogue is one I’m going to come back to, as I think it is a highly profound quote. For now, I want to focus on the enlightenment of the Narrator. Once again, this is a part in the film which highlights the Narrator’s need for Tyler. This is something which he cannot do on his own. He is at first in complete disbelief when Tyler asks him to hit him. By the time the fight is over, the Narrator understands, but he needed to go through the experience of fighting to understand it and without Tyler, he never would have experienced it. This is the part of the movie in which the Narrator starts becoming more and more like Tyler.
“After fighting, everything else in your life got the volume turned down.”
“When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved.”
He starts to openly narrate about fighting at this point. The Narrator is enlightened. His life starts to change dramatically now, he moves into an old beat up house and he and Tyler run fight club on a weekly basis, inviting other men to join in with them. These men become part of an elite group of enlightened men. A group of men who “Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions” just as Tyler had intended. Fight Club continues to escalate, scheduled on more days per week and popping up in different cities all over America. It accumulated in Project Mayhem and the destruction of the financial system. Everyone finally reaches forced enlightenment by the end of the movie.
“People do it everyday, they talk to themselves… they see themselves as they’d like to be, they don’t have the courage you have, to just run with it. “
Fight Club is about taking action. It is a story of how one man changed his life when he decided to “just run with it” and there are undertones of motivation for anyone to do the same thing for whatever they want to achieve in life. I think this is one of the reasons why the fight club which the Narrator and Tyler starts spirals so out of control, morphs into many different permutations of how it started and becomes larger than life at the end of the movie. It isn’t about fight club or fighting. It’s about finding meaning in something in life and pursuing it with the vigour that Tyler and the Narrator did. By the end of the movie, it’s not fighting that’s a way of life, it’s the rejection of the basic assumptions of civilisation that becomes the way of life. The movie is not just a literal statement of “start a fight” like many people interpret it as being.
Ego and Presence
Even deeper than the message to take action, is the criticism of those who don’t take action. The criticism of those who avoid living in the moment and taking action in order to preserve their ego is a big theme during certain scenes of the movie.
“No, man it’s not. How much can you know yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? I don’t wanna die without any scars.”
I believe Tyler first draws reference to the ego during the scene where he and the Narrator leave the bar before having their first fight. “I don’t want to die without any scars” is a criticism aimed at people who refuse to take action in life in order to preserve their ego and their delusional sense of superiority in my opinion. Tyler believes that you only get fulfilment from life by taking real action and those scars from fighting are a trophy earned from taking action and the lessons you learn from taking action. Emphasis is placed on this in a more literal way with the last rule of Flight Club, “And the eighth and final rule: if this is your first time at Fight Club, you have to fight.” Fight Club is all about taking action.
“And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.”
The theme of just letting go in order to find freedom is very integral to the movie also. This is a profound philosophical concept, the concept that people perpetually associate with their ego the outcomes to all of their actions in life. In order to preserve their ego, they constantly try to control the outcome of everything they do instead of just letting go and allowing the chips fall where they may. This theme is heavily addressed in the chemical burn scene. During the chemical burn scene, Tyler sprinkles Lye onto the hand of the Narrator, giving him a chemical burn. The Narrator instantly tries to block out the pain, doing everything he can to escape what was happening right in front of him, instead of embracing the pain. During this scene, Tyler talks about “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.” which I believe to be a subtle jibe at the fact that we are socially conditioned to act in a way to try to please everyone. We would not dream of acting in an unfavorable way towards the people we put on a pedestal (God). Tyler is trying to get the Narrator to understand that we are all equals and it is not the worst thing in the world to polarize a person’s opinion of you.
Tyler eventually neutralises the chemical burn with vinegar, but only after making the Narrator accept what is. Once the Narrator accepts the pain for what it is, he has learned a very valuable lesson. This is an important part of the enlightenment process and as we see, everyone who joins project mayhem gets a chemical burn too.
Narrator: You had to give it to him: he had a plan. And it started to make sense, in a Tyler sort of way. No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.
Fighting is inherently an action of just letting go. You have to let go in order to keep going to Fight Club. You can’t control a fight and you certainly can’t expect to leave a fight unscathed. You have to be willing to put your all into the fight, roll with the punches and accept the fact that you can’t control the outcome and just let go. The Narrator had to be comfortable with the fact that he had bruises on his face from fighting and the judgement from unenlightened people which the bruises would result in.
“I got in everyone’s hostile little face. Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I am enlightened.”
The modern male
Another more subtle theme throughout the movie, which is addressed in particular with the masculine act of fighting, is the criticism of the modern male. A brief look at the recent history of males shows a major shift in our upbringing, especially over the last 100 years, since urbanisation and the industrial revolution. Instead of being brought up on farms and learning how to become a man from our fathers, we have become a generation of men raised by women.
“We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.”
Modern males have been raised by women. This is problematic because modern males never actually learned to become a man, they learned to become the man who women think they should be. This has been a problem for a few generations now, but has become even worse for the most recent generation as a result of modern culture and radical feminism. Men are no longer able to raise their sons because they are too busy working in an office or another similar urbanized job as opposed to working on the farm, where sons of the past would learn their most important life lessons while helping their fathers with the work. Not only did they have their fathers to connect with, but they also had a network of other strong male role models to learn from, uncles, older brothers, cousins, grandfathers. According to the US census, in 1910 one-third of all families lived on farms. By 1940, this number had shrunk to one in five. By 1970, 96 percent of all families lived in urban areas. Not to mention the fact that the divorce rate is the highest it has ever been, so many fathers have limited access to their children anyway, the ones who do stick around are usually unavailable in other ways. These male role models have been replaced by female ones, mothers and a school system which heavily favors female teachers.
Males have adopted the female version of masculinity with women are their authority figures. A generation of males focused on love and peace has emerged. This is a result of women teaching their children to be caring and nurturing to a female needs; and a result of radical feminism in the 60’s and 70’s generalizing that all of the problems on earth are a result of men. To quote Robert Bly, the author of Iron John, “they’re lovely, valuable people — I like them — they’re not interested in harming the earth or starting wars. There’s a gentle attitude toward life in their whole being and style of living. But many of these men are not happy. You quickly notice the lack of energy in them. They are life-preserving but not exactly life-giving. Ironically, you often see these men with strong women who positively radiate energy. Here we have a finely tuned young man, ecologically superior to his father, sympathetic to the whole harmony of the universe, yet he himself has little vitality to offer.” Men have been taught from a very young age that it is not ok to be men. Natural male aggressiveness is stamped out at a young age resulting in a generation of sensitive new age men.
Palahniuk refers to this issue throughout the movie, which is epitomized by the fact that fight club is a “men only” club. Fight Club deals with the issue of men forgetting who they are and losing that male bond that they once had with each other. Fight club is the resolution of this. I believe this issue is referred to in one of the most well-known quotes from the movie.
“Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
Tyler’s monologue talks about the men in Fight Club, males who are discovering their masculinity again and how they are the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever live, as opposed to those unenlightened men, who’s masculinity has been nullified by their 9-5 job.