The first rule of Fight Club is…
An introduction to Tyler Durden, Fight Club and Project Mayhem
Written in 1996 by Chuck Palahniuk (later adapted into the highly successful film directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) Fight Club is a twisted tale about a neurotic, insomniac American wage slave Jack (Norton). (The main character is actually unnamed, but sometimes is referred to as ‘the narrator’ or as ‘Jack’, which comes from a medical book that he stumbles across). ‘Jack’ assesses insurance claims for a living and in turn, spends the money he earns buying things he thinks he needs from the Ikea catalogue. Things he believes help define him in an otherwise empty existence.
Jacks neurosis fuels his insomnia, keeping him awake at night. To compensate, he attends support groups of a variety of medical and mental health conditions, faking their symptoms in a desperate bid to find some comfort and release in the shared physical and emotional pain. However, even after achieving release from attending the various groups, Jack still feels emotionally and spiritually empty, that is until he meets the mysterious Tyler Durden (Pitt).
Tyler is everything that Jack is not. Indeed he is the polar opposite of Jacks conforming, docile, and dull personality. Tyler is an eccentric, go-getting, alpha male, on a crusade against a world he believes has lost its soul. For the most part, he is off the grid and largely disconnected from society. Rebelling against the world by participating in it as little as possible, and when he does that interaction is often hostile, antisocial and completely anti-establishment. Tyler appears impervious to social norms, takes what he wants, without asking, whenever he pleases. He is self-sufficient, answers to no-one, and does not give a fuck about material possessions.
Where is my mind?
After Tyler meets Jack, they start up Fight Club, an underground boxing club. It is here that they arrange for ordinary men tired of their uneventful lives show up to fight each other. They do this not because they want to harm other people but as a way to feel alive themselves.
Without giving away any too many spoilers, under Tyler´s guidance, Jack goes on an insane odyssey that culminates with him watching the skyscrapers of credit card companies exploding, erasing the debt records of many ordinary people and setting them free.
Both the book and the movie had a great impact on men’s psyches when first released in the ’90s. It has since developed somewhat of a cult following. Much of the subject matter dives deep into several important philosophical considerations posed in modern society for man and manhood. This includes topics such as how modern society views issues such as freedom, masculinity, existence, and consumerism. The storyline considers mans past and present roles in these. Tyler and Jack continually debate many of the issues throughout the story. Tyler’s outlook on life, although controversial, does force modern man to question where are we going as a species and are we missing a vital component of our lives?
The Philosophy of Fight Club
Throughout the story, Tyler often displays anarchist and often sociopathic behaviour and ideas. Yet, his charismatic personality and insights into life’s harsh realities deliver many thought-provoking ideas. Interlaced within his dialogue can be found sprinklings of thought from philosophers and philosophical schools such as Stoicism, Nietzsche, Diogenes, Existentialism and Marxism to name a few. The following series aims to explore some of the key themes of Fight Club, Tyler’s (and Jacks) insights and how they relate to us as modern-day men.
Carpe Diem - Seizing the Day, Living in the present moment
Psychology has established that our minds will do anything to divert our attention from any existential crisis. This includes avoiding thoughts of our own mortality and of our inevitable deaths. In Western society, we tend to avoid the subject of death. We tend to view death as an unfortunate event that only happens to other people. Death is something that we can easily ignore. Consequently, this causes us to instead divert attention away from the subject by distracting ourselves with everyday tasks and pursuits. We live life forgetting to truly appreciate the moment. All we are doing is distracting ourselves and not making each second count.
The Stoics have a saying to remind them of their mortality and the need to live life more urgently. This saying is known as ‘Memento Mori’. Momentum Mori is to remember that you are mortal, to remember that you will die. Intentionally making yourself think about death may seem like a grim idea to us. However, the concept involves fully acknowledging your death every single day as being the key to living a fulfilling life. ‘The clock is ticking, I have to make each day count’.
Tyler Durden is a man living completely in the present moment, past and future mean absolutely nothing to him. There is only the here and now. Jack on the other hand is living a half-life obsessed with trends, the latest fashions and keeping up appearances. There is no urgency in his life, no desire to push himself hard and no purpose to work towards.
The message we can take from this is to ask ourselves if what we are doing really means something. Are we living an authentic life? Are we doing our daily tasks, routines and hobbies for ourselves? Or are we actually doing this to fulfil the expectations of somebody else? We can choose now to create a life that’s meaningful to us. To undertake activities and tasks that have an impact on our own future not for someone else. To do things that bring us closer to where we need to be and who we want to be.
"This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.”
(Jack - Fight Club)
“I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.”
(Jack - Fight Club)
In one scene in the story, Jack is driving. Tyler tells him to let go of the steering wheel while hitting the gas, Jack naturally refuses. Tyler calls Jack ‘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 the inevitable car crash, Tyler states that they just had a ‘near-life experience’.
In Fight Club Tyler emphasises detachment and the importance of knowing what we actually want in life. To achieve this, we must be willing to leave what we think we know about ourselves, jumping into the unknown. Detachment is a concept popular in various Eastern religions, such as Taoism and Buddhism. It involves reaching a state in which a person overcomes their attachment or desire for things. This includes people or concepts of the world. Its ultimate aim is to achieve a heightened perspective.
Earlier in the story, Jack’s apartment and all his belongings are destroyed in a mysterious explosion. To Jack its the end of the world, in Tyler’s eyes a new beginning. Loss and defeat are not bad things to Tyler but are instead important life lessons. They remind us of the impermanence of all material things in life and forces change upon us. Sudden and violent change makes us shake things up, evaluate things in new ways and develop new coping strategies. Letting go of the past and embracing change promotes growth on many levels.
By practising detachment we let go of all the bullshit holding us back from growth. This includes material possessions; previous accomplishments (never rest on your laurels); any negative social connections and anything else we are overly attached to. By severing some of these ties, we can begin to live life according to our own unique beneficial goals. If we live life in detachment of the irrelevant, then we can define our own meaning in this world without external influence. Of course, this does not mean get rid of everything. It merely suggests we become more practical, keeping only what is useful and removing all the unnecessary baggage.
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
(Tyler Durden - Fight Club)
Death of the Ego
Later on in the story, Tyler pushes the idea of ‘self-destruction’ as being the answer as opposed to self-improvement. This is meant not in a physical self-harming sense, he is instead referring to the destruction of the ego. To Tyler, freedom comes from destroying the ego (our view of ourselves and how we think the world sees us).
The lesson here is to quit focussing so much on the self, the ego. People aren’t paying as much attention to us as we think they are, indeed they have their own problems. Egocentricity brings its own baggage, from negative attitudes, personality clashes to neuroses. We need to get rid of all the negativity and hangups holding us back. Remember the mind-body connection, if we are thinking negatively then that influences how well our bodies operate.
Tyler’s ultimate solution here is to recognise that we’ll never be complete, to understand that we’ll never be perfect. So to stop trying, let go of all the bullshit and just live life as best as you can. Do only what is important to you rather than undertaking someone else’s objectives.