The Mythology of Violence
"Maybe self-improvement isn't the answer. Maybe self-destruction is the answer." Herein lies the postmodern ethic of Fight Club's resident nihilist, Tyler Durden. Released in 1999, Fight Club entered the American cultural milieu at the height of the millennial panic that permeated society. Was Fight Club's apocalyptic philosophy of self-destruction as the means to salvation a response to the tick-tick-ticking of the clock as the millennium approached? Before descending into the mayhem of Fight Club, it is necessary to understand how and why the myth of regeneration through violence has become a common trope in the American experience.
The notion of regeneration through violence is not new to the American cultural construct, nor is the use of myth. Archetypal figures like Daniel Boone have become a permanent part of the American imagination because they capture the so-called "American spirit" of rugged individualism. Richard Slotkin's 1973 book Regeneration Through Violence meticulously chronicles how the use of violence has been integral to the construction of a distinctly American mythogenesis. Slotkin argues, "In American mythogenesis the founding fathers were not those eighteenth-century gentlemen who composed a nation at Philadelphia. Rather, they were those who…tore violently a nation from implacable and opulent wilderness" (5). As a result, "Regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience" (5). In describing the evolution of the myth of regeneration through violence, Slotkin describes the hunter character as a type of hero whose "starting point is the commonday world, that part of reality which we know well and over which we have established our dominion and power" (551). Key to understanding the myth of the hunter is the fact that "the myth of the hunter…is one of self-renewal or self-creation through acts of violence" (556). Based on Slotkin's formulation, the myth of the hunter continues to evolve throughout American society into the present day:
Set the statuesque figures and their piled trophies in motion through space and time, and a more familiar landscape emerges…the land and its people, its 'dark' people especially, economically exploited and wasted; the warfare between man and nature, between race and race, exalted as a kind of heroic ideal; the piles of wrecked and rusted cars, heaped like Tartar pyramids of death-cracked, weather-browned, rain-rotted skulls, to signify our passage through the land. (565)
Thus, even today "the ideal of innocence, the possibility of redemption, and the connection with violence remain part of our identities" (Robertson 20).
Fight Club presents the viewer with a postmodern reinterpretation of the myth of the hunter. Gone is the natural wilderness that Slotkin's mythical hunter fought so ardently to win from the savage "Indians." In its place is the unbridled wilderness of the high-tech Internet generation with its skyscrapers, strip malls, new model Volkswagen Beetles, and Wal-Mart Supercenters. Furthermore, in Fight Club the Daniel Boone figure is no longer the hero; instead he has morphed into the anti-hero. In the film, the anonymous narrator (Edward Norton) is portrayed as the victim of postmodern society; he has the "right" clothes, he has acquired the "right" furniture, he appears successful yet he is trapped in the confines of the capitalistic system because these material items have come to define him and his existence. The narrator creates Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a charismatic, self-professed nihilist, to help him escape from this banality. Like the contemporary hero who spends most of his time: "avoiding the bureaucracy, cutting red tape, deliberately trying to foul up the operations of the organizations employing them" (Robertson 211), the narrator and his alter ego develop a "fight club" in response to the mundane consumer-driven society in which they live. In the fight club, men engage in bare-knuckled fighting in an attempt to have a "real" experience. Self-elected violence becomes the postmodern panacea to soothe the men's feelings of inadequacy and alienation, both classic symptoms of the postmodern individual. Similar to Robert DeNiro's anti-hero character in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, the narrator in Fight Club is a "composite male ego derived from American history, fiction, and folklore, a postmodern pastiche whose extremely fragile self can only be sustained through various forms of sacrificial, propitiatory violence such as that 'last stand' so sacred to the American self-concept" (Sharrett 8). As will be revealed in my analysis of specific scenes from Fight Club, the film takes Robertson's description and injects it with a high-dose of steroids that results in a "roid" rage.
Using Postmodernism to Reinterpret the Myth
In the contemporary moment "[Americans] are expecting their modern tellers of tales to speak of heroes and heroines whose lives, whose deeds, whose mythical overcoming of obstacles will explain and justify the continued existence of individual Americans in this mechanical, automated, televised often depressing and sometimes terrifying world" (Robertson 199). Fight Club was published as a novel in 1996, and author Chuck Palahniuk can be viewed as the modern day myth teller who puts his own spin on how American males can come to understand their existence within the postmodern world. Described by Publisher's Weekly as "caustic, outrageous, bleakly funny, violent and always unsettling," the novel "spoke" to many individuals, especially David Fincher who directed the film version of Fight Club. Fincher comments, "At some points in my life, I've said, "If I could just spend the extra money, I could get that sofa and then I'll have the sofa problem handled." As I was reading Chuck's book, I was blushing and feeling horrible. How did this guy know what everybody was thinking?" (qtd. in Taubin 18)
Understanding the postmodern appeal of a film like Fight Club and how the story functions as a myth requires an understanding of postmodern theory. In the postmodern world film and video replace the written word. Jean Baudrillard contends, "It is the golden age of despotic and legendary resurrections. Myth, chased from the real by the violence of history, find refuge in cinema" (SS 43). Thus, we have the reinterpretation of Slotkin's thesis of "regeneration through violence" within the postmodern paradigm. Film and video have become the media of choice for the postmodern individual, surpassing the literary text (Jameson 68).
Postmodern society is also characterized as lacking a sense of history, or being 'ahistorical,' an ailment Fredric Jameson defines as "historical deafness, an exasperating condition (provided you are aware of it) that determines a series of spasmodic and intermittent, but desperate attempts at recuperation" (CLLC xi). The condition of postmodernism is characterized by the individual who lacks a sense of history due to the inundation of media images that have replaced our concept of what is "real." Fight Club perfectly captures this dilemma with classic postmodern wit: "We are the middle children of history. We have no great war, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won't. And we're slowly learning this fact. And we're very, very pissed off."
As a result of being the "middle children of history," the individual in the postmodern moment feels lost and alienated. This alienation produces a fracturing of the self, a trope that Fight Club depends upon. Fredric Jameson believes that the postmodern moment has fragmented both the subject (ego) and the language the subject relies upon to explain his/her existence. The result of this fragmentation leads to a schizoid existence, Jameson argues. I will explore at greater length in the section entitled "The Fracturing of the Self." Essentially, Jameson's argument is that as language becomes fractured and unreliable the importance of images and film begins to supplant the written word.
The film goer's suspension of reality is disrupted and the viewer becomes more aware of his/her role as a film goer. Moments such as this one prod the viewer to be something more than just a passive viewer of the visual imagery of the film. Baudrillard attributes this passivity to the postmodern moment where, "We are now in a new form of schizophrenia. No more hysteria, no more projective paranoia, but his state of terror proper to the schizophrenic…the schizophrenic can no longer produce the limits of his own being. He is only a pure screen" (qtd. in Sharrett 243). Thus, Fight Club encourages the viewer to question what s/he is seeing in the film to avoid being nothing more than a "pure screen," or recipient of images.
The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control-and it can be reproduced an infinite number of times from these. It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance. It is no longer anything but operational. In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore. It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere. (2)
For the narrator, what should be an acceptable existence (he has the right clothes, the right furniture, a good job) has become nothing more than a sterile and pointless way of being. The narrator is no longer satisfied by the "You've made it" philosophy that society suggests these material things should bring him, and his self begins to fracture. After the narrator returns from a business trip to his home in the aptly named "Pearson Towers: A Place to Be Somebody" he encounters the remnants of what was once his stylishly furnished apartment.