I’m near completion of the last essay for a collection I’ve been working on for a few years now. The tentative title of the book is Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, and Overcomings. It addresses the theme of nihilism in a variety of motion pictures, and considers whether the common enthusiasm for overcoming nihilism is, perhaps, inadvisable.
I hope to have the manuscript finished and polished enough to shop around to publishers later this year. We’ll see how things go!
Here is the introductory section to the essay I am now working on, titled “The Abject Self: Apocalyptic Consequences of Self-Discovery in Fight Club”:
Is it possible that there might be some truths about ourselves best left undiscovered?
Thousands of years ago, the admonition to “know thyself” was inscribed at Delphi, and it came to be regarded by philosophers as a guiding principle, promising to lead in the direction of authenticity and spiritual fulfillment. Beyond all else, so this ancient wisdom claims, it is the soul that is important, and in order to take care of the soul, one must reflect upon and interrogate one’s self in order to uncover who one truly is. This was the message of Socrates, still considered by many to be the most fully perfected philosopher in the history of the West. According to Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and so he became dedicated to questioning himself and all of those around him in the hope that by clearing away the accumulated pretenses and falsehoods of popular belief, he would reveal something true and real about the human condition. So important was his quest for self-perfection that Socrates preferred death to silence when presented with this choice by his fellow citizens.
If we believe Plato, Socrates’ most faithful student, what Socrates ultimately revealed was that the Truth is both beautiful and good. Human reality, when properly understood, is a reflection of an immutable, unchangeable and magnificent ideal that illuminates our inner, spiritual world, the way that the sun shines down on the outer, physical landscape of the earth. We lose sight of this ultimate Truth due to the distractions of our base appetites and emotions, but, the Platonic Socrates teaches, we might reconnect with this Truth – The Good – if we diligently engage in a systematic, dialectical investigation into the depths of our being. By degrees this Truth might be recovered, and when it is, we may potentially be transformed into something better and more pure. Philosophy, in this Socratic/Platonic sense, is the path toward spiritual perfection. This optimistic message has, to varying degrees, been the message of all philosophy ever since. Even when the truth articulated by some later philosophers – such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche – appears to be painful and terrible, it is still cherished precisely because it is true, and in this there is presumed to be something both noble and virtuous.
But what if this is wrong? What if the truth is neither beautiful nor good, but rather abject, horrifying, destructive and evil? Would it still be advisable to love such a truth or would it rather be advisable to recoil from it, reject it, and struggle to forget it? Supposing this truth was a truth about the self? Would coming face to face with it spur one to renounce the inscription at Delphi, flee from self-realization and inspire the desire to reassert some sort of comforting, soothing lie?
We no longer live in optimistic times, and so these sorts of questions are raised with increasing frequency. Our world seems permeated with a fear of the truth and a suspicion that all is not well in the depths of existence. Consequently, our culture has produced an increasing number of popular parables warning us of the danger that threatens if we peek too persistently into the human soul. These parables suggest that what is potentially revealed by such scrutiny may be enough to destroy the philosophically curious individual while also potentially unleashing forces powerful enough to annihilate human civilization itself. The lesson they teach is that perhaps it is best to keep the ugly truth lying at the foundation of the human soul hidden, locked away and chained beneath consciousness.
Fight Club is one of these contemporary parables. Both the novel and the film have enjoyed tremendous popular success, becoming woven into the fabric of American popular culture. It is clear that this story has struck a very deep and meaningful chord in audiences; not just among young men, but among males and females of all ages who resonate with this angry and ironic story of an unnamed narrator’s struggle against the forces of civilization and his absurd attempt to reclaim his authentic self. The story is both revolutionary and conservative at the same time. On the one hand, it appeals to the longing for individual liberation; the freeing of base and primal desires and the unfettered expression of libidinal urges. On the other hand, it also depicts the frightening consequences that follow from the emancipation of repressed human fury, and how once unleashed this fury propagates according to its own logic, threatening to dismantle civilization itself. Personal authenticity, in the end, has fearsome consequences for collective living, and the question that Fight Club brilliantly asks its audience to consider is this: Are you willing to give up the comforts and safety of civilization in order to become individually free?