Life is short. It’s ending one minute at a time. Why waste it on fulfilling other people’s expectations? This is just one of those questions presented in a novel written by Chuck Palahniuk named Fight Club.
The film version of Fight Club directed by David Fincher, starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, could be considered one of the best and most impactful movies ever made, when looking at its reception and ongoing popularity.
Fight Club isn’t shy of over-the-top violence, contains a fair amount of explicit language and, of course, the obnoxious behavior of its characters. However, it’s definitely more profound than just men coming together to beat each other up.
The story is built on several thoughtful concepts that are interesting and possibly applicable to our own lives.
It tells a story about a generation of people without a clear purpose, without hope, raised with false expectations, and repressed by ever-tightening social norms. What if our existence is pointless? What if God doesn’t like us? What if we’re nothing more than a compost heap? How do we find meaning in a meaningless existence?
This video explores several philosophical ideas that Fight Club presents us. For those who aren’t familiar with the story: this analysis explains and reveals the plot.
The story of Fight Club revolves around three main characters. It’s told from a first-person perspective by a nameless character that’s commonly called ‘the narrator’, who has a dead-end white-collar job at a major car company and has fallen prey to what he calls the ‘Ikea-nesting instinct’. Dictated by social norms he walks perfectly in line like a docile sheep, which translates into an inauthentic, repetitive and empty life.
He suffers from a bad case of insomnia, which causes him to be neither fully awake, nor fully asleep. Sometimes, he entertains self-destructive thoughts: as he flies around from state to state for his job, he prays for a crash or mid-air collision every time the plane bankes too sharply on takeoff or landing.
During a flight, he meets an eccentric and hypermasculine character named Tyler Durden.
Tyler seems to be the direct opposite of the narrator. He’s a wolf rather than a sheep, disentangled from society, and impervious to social norms. He takes what he wants, without asking, and whenever he pleases. He’s self-sufficient, has no superiors, and doesn’t care about material possessions.
The movie later reveals that Tyler and the narrator are the same person, as Tyler is a product of the narrator’s imagination, that’s probably induced by severe insomnia combined with dissatisfaction with a dull, meaningless existence and a lifetime of repressed urges.
The narrator is addicted to going to support groups for specific illnesses because these give him the opportunity to cry, which seems to be a remedy for his insomnia. The downside of his behavior is that he isn’t genuine; he has no testicular cancer, or blood parasites, yet acts as if he does, so he can reap the benefits of these sessions.
But these benefits come to an end when another non-genuine visitor starts to join the sessions as well. This is a woman named Marla Singer, and her motive for joining these sessions is, and I quote: “It’s cheaper than a movie and there’s free coffee.”
Marla is a self-destructive, chain-smoking fatalist, who’s expecting to die at any moment, but finds it tragic that it never happens. She steals food and clothes for a living and attempts suicide by overdosing Xanax.
Even though the narrator, Tyler, and Marla are totally different personalities, they all live their lives accompanied by a nihilistic undercurrent.
Tyler seems to have figured out what causes this emptiness, and during the course of the story, his solution unfolds. Unfortunately, his character slides from a sage-like father figure to an anarchist terrorist, who’s out to destroy modern civilization. Nevertheless, he exposes a series of harsh realities about modern life that are worth contemplating.
The anti-consumerist stance of Tyler Durden becomes obvious when he verbalizes his concern about the modern way of life. Shortly after the narrator meets Tyler, he discovers that his apartment went up in flames. After this unfortunate event, realizing that he has no friends to call, he calls Tyler. The two meet, and the narrator complains about losing his furniture, and his respectable and almost complete wardrobe. Tyler responds rather indifferently and slightly sarcastically before he begins to express his views on the matter. I quote:
We’re consumers. We are by-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…Tyler Durden, Fight Club
It becomes clear that Tyler has quite an unconventional view of what’s good and bad. Murder, crime, and poverty are generally considered bad things, while consumer goods like televisions, clothing from a certain brand, products that help to hide aging, enhance bedroom performance, and help us with weight loss, are considered preferable.
Tyler has a contempt for the artificial, as opposed to elements that have been a natural part of the human condition, probably as long we exist. This way of thinking touches upon an ancient Cynic philosopher named Diogenes of Sinope, who believed that modern, civilized life hinders our natural state.
At the end of the movie, it appears that the narrator has destroyed his apartment himself when he was taken over by his alter ego, Tyler Durden. This deed was the first step onto the road of detachment from his property, into a more authentic way of life and to (how Tyler puts it): “reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.”
The narrator moves in with Tyler, who lives in a dilapidated house with ongoing leaks, power failures, and no Ikea furniture. Slowly but surely, the narrator indeed detaches from his previously destroyed property. “Things you own end up owning you,” Tyler tells him. And this simple piece of wisdom probably hits home, when the narrator realizes that he doesn’t need all these worldly goods, and is actually much happier without them.
Tyler Durden is a non-conformist, and shows, again, similarities with Diogenes, who not only purposefully lived in poverty, but also rejected social norms. For him, social constructs are nothing more than a superficial layer of culture that represses our true nature.
Diogenes lived in a barrel, Tyler lives in an abandoned building. Diogenes urinated in public, Tyler urinates in the soup of a restaurant. Diogenes bit his opponents like a dog, Tyler salivates over them using his own blood.
The narrator, on the other hand, seems to be the embodiment of conformity, as he adapts his lifestyle completely to societal expectations. The problem with this behavior is that we dedicate our existence walking the paths that people other than ourselves have laid out for us. This need to conform, the fear of falling by the wayside, this sickly preoccupation by what others think of us, this necessity to keep up with the Joneses: what an exhausting way of life, just to feel ‘accepted’.
So, what if we stop caring? What if we reject the generally accepted norms, and choose our own values, elect our own leaders, determine our own goals, regardless of the social expectations? This is a fundamental difference between the narrator and Tyler Durden, who puts it like this: “I am free in all the ways that you are not.”
Ironically, later on in the story, Project Mayhem, a terrorist organization led by Tyler that grows out of Fight Club, is a textbook example of conformity, as its members wear the same clothes, are absolutely equal, abolish their names, and are referred to as space monkeys that sacrifice their lives for a greater cause. We could say that by rejecting one doctrine in order to be ‘non-conformist’, we often imprison ourselves in another one.
Fighting and masculinity
Fighting and the experience of pain play a significant role in Fight Club. At the beginning of the story, Tyler asks the narrator to hit him as hard as he can. He explains his strange wish by saying: “How can you know yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? I don’t want to die without any scars.”
So, the narrator hits him. Tyler hits him back, and the two engage in a fistfight. Both seem to feel surprisingly pleasant afterward and decide to do it again. Their nightly activities on a parking lot attract the attention of other men, that are also interested in joining these non-hostile fistfights. And thus, Fight Club is born.
It’s widely known that voluntary exposure to certain forms of pain makes us stronger in the face of adversity, which could be a legit reason to partake in these fights. As the narrator states: “After fighting everything else in your life got the volume turned down.”
However, Fight Club is more than just a metaphor for dealing with hardship through exposure: a physical fight, and the violence and aggression that goes with it, resonates with the primal part of our being.
Not only the men in the story are attracted to the violence of fighting; Fight Club as a movie and novel was so impactful on its audience, that real-life Fight Clubs started to emerge.
The story shows an experiment in which the members of Fight Club pick fights with random strangers (and are supposed to lose), which isn’t as easy as it sounds; most people do everything to avoid physical conflict.
Now, this video is in no way intended to endorse violence.
But Fight Club makes us wonder if it’s a good thing that we’ve lost touch with these primal tendencies. Should we repress this part of human nature? Or, perhaps, integrate it in healthy and constructive ways?
When the story progresses, Tyler and the narrator begin to see the world through a different lens. Tyler criticizes the modern self-improvement hype by saying: “Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction… ”
This statement is slightly confusing, as the increasingly destructive nature of Fight Club, in which faces are permanently mutilated and teeth are knocked out of people’s heads, doesn’t seem to be a sustainable way to live.
But Tyler might be onto something when we look at self-destruction as the destruction of a false self.
‘Self-improvement’ often points to the accumulation of external goods: a better house, a better job, a better body, more money. But why should we endlessly want to improve ourselves? Why can’t we just be happy with how things are, and take life as it comes? Or as Tyler states:
I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let’s evolve, let the chips fall where they may.Tyler Durden, Fight Club
We create an identity through material wealth, and social status. And as far as Tyler is concerned, this false sense of self must be destroyed, before we are free to do anything we want. Therefore, the ‘space monkeys’ of Project Mayhem live by a mantra which goes like this:
You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f***ing khakis. You are all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Tyler makes a so-called human sacrifice, namely a man called Raymond who works a dead-end job in a convenience store. Raymond wanted to be a veterinarian, but didn’t make it because it was “too much studying.” Tyler threatens Raymond, saying that if he doesn’t start studying within six weeks, he’ll kill him.
In this scene, Tyler points to another aspect of self-destruction: the act of letting go of fears, negative self-talk, and all distractions, so we can fully focus on our purpose. It’s the destruction of everything within ourselves that holds us back from living life on our own terms.
A near-life experience
Many people go great lengths when it comes to pain avoidance. The problem is that running from pain means running from an inevitable part of life.
The prospect of incurring pain makes us anxious, and often leads to hedonistic decisions. That is: choosing the less painful path, even if a more painful path guarantees more success and pleasure in the future.
Tyler Durden deals with this by inflicting a chemical wound on the narrator’s hand using lye.
As expected, the narrator does everything to escape the pain: he uses visualization techniques he learned at a seminar, and retreating in his cave to find his ‘power animal’. But Tyler slaps him in the face, forcing him to stay with the pain, saying: “This is the greatest moment of your life, man. And you’re off somewhere missing it.”
For the narrator, Tyler has one central goal: he must reach bottom. After putting him through suffering, and destroying his false identity, there’s yet another aspect that must be crushed: hope. Losing all hope is freedom. And, therefore, he must reject what has rejected him: his father, and God. I quote:
Consider the possibility that God does not like you. In all probability, he hates you.Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Tyler states that we don’t need God. That we shouldn’t care about redemption and damnation. And if we’re God’s unwanted children, so be it. Thereby, we lose all hope, but are also liberated from religious doctrine and fatherly authority.
Now we’re truly free. Now we can create our own meaning, and live how we want to live.
Tyler emphasizes the importance of knowing what we want in life. To achieve this, we must be willing to get out of our comfort zone and jump into the unknown without safety brackets.
The narrator, however, has difficulties letting go of security. He begs Tyler to not mess around when he lets go of the steering wheel in a driving car while hitting the gas. Tyler calls the narrator ‘pathetic’, and yells: “hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat. It’s not a goddamn seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go!”
After an inevitable car crash, Tyler states that they just had a ‘near-life experience’.
Fight Club is a story about rebellion against the status quo and a plea for the simple life. It criticizes the ways in which we are so hung up on security, and material possessions, and how people let social norms dictate their lives.
‘Stuff’ has become our religion. The idols we worship are Ikea and Starbucks. And the more we immerse ourselves in such an empty and unfulfilling existence, the more we start to resemble the things that we produce: manufactured products rather than authentic human beings.
Tyler shows us a way out. And even though his insights are profound, the execution is questionable. Fight Club, and its terrorist branch Project Mayhem, show us how easy it is to oppose one ideology, in order to fall into another, and how a cult-like echo chamber built on rigid beliefs could become very destructive.
Nevertheless, Tyler challenges us to be self-sufficient and disobedient to the authorities that let us down, to live authentically and in the moment, to confront our fears, to boldly step out of our comfort zones, and let the things that don’t matter truly slide.
Thank you for watching.