Fight Club: An Existential Journey - Final Abstract
Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club, in the year 1999, was adapted into a film by David Fincher. The character Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, was embraced by every tired, white-collar male who felt disconnected and disrespected by a society of abstractions. In Tyler, and in fighting, they found an escape. But Tyler Durden's philosophy isn't simply the primitive, pro-violence, neo-masculine reactionary spew to which these people are drawn like flies. Actually, the narrative treats those parts of his philosophy as wrong, at least for the protagonist, if not for everyone. This movie isn't about how cool Tyler Durden is. It's about Edward Norton's nameless character, here called “Jack,” and his philosophical growth in a confusing world defined by lost souls, bad group-think, and an existential cancer in American society's very bones.
“Jack” begins the story utterly disconnected, isolated. He has no aspirations, no joys – nothing but sleeplessness and pre-fabricated stuff. And then he finds self-help groups for the dying, and in that despair, that contempt for those who actually suffer, he finds satisfaction that his life isn't as bad as it could be. He finds a kindred spirit in Marla Singer, but rejects this authentic human connection. And then, when he becomes comfortable in hopelessness, something in him rips away and develops a discrete identity.
Before this bifurcation, “Jack” is a consumerist. His philosophy and the philosophy of the society in which he lives is this: “Happiness comes from consuming more and better things. What you consume defines you.” There's no satisfaction, no enlightenment, nothing to be gained from this philosophy.
As I said before, Marla is a kindred spirit to "Jack." She, like him, is disconnected. But she has chosen this state. She refuses to commit to anything. She suffers what Kierkegaard called angst, a combination of fear and confusion without a discernible cause aside from the perplexing, confounding nature of reality itself. Marla has rejected socially-accepted meanings and has found nothing to replace them. She is a nihilist.
As I said, a piece of "Jack" unable to accept the total isolation in which he finds himself splits off and becomes Tyler Durden. Tyler manifests as everything "Jack" wishes he was – clever, sexy, candid, and without fear. Tyler is "Jack's" desire for enlightenment manifested. In order to change Jack, Tyler changes "Jack's" surroundings and violently tears "Jack" free of consumerism and satisfaction with an unenlightened state.
Tyler is a nihilist, like Marla, in that he does not believe there is any enlightenment to be found in society as it stands. Rejecting Marla's angst, but accepting their kindred nature, Tyler embraces primitivism as a solution. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a six-tiered pyramid ranking peoples' needs, starting with physiological needs and safety, and ending in self-actualization. More recently, enlightenment was added to the top of the hierarchy of needs, a decision which Tyler might decry. Tyler's idea of enlightenment is discovering that there is no such thing, and rather than bother with searching for abstract meanings, humans should embrace the simpler social structures of primitive humans. His primitivist ideal is a human race dragged to the bottom of this pyramid so that the loftiest need an individual might be concerned with is belonging, something easily provided in a primitive tribal society. This is the purpose of Fight Club, then Project Mayhem: a primitivist tribe.
While "Jack" escaped his isolation with Tyler's aid, he did not come to the same conclusion Tyler did. Rather, as "Jack" learned to really live, he began to seek further enlightenment on his own terms. This is where their conflict comes from. Tyler cannot comprehend enlightenment, but "Jack," both in himself and in Marla, has found out that there are some things which are worthwhile. "Jack" destroys Tyler when he becomes an obstacle on "Jack's" path to enlightenment, accepts the deeds he did as Tyler, and chooses to embrace his connection with Marla and with human empathy as a whole.