Enlightenment on the dark side
To Boldly Fight What No Movie Has Fought Before…
I missed Fight Club when it came out nearly six years ago. But it looks like the timing was about right. If I had seen it then, I wouldn’t have been able to understand it as well as I do now, and I would’ve dismissed its spiritual themes out-of-hand. And yes, it DOES have spiritual themes. Sure, Fight Club is primarily a punch in the teeth, but it’s much more; It’s a black comedy, a rage-against-the machine manifesto, an apologetic of nihilism, an indictment of consumerism, and an alternative take on enlightenment, with some ringing and frightening questions to ask ourselves and the world. There are some spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to do that first.
The protagonist of Fight Club, (played by Edward Norton in an amazing performance) is unnamed, but for convenience, I’ll call him Jack, which he very obliquely calls himself in the film. Jack is not only lost, but all the tranquilizers of modern life are wearing off, and he’s beginning to feel the cosmic suckiness deeply. He’s tortured by his cruel job that weighs the value of human life against the company’s bottom line. Desperate to wrench a purpose from the offerings of McCulture, he tries to find happiness in possessions. “I flipped through the catalog and wondered: what kind of dining set defines me as a person?” (The next shot pans his apartment with IKEA catalog prices and descriptions showing beside every piece of furniture in the room.)
Jack longs to be someone else, someone who is free. On one of his many business trips, he muses “If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”
His torment is beginning to affect his health. He can’t sleep, and in the great American tradition, asks his doctor for a pill to fix everything. Instead, he’s given a different prescription: tuning into pain instead of avoiding it. When he goes to a support group for testicular cancer (which he doesn’t have), Jack is amazed at the release that comes from hugging and crying instead of repressing pain. Having found the cure for his insomnia, he starts going to a different support group for every day of the week, and finds that in being able to freely weep, he’s able to freely sleep.
Trouble enters Paradise, however, when Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), another healthy support group “tourist,” starts attending all the same groups he does (including testicular cancer!). Her presence cramps his newfound emotional freedom. They agree to split the groups between them, and fight over who gets what: “Bowel cancer? You can’t have bowel cancer, I want bowel cancer!”
Soon Jack finds himself without a home, his apartment and all his possessions having been destroyed in an explosion. He turns to Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a soap salesman he met on his last flight. Tyler seems to be everything Jack feels he isn’t: confident, contemptuous, and above all, free. Jack was in search of a meaning for his life, but Tyler wants nothing except hard-edged reality itself.
Jack: I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete. . . .
Tyler: 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.
Jack: Martha Stewart.
Tyler: Fuck Martha Stewart! Martha’s polishing the brass on the Titanic. It’s all going down, man!
Tyler goes on to inform Jack that “the things you own end up owning you,” which I believe St. Francis of Assisi said as well. Tyler’s style, though, is hardly Franciscan. Tyler introduces Jack to another way of working with pain: creating it and embracing it. He asks Jack to hit him as hard as he can. Tyler returns the favor, and voilá, instant male bonding sans hugging. Jack moves into Tyler’s house, a condemned squalid mansion which is more painful to behold than any of the ensuing fights. (Think of the toilet in Trainspotting getting an hour of screen time.) They become the best of friends, regularly beating the crap out of each other behind their favorite watering hole.
Soon other patrons beg to have their turns in the bare-knuckle matches, and Fight Club becomes a weekly event in the bar’s basement. (Eventually, the meetings become daily). A silent communion grows between members even though no words are spoken. (The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.) Jack begins wearing his bloodied shirts and bruises to work as though they’re the cutting edge of fashion. “I got in everyone’s hostile little face. Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I am enlightened.”
When Marla calls Jack after she’s taken an overdose, Jack walks away, but Tyler saves her. Soon they’re involved in an intense sexual relationship, much to Jack’s annoyance, although she only talks to Jack (the reason for which becomes clear later on).
Tyler has a disdain for almost everything except awakening Jack from fear and malaise; he’s a rogue guru with the perfect disciple. By losing all his material possessions and moving into Tyler’s pigsty, Jack has renounced worldly comforts as much as an ash-covered sadhu in a cave. And he does make progress. Jack increases in confidence and awareness: “the cries of the men were the tongues at a Pentecostal Church, and every Saturday night we were born again; we were redeemed.” The scene where he finally decides to leave his job is as funny as it is shocking, and will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt trapped in a soulless environment.
Lessons progress from slugfests to horrible ordeals (a chemical burn, a self-inflicted car wreck, and more), which Tyler forces on Jack to make him “hit bottom,” because Tyler insists that “only when we lose everything can we do anything.” However unpleasant this may be, enlightenment teachers have been saying it for millennia. Jesus said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains but a grain of wheat.”
If the first act is a black comedy about consumerism, and the second, the drama of a brutal education, the third act is a surreal revolution. Tyler begins giving destructive (and often funny) homework assignments to other Fight Club members. One group sabotages an environmental poster to say “Did You Know You Can Use Old Motor Oil to Fertilize Your Lawn?” Another group commits precision-arson on a skyscraper to turn it into an enormous happy face.
Jack determines to stop Tyler when he discovers that the former Fight Club (now Project Mayhem) has spread to cities across the country, morphing into an all-American terror network. Like bin Laden, Tyler has some dramatic financial targets in mind, although Project Mayhem goes to pains to make sure no one dies unless it’s one of them.
The Tyler Durden School of Enlightenment
Jack’s final transformation is in realizing that he is not a separate person from Tyler at all. Although this twist is familiar by now (I can think of four other titles with the same surprise), its spiritual meaning really comes through here: there is no separate person; there is just One only, although there are different bodies and different wills. Jack had the enlightened teacher within him all the time, and as he progressively released his perceived needs—possessions, job, nice enviroment, fear of pain, fear of causing pain—he began to uncover his true nature—unbounded, free, powerful, and finally capable of love.
There’s a reason why no religion teaches awakening until first creating an underpinning of morality, namely that awakening is not dependent on morality. Without morality and compassion, Brad Warner cautions in Hardcore Zen, enlightenment can make people even worse creeps than they already are. Goodness is about the needs of beings in Creation, but awakening is simply realizing the truth that all things are one, all distinctions are false, and you are free. An awakened person can either be a savior like Jesus, a saint like Francis, a sage like Lao Tzu, or a nihilistic rogue like Tyler Durden. Even the Bible teaches this: Jesus said, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”, and St. Paul said that “all things are permissible, though not all are beneficial.”
To an outsider, it appears that Tyler cares only about the permissible part, but he sees himself as guided by an internal vision of what is truly beneficial for the world. He will do whatever is necessary for Jack get past the lies of the world and experience the freedom of his spirit, and he extends his “guidance” to others. In one scene, he successfully motivates a convenience store clerk to continue his education and realize his dream. (Tyler does this by pointing a gun to his head!) Tyler explains that having been giving a new lease on life, the clerk is going to live more fully than he ever had before.
Hollywood Jesus has an excellent review of Fight Club by Simon Remark, who also sees Tyler as a spiritual teacher. On the discussions page, another reviewer considers Tyler a Christ figure. Glenn Jordan points out:
The men gather not to inflict violence on others, but to have violence inflicted on them. This to me is the key to the film. FC was established for those men who have been numbed and brutalised by the culture they live in. Everything that Durden does is designed to subvert the intentions of the thuggish and to awaken the senses and the spirit of those who have been numbed to reality.
He goes on to compare Tyler using his blood to secure the basement from Lou to Christ using his blood to redeem his followers from Satan. Jordan also sees similarity between the entrance test for Project Mayhem to that of religious orders like the Benedictines, with evidence of determination and renunciation.
However, others compare it to the Hitler mystique, and caution that Tyler is dangerous, violent, and obscene. You almost certainly do not want Tyler to be your teacher, and you absolutely do not want him to be your waiter! You also have to ask if Tyler is any better than the world. Just as the meaningless consumer culture emasculates men, he uses the threat of emasculation to control the police, and even himself.
Personally, I’m glad for the moral cushioning that religion gives the world, and I’m very grateful that my teacher is a much nicer fellow than Tyler.
The First Rule of Project Mayhem: You Do Not Ask Questions
So here are some questions you shouldn’t ask:
- What is the moral difference between exporting Communism, exporting jihad, or exporting democracy through invasions and revolutions?
- Is our way of life really better when tens of millions of Americans find it unendurable without medication?
- Is it better for thousands of people in a country like Iraq to die every year through crime and insurgencies or through totalitarian oppression?
- If capitalism enslaves people, is it right or wrong to oppose it?
- What is the difference between Jesus violently turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, and Tyler’s assault on the corporate temples of power?
- Is Tyler/Jack simply crazy? Does he get better?
- Do the members of Project Mayhem become free, or have they just enslaved themselves to Tyler instead of mainstream culture?
- Is there more purpose in wars than in boxing matches? Underneath the rhetoric, justifications, and apparent causes, is the violent drama in the world ultimately an attempt to alleviate cosmic boredom?
- Does Jesus want you to be a good citizen?
When you think you have the answers to these questions, look at them again, and ask yourself, Am I sure? How do I know? How do I really, really know, apart from conditioning?
Amoral characters are exceedingly rare in mainstream film. (We like our heroes good, and our villains evil. It distracts us from the difficult truth that the light and dark, yin and yang are simultaneously within us, that we are created in God’s image, the ultimate source of both what is perceived as “good” and “evil.”) Besides having an amoral character, Fight Club also surprises by not taking sides. You are free to draw your own conclusions. In fact, “You are free,” is really the only message.
That said, Fight Club isn’t perfect. It’s extreme, it’s too long, and it’s often painful to watch. Marla’s role is almost wasted in the latter half of the film, and the Project Mayhem segment is not at all convincing. Yet this movie is making a tremendous impression on multitudes of people. Six years after its release, IMDB users rank it the 36th best film of all time. [Update: as of February 2021, Fight Club is now the 11th-highest rated film on IMDB] It is a rare thing: a truly original film, a study in non-theistic spirituality, and a stinging indictment of the lies of the world.Movie stills © 1999 Twentieth-Century Fox.
Originally added April 23, 2005