“You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”  Tyler Durden

Stylistically, Fight Club is a textbook on how to do mise-en-scene. Corporate vs. Club. Penthouse vs. Outhouse. White-collar vs. Popped-collar. The film plays out its tensions in elaborately detailed sets and costumes, especially in the dueling performances of Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. The film even goes so far as to literalize that competition in their bloody fist-fights.

So this film is packed.

Blood? Lots of it. Dark humor? Natch. And men? Well, this film never wants for testosterone.

Made two years before 9/11, Fight Club‘s terrorist rhetoric and fascist overtones simply would not fly in a post-WTC world. Even watching him now, Tyler Durden (Pitt) is scarily prescient.

The movie makes me uncomfortable, but it’s compelling. It gets so many things right (e.g., consumer-culture, its mantra about “hitting rock bottom”). Its phrases, if they were only spoken in another context, would be true. The clichés about things owning you, the way that vocation is not tantamount to calling, that you need to take some responsibility for your action.

But they’re married to Tyler’s violent revolution, to images of evolution and the ruins of western civilization.

It’s a charismatic love letter to “real” masculinity, to the purpose and fulfillment that modern consumer culture can only offer in single servings. It is, at heart, a morality tale: it takes an awful lot to wrest us from the grips of modern civilization. In fact, it’s almost impossible. We are captives.

Slavoj Zizek’s compelling argument about this film is that it teaches us this: to beat “the man” we must first beat “the man” out of ourselves.

Tyler is a stand-in for the nameless narrator’s commitment to that project. Of taking an idea to its logical conclusion.

During a Fight Club meeting, Tyler tells his rapt audience that his generation of men had no Great War or Great Depression.  Instead, Tyler argues that their war was spiritual. And so salvation looks completely like degradation. “Self-improvement is masturbation,” Tyler quips. “Now self-destruction on the other hand…”  Mankind is a compost heap, the “skin disease of the earth.”  The message: don’t eradicate God. Rather, simply embrace the idea that he doesn’t like you. That his rules are artificial and arbitrary.

But when Tyler’s wisdom resonates in me, I recognize it is only because he is faintly echoing the very religious traditions that his philosophy despises.

Absent, impotent fathers (the corporate bosses, policemen, and business owners). Cancer-ridden, spiritually vacuous mothers (the leaders and attendees of the film’s counselling groups ). In this film, church is a place where the sick in body come to hide from their pain rather than look it in the eye.

Cancer-victim Chloe is paradigmatic. The narrator describes her as Meryl Streep’s happy skeleton. What does she want now that she’s made her peace with death? Sex. Spiritual enlightenment can’t get her laid.

This film proposes a way to get physical. To feel powerful instead of impotent.

The problem is that it’s monastic asceticism with a materialist twist. The film tells us its tough pill is not denying but embracing mortality. Pain. Visceral experience of bones and flesh and blood. We are human. We are dirt.

When I finish watching Fight Club, I always wonder if I was the narrator in relation to the film’s Durden. Viewing this film is analogous to practicing self-immolation. If I buy what the film’s selling, then the only consolation I have is that at least I feel alive as the flames melt me.


  1. Thanks for the article, Jonathan, excellent stuff.

    I remember feeling this same way the first time I studied Nietzsche in college. His recommendation was to “stare into the abyss”, the nothingness and lack of meaning at the center of our universe, and then to respond to it with the Will to Power. Fight Club carries similar nihilistic tendencies.

    I think part of what makes this film or Nietzsche’s teaching so resonant is the simple fact that they are honest… IF you posit that God does not exist (or, in Fight Club, that he doesn’t like you), THEN the way the world is responding makes no sense. IF God does exist, THEN the way the non-religious respond makes no sense. The Christian and the nihilist in many ways are very similar in their truth-telling mission, they just disagree on the central component. Meanwhile, both are disgusted by the self-serving, empty, maybe-if-I-ignore-it-it-will-go-away mindset of the world.

    The powerful charisma of the Fight Club mentality can’t be denied, but I think it’s still important to understand for the way it tries to react honestly to what it sees. The mission for the Christian is to affirm the desire for truth, but to also show which the real Truth actually is.

  2. I think it’s important to note that Norton’s character (and the film itself, actually) reject Tyler Durden’s renewed masculinity. Here’s an old post that takes the view that Fight Club is an essentially feminist film—but one that people get confused about because of all Tyler’s rhetoric leading up to the finale. Fight Club is not a nihilistic film; it’s a film that tries to scrub the world clean of nihilism by implementing a new maternalism.

  3. Do you have a link to Žižek’s article? He’s one of the more interesting intellectuals. It’s hard to take anyone who claims Marx’s banner with a straight face, but it’s also impossible to read him without rethinking the world.

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