Fight Club and the Modern Male
"...the ability to let that which does not matter, truly slide."
Some critics considered the movie "Fight Club" to be a "dark, disturbing, violence-encouraging" portrayal of young males "releasing anxieties through violence" in an "atmosphere of sheer nihilism and depravity."
Perhaps they are correct.
- or, maybe, those critics are a bunch of yellow-bellied pansies.
"We don't have a great war in our generation,
or a Great Depression,
but we do,
we have a great war of the spirit . . .
The great depression is our lives.
We have a spiritual depression."
- from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
Some say that "Fight Club" is the story of an emotionally castrated, emasculated man trying to regain his manhood. The "emasculated man" fit in well with the world, but was miserable with himself. The movie was the story of his attempt to change that.
Other say the movie is about an invisible battle taking between in modern times - the "life of the spirit" verses the life of enslavement to a dehumanizing, senseless, uncaring machine. Or it is a version of the search for meaning in a meaningless world, and how that search, however noble it may sound, can go awry.
Still others say it's an incisive snapshot of modern manhood: beaten down by broken families, political correctness, post-feminism divorce, an empty world of cubicle-filled day-jobs, cross-country flights, single-serving friends, clogged vitality with no outlet for expression in modern civilization, and emasculation from a complex blur of half-seen, half-known, inner forces.
Others say, well, if you want to have a meaningful conversation with somebody nowadays, you just about need to go to addiction support group meetings.
Others say, well, it's just a movie, that to a greater or lesser degree, is, or isn't, just entertainment.
Emasculation and the Modern Male
The movie opens with a very subtle, almost imperceptible clue about its meaning: a group of men are sitting together in a support group, trying to help each other deal with the fact that they are all emasculated.
Literally, physically emasculated. The support group is for testicular cancer. All of the men sitting in the room (with the exception of the narrator, who we will get to shortly), literally have no balls.
But they seem to have been emotionally castrated as well. Some of the first words spoken are from what could be described as a broken man who cries as he tells the story of his wife finally having children she wanted . . . with another man.
In the same group is a former bodybuilder - a man who was, once upon a time, strong. But now, he literally has breasts. And having been betrayed (or at best helped) by science (steroids) and business (his invention stolen, he's now bankrupt) and family (divorced, and his "kids won't even return (his) calls") . . . he's left with . . . well, therapy.
Many folks would actually see all this as forms of progress. After all, it's good for men to cry, it's good for couples to get divorced (better than staying in a bad marriage, right?), and it's good for men to talk about their feelings senstively in a nurturing, supportive, therapeutically sanitized environment.
Those folks - who see this state of affairs as a good thing - most likely wouldn't like the movie and most likely would not ordinarily be reading this review.
For the rest of us, let us sum up a brief historical record that sets the cultural stage of the story of Fight Club:
In America around the 1960's, a certain breed of feminism sprang up. Men began to be seen as Neanderthalish, oppressive, insensitive jerks. The "new," evolved men were sensitive, they could cry, etc - not unlike the gentlemen in the support group.
This phenomenon is described much more eloquently by David Deida as "Stage 1" men (insensitive jerks) evolving into "Stage 2" men (sensitive emasculated wimps).
Fight Club, using this terminology, could be described as an attempt by modern men to discover what "Stage 3" men could be.
For further elaboration on these ideas, we recommend the work of David Deida. In regards to the movie, this is enough of the cultural climate to place the setting for the story, and after we get one more piece of the puzzle in place, we will continue with the story. That piece has to do with the realization that...
"People Will Become A Process"
Another aspect of life in America today is the in-your-face tyrrany of advertising, business, and media empires that rule over almost every aspect of modern life.
This may sound like an exaggeration, but thinking back a mere century ago - before the internet, before personal computers, before even radio and television - it can be difficult to imagine how radically different lifestyles of human beings were.
But where Fight Club breaks fresh ground is in it's critique of how this - the culture of corporate dominance in a post-industrial age - effects the human soul.
Meaning, the assembly-line of modern human lives.
For example, "single-serving friends." We all understand single-serving meals, single-serving soft-drinks, single-serving candy bars, and so on.
But rarely before Fight Club has the concept of single-serving-friends - actual people who have been processed, screened, packaged, and distributed for consumption - been examined.
Tyler Durden described his father, who left to have more children with other families, as "setting up franchises."
And the "product" that is being "produced" in these franchises is, of course, children. Literally, an assembly line of human souls.
The narrator, Ed Norton, described his friend (the man with the breasts) in the support group such that "his eyes were already shrink-wrapped with tears."
Shrink-wrap, of course, being what prepackaged products come in off the assembly line, ready for consumption; "eyes" being the "mirrors of the soul." In less than a step, we arrive at shrink-wrapped souls.
"I think that there is nothing,
not even crime,
more opposed to poetry,
ay, to life itself,
than this incessant business."
- Henry David Thoreau
But so what? Is it just about hearing more advertisements than we used to? Having different types of jobs - cubicles instead of village shops or farms? Having successful companies play a big role in the world?
No. Those are merely symptoms of a larger, deeper process . . . one where the individual human increasingly finds that his place in the universe is becoming less and less important, less and less secure, less and less attractive. He lives his life confronting an uncaring, impersonal job, apathetic, insensitive coworkers, disloyal, loveless family members who pick up and discard other people only when there is a way they can be used before being thrown away - like an old prom dress, or a condom.
This is another aspect of the setting that Fight Club takes place then. And then, it asks the question: in a cold, uncaring, ruthless world of corporate slavery and assembly-line experiences . . . how is it possible to still live a life with strength, and passion, and with a soul that is still truly alive?
Some thinkers have expressed some thoughts on this matter. Dr. Walter R. Newell, author of What Is A Man? described Fight Club as this:
"The novel is chillingly insightful about the unmapped psyche of young males in the nineties."
and he continues:
"The original idea for this book (his anthology on manhood) grew out of my eighteen years' experience as an educator. During this period, and especially in the last decade, the young men in my university classes have seemed especially lost - shy, confused, lonely, afraid to assert themselves, their trepidation broken only by occasional bursts of pointless cockiness and attitudinizing . . . Maleness still exists, but in a baffled, confused kind of way."
"Having failed to find an authority they can respect, someone to guide them from boyish impetuosity to a mature and manly vigor of judgment, they confuse authority with oppression. Still, cast adrift in a world without any limitations, they long to pay a price..."
"Boomers (of the previous generation) were told not to be hung up about providing masculine role models for children, reassured that we should do whatever made us happiest, including escaping an unsatisfying marriage. After all, to hold things together for the sake of the children would restrict both men and women to old-fashioned "patriarchal" responsibilities. The casualties of this hard, bright credo of selfishness are today's underfathered young men, many of them from broken homes, prone to identify their maleness with aggression because they have no better model to imitate."
Another thinker and author, Thomas Moore, not addressing the movie directly, states a similar observation:
"Over the years of practicing therapy, I came to recognize a special kind of sadness in some of the people I worked with. They felt subdued by what could be called moral depression, a constriction of the spirit. They lived with a sensation of heaviness and had difficulty finding joy in life due to a deep-seated habit of forbidding themselves certain pleasures and satisfactions . . . wherever eros stirs, the soul comes to life. Unfortunately the converse is true as well: whenever we put a lid on eros, the soul feels deprived of breath and life.
"Anybody who looks at the film with any real attention can see that on a lot of levels,
the idea of fighting in this is not about the suggestion that
violence directed outward toward other people
is a solution to your frustrations . . .
It's the idea of needing to get shaken out of your own cocoon,
the idea that the fighting is, in essence, a metaphor
for stripping yourself of perceived notions and value systems
that have been applied to you
that aren't your own."
- Ed Norton
Edward Norton's nameless character at the beginning of the movie, is suffering from . . . a certain condition. What this "condition" is, might be the key to really understanding the rest of the movie.
"You have a class of young strong men and women,
and they want to give their lives to something.
Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don't need.
Generations have been working in jobs they hate,
just so they can buy what they don't really need."
As the movie starts, Norton's character is a young, urban male living one version of the modern American Dream. Professionally successful, great furniture, great clothes, millions of cable tv channels, high-level job, jet-setting around the country, and miserable. He's done everything "right" . . . and should be happy, after all - look anywhere else in the world, and materially, people are always worse off. He's not starving. What's to be unhappy about?
"What you have to understand . . .
is your father was your model for God . . ."
What's the problem . . . can't sleep? Not having a ball at your job? You don't leap out of bed in the morning? Well . . . welcome to life. What's the real problem - insomnia? Get some pills. Hate your job? Quit and do something else. Bored? Get off your duff and go do something. Problem? Get real. - or so they say.
But Norton's characters' problem is not about insomnia. It isn't his job, and it's not boredom. There is a problem, definitely a problem, because something's not right . . . maybe somehow, these are all symptoms of something much deeper, something he can't quite put his finger on, and can't point out to, and can't really express or describe to anyone around him . . . except maybe to say he can't sleep.
"The fact is that this is what society is and always has been:
a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles,
customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle
for earthly heroism."
- Ernest Becker
"The central problem of every society
is to define appropriate roles for the men."
- Margaret Mead
It was said that in Freud's time, the primary "neurosis" was "hysteria" - difficulty in accepting the instinctual side of life and the resulting conflict between sexual impulses and social taboos. But today, especially among young people, it's said that the primary neurosis of our time is "meaninglessness."
It could be that the nameless character's problem, to put a word on it, is "meaninglessness." Nothingness. A rotting, invisible emptiness that slowly, out of the corner of your eye, knaws constantly at your insides, quietly, constantly, and persistently asking: "What's the point? Why? What does it matter? Where is all this going? What's it all about? What's the point?"
In another way, you could say that Norton's character, believed the commercials, the teachers, the movies and television, the promises of commercials and the society that produced them: he believed, and so, he earned the money, bought the clothes, dated the girls, got the apartment, worked the job, all under the implied promise that, somehow, his efforts would be worthwhile.
But in fact, well, he wakes up one day and realizes, essentially, he's been had. It slowly dawns on him that girls and relationships aren't "IT"; having money in the bank is not "IT"; owning the right jeans, furniture, food, is not "IT" either. Promises, broken.
"And if you never know your father,
if your father bails out or dies or is never at home,
what do you believe about God?"
Some people can "see" it, and know this kind of emptiness, and totally "click" with the main character . . . and some, evidently, can't.
For those who "don't" see it, it can often be overlooked and dismissed as depression, hesitancy, or unfounded skepticism, an unwillingness to grow up, or the typical, run-of-the-mill existential crisis. (That old, worn, generic "existential crisis" story, there are plenty like it, it's already been told, several times, it's wearing thin, and there's no money in it. The solution to it all is simple: buck up, dive in, and get back to work.)
In fact is, it's none of those things. It is nothing that can be solved by dropping ten pounds, making a thousand dollars, dating a different girl. It cannot be cured by "cheering up," or "just diving into it."
This condition - modern meaninglessness, or angst, or whatever you want to call it - is more like an invisible emotional plague that, somehow, slowly and quietly, under your radar, creeps through your psyche and devours all the color and richness from life. And it happens, more or less, sooner or later, to just about everybody. And the most it seems you can do is distract yourself from it for a little while - from the emptiness - enough to, temporarily, forget about it, until it goes away on its own.
Still, this "emptiness" persists in the background, and more unnervingly, all the while, there's nothing simple and concrete ("I'm too thin, too fat, don't make enough money, etc") that anyone can point to and say, "that's the problem" - and so, it kicks in a general sense of alienation and loneliness to boot. Because often, no one really sees anything wrong with you - and there's nothing that one can easily point to that is wrong. But still, well, something is wrong.
A crude and over-used but accurate analogy:
Imagine everyone around you, all the time, is busy climbing a huge ladder. Everyone together, struggling, working, straining, continually climbing, harder, longer, faster, climbing. The incessant climbing goes on and on. It's just what everyone does. Why ask why?
Occasionally, a person reaches the top of the ladder, peek over the edge, and see . . . well, there's nothing there.
Confused, the person looks around at everyone around him, climbing furiously . . . towards nothing . . . and wonders, "What's going on? Aren't they all climbing towards . . . nothing?"
. . . and from that point on, the onlooker will never be able to climb with quite as much enthusiasm.
"I wish that someone had told me
that when you get to the top,
there's nothing there."
- quoted by Alister McGrath
Many thinkers talk about this condition of "meaningless" in young people today. In this case, the problem is not that young people "don't see enough," that they can't "see" the great "value" of climbing the ladder the way everyone else can. And the solution isn't trying to make ladder-climbing more fun, or pressuring them to become better climbers.
The problem may well be that they, in fact, see MORE, not less. They see, more clearly than most, that all this work and struggle leads to . . . nothing.
"When I think of all the books I have read,
and of the wise words I have heard spoken,
and of the anxiety I have given to parents and grandparents,
and of the hopes that I have had,
all life weighed in the scales of my own life
seems to me
preparation for something
that never happens."
- William Butler Yeats
In a way, the "problem" could be described as there being nothing to believe in, at its worst, nothing to live for. There's no compelling dream, no inspiring goal, no grand and noble "thing" that seems to really promise the "this IS IT" that's believable, that gets you out of bed in the morning. There are no dragons to slay, no damsels to save, no heroic quests; only a weary and monotonous succession of afternoons, labor and laundry, drudgery and bills, leading, sooner or later, to death.
If it's the case that "Where there is no vision, the people perish," well, then, the problem, seems to be a lack of "vision." This emptiness - more of a "lack" of a crucial element than the presence of something wrong, like a newly-lost tooth of the soul - is the invisible ghost that haunts the character in the movie.
"The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb
left me hoping - somewhat irresponsibly -
for a hurricane or a tornado or something
that would make us feel like a tribe.
What I wanted wasn't destruction and mayhem but the opposite:solidarity.
I wanted the chance to prove my worth to my community and my peers,
but I lived in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever really happened.
Surely this was new in the human experience, I thought.
How do you become an adult in a society that doesn't ask for a sacrifice?
How do you become a man in a world that doesn't require courage?"
- Sebastian Junger
This, in one way, is about the Norton's character faces at the beginning of the movie. The rest of the movie, then, the effort to find a solution to that problem, is where things get pretty wacky. Hallucinating, externalizing another part of himself, Walter-Mitty-style, possibly an ideal aspect of himself that had been closed off and shoved away, so he becomes a modern Jekyll-and-Hyde . . . an effort to reconnect to a dismembered masculinity that is floating, unanchored, loose in his psyche, like a rambling nuclear reactor . . .
". . . What you end up doing . . .
is you spend your life searching for a father and God."
A father recently talked to me about something he noticed one day about his two sons. He would put on his hat, and his two boys would go and put on hats. He would go put on boots, and his sons would go and put on boots too. He ate potatoes, his sons would eat potatoes too. He watched this routine continue for hours, weeks, years. Talking about it one day, he told me, essentially, "See how important I am, to them? They're getting a sense of identity from me."
Other cultures have, or used to have, they say, rituals where boys are initiated into manhood. It's a clear, distinct, and important process: A boy (Step A) grows and passes through an initiation process (Step B) becomes a man (Step C).
Nowadays, of course, we rarely have fathers who initiate anyone into anything. So of course, many boys age into a growing confusion. Something's missing.
"We're thirty year-old boys."
A friend once described a problem that some zoo keepers were having with a group of young male elephants: the young elephants were violently killing other animals they had once grazed with peacefully. This behavior had never happened before, and the zoo keepers were puzzled about why it was happening.
"What you have to understand . . .
is your father was your model for God . . ."
Eventually, the keepers realized that this particular group of young elephants had been separated early on from the older males. And when the older male elephants were put back in with the younger males . . . the young ones straightened up, quickly.
"What you have to consider . . .
is the possibility that God doesn't like you."
We're all familiar with children who "act up" to get attention. Take this principle a little further: when children are ignored by their parents, it's akin to being emotionally starved. In order to keep from being starved, often they'll misbehave just in order to get some attention and recognition. Bad food is better than no food at all; recognition, even if it's recognition for "being bad," is still validation - validation that you really do exist, and matter - and that soothes the emptiness, at least, for a little while.
"If you could be either God's worst enemy or nothing,
which would you choose?"
The problem, stated . . . but the solution?
It seems that Fight Club isn't really about real "solutions" to the problems it raises. It does succeed in pointing out what doesn't work (for example, blowing up buildings, fairly generic vandalism, or trying some whacked-out old Marxist idea of "redistributing wealth" - as if that would change things.)
And as the story unfolds, FIght Club itself, along with the main character, completley unravels . . . even coming full circle so that, on two separate occasions, Fight Club members threaten to castrate other men themselves.
So if we know what doesn't work . . . what does?.
"The crisis of modern society is precisely
that the youth no longer feel heroic
in the plan for action that their culture has set up."
- Ernest Becker
The absence of a father is one of the strongest predictors of violence among young men in the United States:
- "Children who grow up with only one of their biological parents, when compared to children who grow up with both biological parents, are three times more likely to have a child out of wedlock, 2.5 times more likely to become teenage mothers, twice as likely to drop out of high school, and 1.4 times more likely to be out of school and not working."
- "Seventy-two percent of America's adolescent murderers, 70 percent of long-term prison inmates, and 60 percent of rapists come from fatherless homes.
(Source: David Popenoe, Life Without Father (New York: The Free Press, 1996))
Newell continues, in describing modern post-feminism in the aftermath of the social engineering of the past several decades:
"All that thirty years of behavioral conditioning has done is drive manliness underground and distort it by severing it from traditional sources of masculine restraint and civility. The gurus of sensitivity have tried to convince men to become open, fluid, genderless beings who are unafraid to cry. But little boys still want to play war and shoot up the living room with plastic howitzers, and we can't give them all Ritalin. Psychologists have begun to express concern about our educational institutions' readiness to pathologize what once would have been regarded as boyish high spirits - roughhousing, "hating" girls, locker-room language - and the use of powerful drugs to extirpate their perfectly ordinary immaturity."
"Again, the point is to channel these energies into the development of character. Boys and young men still want to be heroes, and the way to teach them to treat girls and women with respect is to appeal to their heroism, not try to blot it out."
"In Homer's Odyssey, Telemachus, son of the great war hero Odysseus, embarks on a search to find his missing father and thereby save his mother from the oppressive noblemen who want her to give up her husband for dead and marry one of them.
As he searches for his father, in an adventure parallel to Odysseus's own search for a way home to his long-lost wife and child, Telemachus is educated by his adventures and grows from a boy into a man, guided by the wise goddess Athena who is also his father's best friend among the gods. Telemachus's search for his missing father, guided by the goddess, in effect provides him with the upbringing Odysseus was unable to give him. Even so, Odysseus still inspires his son from afar, because Telemachus learns during his travel of his father's exploits and wants to prove himself the hero's worthy son.
Whenever I describe Telemachus, this boy from a broken home, forced at a too-early age to be his mother's protector from oppressive men, compelled to bring himself up in a way that he hopes his absent father will be proud of, the young men in my undergraduate classes tend to become very quiet and reflective.
They are Telemachus."