The Madness Continues: Part 2

I recently chatted with Brendon Lemon on his podcast, The Madness Continues. We talked about the pandemic, humor, nihilism, philosophy, and other topics.

 

What If Truth Was A Woman?

I’m currently working on an essay for a forthcoming collection on nihilism and violence. Here’s the abstract:

Lars von Trier has claimed that Antichrist is his most personal and important film. Made as he was emerging from a period of severe depression, he says it approximates a pure “scream” that expresses his feelings of anxiety, despair, and rage. Because of its extremity, numerous critics have condemned Antichrist as indecent, pornographic, and misogynistic.

But there is something more than indecency or self-indulgence at work in von Trier’s Antichrist. While the explicit violence and brutality in the film may be expressive of the director’s own emotional struggles, the significance of this imagery transcends his personal psychology, casting light on wider issues concerning the nature of human suffering and spiritual transformation. The violence in Antichrist is nihilistic in character; but it is nihilistic in an active sense, evoking the “violent force of destruction” that Nietzsche claimed precedes and opens the way for a transvaluation of values.

Von Trier confesses that the title of his film, Antichrist, was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s book of the same name; a book that von Trier claims to have kept on his bed stand ever since he was twelve years old. This biographical detail is an insight into how intimately the director has been influenced and affected by Nietzsche’s thought. To understand von Trier’s Antichrist, then, it helps first to understand Nietzsche’s Antichrist. The consonance between these two works sheds a great deal of light not just on the meaning of the violence in von Trier’s film, but on the world-shattering nature of nihilistic violence in general.

Shelter in Place

Oh, I know it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.

— The Plague, by Albert Camus

The shelter in place order has been active for about a month now here in California, and the reactions people are exhibiting in response to enforced isolation are dramatic. On the one hand, there are those who enthusiastically have embraced the stay at home order as if it is a new religion. In addition to praising the slower pace of life, they highlight the reduced rates of crime, the lower number of traffic fatalities, and the immense savings to the state that have resulted – apparently about a billion dollars for California so far. From this perspective, flattening the curve of the pandemic has been an unexpected reminder of a simpler, more relaxed way of life; one that it would, perhaps, be best to continue, to one degree or another, after the COVID-19 threat wanes.

On the other hand, there are those who want things quickly to “get back to normal.” They emphasize that there are too many people who have lost their jobs and joined the rolls of the unemployed. There are the business owners who have had to close their doors and are uncertain whether they will ever open up again. Worshipers are unable to pray together in their churches. Additionally there is the restlessness and anxiety of those who can’t stand to be confined to their homes. The boredom, the drinking, and an increased incidence of domestic violence all speak to the negative, destructive side of social isolation, which some people see as worse than the viral threat that provoked these measures in the first place. As a result, across the country, protestors have gathered to resist the stay at home order, claiming that not only has it put their livelihoods at risk, but it has also violated their Constitutional and religious rights.

I have friends who express both attitudes. Some are restless, impatient and angry about having their lives interrupted by the pandemic. They are resentful of the government for restricting their movements and telling them where they can and can’t go. Others have settled into a new, more relaxed daily routine that has, ironically, reduced their usual feelings of darkness and depression. With the pressures of work and social interactions diminished or eliminated, their lives have become much simplified and calmer.

I understand and sympathize with both groups. Though my own job seems relatively secure, I’ve been more anxious than ever about what would happen if I did get laid off and couldn’t pay my bills. My life would be altered drastically. But to a certain extent, it already has been. Though I’ve learned to use video conferencing to meet online with my philosophy students, it’s a poor replacement for our face-to-face conversations in class, which I miss. It feels like a big, important part of my life has been taken away, and I long, anxiously, for the day when it is restored. Additionally, while it might seem trivial, I’m sad that my band has been forced to cancel practices and postpone gigs. I miss the camaraderie found in playing music. I miss hiking with my friends. I miss family gatherings. I miss parties.

And yet I’ve also come to appreciate the slower, more unhurried pace of daily life under the stay at home order. I’ve been forced to abandon my normal, restless compulsion to go to the gym, run errands, and constantly be busy. Instead I’ve rediscovered the relaxation of just sitting on the deck with my wife my dog and my cat, snoozing and reading. I’ve become reacquainted with my neighborhood and neighbors now that I go running outside rather than on a treadmill indoors. I have more time to write and to just think.

So, I’m finding the pandemic is having ambiguous effects on my life; some bad and some good. And because of this, I don’t believe that things can, or should, go back exactly to the way they were before the pandemic. Life before the pandemic was never “normal” in the first place.

Before the shelter in place order, “normal” people were expected to spend most their days fixated on external concerns; on work, on entertainment, on errands, on the usual daily routines of conventional life. After the shut down of the economy, when many of the daily routines that encourage people to remain externally preoccupied collapsed, many of us have turned inward, asking ourselves difficult and uncomfortable questions about what is really important and what life is really all about. Instead of running here and there thoughtlessly taking care of business, forced isolation has encouraged some of us to engage in greater degrees of self-reflection and self-examination. And while many people have resisted this inward turn – through drinking too much, using drugs, or watching too much TV – I find myself increasingly welcoming the opportunity to do something that too often got neglected in my pre-pandemic life. The altered pace of the last month has reminded me that quiet, contemplative, non-productive thought is its own reward.

While philosophy has been the center of my private and professional life for a long time, the “normal” world discourages the pursuit of philosophy for its own sake. There is always the expectation that it should yield some tangible, useful result in order to be valuable: a publication, a presentation, a job, an answer. The shake up of my old routine has reminded me that this is a lie, that philosophical reflection is intrinsically valuable, and that a life without it is hollow. As Socrates said at his trial, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It sometimes takes a crisis to remind us of this simple truth.

Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist

Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait, by Andrew Rankin. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2018).

The front cover of Andrew Rankin’s Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist, condenses the book’s central thesis into a single image. At the top of the cover is a photograph of Yukio Mishma (taken from the book Ordeal by Roses) smelling a flower. Beneath this is a fainter, inverted version of the same picture, suggesting a reflection of the first. It is as if Mishima is gazing into a pool of water, like the mythic figure Narcissus, relishing his own reflected appearance. The implication is that Mishima, like Narcissus, was self-obsessed.

Rankin’s book effectively argues that Mishima’s self-obsession was expressed through his life-long aspiration toward a “solid identity” (p. 8). This ultimately culminated in his anachronistic identification with the samurai tradition; an identification that both embodied a by-gone era and that allowed for the final, symbolic purgation of that era when, in 1970, Mishima committed suicide by seppuku. According to Rankin, Mishima was not born Mishima; he had to become Yukio Mishima through a lifetime of self-obsessed reflection and effort (something that I have also argued in Chapter Nine of my book Cinematic Nihilism, “Yukio Mishima and the Return to the Body”). This process began with a talented and intellectually brilliant Japanese boy named Hiraoka Kimitake who, in living through World War II and in experiencing the defeat and humiliation of his country by the West, sought to understand his place in a confusing world from which he felt alienated. Hiraoka Kimitake would, only after the war, become Yukio Mishima, a literary figure who strained against the limitations of the written word while striving to transform the abstractions explored in his books into concrete reality.

Rankin suggests that it is the problem of beauty that drove Mishima’s quest for a self. This problem is illustrated in what is perhaps one of Mishima’s greatest works, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. In this story beauty is characterized as an impossible goal that always eludes concrete realization. A monk named Mizoguchi becomes obsessed with a Buddhist temple that, while it is supposed to be the most beautiful of structures, nevertheless strikes him as falling short of its ideal. It is painfully shocking to the monk that the temple fails to live up to its promise, and he concludes that its physical existence is what holds back the manifestation of true beauty. Consequently, Mizoguchi resolves to burn down the temple in order that the pure, abstract form of its magnificence might be liberated.

Rankin’s analysis of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is very good, avoiding what I think are some of the mistakes made by many other interpreters of this particular work. He recognizes correctly that the problem with the temple in the story is not that it is too beautiful, but that it can never be made beautiful enough to express perfect, ideal beauty. It is the tangible nature of the building that holds back and degrades the ideal of beauty, and thus the only solution is destruction of its physical structure. Rankin applies this interpretation of the book to Mishima’s life, arguing that he was like both Mitzoguchi and the temple. In his turn toward body-building, Mishima attempted to make his own physique into a fleshy “temple” that he then suicidally destroyed in order to liberate his own self-created, ideal identity. In this quest both to create and annihilate himself, Mishima exhibited an extreme kind of aestheticism that was all consuming, narcissistic and decadent.

Mishima’s narcissism, however, was of a unique sort, according to Rankin. Whereas the original Greek myth of Narcissus has the central character unknowingly falling in love with his own likeness, Mishima instead was, all along, knowingly obsessed with himself. In the myth, Narcissus happens upon his reflection in a pool of water. When he realizes that what he sees is only a reflection – and thus is incapable of being possessed – he dies of a broken heart. When Mishima retells this myth, however, he replaces the pool of water with a “mirror image” (p. 75). This is an important difference, stresses Rankin, since while reflections in pools of water are natural phenomena that can deceive us, mirrors are unnatural, man-made implements that we already know cast our appearances back to us. Looking into a mirror, you know that you are looking at yourself. You know that the image has no substantial existence apart from your own body. There is, thus, no delusion when gazing at a mirror. You do not think you are engaging with other people. The mirror image, in this way, reinforces self-conscious self-involvement. This was Mishima’s frame of mind, according to Rankin. Mishima was a man who didn’t really care about interacting with others since he served as his own audience. His writing was a tool for him to create his own, self-enclosed world; a world that he eventually externalized in body-building. Lifting weights, Mishima watched his own muscles grow, becoming ever more self-obsessed with the transformation of his skinny, sickly body into a muscular, strong body. All the while, he knew that it was his own self that was both being transformed and observed. It was this dual, narcissistic process that came to dominate Mishima’s life. He was “intoxicated” with his own illusions (Chpt. 5).

Transforming his body eventually became part of a larger, public project of reactionary activism that, as Rankin writes, alienated him “from people on both sides of the political spectrum”:

Those on the left objected to what they saw as his crass glorification of wartime militarist dogma and emperor-centered fascism. Those on the right objected to his eroticization of the sacred imperial institution and to his ad hominem criticisms of the reigning emperor. Within a short time, so it seemed, the flippant aesthete had become a dedicated subversive. Hostile critics began to speak of Mishima as a “dangerous thinker,” a label that pleased him enormously (p. 121).

Being called a “dangerous thinker” no doubt was pleasing to Mishima in part because this is precisely the kind of thinking advocated by one of his philosophical idols, Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, Mishima was concerned with the advent of nihilism, and he became determined to find a way to combat and overcome this condition. Nietzsche had claimed that nihilism as a cultural disease results from an overabundance of the formal, structured and logical Apollonian force when it comes to dominate over the life enhancing – but potentially destructive – Dionysian force. Likewise, Mishima (inspired by anthropologist Ruth Benedict) diagnosed Japan’s cultural nihilism as stemming from an imbalance between the “chrysanthemum and the sword” (p. 126). The chrysanthemum, like Nietzsche’s Apollonian force, symbolizes tranquility and the gentle side of Japanese culture, while the sword, like Nietzsche’s Dionysian force, symbolizes Japan’s violent and cruel side. For Mishima, the chrysanthemum had come, after WWII, to dominate Japan at the expense of the sword. What was thus needed was a reaction against civilized softness through the cultivation of samurai viciousness. This project took the form of what Mishima would call “aesthetic terrorism” (p. 146).

The Shield Society was a militia formed by Mishima, consisting of himself and a group of about 100 young followers. Sanctioned and supported by the Japanese government, the stated purpose of the group was to protect the Emperor and to assist Japan’s security forces in combating violent insurrection. In reality, The Shield Society appears to have been viewed by authorities as a bit of a joke; the narcissistic project of Japan’s greatest author. From the perspective of Mishima himself, it seems to have been part of his own preparation for a spectacular death. Rankin writes that it was shortly after the formation of his militia that Mishima began to use the phrase “aesthetic terrorism” to describe various violent, but beautiful, political actions, rebellions, and assassinations from Japan’s past. In associating terrorism with beauty, Mishima seems to have been anticipating his final work of art, a performance piece in which violence, politics and art were combined in one spectacular event that would not only be the culminating point of Mishima’s identity, but would also be the final conclusion to his life. On November 25, 1970, Mishima carried out his final act of aesthetic terrorism, storming the office of the commandant of the Self Defense Forces along with four of his soldiers, and then committing seppuku. This act, both shocking and awe-inspiring, was his last and most stunning work of art, according to Rankin. It was, he writes, “the logical culmination of his life’s work and of all the aspects of his thinking that we have investigated in this book” (p. 172).

I really enjoyed Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist. It is well-written and well-researched. One of it’s greatest strengths is the fact that the author is fluent in Japanese, and so has been able to consult Mishima’s original texts, many of which remain untranslated. Rankin’s insights into these works offer fresh support for his analysis of Mishima’s psychological and artistic development, resulting in an unusually full and satisfying account of the Japanese author’s life-long struggles with self-identity. It is a well-argued and carefully assembled book that makes good use of previously neglected material. I agree with Rankin’s conclusions and admire his diligent research.

I have two criticisms, one having to do with the book’s tone and the other having to do with its philosophical content. First, while Rankin himself is impatient with what he thinks is a “dismissive” attitude toward Mishima by other scholars, the Introduction to his own book, I think, strikes its own unnecessarily dismissive tone toward English language writing that does in fact take Mishima seriously. The author sweepingly proclaims most English language accounts of Mishima as “lightweight” (p. 6). In a footnote he abruptly discounts Roy Starr’s book Deadly Dialectics as “unsatisfactory” (p. 175, fn 7), and he fails even to mention Damian Flanagan’s book Yukio Mishima (Reaction Books, 2014). While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of these other studies, they certainly don’t deserve to be summarily dismissed or ignored.

Second, while I do appreciate the serious attention Rankin devotes to Mishima’s own writings and ideas, the book exhibits a lack of depth when it comes to exploring some of the connections between those ideas and Mishima’s philosophical influences. Rankin is obviously an expert when it comes to the Japanese literary tradition, but his study lacks detail when it comes to the wider philosophical tradition of which Mishima was a part.  In particular, Rankin’s account of Nietzsche’s philosophy is quite thin, missing important subtleties about how the Nietzschean dynamic of nihilism  is replicated in Mishima’s obsession with the conflict between the ideal and the concrete. Ironically, this is something that might have been addressed had Rankin engaged more charitably with Roy Starr’s book.

Overall, however, I would enthusiastically recommend Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist to anyone fascinated by Yukio Mishima’s writing, his life, or his psychological development. It is an exceptional book.

Auto-da-Fé

Auto-da-Fé, by Elias Canetti [1935]. Translated by C.V. Wedgwood. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1984.

Inside of your head or outside of your head? Where does the real world exist? This is the conundrum explored in Auto-da-Fé, the only work of fiction published by Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature. The book is an intense, lengthy and detailed meditation on the various subjective realities that humans inhabit, how they overlap, interact, and how they conflict and relate to one another. The book is at once touching, terrifying, hilarious and tragic, raising some thought-provoking and unsettling issues about the world-building nature of human thought. Finishing this 464 page book was like awakening from a dream that made me question how much of my “real” life I actually share with others.

The book is divided into three parts: 1. “A Head Without a World,” 2. “Headless World,” and 3. “The World in the Head.” The story follows the life of Peter Kien, a sinologist who lives in an apartment where he has amassed one of the greatest private libraries in the world. As a scholar he is well respected, but he shuns face-to-face contact with others, instead preferring to remain among his books, researching and writing papers that he sends to conferences for others to present in his absence. The first part of Auto-da-Fé takes place mostly inside of Kien’s apartment. The second part takes place outside of his apartment when he is exiled from his home, and the third part describes his return home. While there are a variety of characters that appear throughout the story, the main thread of the tale is anchored in the unfolding of the main character’s thoughts. In fact, the overall structure of this book reminds me of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Geist, which describes the evolution of consciousness according the triadic convolutions of dialectical logic. Thus, in Part One, Peter Kien begins as a self-contained consciousness (thesis), who, in Part Two, is forced to confront consciousnesses outside of himself (antithesis), until finally in Part Three he consolidates these experiences into a tragic Aufhebung (synthesis).

The structure of Auto-da-Fé gives important guidance to the reader. Many of the events in the book are surreal and bizarre, and so the tight structure that Canetti has imparted to his story helps to lend assurance that there is a point and a purpose to all of this strangeness. I found myself becoming confused and baffled by the seeming illogic of some of the unfolding events, but by recalling the division of the story I was reading, and by going back and reviewing the events leading up to each bizarre episode, I felt re-centered and confident that there was sense behind the seeming nonsense. Ultimately it became apparent that the main theme addressed by the book is the nature of human alienation and our efforts to make ourselves feel safe, certain and secure in a world that is too complicated and fragmented for us truly to grasp. We falsify reality by oversimplifying it, and then we hold these simplifications inside of our heads. Since everyone is engaged in their own, unique forms of simplification, we don’t really understand one another. We construct reifications that bump into the contradictory reifications others have built up in their own heads, and though it may appear as if we are engaging in meaningful relationships with one another, in fact we are just misunderstanding other people from within our our own mental prisons.

Peter Kien’s specialty as a sinologist gives a central clue to the philosophical underpinnings of this book. His studies in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism introduce us to ideas concerning impermanence, suffering, and the illusory nature of the phenomenal world. Throughout the book, the ideas of Kant and Hegel also recur, cementing the author’s preoccupation with the flux and flow of existence and of the alienation of human consciousness from the totality of the noumenal, “thing-in-itself.” Both the Eastern and the Western thinkers referenced in this story are ones who characterize the world as an idea in our heads, something that is not “real” in the sense of having an objective or stable existence. This point is articulated quite clearly in an early passage that might either be the voice of Kien or of Cannetti himself:

…our being is one vast blindness, save only for that little circle which our mean intelligence – mean in its nature as in its scope – can illumine. The dominating principle of the universe is blindness. It makes possible juxtapositions which would be impossible if the objects could see each other. It permits the truncation of time when time is unendurable. Time is a continuum whence there is one escape only. By closing the eyes to it from time to time, it is possible to splinter it into those fragments with which alone we are familiar. (p. 71)

The way we understand our situation is by fragmenting and splintering the totality of things into digestible and comprehensible bits and pieces. We are blind to the whole of reality by necessity, since if we paid equal attention to all things all at once, we would be overwhelmed. Each thing would collapse into every other thing, and we would be unable to make distinctions between what is significant to us and what is not. Our minds (to use a metaphor from Sartre) are like flashlights that illumine only small patches of reality at a time. Without this “truncation,” one event would flow into another and there would be no distinct objects, events or situations. It is the human mind that chops things up and then rearranges them into the subjective worlds within which we operate. But then we mistake our own subjective interpretation of the world for the only one that really exists.

This theme is illustrated in the opening chapter of the book. Kien is outside of a bookshop, clutching a case in which he carries some selections from his private library. Here he encounters a young boy who is also fascinated by the books on display in the bookstore window. Kien breaks out of his internal preoccupation with his own thoughts to engage the boy, who reminds him of himself. He promises the boy a visit to his library and then goes on his way. As he walks down the street, Kien becomes aware of a voice asking for directions. When the voice receives no answer to its query, it becomes more and more agitated and angry sounding. Kien thinks to himself that he approves of the silence with which the questioner is met. Who is it that is refusing to provide this man with directions? Most people are too eager to speak, to blab on and on, but here is one person who remains nobly quiet, like the Buddha. It is only when Kien is assaulted that his internal monologue is interrupted and it becomes apparent both to him and to the reader that the “silent one, the man of character, who controlled himself even in anger, was Kien himself” (p. 17). So it was, in fact, the oblivious Kien who was being asked for directions, and his silence was taken as an insult by the questioner! Upon this realization, Kien breaks free from his offended attacker and heads home to the safety of his library.

Kien is the head without a world. He lives in his thoughts. His only friends are his books. Other people are just annoyances that distract from his scholarly work. “The greatest danger which threatens a man of learning, is to lose himself in talk” (p. 17). This is because talk requires one to step outside of one’s own head in order to engage with others, and in engagement with others a threat arises to one’s own internally complete world. Later in the chapter, Kien writes down his own interpretation of his earlier encounter on the street. Instead of rudeness, he characterizes his silence as an act of compassion; a way of sparing the ignorant questioner embarrassment. In a following chapter when the young boy that he promised a visit to his private library appears at his home, Kien turns him away, annoyed at the intrusion. Kien resists anything that challenges the world inside his own head.

Eight years earlier, Kien had hired a housekeeper, Theresa, to dust his books and to prepare his meals. This housekeeper, though physically living in her employer’s apartment, nevertheless occupies her own mental world. Theresa imagines that she is incredibly beautiful while others think she is hideously ugly. She takes great pride in her starched, blue dress, believing it dazzles those around her. At work, she is scrupulous in her duties, but she is also suspicious of Kien’s secret activities. She believes that he must be engaged in some sort of “vice,” either murder or drugs, but she cannot find evidence of any crime. She comes to suspect that Kien is hiding a large sum of money, and resolves that she will somehow profit from his wealth. She works to convince Kien that she too loves books, and impressed, he asks her to marry him. The remaining action in the first part of the book consists of Theresa’s efforts to take over Kien’s apartment and finally to expel him from his own home. By inviting her into his life – first as hired help and then as his wife – Kien initiates a breach in the integrity of his self-enclosed, scholarly world.

Theresa proceeds to isolate Kien in fewer and fewer rooms of the apartment, and in response, Kien endeavors to rouse his library to action. He delivers a speech to his books in which he formulates a manifesto of war against his housekeeper/wife. Yet, he feels foolish using oral speech, remembering that the wise silence of Buddha was his most powerful form of rebellion. When he scrutinizes his books, he realizes that even they can’t unite and agree with one another about a course of action. The Buddha can’t get along with Hegel, and Hegel can’t get along with Schelling. Kant and Nietzsche are at loggerheads. Finally, Kien decides to turn his books so that their spines face the wall, obscuring their identities while keeping them lined up in neat rows. The books, thus, themselves become silent. Their differences erased, they become united in support of their owner in mute rebellion against the take-over by Theresa.

When Kien falls from a ladder in his library, Theresa thinks that he is dead and searches the apartment for a bankbook that she imagines must be hidden somewhere. But she can’t find it. It turns out that Kien is not dead, and she calls on the building caretaker to help her hoist her injured husband into bed. Kien, while recuperating, formulates a plan to remain silent, stiff and impassive toward his wife. Again, silence is his form of rebellion. He becomes immovable stone, fused to the floor, and this provokes Theresa into a rage. She tosses Kien out of his own apartment.

The second part of the book – “Headless World” – finds Kien out on the streets with his bankbook tucked away in his coat pocket. He despairs of regaining his library and so resolves to reconstruct the collection by visiting bookstores in order to purchase replacements for the lost volumes. Each night he stays at a new hotel, setting up his book collection in his room, dismantling it and then carrying it to another hotel the next evening. One night at Stars of Heaven – a cafe that caters to the dregs of society – Kien meets a chess-playing, humpbacked dwarf named Fisherle. Fisherle is married to another humpbacked dwarf who works as a prostitute. He calls her “The Capitalist.”

In Fisherle, Kien imagines a mirror-image of himself. Fisherle’s deformed body provokes him to reflect on his own unusually thin, tall body. Fisherle’s obsession with chess reminds him of his own scholarly obsession with China. Fisherle’s relationship with his wife reminds him of his own relationship with Theresa. In Kien’s mind, Fisherle is just like him, and he feels that he has never entered “so deeply into the mind of another man” (p. 185). Consequently, he decides to hire Fisherle as his assistant. Fisherle, on the other hand, has his own ideas. He is intent on swindling Kien out of the money that he openly flashes about.

As the two of them rearrange Kien’s books in hotel rooms each night, it starts to become clear to the reader that the “books” being hauled around, loaded and unloaded are not tangible, physical volumes. They are ideas being carried around in Kien’s head, and the ritual of unpacking the “books” at night, then repacking them in the morning, is a metaphor representing Kien’s alienation from his scholarly work in his apartment. Unable to sit behind his desk, think and write, Kien is now living in a “headless world,” a world in which he is preoccupied with merely lugging around his knowledge, interacting with others, and trying to survive from day-to-day. Whereas, in Part One, he was a “head without a world,” living cloistered away in his study, now his head, his self, hovers in a homeless, holding pattern.

Fisherle eventually concocts a story about a local pawnbroker shop – The Teresianium (an apparent reference to Kien’s wife) – where books are mistreated. His tale so horrifies Kien that Kien decides to station himself outside of the business in order to intercept customers and pay them to go away before they have the chance to pawn their books. Meanwhile, Fisherle hires a group of people to take Kien’s payments and formulates a plan to abscond to America. He buys an expensive suit and arranges for a fake passport, but before he is able to complete his plan, Fisherle is murdered by one of his wife’s blind customers, his hump sliced off with a bread knife. Kien, meanwhile, has been detained by the police and is escorted home by the caretaker from his apartment. Thus ends Part Two.

The last, and final, part of the book is titled “The World in the Head.” It is the shortest section, but it is here that the main themes explored and illustrated in the rest of the book are clarified, summed up, and made explicit in a conversation that takes place between Peter Kien and his brother, George. George is a gynecologist-turned-psychoanalyst who shows up to take charge of his brother, now detained in the caretaker’s apartment.

Peter and George represent complementary halves of a single person. As George himself states, “If you and I could be moulded together into a single being, the result would be a spiritually complete man” (p. 436). Peter’s is a world of internally connected ideas. These ideas, while originating in the minds of others, have become disconnected from concrete human beings and solidified into stable, unchanging systems. He recoils from interaction with flesh-and-blood people, preferring to be left alone to contemplate ideas in isolation. While Peter dives deep into the world of books, his brother George goes out into the world of other people. George is a medical doctor, and as such he reaches out to other people, interacting with, talking with, examining, and diagnosing them. His world is empirical and changing, while Peter’s world is self-enclosed and internally solid. Their conflicting perspectives, different as they are, nevertheless represent two differing aspects of what it means to be human. While there is a natural drive toward unity among humans, a drive toward mass existence, there is also a natural counter-drive toward individuation and isolation. These two perspectives must always chafe against one another, existing in an uneasy relationship. The worlds we construct in our heads are stretched between these poles to one degree or another, but neither one alone can possibly do perfect justice to the world’s true nature:

‘Mankind’ has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered down into an idea. It foams, a huge, wild, full-blooded, warm animal in all of us, very deep, far deeper than the maternal. In spite of its age it is the youngest of the beasts, the essential creation of the earth, its goal and its future. We know nothing of it; we live still as individuals. Sometimes the masses pour over us, one single flood, one ocean, in which each drop is alive, and each drop wants the same thing. But it soon scatters again, and leaves us once more to be ourselves, poor solitary devils” (p. 411).

Life is an ebb and flow between the drive to reach out to others and the drive to withdraw from others. Peter and George occupy extreme ends of this continuum. In the conclusion of Auto-da-Fé, Peter cannot endure his self-enclosed, isolated existence any longer now that he has been exposed to the outside world. This exposure has had too profound an effect on his interior world. He has become aware that he has imprisoned himself in a world of ideas, words, and books. All of the ideas, sensations and experiences that he has taken in over the course of the story finally come cascading through his mind, mixing together in an overwhelming flow that becomes unbearable, and now it is too late to turn back time. He can no longer ignore the chaos of the world outside of his head. The story ends with the maniacal laughter of Peter as he sets fire to his library and burns to death.

Auto-da-Fé is a demanding, yet very profound book. Though seemingly influenced by the structure of the Hegelian dialectic, Canetti is much less optimistic than Hegel, whose philosophy suggests that the human mind can ultimately encompass the overarching Truth of reality in a final synthesis of thought. Canetti’s story, on the contrary, seems to suggest that there is no final Truth to be comprehended by the human mind. Rather, we are all engaged in ongoing relationships with others that lead only to self-delusion and alienation. The ultimate fate of Peter Kein seems to suggest that the only way out of this conundrum is to obliterate the natural tension between inner and outer, the self and the other, that characterizes human life. It is only in death that our illusions evaporate and we are reabsorbed into the tranquility of nothingness.

Nostos Volume III, Number 2

Nostos, Volue III, Number 2 is now available for purchase.

This issue of Nostos is based on the theme of “loss.” Eleven poets, two essayists, a short fiction writer, and an artist all render their experience and the human expression of loss. Featured in this issue is the poetry of Nathaniel Tarn, who writes in response to Forrest Gander’s Pulitzer Prize winning work Be With. Poet Laureate of Marin County Terry Lucas, award-winning poet Troy Jollimore, former Poet Laureate of Marin County Rebecca Foust, and others provide extraordinary poetry that touches the center of the experience of loss. Non-fiction by John Marmysz and Sheila Bannon explores the fundamental nature of loss. Evocative paintings by June Yokell reflect the varying mood of loss. And the outstanding short story “Angel” by Heather Altfeld makes this issue a complete and moving and insightful collection on the theme.

Longship Press website

Wintertime Despair

It’s a pattern I recognized in myself long ago. As wintertime approaches, the confidence, enthusiasm and hopefulness I felt earlier in the year have been replaced by self-doubt, lack of motivation, and feelings of doom. It’s always the same. On the outside, things are going great. I’m physically active, intellectually productive, and involved in creative projects. Yet on the inside things are less than great. I’m distracted, detached, and unable to concentrate. My mind flits this way and that, unable to rest for very long on one thing. It’s the despairing, down-side of an ongoing cycle that has been a part of my psychology ever since I can remember.

And yet, I feel lucky that I’m able to recognize my moods as parts of a cycle. It gives me the power to put these feelings into their appropriate place and not submit to rule by them. The seasonal rhythm of emotional ascent and decline going through my head, once recognized, encases all feelings – of both happiness and despair – within a frame of reference. None of them will last forever. They are all part of an ephemeral flux and flow, leading nowhere in particular, circling back on one another like a roller-coaster traveling on an infinitely looping track. There is no problem to solve or any deep-seated issue to come to terms with. I’m just along for the ride, and am aware that the downward descent will at some point inevitably lead to an upward climb, which will itself be followed by yet another descent, and so on.  In this regard, I’m different from those who seek cures for their dark moods. Pills, therapy, religion, and politics bring solace to some people, but I reject them all as aids to the alleviation of my own up and down mental roller-coaster ride. I prefer to just let the ride continue, learning how to observe it with the detachment of a spectator on the sidelines.

This is the power of indifference; a lesson I’ve adapted from the Stoics and Buddhists. Every attempt to change the pattern of inner life produces consequences too complicated to predict or control; consequences often worse than the conditions we seek to overcome. Take a pill to alleviate sadness and the changes in brain chemistry lead to illness. Become involved in politics and end up oppressing and killing others for your cause. Discover religion and soon find that you’ve also lost yourself. Dive into therapy, and end up thinking that you are the only one who knows the true path to well-being. It’s all part of the push and pull of events in the mental universe. One thing leads to another, and another, and another, and another, and so on. The illusion, from my perspective, is that any of it will ultimately culminate in a final, static state of happiness and satisfaction. And here is where I diverge from the Stoics and the Buddhists. There is no bliss, no Nirvana at the end of it all. One path is just as legitimate any other path. They all lead nowhere. The journey is its own reward or punishment.

For me, a perspective of detachment is the most helpful vantage point from which to regard the absurd and ongoing processes of inner life. Detachment, however, is not the same as passivity. In detachment, the activity of life continues to go on, uninterrupted, whereas in passivity, there is a hostile effort to sabotage the cycles of life through withdrawal. The more passive one becomes, the more the patterns of life fracture through one’s non-participation. The world continues to act on you, even as you relinquish power over it, and things become increasingly chaotic and unpredictable. In detachment, on the other hand, one does not withdraw from feelings, commitments and obligations, but rather cooly allows the already established patterns of the mental world to continue in a more or less predicable way. In detachment, actions strengthen the integrity of lived patterns so that the chaos of existence can be enclosed within those patterns. Passive people allow themselves to get pushed around unpredictably by the world. Detachment, on the other hand, enables one to remain actively engaged in shaping and channeling the world’s chaos while, on a meta-level, remaining aloof and distant from the whole process, like a bystander observing a roller-coaster as it thunders along its tracks.

And so, I have no desire to change a thing. My mental rhythms continue to pulse in their regular and predictable ways. As I watch, detached and indifferent, I’m still in the process of trying to learn just who it is that I am. I haven’t figured that out yet. And if you don’t know who you are, then what sense does it make to try and change yourself?

20th Anniversary of Fight Club!

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the release of the film Fight Club, here’s Chapter 7 from my book Cinematic Nihilism:

Chapter 7: The Abject Self: Apocalyptic Consequences of Self-Discovery in Fight Club

Introduction

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.

Sick Societies

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.

Conclusion

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’.