Monday, 25 August 2008

Thoughts while reading Fight Club.

Anicca or Impermanence. All conditioned things eventually cease to exist. All things are in flux.

Dukkha or unsatisfactoriness or “dis-ease“. Nothing found in the physical world or even the psychological realm can bring lasting deep satisfaction.

Anatta or impersonality, or non-self. Each individual is subject to constant flux, there is no I, no central core or essence.

The three marks of existence (Buddhist teaching)

“Everything is changing, nothing is static, everything is falling apart”

The "teachings" of Tyler Durden.

I decided to reread Chuck Palahniuk first novel Fight Club. I have a habit of looking up books or films and finding out when they were released or printed. I like to know what year it came out in and what I if anything was doing. Fight Club was first printed in 1996 and the film came out in 1999. For a human being a decade is a long time, plenty happens not only to the self but the world itself. Reflection is a curious quality we humans have. Like all other complex living things we have an awareness of night and day and the changing of the seasons. Our ability though to remember the past, infer from it and attach an emotional quality seems unique to our species. I don’t think we’re likely to hear reports from primatologists that haughty old chimps are rueing the day complaining it wasn’t like this in their time.

Us humans view the past with rose tinted lens as it where. Recently I have been taking another trip down memory lane. I decided to replay the magnificent Metal Gear Solid series. A computer game designed over twenty years spanning three Playstation consoles and ten years in its modern guise. The latest in the series features a nearly at deaths door Snake, (the games hero) who must solider on to complete his mission. I remember feeling slightly annoyed at the fact of playing an older Snake. Not because I have anything against old people.(in the legend of heroes, both Wayne and Eastwood have made great, old coffin dodging men of action) no it was that Snake was not my Snake! I was eleven when I first played Metal Gear Solid (1998 PS1) and I will always as it where remember him from that. Throughout the series Snake is never the exact same person twice. Drama insists on having arcs and catharsis. Michael Corleone is not the same person at the start of the Godfather as he is at the end nor is he the same “person” in the second or third Godfather film.

Us humans are a paradox, we don’t like change, yet become depressed by unending regularity. The perennial ring road on Sundays leading to the shopping centre. Calorie counting. Income tax returns. Car wash also on Sundays. We stay in the same job, Same marriage. Watch the same garbage on the TV. Same food. Same sex. Same and samey life until one day the pilot light in your cooker goes off and secretly you 24th floor apartment fills with Gas. Some point in the middle of the night while your flying at fifty thousand feet in the air, your fridge depressor clicks on, igniting a massive explosive and every crummy little bit of your life sails out past the floor to ceiling windows of your filing cabinet condominium flaming into the nights sky. “and they say these things happen” This is the start of the narrator decent from his boring life into the underworld of Fight Club.

Nothing is static, everything is changing, everything is falling apart. The final Metal Gear is filled with this sense of decay. That at once everything is changing and passing away but also as its creator Kojima points out filled with Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same. At one point Snake returning to a former mission site in permafrost Alaska where he hadn’t seen in nine years, glimpses an old surveillance camera. The game flashbacks to the decade before (with old PS1 graphics) the camera then falls and falls apart upon hitting the ground. Snakes old body takes a pummelling during the game, and visibly decays throughout it. “Even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart” writes Palahnuik.

The real paradox is our modern way of life. For roughly a hundred and ninety four or if you differ ninety four thousand years humans were wanders, nomads, hunter gatherers. Every day was a gruelling trial of existence. Men teamed up alongside their fathers, brothers and uncles and went out into the jungle or the savannah or forest and hunted antelope or elk or deer. When not eking out a meagre existence or overcome by gum disease or other unseen and unknown germs and parasites, men would team up and raid other tribes for brides and concubines. Forget football or Smackdown or Playstation this is living, this is what our prefrontal lobes and adrenal glands are for! Life was one long video game of hide and seek and club and be clubbed. Depending on your sex or disposition you might be calling me either an ape in the pejorative sense or ask me where and how do we recreate this primordial society. Recall though Hobbes accurate observation that men’s lives were “nasty, brutish and short” few males lived past their twenties. Still interested?

It is upon this paradox that strode Palahniuk’s book and Fincher’s film. Tossed like a hand grenade into middle America. A brick through the window of politically correct western society. An “assault” upon consumerism and its emasculating and infantilising influence on America men.

I mentioned that the book first appeared twelve years ago and the film nearly a decade ago. Fight Club was always written about as spearheading a Zeitgeist (a spirit of the times). Conjuring up images and feelings of an alienated, isolated, millennial fearing society, namely men. Technologically overwhelmed and divested of power by corporations and consumerism. This is the feeling one gets from Radiohead’s Ok Computer or watching the films of Michael Mann (Heat and the Insider) David Cronenburg’s Crash would be another contribution. TV’s the Sopranos wondered aloud about the state of the American male along with things like family, identity and individualism. In 2000 came Naomi Klein’s excellent No Logo Taking on the Brand Bullies.

As with everything things change, twelve years is a long time. In retrospection it’s the same as looking back from 1999 to 1987. The cold war was still ongoing, in my own country of Northern Ireland the troubles were still ongoing. South African apartheid was still ongoing. The music scene always touted as representing the times had the burgeoning rave culture. Computer games were still simplistic and 2D. Much the same in way of differences can be said of 1979 to 1968 or the affluence in Britain during the fifties compared with the harshness of the war years. Most people know that Britain was rationed (milk, eggs, meat, sugar were all on set limits) but this rationing continued even after the war finished.

Films and cultural products when viewed outside of their era can be seen as nothing more than a curiosity or a oddity. Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960, France) would elicit bemused facial expressions of the young today. As would Hard Days Night (1964 UK) the film a surreal fantasy of the adventures of the pop band know as The Beatles. When me and my friend watched Easy Rider (1969 US) after the first five minutes we were like “what the hell is this?!)

We would naturally expect Fight Club to be no different. Perhaps I will display naivety when I say that nothing much as changed. Consumerism and its adverse effects are still ever present. The malignance of corporations is still present. Naomi Klein’s last book was on disaster capitalism and outlined the harmful role that private corporate interests had in the aftermath of the Iraq war. I have an ironic eye for spotting what can seem almost paranoid patterns and connections. The principle theme of Metal Gear Solid 4 is PMC (Private Military Companies) who fan the flame of war in order to further their own profits. This is of course not at all an unlikely vision of the future given the use and exponential growth of the PMC in Iraq. The continued undermining of the male in Western culture is still openly debated. What with American parents drugging boys docile with Ritalin. The Fathers for Justice movement in the UK and the speculation of female friendly learning methods in schools (claimed as perhaps responsible for higher female test scores). Legislation and reproductive technology have also undermined men to the point of irrelevance in children’s lives. This is of course a central theme to Fight Club.

There is one major distinction though that marks Fight Club from a different era. Its best encapsulated in one of Tyler many speeches. “We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.”

This is the forty year anniversary of 1968. What many have called a momentous year in world politics. From Prague Spring, to the Paris student riots to Northern Irelands civil rights protests. Though debate rages over the various victories and defeats, few doubt the momentousness of the time the Zeitgeist as it where. Recently I have often asked myself well what is my time about? What is my generation fighting for? What is the great narrative at the start of the 21st century? What is our war?

The answer is doubly twofold, trite and arresting simultaneously. Firstly the environment. Whether we humans are raping and polluting the world to the brink of climatological disaster or that the experts are very much mistaken. The second was announced with much greater fanfare when American Airlines flight 11 on the clear blue September morning smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. Elevating the temperature of planetary fear towards the feverish remarked Amis, the “world hum” in Delillo’s phrase is “as audible as tinnitus.”

There are many frames to put on it. Terrorism is abstract and meaningless. Moderates Vs Extremists is no better, its attacking a fringe that has no centre and is thus illusory. Islam and the West is more honest but it does not quite capture the ultimate conclusion of 9/11. The start of the 21st century has seen the eruption of the age old battle between reason and religion, faith and dogmatism on one hand and inquiry and tolerance on the other. Modernity and medievalism, progress and regression. There can surely be no doubt that Islam in its current form and practice poses as much of a problem as did National Socialism or Stalinism. The Catholic church has needed countless wars, a enlightenment, a reformation and democracy to see off its most totalitarian aspects. It still of course wields considerable influence. National Socialism took twelve years to see off at the cost of millions of lives. The ending of socialism in Russia took nearly a century in which millions died in death camps and millions more suffered under a oppressive regime.(we may never know the exact amount that perished in the gulag) Islam despite being over a millennia old is still in its “youth of self righteousness” and is diametrically opposed to the West, whether its Christian, Jewish or not.

Palahniuk’s novel and the filmed version is scarily prescient of 9/11 and its implications. 9/11 was an tripartite attack on the economic, military and political foundations of America. The Twin Towers is what most comes to mind when the attack is recalled. The Twin Towers represented symbolically so much of what is American. Modernity, capitalism, wealth, consumerism, power. 9/11 saw the conclusion of a highly disciplined, dogmatic and alienated young men committing an atrocity against America, it attacked its economic centre. The conclusion of Fight Club sees a massive assault planned and executed by highly regimented and disillusioned young men against economic sky scrapers. Specifically (from the film) the credit card companies. The bases of the building are packed with plastic explosives, the demolition of the buildings would ensure economic chaos and anarchy. In other words a societal melt down.

Both groups targets (Mayhems and Al Qaeda) are both principally modern western civilisation. Though capitalism/consumerism is only one such manifestation of the West it is a prime motivating reason for the groups ire. Islam is of course both irredentist and imperialist seeking to impose the Sharia ( a strict and oppressive set of religious laws). The West does not directly threaten Islam. It is its subtle, subversive seductive qualities that undermine its control. We should treasure the brave Ayaan Hirsi Ali who doubted Islam and her Somali oppressors through the reading of Nancy Drew stories. Where little girls unfettered by stifling clothing and sexual prejudice would have adventures along with little boys. When Muslims say that the West threatens their culture or tradition read its threatens our dominance of women and children.

It sounds ridiculous but we may have to face the hilarity of Muslim men marching in protest at the right to beat or veil their wives. Fight Clubs reactionary males are fighting against something less concrete and visceral. Consumerism or modern western society has presented them with a false image of themselves and a way of life that runs contrary to their own interests. The pernicious effect of advertising and marketing is to make people (women as well) feel inadequate and inferior. They allure with the promise of perfection in the buying of “stuff” while at the same time promoting fear and insecurity. “I say fuck being perfect, I say never be complete” opines Tyler

Fight Club starts out as the same suggest in the basement of a bar where men engage in bare knuckle boxing. The feeling of religious ecstasy is palpable. “you never feel alive like you do in Fight Club” “after Fight Club you feel saved” muses the un-named narrator or Jack. Tyler Durden the eccentric alpha male bad boy (played by Brad Pitt) becomes ever more preacher cum philosopher cum messiah. He sets up Project Mayhem, nothing less than a cult. Each individual is stripped of their identity, dressed in a uniform of pure black with shaved heads. They are given their own symbol of identity like all religions, a kiss shaped lye burn on their hands. Mayhem is organised into several committees such as Assault, Arson, Mischief and Misinformation.

Like most ideas or findings or teaching they so often take on a life of their own. “planet Tyler” Mayhem becomes a living breathing super-organism. In a parody of franchises the idea of Fight Club spreads and “Mayhem” literally spreads from city to city. Looking back, Palahniuk’s book would have been better served if it had of presented itself as a sort of user guide to a revolution. A post-modern melange of a book containing diary entries, newspapers reports, doctrinal teachings, interviews with principals over a new cult or religion or movement. The book would be a kind of document from the near future in which Project Mayhem has spun out of control or rather society has.

Given the clear analogy with religion its surprising to not find another clear marker of it-schism. To be fair this happens with almost anything, both Darwin and Nietzsche and Marx gave rise to abominations and perversions. There is hints of this of course. Jack or the unnamed narrator tries to undermine Tyler and stop the “mayhem” from happening. The ending of the book differs slightly from the film which shows that while Jack rids himself of Tyler, the cult of Mayhem lives on independent of a clear central authority.

The chief reason for Tyler and presumably the groups anarchy is nothing more hilarious than a vision of attention seeking fatherless boys acting out. Tyler repeatedly mentions that if your “male, American and Christian your role model for God is your father. Since your father abandoned you, God does not want you in all probability he hates you, you are infectious human waste” Tyler’s solution is not atheism or nihilism but anarchism. He wants God’s attention and presumably his father’s who abandoned him in early childhood. One prominent theme of the book is thus laid bare. “we are a generation of men raised by women” Jack says to Tyler.

Like the Islamists they believe they have everything to lose and nothing to gain from modernity and modern civilisation. We are adapted to the African savannah not the 9-5 open planned office . The influence of JG Ballard is keenly felt in Palahniuk’s imagined scenario of society breakdown. Ballard spent his early childhood among British expatriates in Japanese prison camps in China during the war. His partial biography Empire of the Sun is a fascinating read and goes some way to help the reader understand the writer whom one critic said “was beyond all “psychiatric help”.

His view of society is nothing more than a façade of social convention. Underneath it lies lust, greed, malice and a penchant for destruction. His novels are blueprints for fascism. Modernity is beating men and women into a mind-numbing torpor. In response a cult around “ elective psychopathology” is formed. Violent actions and other cultic behaviour follow. Jacks speech to his boss about stalking the offices with a AR-15 and “pumping round after round into colleague and co-worker” is pure Ballard. The scene in the book expanded in the film where it features a deliberate car crash experienced as a transcendent epiphany is also Ballardian. Ballard’s latest novel (Kingdom Come) is a full on dissection of consumerism and the new cathedral that is the shopping centre. Ballard has been described by some as a visionary, yet he only communicates what is right if front of our very eyes. Nothing is permanent, our idea of social fabric is perilous and subject to change. Many of Ballard’s early work portray what might happen to humans, to society, to consciousness itself if a sweeping natural disaster or simply disaster would ever befall us. In books like the Drowned World the answer is not bright or optimistic. The world is held in place by Hobbes leviathan, by keeping us from each others throats and thereby allowing a semblance of society it suppress our darker, primitive impulses. Books like Fight Club or Super-Cannes or Hi-Rise are thought experiments of a world gone amok.

Annatta or non self is the teaching that the self which most of us subscribe to is a cognitive illusion. Every religion practices the idea that the self be nullified and obliterated. For Christians it is the church, for Muslims it is the Ummah. Buddhists go further and have the cheeky temerity to say that no self exists in the first place. In project Mayhem no one has a name they are “space monkeys”. Fight Club embodies this idea in the schism between Jack and Tyler. They are of course one person. Jack is an insomniac and sufferer of narcolepsy. When he sleeps he becomes Tyler. He some times imagines him and Tyler to be two separate persons hence the book and the films illusion. Tyler is everything Jack wants to be. “I am smart, capable and free in every way that you are not”. By extension Tyler the Id, the super image of Jack’s mind is the fantasy of every man.

The casting of Brad Pitt one of Hollywood’s biggest actors was subversive brilliance. Pitt is naturally glamorous and sexy, a blond haired and blue eyed Aryan. The creation of Tyler in Jack’s head personified by Pitt is nothing more than an extension of the controlling, influencing nature of advertising and consumerism. They peddle in dreams and illusions. Tyler is a dream and a delusion. The most biting ironic moment in the movie is when Tyler played by Pitt offers up the line while showcasing the perfect six pack (which was earlier scorned) “we’re lead to believe we will grow up to be movie gods and rock stars”. The image that ordinary Joe, Edward Norton (Jack) conjures up is Hollywood A list Brad Pitt.

Fight Club belongs to the genre of literature called the unreliable narrator. On the cover of the book is a blurb by Bret Easton Ellis, the author of among others American Psycho. Psycho features perhaps the most unpleasant lead character in all fiction. It too belongs in the genre of the unreliable narrator. It goes further, the outrages that Patrick Bateman “performs” are observed with the same cold distance than characterises Palahniuk’s prose. American Psycho is in part a reaction to the soulless never ending consumption of the 1980’s and the utter amoral nature of American consumerism. Pat Bateman worked on wall street, in the heart of New York’s financial centre. If such a character ever existed he would no doubt of enjoyed the spectacle of 9/11 before consulting Zagats on where best to eat dinner.

The problem with consumerism is that it can never fulfil. Remember what Lao Tzu said “he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough”. It is our attachments to the world, to desire, to materialism, to our ego that cause our suffering. That is the second noble truth of Buddhism. Mayhems philosophy is Zen in nature, its route to the enlightened state though is by vicious “self” destruction. “It is only when you lose everything that your free to do anything” opinions Jack. For Jack fighting and losing his attachment causes him to feel unattached to the situations that would have troubled him previously. “I’m the Zen master, I am enlightened, after Fight Club the sound in you life has the volume turned down, you can deal with anything”. Zen does not advocate violence or anything destructive. It proceeds by introspection and meditation. By peering inward the person sees the truth of impermanence, the truth of the Dharma. Freedom is obtained when one relinquishes the need to control and the desire for sense pleasure or objects. Freedom is obtained when we realise that much of our lives is not under our control but our metal state is. In other words our reaction to it. Our thoughts are thoughts and nothing more than that. Zen operates not by causing a dramatic revolution in the person but rather a subtle disintegration of all the selfish and destructive things that a person performs.

Cultural evolution happens faster than biological evolution. We cannot turn the clock back nor would everyone outside of having adolescent fantasies want to. This is our time, our lives like it or not. This is the only life that we will ever have and we are enormously lucky to have it. Every man is my brother and every woman is my sister. We are bound to each other not only by our DNA but in the awareness that every person is a self with feelings, hopes and dreams. Every person is capable of pain and pleasure and therefore entitled to our moral consideration. We are lucky to live in a time and place where most of the horrors that characterise our past have been overcome. We should resist the temptation to slide into nihilism and we should resist others who wish to lead us into the bonds of suffering and slavery. This means that we should all grow up, participate in our society, negotiate between our needs and the needs of the community. Peter Singer’s book the Expanding Circle sees our moral sense extend from ourselves to our family, to kin and kith, to the village, town, country to the rest of the human species. Project Civilisation rather than project Mayhem.

Tyler’s Mayhem is revolutionary in the spirit of Bolshevism. At the very end of the book one of the “space monkeys” posing as a orderly says to a sectioned Jack “we’re going to break up civilization so we can make something better out of the world”.

We all know what happens when people get these kind of ideas in their head.

Best and be well

Michael Faulkner

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