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 As wintertime approaches, the confidence, enthusiasm and hopefulness I felt earlier in the year have been replaced by self-doubt, lack of motivation, and feelings of doom.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’.

The Denial of Death

The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. (New York: The Free Press, 1973).

Everything we do in life stems from the vain attempt to deny our mortality. Having children, fighting wars, writing books, making art, building nations; it is all motivated by our denial of death.

This is the central insight of Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, which upon a recent third reading I have come to admire more than ever. It is one of those works in whose pages I see my thoughts and beliefs reflected so vividly that I wonder if it was my first reading of this masterpiece decades ago that shaped the growth of my own later philosophy, or if the ideas in this book merely resonated with what I already believed before reading it. In truth, the tangle of influences involved in anyone’s intellectual evolution are just too complicated and tightly woven to be systematically separated after-the-fact. But no matter. It remains that there are some authors who give voice to thoughts so profoundly correct that it doesn’t matter who wrote them down first.

Becker himself was influenced by a whole tradition of existential philosophy and psychology, with thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Søren Kierkegaard playing key roles in his account of the human condition. Side-lining Freud’s emphasis on sexuality, Becker instead promotes Rank’s claim that it is the quest for immortality, for the infinite, that powers human psychology. He links this psychological insight to the thinking of Kierkegaard, who devoted his philosophical career to articulating how human beings struggle in vain to reconcile their finitude, which is rooted in bodily existence, with their spiritual desire for infinitude. “…man wants the impossible” (p. 155). We know we are doomed to bodily decay, yet we want to live forever. We are a contradiction that cannot be resolved.

And yet we try. In fact, all of humankind’s cultural creations over the centuries have been motivated by the desire to overcome this ontological schism between the finite and the infinite. We follow religions that assure us that once the body dies, the soul will survive forever. We produce children, hoping that they will carry on the family name, and that after they die their children will do the same, and so on, and so on. And even if we don’t reproduce, we make art, write books, build businesses or fight wars that we hope will keep our memories alive when we are physically gone. All of this, according to Becker, is part of the human desire to be heroic, to elevate ourselves above the average, forgettable masses. It is an indication, he tells us that “…we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves” (p. 2). In the grips of this self absorption, we just cannot accept that there will be a time when we are dead and gone, and so we strive to leave a trace proving that we were here. Society is the vehicle that we have developed in order to facilitate this ongoing human craving for immortality.  It is a symbolic system that attempts to deny our finitude in order to give birth to things of lasting value. “The hope and belief is that the things man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his product count” (p. 5).

But all of this is a denial of fundamental reality, according to Becker. Humans, in hoping for symbolic immortality, do not have the courage to accept the truth that all things fade and disappear in time; including ourselves. And so we both fear life and we fear death. We fear life because we don’t have the courage to affirm our here-and-now existence as worthwhile in its own rite; and we fear death because it erases everything. These twin fears drive us into the grips of neurosis, the natural, everyday condition of human animals. We are forced, in varying degrees, to reject reality and to build a creative world out of lies that allow us to forget the horrifying meaninglessness of our existence. We seek to insulate ourselves from the absurdity of reality by telling false stories about the ultimate significance of it all. And so we follow leaders who are good at convincing us of their lies. We fall in love with other people, idealizing them as objects of romantic obsession or of sexual distraction. If we have special, creative talent, we make art, write books, produce films or plays. All of these, according to Becker, are considered by society to be “healthy” ways of dealing with the terror of existence, but ultimately they fall on a continuum with other, less “healthy” coping mechanisms, including depression, schizophrenia, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual perversion. “…there is no line between normal and neurotic” (p. 178), he tell us, just more or less functional ways of getting along in a world with other people. “Generally speaking, we call neurotic any life style that begins to constrict too much, that prevents free forward momentum, new choices, and growth that a person may want and need” (p. 179). Nevertheless, quoting Rank, Becker insists that “to be able to live, one needs illusions” (p. 188).

And so we are stuck with our lies. The best we can do is to “burn brightly” and try to get along with other people, allowing them to burn as brightly as they can while living their own lies. But Becker warns us that we should not completely lose touch with the underlying horror of reality. In order to respect and value our illusions, we need to understand their power, and in order to do this we must remember what life would be like without them. We must embrace our illusions heroically and courageously precisely because they save us from succumbing to, and being engulfed by, an awful, cruel and meaningless world; a world that Becker sums up like this:

What are we to make of a creation in which routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types – biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out – not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in ‘natural’ accidents of all types: an earthquake buries 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the US alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures (pp. 282 – 283).

His is a pretty bleak description. It’s no wonder that Becker is an advocate for neurotic withdraw into creative illusion.

From my first reading, when I was in my 20’s, I was moved by the bold, unflinching gloominess of The Denial of Death. Upon a third reading, now that I’m in my 50’s, I’m no less moved. Part of the lasting poignancy of this book is due to the fact that Ernest Becker was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize just two months after he died of colon cancer at age 49. I suppose his experience with this disease may have contributed to his focus on anality, shit, and excrement throughout the book. At one point he asserts that “the anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death” (p. 31). At another point he proclaims that we are “gods with anuses” (p. 51). And later, he warns, “the turd is mankind’s real threat” (p. 227). As cancer ate him from the inside out, it is no wonder that he was powerfully struck by the incongruity between his loftiest thoughts and the filth percolating inside his gut.

Becker’s own immortality project, neatly and cleanly packaged in book form, has been a relative success, as there are people like me, now older than Becker was when he died, who still think about him and his ideas. There is even an Ernest Becker Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness of how the fear of death affects us all. In the end, of course, none of us can escape our own mortality, and so sooner or later we’ll be gone as well. I’m reminded of Yukio Mishima’s final note, left on his desk before committing seppuku: “Human life is finite, but I would like to live forever.”

The Return of Sacripolitical

It’s been 25 years since my old band, Sacripolitical, played its final show at Club Chameleon in San Francisco. Chalk it up to punk nostalgia, middle-aged ennui, or simply an excuse to hang out with old friends; whatever the reason, we’ve recently been having a fun time getting together again and practicing some of our old songs. The newly reconstituted Sacripolitical is made up of: John Marmysz (vocals), Matt Schmidt (guitar), Mark Wallace (bass) and Gary Benson (drums).

When I was in my 20’s, the band was an important part of my life. In existence for almost ten years, Sacripolitical offered a cathartic outlet for my raging emotions as well as an opportunity to work together with good friends, creating music that still means something to me today. We played songs about the meaning (and meaningless) of life, sex, hope, crime, politics and war – always infused with a good dose of humor and irony. We performed in a lot of nasty little clubs, warehouses and living rooms for nothing more than the enjoyment of getting in front of a sympathetic audience and making a racket.

Now, in our 50’s, the band offers a similar kind of fun: bonding with old friends, sharing memories, and creating music for its own sake. At a time in life when so much of what we do seems focused on “sensible” and “practical” goals, it is nice to have a creative outlet that is its own goal and that needs no justification beyond itself.

In addition to the old songs, we’ve also started to write some new material. Here are the lyrics to Gogol’s Nose, a song inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist short story. It is something that Matt and I started to conceive in the 1980’s, but which only now, in the 2000’s, we have started to develop in earnest:

Gogol’s Nose

Gogol’s Nose! [4 X]

Opened up my eyes to the early morning rays,

The best night of sleep I had had in days.

Hopped out of bed and looked at my face,

Screamed in shock at what was not in place!

 

A void had opened up right above my lips,

A blank space, flat flesh! I started to flip!

The thing that allowed me to breath in fresh air,

Was completely gone; it was no longer there!

 

[Chorus]

Spending all your time being so debonair,

Life could be so easy if you just didn’t care.

Make the right impression, you’re in a rat race.

You’d cut off your nose just to spite your face!

Gogol’s Nose! [4 X]

 

I thought to myself, “That fuckin’ nose!

He’s taken off, stolen some of my clothes!

I’ll need to track him down before he gets too far,

And leaves me with this embarrassing scar.”

 

So I ran out on the street and it was there in the news,

The headline in the paper was my very first clue,

My nose had been spotted wearing my cape,

Boarding a carriage and making his escape.

 

[Chorus]

Spending all your time trying to be a big shot,

Life is so short, appreciate what you got.

You’re rushing here and there; haste makes waste.

You’d cut off your nose just to spite your face!

Gogol’s Nose [4 X]

 

I hailed a ride and without a pause,

I yelled at the driver, “Follow that schnozz!”

He looked at me strange, but I gave him some dough,

And with that we lurched forward and started to go.

 

It turns out that my nose was impersonating me,

Buying fancy clothing, booze and jewelry.

My reputation was on the line,

I must stop that proboscis and end his crimes!

 

I found my nose at work, insulting my boss.

I got him in a bear hug and I started to cuss:

“Listen motherfucker, this nonsense must stop!

Get back on my face, take a place in your spot!”

 

He broke from my grip and tried to get away,

But I punched him in the nose and blood started to spray.

My nose was now defeated and passively,

He whined, “Why on earth would you do this to me?”

 

[Chorus]

Spending all your time playing to the herd,

And you think that the story of my nose is absurd?

Don’t do nothing special, don’t step out of place,

You’d cut off your nose just to spite your face!

Gogol’s Nose! [8 X]