This week brought the news that a Fight Club sequel (in comic book form) is forthcoming. We aren’t sure if this will work out for the best but it seemed like an ideal time to revisit a book and movie that inspired many.
Mike Hill of Tombs has embraced the book’s underlying ideal: that you need to create something worth living outside of consumer culture. Hill is certainly doing that: he is the frontman of Tombs, who released the excellent album Savage Gold this summer; he recently started a coffee company of the same name (it’s delicious) and he practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai. Read his thoughts below.
I remember sitting in the theater in 1999 watching David Fincher’s Fight Club thinking that after a decade of acquiescing to the marginalization of many of the baser male qualities by our PC overlords, it was finally cool to be a guy again. In the film, men congregated in dark basements to beat each other up and live in a self-contained world attacking society. I reveled in the celebration of fighting, destruction and mayhem.
Prior to seeing the film, I worked security at a nightclub in Boston; the job entailed standing around all night with a mag light while drunk rich kids drank themselves into oblivion. It added to my cynical worldview. One of my coworkers mentioned a book called Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and described it as a study in “bottoming out” — returning to a zero state so that society could be rebuilt.
Aside from being an entertaining, well-shot and well-acted piece of turn-of-the-millennium art, the film deals with regaining balance after living in a dehumanizing world whose ultimate goal is to reduce us to mindless consumers. In the opening scenes, we find our nameless protagonist working a modern office job, unable to sleep and sinking into depression and existential malaise. Director David Fincher does a great job illustrating the dull hammer of life in modern, urban culture; the idea that our lives are a meaningless string of events that put us on a rapidly accelerating path towards death without actually living. We empathize with the character and the grinding sameness of his life: try to sleep, go to work, consume, exist and ultimately perish. To compensate for the emptiness, he spends his time studying mail-order catalogs making impulse buys, becoming enslaved to the “IKEA nesting instinct.”
Enter Tyler Durden, the nameless protagonist’s alter ego. Initially, we are led to believe that he is a real person, someone that he met on one of his endless business trips — a “single-serving friend.” Tyler is everything the protagonist isn’t: strong, charismatic, confident and most importantly, free in a way that isn’t possible for him if he remains on his current trajectory. The famous Einstein quote “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” comes to mind. Tyler Durden is the extreme condition; the catalyst that forces true change.
Fighting is one of the most extreme, visceral things that you can engage in. The Buddhists speak about “being in the moment.” Fighting places you in the moment, every time, connected to the physical world. Connecting to the physical world, breaking away from the world of abstraction, is what the nameless protagonist needs. That first fight, on the first night is where the nameless protagonist faces his own limitations and transcends them. He forces change by blowing up his condo and all of his material possessions, including his DKNY shoes, CK shirts, AX ties and engages in a mission of bottoming out.
There are many references to “hitting bottom” and “letting go” in the film. During the Project Mayhem phase, the recruits are confined to a Spartan list of possessions, only what is absolutely necessary for their missions against property and the material world. The Buddhists hypothesize that one of the primary roots of suffering is attachment to the world of property; this concept is in direct conflict with consumer society. All of this letting go and bottoming out is the move to break away from possessions and gravitate toward a more balanced life. During one of the Tyler Durden’s monologues, he speaks about walking through the remains of our modern world and wearing leather clothes that will last for the rest of your life. There is the implication of a return to a hunter-gatherer based society, a move away from the unsustainable modern world.
Human physiology hasn’t changed since our days as nomadic hunter-gatherers. We are the same creatures that would walk miles a day, covering vast distances chasing down animals for survival. It was a life and death struggle. The onset of agriculture and the industrial revolution propelled us into the world of desk jobs, televisions and deep fried food. It is believed that much of the depression and neurotic behavior rampant in modern society is caused by chronic stress that arises from not exercising fight or flight instincts that are still very much part of our psyche. The nameless protagonist reflects on the early fights in a monologue and states that you weren’t alive like you were while fighting and nothing was solved after the conflicts. Fight Club was to recapture the hunter-gatherer nature, to break away from the roles that society placed us in.
The end game is Project Mayhem, a group of spiritual commandos whose ultimate goal is to manifest Tyler’s dream of bottoming out. Tyler’s objective is to bring down the financial institutions that hold our debts; the collapse of financial history or, as he puts it “one step closer to economic equilibrium.” Without debt, we can all explore the limitless possibility that is our birthright.
In the final scenes, there is the realization that Tyler Durden is just a reflection of the nameless protagonist; a necessary phantom that pushed him to change. The nameless protagonist shoots himself in the head to put closure on his former life, destroying the Tyler Durden manifestation and steps into a new phase of his existence.
Our day to day lives dictate that we log in a certain amount of time doing something that may or may not satisfy us so that a number increases in an account somewhere. Something like getting punched in the face is a real thing that is absolute. It exists. Everything else can be changed.