Bruises of Delusion:

Civilization According to FIGHT CLUB

"Monsters cannot be announced.
One cannot say: 'here are our monsters',
without immediately turning the monsters into pets."

~~~Jacques Derrida

 

 

 

Figure 1 Like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Tyler and Jack bond over punches

 

One of literature's oddest friendships is that between king Gilgamesh and the uncivilized wild man Enkidu. Gilgamesh is powerful but lonely, so the gods create for him a companion whom he will "love as a woman," Enkidu. Whereas Gilgamesh is the embodiment of Persian civilization, Enkidu exists in the wild and lives like an animal. To civilize him, Gilgamesh sends a prostitute to seduce the wild man. Enkidu and the harlot have sex for seven nights, and Enkidu arises a civilized man. He puts on clothes, gets a haircut and, after the two men exchange blows, takes his place along Gigamesh's side. Woman is manís civilizing influence, even when the woman is a harlot.

In David Fincher's FIGHT CLUB, Gilgamesh and Enkidu exist one person, the unnamed narrator we'll call Jack (Edward Norton in the Gilgamsh role, Brad Pitt in the Enkidu), and a woman of questionable morality is still the civilizer (Helena Bonham Carter's Marla Singer). Jack's role as Gilgamesh is that of Civilized Man: successful and detached. When, in a meditation exercise, he is asked to find his power animal, Jack finds a penguin, a regal but ridiculous animal existing in the cold. Tyler is Wild Man, an anarchist who detests the trappings of civilized society. Tyler doesn't need to find a power animal because he never feels powerless. Primal forces drive his logic. As with Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the two sides become friends over a punch. Violence becomes a purging for both men, a way for Civilized Man to feel wild again and a way for Wild Man to test his own dominance and civilizationís resolve.

And a woman screws it all up. Ultimately Wild Man gives in to Civilizing Woman, and it spells the end for the wild. Tyler, of course, does not understand that he has given in, but it is the cause of his demise. Just as the razing of the Cedar Forest spelled doom for Enkidu, the destruction of the credit buildings destroys Tyler. Protecting Marla has given Jack a reason to survive and a reason to kill Tyler.

Wild Man dies at the hands of civilization. Tyler wasnít trying to perpetrate a worldview of individualism with his wanton demolitions, no matter how much he pretended otherwise; the comical scenes of Project Mayhemís automatonic brigade highlight that individuality has been lost. Neither was Tyler a simple nihilist bent on random destruction. He was trying to seize the world from civilization; he was trying to prevent his own fated demise. Anarchy isnít the absence of order, its order after a mental breakdown. "Is that what a man looks like?" Jack asks Tyler, referring to a male model in a Calvin Klein ad. It is a contemptuous remark, but it is also the essence of Jackís descent into insanity. Who should we listen to in defining ourselves? Which is a real man, the Wild or the Civilized?

The problem is that Jack thinks he has to choose. In reality he is both. In him co-exist the best and worst of both views of man. Tyler is appealing (he forces, at gunpoint, a clerk to pursue his dreams) and appalling (he gleefully, albeit naively, tries to force change through destruction). Jack is appealing (he develops an odd protectiveness towards Marla) and appalling (he gains satisfaction from crashing support groups). Subliminal shots of Tyler pepper the film, reminding us not only of Jacks insanity but also that the wild is always just beneath the surface of the civilized. The human fat Tyler uses to make his soap underscores this theme of the hidden wild.

The consumerism that Tyler abhors is in that soap as well. The self-feeding nature of consumerism is turned into the perverse symbol of consumers washing themselves in the fat they pay to get rid of. Tyler is the Wild Man, but he has a sense of irony--and irony is a product of civilization. "ÖNever be complete . . . stop being perfect," decrees Tyler, a pointed stab at a commercial culture that demands us to desire completion and perfection through products and services. But Tylerís philosophy has demands of its own. Demands of obedience and subjugation to a philosophy that has pretenses of nihilism but in reality comes closer to Nietzscheís will to power. The escalating stunts of Project Mayhem serve Tylerís need for dominance just as the uniformed militia he forms thirsts for a break from civilizationís roles.

"Reject the basic assumption of civilization," he tells Jack, "especially the importance of material possessions." Tyler assumes a messianic role, turning the other cheek when the thuggish Lou beats him and saving Fight Club through the shedding of his blood.

Some have made much of the homoerotic undertones of FIGHT CLUB (homoerotic undertones that exist in Gilgamesh as well), and indeed the structure of machismo bonding has these currents. At a basic level there is the understanding that women drive away the wild and demand civilization. "Iím wondering if another woman is really the answer we need," Tyler says. He fears Marla above all else and warns Jack "sheís a predator posing as a house pet." Visually Marlaís look softens as the film progresses, her mussed hair becoming tamer as she comes to care for Jack.

Figure 2 Marla becomes Tyler's destruction

In a post 9/11 world the climax of FIGHT CLUB, the demolition of office towers, should ring disturbing, but there instead there is a surprising element of naivety. The notion that credit records can be erased by blowing up a building is as old-fashioned as the idea that cutting down trees will anger the forest demon. Tyler's worldview may be appealing to those who feel powerless, but standing alone it demonstrates its ignorance. Once the results of Tyler's ferocity are shown plainly, the monster of Tyler vanishes, replaced by Derrida's pet. Jack is now able to defeat Tyler's dominance and to integrate the Civilized with the Wild.

FIGHT CLUB is, of course, not a retelling of the Gilgemesh saga per se, but thematically it is the ancient work's brother, and like the ancient poem it understands that the Wild and the Civilized are forever intertwined, interdependent philosophies co-existing beneath whatever exterior we choose to put forth.

 

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