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Fighting For Nothing — A Review of the Movie The Fight Club

By Jeremy Swanson
July 01, 2000

What if there was no God, or, at best, He hated us?  What if values were indeed relative due to either Fate or Truth?  What would our options be?  Allan Bloom in his book The Closing of the American Mind mentions two paths taken by those who pay homage to value relativism: Either it can be a great release from the perpetual tyranny of good any evil and allow us to have one peaceful, happy world, or it can prompt a fanatical devotion to one's self-created values that exalts dying for these values as the noblest of acts.  In the movie Fight Club, we are presented with both of these options stemming from value relativism.  In the final analysis, they are both found wanting.

At the beginning, we are presented with the emptiness of materialism.  Edward Norton plays a young, clean - cut, nameless, conventional employee of a major car company whose job is to determine if there should be vehicle recalls for faulty or dangerous parts.  When he is not busy calculating if the potential lawsuits will cost more than a vehicle recall, he describes the new pornography, that is, the agonizing over what kind of dining set defines me as a person.  He narrates his need for the latest refrigerator, wall hanging, or dust ruffled bedspread as superimposed price tags jump out of the aforesaid objects.  All of his musings are presented in a monotonous, introspective, comically wry manner, seemingly indicative of his inability to become truly excited about such soulless, inanimate garbage.  This materialistic, shallow, basely capitalistic existence which neglects the spirit or anything like the spirit renders him unable to sleep for months at a time.  When a doctor makes light of his narcoleptic condition and facetiously tells him to go see those who are really in pain (men at a testicular cancer support group), he goes.  He goes and becomes addicted to support groups, and attends every kind of meeting for terminally ill people imaginable. These support groups provide an out from his mundane, materialistic life.  They become his opiate, his religious experience.  They affect him emotionally, cathartically dispelling his insomnia.  In his words, he dies and is born again every night.  While he discovers freedom in these meetings, his world also becomes smaller, since part of the therapy dealing with the pain of bowel cancer or tuberculosis involves descending into one's cave, into one's pain (defined by the group's meditation leader as an empowering ball of light).  The therapy and the support groups show him the true futility and hopelessness of life (he defines freedom as losing all hope), and also become tools to escape reality.

His existential pietism does not last.  His world of escapism crumbles when he meets Marla, a woman who has no diseases, but attends the support groups (even the testicular cancer support group) in order to be with people who really listen instead of just waiting to speak.  Her lie exposes his lie, and he cannot achieve his necessary emotional catharsis.  His work schedule also becomes more chaotic, and the return of his insomnia combined with flights through every single North American time zone causes him to be in a continual state of altered consciousness.  He begins wishing for his planes to crash, just so he can escape the toil of a meaningless, single serving society.  On a particular flight, he meets Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt), who really is a psychological manifestation of his fanatically nihilistic self (as opposed to his easy-going nihilistic self that defines himself through the latest Stairmaster or designer couch or refrigerator).  He becomes neurotic, living out alternate personalities, that is, who he is and who he wants to be, as a very real lastman and as a theoretical Nietzschean ubermensche.  When his apartment blows up (actually when he his fanatically nihilistic self - blows up his apartment using home - made explosives), he calls Tyler Durden, meets him at a bar and discusses the pathetically non excellent lifestyle led by most people in modern liberal democracies.  The fanatically nihilistic element of his personality manifests itself more and more as an actual person distinct from who he thinks he is.  Tyler rebels against being perfect or complete in the crass, economic sense, and instead promotes letting the chips fall where they may, and evolving.  Society's self-improvement is masturbation but self-destruction is really where it is at, according to Tyler.  He rejects the basic assumption of civilization, or the need for material possessions as a standard by which to judge ourselves.

After his anti-consumerist statements in the bar, our narrator and his more extreme self engage in the very first Fight Club.  Tyler asks the narrator to hit him, which the narrator finds incredible and at first refuses to do, but eventually complies.  They revel in the pain.  It is an act of self discovery, as opposed to the dull, satiating shopping mall lifestyle.  Pain is good, because, in Tyler's words without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing.  Tyler and the narrator decide to fight again, and are soon joined by other curious, needy men.  Fight Club grows and acts as the vehicle through which men re-discover what is high in their natures, that is, in the Nietzschean sense, the war and courage which have accomplished more great things than love of one's neighbor.  In subsequent meetings, Tyler laments the existence of an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tableswasted.  He laments that there is no great war, no great depression.  Instead, our war is a spiritual war, our depression is our lives.  In a true ubermenschean sense, Tyler promotes the fanaticism of dedicated nihilism, the kind of fanaticism that instills values with meaning (since they have no meaning in themselves), the kind fanaticism that says it is the good war that hallows any cause.

As the Fight Club following grows among men like a spiritual revival (despite the first and second rules of Fight Club being that you do not talk about fight club), Tyler's war spills out into the streets as he assigns homework for the Fight Club members.  This homework includes intentionally picking a fight with strangers and losing, blowing up computer stores, vandalizing public statues, and kidnapping people.  Eventually, it evolves into Project Mayhem, that is, a war against the corporate consumerist lifestyle.  Tyler even trains an army of nihilistic zealots, impervious to the threats of the civil magistrate, the law, or any other enemy.  He indoctrinates them with the harsh truth that they are all part of the same compost heap, just monkeys being shot into space.  They are not beautiful individual snowflakes, but they are not their khakis either.  Dying while carrying out a mission for Project Mayhem is reason to endow a nameless, valueless fanatic with both name and value.  Tyler shows the narrator that nearly dying in a meaningless car wreck is a near life experience.

Eventually, the narrator's easygoing nihilism of peace and respect for everyone re-asserts itself.  He cannot deal with the death of a member of Project Mayhem (a member who was also a part of the testicular cancer support group that the narrator attended in the beginning of the movie).  He also has qualms about Tyler's plan to blow up several square blocks of the city in the name of chaos.  In the end, the narrator confronts his hardcore nihilistic self, accepts that he is responsible for what has happened, and realizes that Tyler is merely a manifestation of a darker part of his mind (During the whole movie Tyler is seen by us and the narrator as a totally different, distinct person from the narrator).

During the grand finale, in order to free himself from his fanatical phantom, the narrator sticks a gun in mouth and blows off part of his face.  While this act liberates him from the bondage to this part of himself, it is too late to prevent the destruction of several skyscrapers.  As he and Marla watch the majestic buildings brilliantly crumble, he says to her you met me at a very strange time in my life.  What is more strange is the ambiguous message of this movie: The mediocrity and empty materialism of happy, peace - loving value relativism is nauseating; but for some reason the alternative, fanatical value positing, is slightly more unbearable.  If there is no God, then why is the second alternative not more (instead of less) appealing?  Why do we recoil so dramatically from the following Nietzschean admonitions?

And whoever must be a creator in good and evil, verily, he must first be an annihilator and break values.  Thus the highest evil belongs to the highest goodness; but this is creative.

Man must become better and more evilThe greatest evil is necessary for the overman's best.

If these fanatically dedicated nihilistic passions grow in our society, those who blindly esteem the value of tolerance will be required to provide a more substantial defense of their dogma of relativism.  Perhaps they should consider the horrifying possibility that such a defense does not exist. Perhaps they should consider the ramifications of the incredible closedness of their open system.


Topics: Culture , Media / Arts

Jeremy Swanson

Jeremy Swanson holds a B.A. in political science from Hillsdale College. He can be reached at [email protected].

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