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Friday, January 11, 2013

25 Words of Wisdom From Fight Club to Writers (Part 2)

I wonder why it's written in soap....

Part II 

16-25: The Fighty Stuff

Be sure and check out:

Part One: 1-15: The Non-Fighty Stuff.  

I'm jumping straight into the action from there.  Spoilers abound.  Your milage may vary. Tax and licensing not included.  May cause anal seepage.  Void where prohibited.

The Fight Club Metaphor.  What "fighting" REALLY means.

Don't get me wrong.

Uncle Ima isn’t saying you need to get into an actual fight to be a writer.  You won't churn out As I Lay Dying with a busted lip and ruptured spleen. The "fighting" in Fight Club is probably a metaphor.  
No, really, hear me out. 
This isn't just in some corny way that a lit major can swear to you that your favorite rabbit cartoon is Arthurian legend and the story of the magician on the island trying to marry off his daughter is a condemnation of colonialism.

This one's legit.

Tyler even says "our great war is a spiritual one." 

Riddle me this, Litman.
If you look at the surface of the Fight Club plot, the fighting itself is a very strange detour in the arc (rail against STUFF--punch each other in the nose--blow up STUFF--free people from their attachments to STUFF; which one of these things is not like the other?). 

The fighting ends up being unimportant to the climax as well other than maybe the fact that Tyler and the Narrator fight near the end. (He struggles with himself, you see....) It is the start of Project Mayhem, but why couldn't Tyler just be so charismatic that he raises an army directly? Why is this club dedicated to fighting such an important middle step? For that matter what does fighting have to do with the rejection of material wealth that is at the heart of both the beginning and the end of the movie, and peppered within several soliloquies during, lest your short attention span forget? Why the out of sync middle section? There's nothing thematically or directly about fighting until 40 minutes in, then it's a big thing, but only to establish the next step of the plot and then it mostly goes away again. And yet, it is somehow still the title of the movie and the story's central focus.   


Clearly one answer is that the toxic masculinity that has them fighting in humid basements is fueling the engines of their entitled sense of rage against the machine, and of course the "but it's just satire" crowd would have us believe that, but there are some strange things going on parallel to that as well. 

There are enough other quotes about what happens between the fights of fight club and about destruction as an act of creation to believe that the actual “Fight Club” itself works as a metaphor for strife--especially the expression of anger to directly confront all the materialistic messages in our culture that the first part of the movie sets up.  

In fact, if fighting could be seen instead as an extended metaphor for the struggle against materialism and attachment that is established in the first half hour of the movie, the fighting then fits rather elegantly with the story arc. This is the moment in so many movies where "we fight back."  If seen in this context, we can look at the fighting as our more primal struggles.  Instead of letting the world tell us that our happiness will come with just one....more...thing..., we can rather find our meaning, our very identity, in the struggle against those forces.  They cannot be ignored.  They cannot be escaped.  But they can be fought.

Or maybe I really should have skipped that Adderall pill. 

Once we consider it from this angle, the movie takes on a whole new dynamic.  The nameless faces springing up everywhere to do combat against each other with no organization, hierarchy, or lasting resentments, then suddenly this story is no longer are about random men trying to beat the shit out of each other, but as the very movie premise implies, and as happens on camera OVER AND OVER again, it is rather about a massive struggle against ONESELF.  The little fights are just battles in the spiritual war.  Consider how the characters say fight club makes them feel, and how on the first night, they HAVE TO fight.

Of course, for a writer the implications of struggling against lifestyle obsession are too many to number.  When you start fighting the idea that a yin/yang table defines you as a person and your worth is based on the label on your latest, very-tight fashion jeans, you are insta-liberated not only from the bullshit that you're somehow wasting your life to spend it in pursuit of things you care about instead of what other people tell you you OUGHT to care about, but also from the lifestyle of an insatiable materialist hunger.  It's amazing how soon writing can pay the bills, when you've got the bills down to the essentials. 

16- “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight.  I don’t want to die without any scars.” 

The scars Tyler is talking about in our metaphor are failure. They are life fucking you up. To truly "fight" we have to risk. We can't just take on a struggle that is ours to abandon or complete as we wish. We have to take on forces that can fight back. We have to risk losing. As a writer, unless you achieve some Stephen King level of success, is likely to be a struggle against endless forces telling you to quit, that your worthless, that you don't matter, and that writing really isn't worth it.  There's no fame, no fortune, no fans. You haven't been so disappointed in the difference between reality and the picture on the box since the McDLT. You are a washed up suchandsuch headed towards X age who is still barely scraping by! How can you not have STUFF by your age? Critics, society, your mom who wants a grand-kid. Everything out there is telling you that you're being foolish and a few of those things bite. I wish I could tell you you can shrug them all off, but you can't. Some are going to bloody your upper lip. Some look like relationships that don't work out because one of you wants a promotion that requires a big move. Some look like friends who don't hang out with you anymore because you can't afford to do the things they do.  Some are just people who will flat out call you a nut if you reject the importance of material possessions. Some of this shit....it's gonna hurt.

17- “Self-Improvement is Masturbation”  

This quote is, I believe, key to unlocking the metaphorical view of "fights" and "scars."  If you listen to it in the context of what is happening in the movie at the time, all that is being talked about is improvement. Life improvement, physical improvement (even as the main character plucks out his own teeth) and social improvement as gods of their own world. The rest of life is "turned down," he says. Tyler even forces people, at gunpoint, to improve themselves. Why put this quote here when there so obviously is improvement because of Fight Club and Tyler? 

Plus Tyler seems like a guy who probably has a pretty exceptional view of masturbation. 

Because we so often improve ourselves with an external idea of what we’re trying to achieve and in a way that has no possibility of failure. We don’t risk.  We don’t fight. We don't pit ourselves against other forces. We improve quietly towards our sense of some unachievable goal that the media tells us is ideal. We might quit, but we can’t actually fail.  You can quit going to the gym, quit your diet, quit your 100 pushups app thing.  But you would never say "Shit, man, I lost," about any of those things. Failure requires taking on forces that fight back. Your push up app isn't going to tell you that you're a terrible person and that clearly you don't mind living like you're in some developing nation.  People are known to do that if you try to reject materialism around them. Take some chances.  Risk that life is going to kick your ass a little--and it will.  Fighting--even the metaphorical kind--isn't something we can set a gentle pace on and do when we have time and energy.  It's something that might jump us in an alley on our way to get some gyros and we just have to be ready for it.

18- “I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let’s evolve, let the chips fall where they may.”  

This is probably the most important quote in the movie, for anyone, but especially for writers.  For a guy with a grand master plan who is constantly showing people how to be better versions of themselves, this is a very strange thing for Tyler to say.  Nothing Tyler does is random. Everything is trying to break people out of their complacency and fuck with their sense of safety in the world so that they live life a little harder.  

He never lets the chips fall where they may.  

Tyler is constantly fighting--not sitting back to watch. But here's why this quote is so important. When most people struggle for perfection, they're focused on the perfection. They have some idea in their head. This isn't GOALS per se, but simply the line we've been fed about what ought to matter to us and what we should be trying to achieve thin...but not TOO skinny, making "decent" money (as is always defined as: a little more than we make now), fair skin...or "exotic", no grey hairs, wrinkle free, big tits, nice ass, great legs, stylin clothes, broad chest, thin waist, washboard abs, teeth so fucking white, they're whiter than teeth actually are, matching furniture, odor free, with a great car, living in a neighborhood where nothing bad ever happens ever, and of course, a coffee table that defines you as a person.  [Is it any wonder that the only physical characteristic mentioned in the whole movie, and the person who is in the only fight we ever see the end of, is considered the "ideal."  Oh the "too fucking blond" is a funny joke, but as with all good writing, there's even more going on there than a snicker.]  Instead of focusing on the perfection, Tyler focuses on the struggle.  Evolution is a messy, violent struggle for dominance, and the word choice here was no accident. 

Ug want duvet.  Ug need evolve into materialistic culture.
Or Oog just call it blanket.

For writers, decoding this one is easy. You can't control who will publish you. You can't control your sales. You can't control your success.  You can't control your fans. And as Chris would no doubt point out, you can't control how many groupie threesomes you have.  Forget "making it."  Get into the trenches and fight with the shit you can control like your procrastination or your fear of failure.

19- "Guy came to Fight Club for the first time, his ass was a wad of cookie dough.  After a few weeks, he was carved out of wood.”  

I’m not really sure if someone can see this kind of physical improvement in just “a few weeks” of fighting once a week, and I'm not here for the ostensible, surface-level fatphobia anyway. (Maybe. Adrenaline is a hell of a drug.) However, if you think about this quote in terms of the themes of struggle instead of actual fighting it becomes a little more telling.  What you CAN do in that amount of time is realign your world view. You can challenge the cultural assumptions beamed gently into your brain from every quarter all the time. And in just a few weeks of being conscious of culture's "background radiation" you can become rock solid against much of it. You can start to see the irrationality of commercialism and how completely ridiculous the world is. You don’t have to live in a tree to do this, and you'll still lose some of those fights. But just being able to recognize that your choice of shampoo will not result in an orgasm and you are not actually unhappy because you don't own an Infinity is a good start.

20- After fighting, everything else in your life got the volume turned down.

I'm sorry. I need what to live a fulfilled life?
Paper towels?
A fish trophy that sings?
A duvet?
I'm sorry I can't hear you.
Tyler talks a lot about what "they" tell you and the explicit codification of our cultural background noise.  And whenever the comparison happens between fighting vs. regular life, the scene always takes place in the hated job done for all the things that aren't needed. Pedestrian life becomes less and less important to the narrator when he is fighting. When you fight, in the metaphorical sense, the messages you were fighting are muted. You take the kick out of their A1 sauce--as if A1 ever had much of a "kick" ~rimshot~. When you struggle against an idea like materialism, the next time a commercial comes on where some woman is telling you that her marriage was saved because of Ortega taco shells, you can look at that shit and say: "Holy flaming archbishop testicles, how did I not SEE this before." When you're not afraid to lose your job because you're not afraid to lose your STUFF because you're not buying in to the lifestyle obsession, and your boss is being a total douchecanoe--nay, a douchebattleship!--on a power trip, you can say: "Holy crap! This guy is being an absolute, complete rectal fissure. There are more important things in life than the STUFF I own as a recompense for putting up with your fucking face! Even if I have to give up some shit, I want a job that doesn't suck--ergo, one without YOU."

For a writer, this applies any time a decision might run counter to the mainstream--be it pursuing art for a living or living on very modest means. The struggle itself will help to turn the volume down on the siren song of culture's bullshit that you actually ARE your khakis.  The struggle itself gives you focus.

21- “Without pain.  Without sacrifice, you will have nothing.”

I've yet to meet a writer of any success who didn't have to give something up.  Social life, video games, family, something.  Most of them gave up more than one.  Those with a family came home from a day of work, started writing and had no life.  Those with a social life had no family.  You get the idea.  No one was able to give up nothing and frolic their way to success.  NONE of the writers I've met haven't had a moment where writing caused them pain.  Where it would have been easier to just quit.  Where it sucked beyond the telling of it to be a writer.   And the only thing that kept them going through those moments was that not writing would have sucked even more.

You are not defined by your triumphs.  At most, they are the punctuation on the end of a sentence.  You are defined by your failures--how you handle them, what you learn from them, and whether or not you let them destroy you.

22- “Most people--normal people--will do just about anything to avoid a fight.”

Most people don't want to fight the system.  In fact, most people--even when they're aware of the system--still won't struggle against it.  If I were Lawrence Fishburne, I would be telling you that "most of these people are not ready to be unplugged."  And then you would Kung Fu Fight Club or something.  But the point for writers this is simple: most people will not join you, or even appreciate you.  They may kind of hate you.  Most people will tell you extensive convoluted excuses for why they can't write rather than simply risk failure and will become angry if you don't share or accept them.  Most people don't want to challenge this system, even when they know something is very wrong with it.  They will go out of their way to avoid facing these truths in any meaningful way and even further to avoid fighting them.

23- “If you were to die right now, how would you feel about your life.”

This may at first seem like a line that belongs in part one's list of non-fighty quotes, but it is delivered very close to the end of the movie, after a lot of the fighting happens, and is closer to when Tyler and the narrator's views are crystalized.  In this moment, Tyler is not steering the car and they are drifting off the road. But this line is best examined in the context of the struggle that has been happening and the "fighting" (as a metaphor) that has been going on.  

Would you turn around and say "Oh my god, what a fucking waste!  I spent so much time on shit that didn't matter!  Why the hell do I have so many 70's sitcom metal lunchboxes?  Welcome Back Kotter wasn't even that good of a show!  WHAT DID I DO WITH MY LIFE??"  or would you be like "FUCK YEAH, they told me I was wasting my time tracking down old lunch boxes in yard sales, but I got my Welcome Back Kotter metal lunchbox and it was the crown jewel of my collection.  I found intense meaning and fulfillment in this life.  Fuck you, culture!"  Have you written that book?   Have you cleaned up that short story?  What are you waiting for and if you died RIGHT NOW--before even finishing this sentence--how would you feel about your life?

So many writers seem to be waiting for their lives to start.  They will always get to writing after this one more thing.  And even if you take out the people in perpetual excuseville, I think there are some who really honestly put things off because it hasn't quite occurred to them that some day they won't be able to put anything else off....ever.

24-“I wanted to destroy something beautiful.”

This whole scene is filled with Fight Club goodness, and it's one of those moments in both screenwriting and cinematography that you can watch over and over again and keep catching something new.  But besides what's happening on the surface, you have the modern media ideal being obliterated, and even beyond that, in the bigger picture, the "beautiful thing" that is destroyed is the life of the narrator.  His STUFF is all blown up.  His beautiful life is destroyed.

But, in fact, he couldn't do it on his own.  He needed Tyler's help.

Uncoupling from your things isn't exactly easy.  Rejecting materialism is fucking hard once the movie is over.   It will be, in many ways an act of self-destruction to end the existence where you are a slave to your STUFF and a slave to the lifestyle obsession. You will probably going to work harder than you might imagine to hang on to your slankets and fine collection of DVD's (that you've been replacing on Blu Ray for your plasma TV) and your coffee table that defines you as a person.  You might not think any one thing is vital, but if you try to decide what isn't important, you end up looking like the junk lady from Labyrinth in about five minutes.  That's why so many sentiments Tyler says echo the idea of destroying what you have or that hitting bottom is "not a vacation."

25- “I look like you wanna look.  I fuck like you wanna fuck.  I am smart, capable, and most importantly I am free in all the ways you are not.”

Remember Dorothea Brande and her advice that writers need to cultivate what is almost a dissociative disorder? (Problematic wording for today, but she wrote it over a hundred years ago.) Watching Tyler Durden changing the life of his buddy--helping him to uncouple from materialism and fear--takes on an entirely new facet if watched metaphorically with Tyler Durden as a creative force (a muse if you will) that is working to free people from themselves from the fetters of a lifestyle obsession and commercialist materialism by having them recognize and confront it.

Tyler creates through destruction. His every act of terrorism is simultaneously an act of creation and rebirth.  He becomes this sort of fucked up cross between Christ and Shiva (where the only way to be born and become who you really are is to destroy yourself).  You must die to be born again.  ("In death, he has a name.  His name is Robert Paulson.")  One of the primary metaphors in the movie is the soap, the creation of which produces both a benign and a violent way to wipe things clean. This is why I think the primary metaphor of the movie--the act of fighting that destroyed who they were and gave them their new identity--needn't be read literally.  Because I can't imagine it's a coincidence that the ONE piece of furniture that is mentioned and shown multiple times is a yin/yang coffee table. Tyler is the balance. He's the reactionary swing to The Narrator. He's no more right than the narrator is at the movie's beginning. They are two sides of a dichotomy out of balance. That's why the movie ends in the explosion that isn't stopped. Tyler dies, but Tyler's new world lives on.

But it also means you don't have to go live in an abandoned house near a paper mill to be a good writer.  Just keep shit in perspective and don't let the other side take over.  Consider the creative force that exists within destruction both on the page and within your own lifestyle obsession.  Understand the power of a tabula rasa.  End your life of fetters and be free in all the ways you can't be with them.

Besides, don't you know?  Art is subtraction.  And you really should be killing your darlings...

Of course, without the "tell" of obvious satire, it's arguably also super sexist psudo-intellectual crap that elevates the nihilistic mainstream male id to near godhood among its most ardent fans, and satire walks a thin line as it is between being edgy critique and just saying whatever it is. It's mostly white men who can afford to tell their bosses to fuck off and still run around nursing a persecution complex. But whether you're here to defend your baby as the scathing satire against toxic male entitlement culture it is, or you just secretly love Tyler in a deep place you don't talk about at parties, it's probably for the best that Fight Club's cult, but huge, cultural significance is in the rear view mirror. 

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  1. Tyler Durden as a Christ Symbol. And you argue it WELL. Love it.

    1. Thanks. I was worried the second part got too into "lit analysis" type stuff, but I'm glad some people enjoyed.

  2. I liked it, but not as much as part one.

    1. Well, I'm glad you liked both. I guess one of them had to be better than the other.

    2. Fuck that. This part was much better. Some real top-notch analysis here.

  3. There's some weird formatting issues in this article

    1. Yeah, I'm not sure what happened there. I THINK it was because I cut and pasted some stuff from Part 1, but it really seems to have messed up the whole article. I can't seem to fix it either. Even cutting and pasting the entire article into a single font and font size didn't help.

      You don't happen to have any ideas about how to fix it, do you? I'm sort of new at the blogging thing and VERY wet behind the ears with HTML.

    2. I see this is an old post, but my two bits is that when you copy and paste- the function also copies the formatting and that doesn't always get interpreted correctly when pasted- so what I do is copy, paste into a format neutral program- textpad/textwriter or some other basic text editor without formatting and it seems to drop the formatting- then copy the neutral formatted text and paste it where you want- An extra 2 steps, but worth it for the formatting.

    3. Yeah, I think you're probably right about what wen't wrong.

  4. I know this is old, but I just read it and I think it's beautiful.