A little late for Mother’s Day, here I am reading Chapter 1 from my book The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel:
A little late for Mother’s Day, here I am reading Chapter 1 from my book The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel:
A little late for Mother’s Day, here I am reading Chapter 1 from my book The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel:
On February 28th, I participated in an author meets critics session at the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, in Chicago. This is the text of my presentation:
Author Meets Critics: Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously, by Lydia Amir (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
Critic: John Marmysz
In Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously, Lydia Amir argues in favor of a worldview that she calls Homo risibilis; a perspective portraying humans as “ridiculous” animals. She characterizes the human condition as “ridiculous” in order to highlight our hopeless entanglement in the enduring incongruities and contradictions of life; incongruities between our ultimate desires and the impossibility of their final fulfillment. Humans, for instance, desire Truth, and yet our intellectual capacities are finite and unable to fully grasp the absolute Truth. We desire Goodness, Justice, Beauty, etc. and yet we are incapable of actualizing these ideals. Human life, in its essence, involves vain and endless striving for things that are impossible to actualize. So long as we live, we are trapped by the irresolvable contradictions between our aspirational desires and our reasonable capacities; and there is nothing that we can do to resolve and settle these contradictions. They are simply part of the human condition. Human life is ridiculous in this sense.
Traditionally, this condition has been interpreted as tragic. In tragedy, darkness and sadness color our interpretations of the world, encouraging us to view our ridiculous condition as painful and dissatisfying. And yet, argues Amir, there is another option open to us. The ridiculous incongruities of life can also be interpreted through the lens of comedy, a perspective that sees the world as a joyful and happy place where everything is just as it should be. It is possible to make the shift from a tragic to a comic perspective on life, argues Amir, because both tragic and comic perspectives represent responses to incongruity. And it is preferable to view the world through a comic lens, she argues, because of the joyfulness and happiness that such a perspective brings.
The benefits of shifting to a comic perspective, according to Amir, are powerful. Instead of feeling crushed and stressed by life, the comic perspective helps relieve the tension generated by the absurdity of our existence, allowing us to become reconciled to, and satisfied with, our condition. This aids us in transcending the unhappiness we often feel about our lives. With humor and comedy, we can embrace our ridiculous condition, become liberated from our dissatisfaction, overcome our alienation, and embrace life for what it really is: an amusing, ongoing and never ending navigation through a world filled with contradictions and incongruities.
In the first chapter of her book, Amir makes a distinction between tragedy as an art-form and “the tragic vision” of life (p. 2). As a literary art-form, tragedy is derived from a prior, more fundamental vision of life that sees the world as torn between conflicting forces. This vision has been articulated in at least three ways, according to Amir: First, there is the “absurd” vision, championed by Camus (p. 11), which identifies a conflict between the human desire for meaning and the impossibility of satisfying that desire. Second, there is the Sartrean view that characterizes human beings as caught between the contradictory demands of the self and others [“Hell is other people”] (p. 12). Finally, there is the Kantian perspective that claims while humans are naturally drawn toward addressing metaphysical questions (Does God exist? Does the universe have a beginning? Is the soul immortal?) they nevertheless lack the capacity to answer these ultimate questions using reason (p. 13). In all of these cases, there is a disconnect between what humans desire and what they can ultimately achieve. We desire meaning, but it eludes us. We desire both to be individuals and to be part of a community, but these desires contradict one another. We desire answers to our ultimate questions about the universe, but our reason is incapable of answering these most important questions.
This all sounds very depressing and frustrating, and so it is no wonder that traditionally these reflections have contributed to a dark and tragic vision of life. If you accept these ideas, then our condition is one in which the most deeply held human desires must go unfulfilled. The tragic vision is one attempt to impart a dark sort of affirmation and meaning to this condition. But there is also another very common reaction in which thinkers rebel against the contradictions implied by the human condition, treating our shared human situation as a “problem” and thus as something that needs to be solved. In rejecting the tragic interpretation of life, many thinkers instead turn toward philosophy and religion to solve the “problem” of life.
Philosophy and religion have long offered various solutions to the incongruity between human desire and those things that humans reasonably can attain in life. If the inconsistency between desire and reason could somehow be dissolved, then all of our problems would be over. According to Amir this leads to three common “solutions.” First, there is the approach advocated by systems like Buddhism, Hinduism, Epicureanism, Pyrrohnism, and by such modern philosophers as Schopenhauer and Russell. In this approach, it is suggested that we renounce our unreasonable desires in order to reconcile ourselves with the way the world actually presents itself to us in reality (pp. 49 – 52). The second approach is one advocated by various Western religions and by Nietzsche and the German Idealists. In this approach, it is reason that is renounced so that desire can be partially or wholly satisfied (pp. 52 – 54). Finally, there are various forms of mysticism – such as Taoism – that denigrate both desire and reason, encouraging humans to transcend the apparent contradiction between what we want and what we can reasonably attain (pp. 54 – 55). What all three of these approaches share in common is that they view the human condition as a problem; as something to be solved and overcome. As such, according to Amir, their goal is to dehumanize us; to make us into something other than human. Amir’s contention, thus, is that none of these “solutions” are really desirable. Instead, she argues that we should strive to become reconciled to the inherently contradictory nature of the human condition.
Humor has the potential to help us do this. Although it is rooted in the same source as tragedy, humor, according to Amir, addresses the incongruities of life from a different perspective than does the tragic vision. A sense of humor finds amusement in incongruities, interpreting them as comedic rather than tragic, and thus derives joy and happiness from what might otherwise cause suffering and pain. Humor does this by being tolerant of multiple, but conflicting, perspectives. This tolerance derives from humor’s tendency to detach us from our emotions and from our own egoistic desires. Whereas the tragic vision is preoccupied with the suffering of the ego, the humorous attitude relinquishes egoistic desires, allowing us to look at ourselves and at the world objectively in terms of its incongruous nature.
Just as artistic tragedy grows out of the tragic vision of life, so too does the worldview of Homo risibilis grow out of a humorous attitude toward life. This worldview consists of the recognition that human life is rife with incongruities, and that one of the key incongruities characterizing our world is that between tragedy and comedy. Life is both tragic and comic, and instead of trying to resolve one of these interpretations into the other, Homo risibilis instead accepts the truth of this conflict and derives joy from the ongoing repetition of its contemplation. According to Amir, this worldview offers a complete affirmation of the world, sublating all lower level incongruities into an all-encompassing meta-perspective that neither claims to offer a final understanding of reality, nor that abandons the passionate engagement with life. Homo risibilis overcomes individual alienation by recognizing and accepting the world for what it is: a place of irresolvable contradictions and incongruities that are at once tragic and comic. And in doing this, it reaches a paradoxical conclusion: “The incongruity that gives rise to the tragic and the comic will not be perceived as incongruous anymore” (p. 155). Through the perspective of Homo risibilis, the human condition is understood, paradoxically, to be congruous in its incongruity:
“The worldview I propose here amounts to a harmonious congruence with myself, others and the world, a situation that all philosophies seek to establish in their attempts to overcome alienation. [This worldview considers] conflicts as normal because they are constitutive of the complex being that I am and of the complicated relations I entertain with a world I do not fully understand” (p. 238).
Amir argues that Homo risibilis is the best alternative to the religions and philosophies that it competes with. Religions, in general, are inadequate, she claims, because they rest on something other than reason, and so are “lax” in their approach to understanding. They also, like many philosophies, rest on questionable metaphysical assumptions that must be accepted uncritically. Homo risibilis, on the other hand, is not dependent on any such beliefs, remaining open to new discoveries and skeptical of taken-for-granted assumptions about reality. In this, it is epistemologically skeptical (which Amir thinks is a benefit) and it presents an ethical picture of humankind as sharing a common condition, thus promoting compassion among humans while also encouraging joy and happiness in individuals.
Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously is thoroughly researched, and draws from a comprehensive body of both classical and contemporary scholarship in the philosophy of humor. Amir does an impressive job of synthesizing this literature and harnessing it in support of her own original argument in favor of Homo risibilis.
I do have a few criticisms, questions and comments concerning two related issues in Amir’s book. First, I will address Amir’s claim for the uniqueness of her proposal concerning Homo risibilis. Second, I will call into question Amir’s conclusions regarding what she characterizes as the necessarily affirmative psychological effects of the worldview that she proposes.
Amir compares her conception of Homo risibilis to the contemporary theories of Cohen, Critchley, and Marmysz (pp. 151 – 154), acknowledging that all of these theories present the humorous perspective as a manner of responding to the incongruities of the world while steering away from tragedy and encouraging the affirmation and embrace of reality. However, Amir insists that her perspective is even “more radical” than these other proposals insofar as it “enables a celebration of humanity, allowing the individual to accept finitude and grace his folly” (p. 152 – 153). My question in this regard has to do with the precise manner in which the proposal of Homo risibilis is “more radical” than these other theories.
It seems to me the most obvious way that Amir’s proposal might be considered more radical than other theories advocating humor’s affirmative power has to do with the ultimate meta-perspective that Homo risibilis carries us to, as described in Chapter 6 of her book. It is here that Amir suggests that a joyful state of mind emerges for the individual who reaches this epiphany. In this epiphanic state of mind, perception of the world’s incongruity seems to be dissolved when Homo risibilis comes to understand that the incongruity between tragedy and comedy is not incongruous at all, but a completely congruent aspect of a larger reality. To quote: “The incongruity that gives rise to the tragic and the comic will not be perceived as incongruous anymore” (p. 155). In the end, it sounds as if Amir is gesturing toward a perspective in which there is a monistic sublation of the world’s contradictions in the thought of Homo risibilis. In other words, despite its contradictory and incongruent appearance, the world as a whole is not contradictory or incongruent with itself. It is a single, “harmonious” whole that is more than the sum total of the parts.
Now, if this is what Amir is claiming, then it seems to me that she may be very close to repeating a strategy that she criticizes in many other philosophies and religions. If incongruity is not a “problem” in the first place, then why does Homo risibilis feel a need to resolve the incongruity between the tragic and comedic elements of life into a “higher level” harmonious congurity at all? Recall that Amir suggests (in Chapter 2) that there are three “solutions” commonly offered to dissolve the troubling incongruities of the human condition: 1. Deny desire; 2. Deny reason; 3. Offer a way beyond both desire and reason. All of these “solutions” view the human condition as a “problem,” and are focused on eradicating the incongruities characterizing human existence in order to solve this problem. According to Amir, the denial of desire is common to many Eastern religions (like Buddhism), while the denial of reason is common to Western religions (like Christianity) and the transcendence of both desire and reason is common to mystical philosophies/religions (like Taoism).
Amir herself claims that humor helps us to be more “objective” and to distance ourselves from emotion. In this way, she characterizes humor as allied with reason (p. 180). So, in advocating an attitude of humor toward our condition, is she leaning in direction number 1: the denial of desire? Is Homo risibilis just another way of talking about a non-theistic religion of the sort that we find in Buddhism? In Buddhism, the goal is to accept the world as it is, independent of how we desire it to be. This is the point of nirvana, which to me sounds suspiciously similar to Amir’s suggestion that Homo risibilis allows the “individual to accept finitude” exorcising “hubris and egotism” (p. 153). It also sounds quite similar to non-dual Hinduism, in which the dichotomies of the world are transcended and all is understood to be a manifestation of one underlying and completely congruent, self-sufficient reality. In coming to understand tragedy and comedy to be completely congruent with one another, doesn’t the perspective of Homo risibilis execute a similar transcendence?
And this raises a further question for me. If humor is a reaction to incongruity, then once one attains the perspective of Homo risibilis, thus coming to understand the world as completely congruent in its incongruity, how can humor survive? Does Homo risibilis become a humorless perspective, something like a sublime form of mysticism?
The second issue that I’d like to address is Amir’s claim that the transition from a tragic to a comic perspective in Homo risibilis is necessarily accompanied by happiness, joy, and a compassionate, ethical attitude toward others. My thoughts on this issue started to materialize as I was watching the recent Academy Award winning film Joker. This film dramatizes precisely the perspectival transition that Amir describes in her book, with a central protagonist who inhabits a world of tragic pain and suffering but who then switches his perspective in order to view the absurdities of his world through the lens of comedy. The result, however, is not joy, happiness, or compassion, but rather psychosis, cynicism and brutality. The Joker becomes someone who treats the human condition as one big, sick joke. With the eradication of his own ego, he no longer cares if he lives, dies, or suffers. And he treats others with the same sort of detached cruelty that he treats himself.
Now, Joker is just a movie, but it does illustrate something that seems like a distinct possibility in the real world. Isn’t it possible that with the adoption of a comic perspective we might become so insensitive to the absurdity of the world that we could become less joyful, happy, and compassionate and instead become more insensitive, cruel, and cynical? Isn’t there a cruelty to laughter, humor, and comedy that is underestimated by Amir? After all, one of the oldest ways of explaining the power of humor and comedy, going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, is in terms of superiority and dominance. According to this view, when we laugh at someone, we raise ourselves above the object of laughter, belittling and denigrating the target. We laugh down at people, making ourselves feel powerful at the expense of others. This suggests just the opposite of a compassionate stance in the humorist; one that potentially promotes a callous attitude toward the suffering of others. Is it possible that Homo risibilis could turn out to be more cruel than kind?
Overall, I find myself agreeing with most of what Amir argues in her book. I agree with her premise that the human condition is not a problem to be “solved” and that our reactions to life’s incongruities can take the forms of tragedy or comedy. I also agree that there are a number of affirmative aspects to the humorous, over the tragic, attitude toward life. However, I question whether it is desirable (or even possible) to adopt a final, meta-perspective that successfully and definitively synthesizes the comic and the tragic views of life.
Nonetheless, as with any worthwhile work of philosophy, it is the questions Lydia Amir’s book raises, rather than the answers that she provides, which make her efforts so interesting. The concept of Homo risibilis is one that I will continue to turn over in my mind for quite some time, and I look forward to further discussion of its precise contours, its meaning, it implications, as well as the methods by which it might be realized in thought.
Chapter 7: 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 to take care of the soul, one must reflect upon and interrogate one’s self in order finally 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’, (Plato 1997a: 38a) and so he became dedicated to questioning himself and all of those around him in 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 instigate 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 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 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?
Civilization and Its Discontents
The question presented by Fight Club was also previously posed by Sigmund Freud in his book Civilization and Its Discontents, a work that could have served as a philosophical blueprint for Fight Club. According to Freud, civilization is a development that keeps in check the natural, primal urge toward aggression that lies buried in every individual human consciousness. Civilization helps to sublimate our most animalistic desires and inclinations, directing them toward useful and socially acceptable ends. It also produces in us a superego that triggers feelings of guilt when we feel inclined to transgress against the legal and moral rules that function to keep society running efficiently. All of this is certainly a benefit for collective living, but the psychological cost of this sublimation is a vague and chronic malaise that hangs over all societies; a discontent stemming from the repression we suffer in order to get along with one another. ‘Civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security’, writes Freud (Freud 1961: 62). In this sense, he claims, we are neurotic creatures who have surrendered our own deepest desires in exchange for communal safety.
If our primal drive toward aggression was not so strong, the tradeoff might be well worth the reward. However, Freud holds that the benefits of social living do not always pay back the costs of repression. While our safety gives us comfort and leisure, this situation also allows us the luxury to linger in reflection on the meaning of our lives, and as we do so, we inevitably ruminate on what it is that is missing, why we feel unfulfilled and why nothing that we do seems to satisfy our deepest longings. The reason, of course, is because the goals we pursue as civilised human beings always miss the mark. They are stand-ins and replacements for what it is that we, in the dark night of our unconscious minds, really want. And so long as we struggle and strive toward superficial substitutes for our true urges, we are doomed to neurosis and dissatisfaction; disorders that threaten the stability of the very civilization that produced these ailments in the first place. It is because of this contradiction, internal to all civilizations, that ‘civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration’ (Freud 1961: 59). Since our most powerful wishes never gain direct expression, they inevitably become dammed up, over time building to dangerous proportions until the opportunity arises to grant them relief. And any excuse will do. With the slightest provocation, individuals will leap at the opportunity to tear one another apart in order to act out their aggressive desires and to kick down the walls of social order in search of liberation.
This is precisely the situation of the narrator (Edward Norton) in Fight Club. He is a 30-something white-collar professional, obsessed with the accouterments of middle-class success. This nameless character is preoccupied with buying designer clothes, state-of-the-art appliances, gourmet condiments and decorating his condo with furniture purchased over the phone from IKEA. In an early scene from the film – contemptibly hilarious in its evocation of consumerist superficiality – the camera pans around his living space while the catalogue descriptions and prices of his domestic belongings appear superimposed over his collection of things. All the while he wonders, in voiceover, ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?’ Clearly he is living a lie, mistaking materialist consumption for ‘knowing thyself’. His is a civilised man’s version of a cave; both in the sense of his dwelling, but also in the sense that his lifestyle is a prison. His is a world of illusion, insulating him from true human needs. As in Plato’s allegory, the main character in Fight Club is chained by his preoccupation with materialism, which distracts him from confronting the truth of who he really is.
While the work of ancient cave men was to hunt for and gather the necessities of life, facing physical danger and potential death as they dragged their hard won earnings into their dwellings by their own physical efforts, the narrator of Fight Club buys his things with money earned at a job that deals wholly with abstraction. He is an actuary for a major car company, tasked with calculating the economic costs and benefits of either paying out claims or actually fixing defects in the vehicles that have led to deadly accidents. Life and death are nothing but numbers to him, and his livelihood is only possible in a world where humans are isolated from the primal realities of violence. His is an artificial world built out of intangible social and economic arrangements that enable him to buy superfluous goods, valuable not for survival or for their intrinsic worth, but for what they symbolise. He desires fashionable designer clothes, trendy furniture, and sleek appliances because these are the sorts of things that show the world he is a social success. And yet, the more that he buys, and the closer he thinks he finally is to completing his wardrobe, or the decoration of his condo, the emptier he feels. None of these things – his clothes, his furniture, his condo – are really the point, since as Freud suggests, they are all stand-ins for something else that civilization denies its members. His materialist entanglement is a distraction that keeps him from thinking too deeply about who he really is. As he himself states, ‘Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you’ (Palahniuk 1996: 34).
The narrator’s malaise manifests in insomnia. Unable to sleep, the events in his world, ironically, start to blur together like a waking dream, and as Freud observed, it is in dreams that the mind’s internal censor drops its guard, allowing our real obsessions and concerns to emerge from the unconscious. At the suggestion of his doctor, the main character starts attending various support groups for people with deadly illnesses in order to ‘see what real suffering is’. Significantly, it is in a meeting for survivors of testicular cancer that he experiences his first real catharsis. Here he finds other men who have literally been castrated, just as he has symbolically been castrated by society. In particular, it is in the arms of Bob (Meatloaf), an ex-bodybuilder whose steroid use led to cancer, that the narrator is able to cry and lose all inhibitions, finally experiencing a release that allows him to express his deepest feelings and thus finally overcome his insomnia and sleep soundly once again.
Bob is a perfectly overdetermined dream symbol for the modern, civilised man. As a bodybuilder, he represents the sort of artificial masculine aesthetic that can only be developed in circumstances divorced from nature. The use of steroids, which helped him develop his artificial physique, calls to mind the sorts of poisonous and unnecessary extravagances modern humans are encouraged to consume in order to become more socially and professionally attractive and successful. These extravagances – like processed foods, liquor, tobacco and various chemical additives – while beneficial to the economic well being of society as a whole, are nonetheless destructive to individual health. In the case of Bob, his quest for masculine perfection ironically leads to feminization: he loses his testicles and grows breasts that are the result of his body’s natural attempt to balance his hormone levels. This seems to be the reason why the narrator finds what he really needs in the arms of Bob. Bob is a concretization of everything that modern civilisation has done to him. It has taken away his ‘balls’ and made him soft, woman-like. Indeed, throughout Fight Club, the theme of castration recurs often: in the testicular cancer support group, in a scene where a group of men attack the police chief, and toward the end of the story when the narrator himself is attacked by a group of his own followers. The theme of castration anxiety is clearly a preoccupation here, emphasizing civilised man’s fear of lost virility.
While Bob helps the narrator finally to confront and understand his social predicament, it is the figure of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) who offers a solution to this predicament. First breaking into the narrator’s awareness in brief, dream-like flashes that are at first almost imperceptible, Tyler Durden represents everything the narrator is not. Tyler owns nothing, he has no career, he is uninhibited, and he engages in acts of vandalism and mischief aimed against mainstream society. As it turns out, Tyler Durden really just is a manifestation of the narrator’s own unconscious drives; a buried urge toward rebellion that he doesn’t recognise as part of himself. Tyler represents the deep, primal and aggressive part of the narrator that has been repressed by civilisation, but which starts to break through as his mental defenses become more and more worn down by insomnia and as he starts to understand the real conditions of his own oppression. It is through Tyler that the narrator tries to reclaim his masculinity. And yet, as Freud warns, the cost of this reclamation will imply the dismantling of civilisation’s comfort and safety. The narrator will have to decide if this cost is worth the benefit.
In Fight Club, soap appears as the quintessential symbol of civilisation. As Tyler Durden explains to the narrator, soap was first discovered in ancient times when women, doing their washing in a river, found that clothes got cleaner at a particular spot downstream from where human sacrifices were performed. As it turns out, the fat from the sacrifices seeped though the ashes left over from the sacrificial fires, mixing with lye and creating a basic detergent. Civilised cleanliness, thus, has its roots in the rot and filth connected with death. But the modern process of making soap helps us to forget this, as the product itself bears so little resemblance to its source. Packaged in nice, neat little cakes, today’s soap is associated with health, purity and hygiene rather than with death, decay and waste. Civilisation, like soap, has an ugly, unpleasant and hidden basis. Embracing this irony, Tyler manufactures expensive, artisanal soaps out of human fat that he steals from liposuction clinics. In stealing this waste, he literally harvests the excess fat made possible by civilised life and transforms it into a product craved by the very people who cast it off in the first place. ‘It was beautiful. We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them’. This is what civilisation is all about: forgetting the awful origins of our cultivated ways of life while unconsciously craving the reclamation of the very things that we have cast away.
Tyler and the narrator invent their own support group for men called ‘Fight Club’. This is a sort of underground boxing club, meeting in parking lots and basements, where participants beat one another with their bare fists rather than crying and talking with one another. The idea is spawned by an intuitive realization that the problem with civilisation lies in the repression of raw, primitive aggression. By getting to the source of the modern male’s malaise, and by offering an outlet for bottled up fury, the participants discover real release and comfort. This is not an activity that offers any mainstream benefits, however. In fact, it actually threatens the social and career standing of participants, leaving them with visible wounds, injuries and black eyes. Polite society would not approve, and so for this reason it is something that cannot be shared with more civilised neighbors, friends or families of the members. ‘The first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club!’ This is something private and intimate that is only to be shared among the members. Just as it would be impolite to discuss one’s sex life in public, so too is it taboo to discuss Fight Club. The release enjoyed in this activity is too primal and raw to be tolerated in good-mannered company.
The problem is that once unleashed, the aggressive drive pursues a logic of its own, unfolding in ways that become terrifying. Unbeknownst to the narrator’s conscious mind, fight clubs begin springing up all over the country and a bigger agenda starts to take shape. ‘Project Mayhem’ is a terrorist organization formed out of the various cells of Fight Club, first carrying out prankish acts of vandalism, but then escalating to carry out bombings of buildings that house centers of economic activity. The movement’s plan is that once the banks and credit card companies are destroyed, civilisation will crumble and human beings will once again live in a state of nature. It is then that the aggressive urge will no longer be repressed, and a new age of individual freedom and fulfillment will be ushered into existence.
At this point the narrator realises Tyler Durden is not a separate person at all, but an aspect of his own personality spinning out of control. Now that it has been allowed expression, and the sensation of full, primal catharsis has been felt, this urge toward destruction proves impossible to stop. With the constraints of society falling away, no safety net remains and the narrator comes to understand the real implications of absolute individual freedom: ‘the complete and right-away destruction of civilization’ (Palahniuk 1996: 116). When the aggressive drive is unleashed and becomes it’s own end, rather than being harnessed for the accomplishment of other ends, there remains no welled up energy that can be sublimated into art or literature, into industry or technology, governments or economies. All that remains is an honest but ferocious fury of violent activity seeking instant purgation. Anything lasting that threatens to dam up this passion will be swept away in a rising tide that only gains increasing momentum as it flows forward with greater and greater force. Personal liberation is thus accompanied by a sense of abject terror, and as the narrator is swept up by uncanny forces he can no longer control, he panics, longing to go back to his old, repressed identity. He wants to erase Tyler Durden from existence. But this, of course, entails killing a part of himself.
Eros and Thanatos
In Fight Club, the narrator’s aggression finds its final and most destructive manifestation in the activities of Project Mayhem. This revolutionary group emerges from his repressed desire to dismantle civilisation and thus to liberate humans from the chains of socialised oppression. Project Mayhem, however, undergoes an ironic evolution over the course of the story, beginning with the plan to liberate individuals, but then morphing into a sort of fascist-styled organization in which members (including its creator) become cogs in the service of a new ideology. The followers don’t even have names – except in death, when, having given up their own personal existence for the cause, they regain an identity as martyrs. As the narrator’s aggressive drive becomes refined, turning away from sublimation and rushing toward an increasingly aggressive attack on mainstream social and institutional structures, a new sort of tyranny begins to emerge. This new tyranny, though directed toward the destruction of civilisation, is much like the old form, as it also harnesses individual fury, channeling it into a collective project. The success of Project Mayhem is, thus, also its failure, as it oppresses its membership in the name of absolute liberation. The utopia that the narrator and Tyler Durden long for, it seems, can never be accomplished so long as human beings feel the need to bond with one another and sacrifice their own personal gratification for collective ends.
The counterbalance to Project Mayhem’s destructive plan is the narrator’s relationship with Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). When the narrator first meets Marla, he resents her. She frequents some of the same support groups that he also attends, but he knows she is a ‘faker’. It is very obvious that, as a woman, she does not suffer from testicular cancer; or from brain parasites, or TB for that matter. It is the fact that she is so clearly faking these conditions that he feels exposed as a faker as well. In her gaze he sees himself reflected, and so he is unable to cry in her presence; his own self-consciousness intruding upon his ability to express deep feelings. And yet, despite his anger toward Marla, he is also attracted to her. The aspect of his personality that manifests as Tyler Durden actively pursues Marla, having sex with her and allowing her to stay at his house. In one sense, Marla offers a primal outlet for Tyler’s aggressive sexual impulses. However, in another sense the narrator is repulsed by her because she is a moderating influence on his own behavior, channeling his aggression into sexual activity and feelings of self-consciousness, thus threatening to domesticate him once again. The narrator complains at points in the story that he is part of a generation raised by women, and that this feminizing influence is what has led to his alienation from his own aggressive masculinity. His malaise, as symbolised by Bob, has to do with castration anxiety, and Marla represents precisely this threatening force. For this reason, the narrator is jealous of Tyler’s relationship with Marla; not because his conscious self is sexually attracted to Marla, but because his conscious self is attracted to Tyler, the conduit for his repressed aggression. Any relationship with Marla is a distraction from the purity of his own rage, and thus she threatens the goals of Project Mayhem as well as his search for authenticity. At the end of the book, it is Marla and members of the various support groups who appear to banish Tyler Durden. In the film, it is Marla alone who remains with the narrator. In both cases, it is the feminizing influence of this woman that pulls the main character back from unbounded fury and violence. He escapes Tyler Durden by embracing Marla Singer.
Marla is the force of Eros, which is a drive toward civilisation and connection with others. Tyler Durden and Project Mayhem are the forces of Thanatos, which is a drive toward destruction and disintegration (Freud 1961: 69). While the narrator is caught between these forces, he is vital and alive. Eros holds him back from complete immersion in the abyss of violence, while Thanatos keeps him from utter capitulation to domesticity. Torn in a struggle between these forces he creates, he acts, and he engages in projects. From the perspective of either extreme, it might seem as if the narrator is acting as a double agent, but the cost of abandoning one or the other of these influences would be the collapse of creative vitality. Take away Eros and he is left with pure mayhem. Take away Thanatos and he is left with pure stasis. It is only by existing in-between these forces that something creative happens.
In the book, bombs planted by Project Mayhem fail to detonate, suggesting that the explosive aggression bottled up in the narrator’s consciousness remains pent up and unexpressed at the conclusion of the narrative. Here the story ends in frustration, and thus the narrator’s revolutionary anger, apparently, continues to lurk dangerously beneath the surface, waiting for the opportunity again to break free and tear down the barriers of oppression. This is why, in the book, he finally ends up in an insane asylum. By the story’s conclusion he is not fit for life among others. He still imagines that his followers continue the fight, and that they look forward to getting him back. Nothing has really been resolved, nothing has changed; and while civilisation wins the first round and the narrator is locked away in an institution where he continues to suffer the loss of personal freedom, the potential for future revolt remains.
In the film, on the other hand, the bombs do detonate; to the tune of the Pixies’ song ‘Where is my mind?’ The main character and Marla embrace against a backdrop of falling buildings, and the narrator’s voice expresses a kind of hopefulness missing from the tone of the novel. In the conclusion to the film, the explosions are a cathartic release, purging the narrator’s aggression and making him ready once again to become safely integrated into polite society. He has been made safe by the film’s end, getting rid of his suppressed aggression. He now longs to flee back to a life of domestic comfort and civilised security.
The book and film versions of Fight Club pursue contradictory solutions to the problem of repression. In the book, the revolutionary urge remains because society wins. In the movie, the revolutionary urge is dissipated because the individual has won. But could there be a third option between passively following the logic of unleashed aggression to its end, on the one hand, and the complete repression of primal human fury, on the other? Is there a middle ground between absolute capitulation and absolute revolt? Might it not be desirable to embrace the incongruity existing between our beastly and civilised selves while never fully giving in to either extreme? Taking this middle path might be viewed by purists as a kind of ‘cop out’, as a passive acceptance of nihilism, but it would have the advantage of catering to both sides of what seems like a real, ongoing contradiction involved in human life: the contradiction that Freud refers to as ‘the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction’ (Freud 1961: 69). Perhaps it is best that neither instinct ever fully win, but that human beings continue life in a self-alienated, neurotic but productive state of ongoing anxiety. Perhaps nihilism is our natural condition.
Freud concludes his book Civilization and Its Discontents by proclaiming that he will remain impartial as to the ‘value of human civilization’ (Freud 1996: 91). He does, however suggest that like individual human beings, cultures can become sick, and that it might be worthwhile, one day, for someone to construct a ‘pathology of cultural communities’ (Freud 1996: 91). This is a task that Freud must have been aware had already been undertaken by thinkers he himself admitted as influences, such as Plato. In Plato’s Republic, the question of cultural imbalance is a central concern, but unlike Freud, he quite clearly offers his own evaluations concerning the healthiest and the most sickly ways that civilisations can be organised rather than simply remaining ‘impartial’. It is interesting that in Republic we find diagnoses of sick civilisations that very much describe the dynamics depicted in Fight Club. We also find a plan that gestures toward the possible cure for these pathologies.
Plato diagnoses at least four sorts of sick civilisations. Drawing, as Freud does, upon an assumption that communities mirror the inner dynamics of the individuals that make up their populations, Plato is very critical of societies that are organised democratically. In this case, it is the lowliest appetites and desires that drive the community, creating a situation largely indiscernible from mob rule. Just as an undisciplined individual seeks immediate gratification, chasing pleasures indiscriminately with no regard for the greater Good, so too in a democracy we find policies, rules and institutions constructed on the basis of majority opinion. In the language of Freud, it is in this sort of community that the ‘id’ instincts run free, guided by the pleasure principle. Nothing is intrinsically valuable independent of the whims and desires of the crowd, and since the crowd, according to Plato, is largely uneducated and vicious, democracies also tend to value that which is superficial, fleeting and easy. This is one of the sickest forms of culture according to Plato, exhibiting the kind of collective foolishness that derives from a lack of discipline and wise leadership. If everyone is a leader, then no one is a leader and society becomes crippled, being pulled this way and that by base aggressions and emotions.
Plato’s description of democracy casts it as among the worst, and sickest, forms of cultural community – very close to a bad kind of anarchy, or mob rule – precisely because it is driven by the worst, and sickest, individuals within society: those with unbalanced souls, those who are led by their appetites, those who are the most unrepressed; the ‘drones’ (Plato 1997b: 559c). While such individuals feel that they are free when they are doing what they really want, their freedom actually is a form of slavery. They are enslaved by their beastly natures, and so doomed to lives of unreflective servitude to desire. The problem with this is that while such servitude may bring a kind of vulgar happiness, it also undermines the potential for spiritual and creative growth. If one always acts on impulse, never deferring gratification, never repressing libidinal urges, then one never has the opportunity to develop the ability to experience and appreciate the sorts of ‘higher’ pleasures associated with self-discipline and philosophical contemplation. And this is what is truly ‘sick’ about a democratic society according to Plato. In its toleration of everyone’s desires, it drags down the collective community, catering to the lowest common denominator. The world longed for by the narrator of Fight Club appears to be precisely this kind of world, and (at least in the film version) it is not until the consequences of this way of life become apparent to him that he recoils from it, the same way that Plato recoiled, fearing the destructive implications of appetite and aggression set free. While Plato was horrified to witness the appetites and passions of his fellow Athenians become unleashed to persecute and kill his own beloved teacher Socrates, in Fight Club the main character, likewise, becomes horrified by his own eagerness to be swept up by passions and feelings that threaten the destruction of civilisation itself.
Freud certainly was aware of Plato’s diagnosis of the cultural sickness of democracy. And if he was, then he must have been aware that Plato also diagnosed another form of cultural pathology that he termed ‘timocracy’, or military rule. While not as dire, this form of collective sickness also results from an imbalance. Whereas in democracy it is the appetites that rule, in a timocracy it is the ‘spirited’ people who dominate. Emerging from the decay of the best form of government – the aristocracy – a timocracy develops when honour, rather than wisdom, becomes the governing ideal. In the soul, as in the community, when the spirit dominates over the appetites, discipline results. Soldiers, for instance, harness their spirited motivation to conquer fear and lack of comfort in service of ordered regimentation. While the appetites may rebel against the imposition of this kind of discipline, since it hinders their free expression and immediate gratification, the result for the individual – as well as the collective – is the emergence of long lasting structure in opposition to fleeting impermanence. For these reasons, Plato believed that a timocracy, while still pathological, is not as corrupt as a democracy.
In Fight Club, the development of Project Mayhem offers a parallel to Plato’s diagnosis of timocratic sickness. Project Mayhem emerges almost automatically out of the mob-like anarchy that precedes it, as if those experiencing the cathartic release gained through participation in Fight Club are instinctually drawn to the need for leadership and order once their appetites have been appeased. As in fascism, Project Mayhem develops around a charismatic leader who acts as the ‘head’ of the collective body of followers, offering guidance, direction, and a channel for their combined aggression. There are rules and structure that delay the followers’ gratification. They live in barracks. They have chores and duties. They must obey orders unquestioningly. In all of this they find a kind of happiness not discovered through simple, appetitive gratification. Plato, indeed, comments that those attracted to this form of life often come out of families in which mothers denigrate the manhood of fathers, thus influencing their sons to become obsessed with honour and victory (Plato 1997b: 549d–e). Like in Fight Club, sons raised under these circumstances fear their own feminization. They harbour, in Freud’s terminology, castration anxiety, and so compensate by seeking ways to demonstrate their toughness and manliness.
According to Plato, timocracy itself eventually deteriorates into oligarchy, where money rather than honor becomes the ruling principle. In Fight Club, this devolution describes the initial state of existence that the narrator finds himself living in at the start of the narrative; a state in which none of his real desires are adequately catered to because he is so focused on material wealth. This is, indeed, the state of being that precipitates his nihilistic discontent and resulting rebellion against the constraints of society. It might also be speculated that this is the state that he falls back into after the events depicted in the movie when the narrator and Marla presumably settle down into domestic bliss. By suggesting this at its conclusion, the film’s message seems to be that the only other option to the complete liberation of desire (and its dangers) is to lapse back into domesticity and firm censorship of aggression in the individual. The only cure for unleashed aggression, the film seems to say, is to crush it and once again to endure the malaise of sublimated yearning.
According to Plato, the relationship between the various types of society exist on a continuum, with one emerging out of the other. An aristocracy, which he deems the best form of government, devolves into a timocracy, then into an oligarchy, a democracy, and finally into the worst form of social organization: a tyranny. Tyranny is not really a legitimate form of government at all, according to Plato, but the utter collapse of legitimate government altogether, resulting in the enslavement of everyone, including the tyrant himself. ‘A real tyrant is really a slave’ (Plato 1997b: 579e). This is because in the tyrant, desire and passion are completely unchained from all social constraint, and in this ‘the soul adopts madness as its body-guard and becomes frenzied’ (Plato 1997b: 573b). In the concluding sections of the book Fight Club, as the narrator descends into utter insanity, we see a mirror of Plato’s concern that the complete liberation of repressed desire results in individual ‘madness’ and the destruction of society. For Plato, without civilisation humankind is doomed to maladjustment.
But there is an important difference between Plato and Freud on the subject of humankind’s relationship to civilisation. While Plato suggests that there is a healthy form of social organization in aristocracy, Freud seems to suggest that all civilisations are, to one degree or another, ‘sick’. The reason for this radically different position stems from a fundamental difference in their assumptions about human nature. According to Plato, the faculty of reason is the highest of human capacities, not tied to the body, and capable of being detached from the lower, passionate aspects of the soul. In the best form of government – the aristocracy – it is the dispassionate, fully rational ‘philosopher kings’ who lead, guided by the ideal of Justice, and seeing to it that society is organised in such a manner that all people occupy appropriate, useful and fulfilling roles. According to Freud, on the other hand, reason is something not detachable from the lower passions, but necessarily rooted in the irrational drives of Eros and Thanatos. There is no way, thus, fully to detach ourselves from the lower appetites, as all of us – even those who are the wisest – are rooted in the world by our bodies. If Plato is correct, then there is hope for us, and through philosophy we may overcome our beastly nature. However, if Freud is correct, then the internal struggles of the psyche ultimately have no solution. If an ongoing conflict between the incongruous forces of Eros and Thanatos is part of our basic psychological constitution, then it is a fundamental mistake to think that this state of being is something that can be dissolved, either individually – through absolute rebellion – or collectively – through absolute submission to civilisation.
Fight Club is more influenced by the Freudian description of human nature than it is by the Platonic one. This story assumes that humans are fundamentally beastly, and that if our authentic, primal nature is exposed, then a logic will be initiated that unleashes humanity’s repressed libidinal energies, which in turn will threaten to topple polite society with all of its safety, comfort and contentment. On the other hand, as long as the buried core of our nature remains covered over, our lives will continue to be inauthentic and ignorant of the Truth.
It is interesting that the book and movie versions of Fight Club conclude with seemingly different answers to the question concerning which one of these options is more desirable. In the book, the narrator ends up in an insane asylum, musing about how he doesn’t want to go back to the world he left behind. Imagining that Project Mayhem goes on without him, he seems certain that it will eventually succeed in its revolutionary goal to ‘break up civilization so we can make something better out of the world’ (Palahniuk 1996: 199). Here, Chuck Palahniuk’s original anti-establishment sentiment dominates. In Jim Uhls’ screenplay version, on the other hand, a more conservative note is sounded. While buildings are destroyed, and while the main character shoots himself in the mouth, he is, nonetheless, finally reunited with his girlfriend, Marla, whom he reassures everything will be OK. All talk of revolution and the destruction of civilisation comes to an end, and the narrator and his girlfriend, it seems, will reunite, somehow building a regular relationship together. ‘You met me at a very strange time in my life’, he tells Marla in the film’s concluding scene, suggesting that things will now be different – more normal – for the two of them.
I think one of the dangers involved in characterizing the conditions of human self-alienation and nihilistic separation as sicknesses or diseases is that such thinking naturally encourages us to demand a cure. As we see in Fight Club, such ‘cures’ are potentially worse than the conditions they purport to correct. If the choice is between self-alienation, on the one hand, and either fascism or anarchic chaos, on the other, then perhaps we should choose self-alienation. Perhaps the utopian ideal of a perfect society, made up of individuals free from neurosis, conflict and self-alienation, is the real disease. Maybe a bit of expression tempered by a bit of repression is the best that we can hope for. Perhaps this intermediate state of hovering in the void between self-knowledge and self-deception is the one most appropriate to us.
Perhaps, in the end, it is best to avoid really ‘knowing thyself’.
An affordable, paperback edition of Cinematic Nihilism is now available from Edinburgh University Press.
Seen in San Francisco is a website featuring photos taken in San Francisco. One page highlights Bound Together Bookstore; and in particular three books that everyone should read:
Daniel O’Brien of Glasgow University has published a perceptive and positive review of my book Cinematic Nihilism in the journal Film-Philosophy:
“Cinematic Nihilism is essential reading for film-philosophy scholars or anyone wishing to explore how a nihilistic approach creates positive potential for activity and achievement.”
The full review appears in the latest issue (Volume 23, issue 1) of Film-Philosophy, available online.