As a literary movement the Beat Generation
has long been considered extinct. With the deaths of Allen Ginsberg
and William Burroughs
in 1997 the last of its prominent early members were lost. However, as demonstrated in our discussions on the long lasting effects of Beat literature
, the idealistic
forces of change behind many of these writings have not been entirely extinguished. In fact, the 1999 film “Fight Club
”, based on the novel by Chuck Palahnuik
, has taken these ideals into a most unlikely of arenas—Hollywood
. Most critics reacted negatively to the film’s graphic depictions of violence; however, this was not the most important aspect of the work. In a recent AOL
interview Palahnuik expressed his feeling that the film’s blunt social criticism was the underlying reason for the negative press. The widespread panning of this film reflects the critical bombardment earned by the writing of the Beats in mainstream publications. However, in order to proceed in clarifying the film’s adherence to the Beat tradition a brief plot summary is necessary.
Throughout the film the main character is never given a specific name, and, as such, is known to the audience simply as The Narrator. Having been a longtime sufferer of insomnia the Narrator discovers, after visiting several support groups, that he is able to sleep only upon experiencing the emotional release achieved through crying, and soon finds himself addicted. All of this ends when another “faker” named Marla Singer begins appearing at several of the group meetings. Soon after, the Narrator meets Tyler Durden on a business trip. Durden is a flamboyant free spirit whose lifestyle intrigues the main character. While away on this trip the Narrator’s condo mysteriously explodes, and he is forced to move in with Tyler. Not long after this alliance is completed Fight Club is formed as a “support group” for men only. Events escalate from here until a gigantic criminal organizationn evolves out of this disgruntled support group and the true relationship between Tyler and The Narrator is revealed.
The level on which the film connects to the Beats lies in the motivations behind the formation of the actual fight club. The film succeeds not only in its portrayal of a lifestyle led in accordance with Beat ideals, but also in its response to several criticisms placed upon the Beats by later writers. My main goal in this paper, aside from illuminating these links, is to describe the development of the main character as a different type of existential psychopath than that fleshed out in Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” and discuss the positive repercussions of the Beat refusal to provide an alternative to mainstream society.
“We’re a generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering if another woman is the answer we really need.”
-Tyler Durden (Fight Club)
One of Fight Club’s most attacked characteristics is its nearly misogynistic treatment of women. The quote above is taken from a scene in which Tyler explains his family history. As he grew older Tyler would call on his absent father for advice on what path to take in life. The types of answers received outline a typical life revolving around work and family. However, shades of Neal Cassady emerge with the description of Tyler’s father as a man who left his wife and child to make new families around the country. Following in his father’s footsteps, Tyler too rejects the institution of marriage in favor of expressing himself as an individual. The Narrator, in turn, characterizes himself as a “thirty year old boy” attempting to avoid the responsibilities of married life out of fear or immaturity. Both of these criticisms were placed upon the Beats who, in general, rebelled against the idea of the nuclear family for various disputed reasons.
Considering Tyler’s strong appreciation of the values of individuality and freedom it comes as little surprise that one of his purposes in creating Fight Club was to allow men the chance to act as men. As opposed to the earlier, more feminine support groups in which emotions were released through tears, Fight Club promoted expression of oneself through physical combat. While engaged in these battles they are able to shed the influences of a matriarchal society and return to the primal forces that once defined the male role in life.
“We're designed to be hunters and we're in a society of shopping. There's nothing to kill anymore, there's nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore.”
This sense of female control is embodied in the role of Marla Singer. After her presence at the support groups destroys the Narrator’s ability to sleep she intrudes on his life further through her sordid affair with Tyler. She becomes the tumor in the Narrator’s life, a “predator posing as a house pet”, used solely for Tyler’s sexual enjoyment. After their violent encounters Marla is thrown out of the house- her use having been fulfilled. Using and repelling the sole female character keep the suffocating matriarchal power under control. While the methods used to recapture a sense of manhood divert from those favored by the Beats its importance cannot be denied. Still, Fight Club’s ambitions were not merely to rebel against a suffocating female influence, but to offer an alternative to socially conditioned values as well.
“America, I’ve given you all and now I am nothing.”
-Allen Ginsberg (America)
This attitude expressed by Ginsberg pervades the underlying current of social criticism inherent in “Fight Club”. Beginning shortly after the destruction of the Narrator’s condo these criticisms catch fire in ensuing scenes and alter the course of the entire movie. While sitting in a bar with Tyler after this catastrophic event, the Narrator details the extent to which he is a byproduct of the lifestyle obsession. Up till now he had defined himself through his purchases--because of his wardrobe and furniture the Narrator considered himself to be nearly complete. In response Tyler encourages him to resist the urge to find completion if it means selling one’s soul to the gods of commercialism. Together they forge a new path leading away from these distorted values.
In order to escape the vapid existence thrust upon us by Ikea and Martha Stewart our heroes set out to simplify their lives. Like the Beats before them the first step in achieving simplification is through voluntary poverty. By giving up the condo life, giving up all their worldly possessions and living in a dilapidated old house in a toxic waste part of town they too become urban Thoreau’s. The formation of Fight Club serves to bring together the “brightest minds” of Tyler’s generation. These are the men who have noticed the illusory nature of the empty promises made by society. The same “sphinx of cement and aluminum” that Ginsberg wrote about in “Howl” has them chasing advertising dreams of cars and clothes. The men of Fight Club have been raised on television promises of futures as movie stars and models that they know will not come true. These people have “no great war”, “no Great Depression”, to give themselves meaning. Their great war is a spiritual war- their Great Depression is their lives. Through the act of beating each other senseless these disgruntled souls shed their positions as “slaves of white collars” and find a new sense of equanimity. Outside the rules defined by society labels become irrelevant. This is their escape from the same problems railed against by the Beats through poetry and literature. With these artistic realms closed to the men of Fight Club it is essential to find a different means of self-expression.. Unlike the Beats, however, the path illuminated by Tyler Durden will prove to be far more destructive than any of the tendencies of Ginsberg’s generation. The race of militant hipsters created by Tyler evolves into a group dedicated to organized crime known as Project Mayhem- the next stage in the social rebellion of the members of Fight Club.
“…if the fate of Twentieth Century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.”
-Norman Mailer (The White Negro)
Here is where we must discuss the emergence of a new type of existential hero- one who lives without self-consciousness. First, a little background is necessary. In Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” the existential psychopath or hipster is one who has consciously chosen to detach himself from society. This is what the Beats sought to do. In “Fight Club” Tyler and the Narrator accomplish the same as well, but with one important difference- they are the same person. In order to make the split from society and his own way of life the Narrator’s subconscious takes on the persona of Tyler Durden. Through this internal existential split the Narrator is able to “reject the basic assumptions of civilization especially the importance of material possessions.” The deliberate destruction of his own condo allows him to realign his perception for “it’s only when we lose everything that we are free to do anything.” As the Tyler persona takes control the film slips further into this philosophy.
The main moment of severance wherein Tyler wrests nearly complete control away from the Narrator marks the midway point of the film. In order to fulfill his role as an existential hero Tyler/Narrator burns his palm with lye. This is the integral moment of facing one’s own death. As the pain grows in intensity Tyler splits once again and coaches the Narrator through the experience. The more conservative side of their shared personality attempts to break out of the moment and escape into meditative techniques learned in the support groups of earlier. Tyler’s more assertive nature forces the Narrator to focus on what is happening.
“Without pain, without sacrifice we would have nothing. This is your pain. This is your burning hand. It’s right here. Don’t deal with it the way those dead people do. This is the greatest moment of your life and you’re off somewhere missing it. First you have to give up. First you have to know, not fear, know that someday you’re going to die.”
Although this moment does fulfill the credentials of the existential hero it also marks the final divorce from the conscious psychopath of the Beat hipster. As Mailer claims “one must be aware of the character of one’s frustrations and know what would satisfy it.” Since it was the Narrator’s subconscious projection that forced him into facing death the further development of this type of existential hero is branded as negative. It is a false existentialism brought about through violent persuasion and, therefore, not the noble choice to divorce oneself from society upheld by the Beats.
The overall negative nature of Tyler’s philosophy is further illustrated in his indoctrination of the members of Project Mayhem. As the ranks grow, so too does Tyler’s position as leader develop to nearly mythological proportions. It all starts with small “homework assignments” given by Tyler encouraging the individual members of Fight Club to perform various tasks such as starting fights with complete strangers. Tyler’s new vision is allowed to flourish when the Narrator blackmails his boss into letting him work from home with an increase in salary lest he expose the company’s faulty business practices. With corporate sponsorship now in place Project Mayhem explodes. New recruits pour into Tyler’s army in droves with each member shaven and clad in black. The final step in the completion of this uniformity is the willful loss of one’s name. This is the moment in which the Beat focus on individuality disintegrates into conformity to a different regime. As their leader, Tyler conveys the belief that conformity to his ideals is necessary to achieve enlightenment. In their training he upholds the subjugation of the individual to the group as a virtue.
“You are not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the content of your wallets. You are not your fuckin’ Khaki’s. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. We are all a part of the same compost heap.”
By demoting the importance of the individual Tyler betrays the more positive existentialism of the Beats. Their support of discovering one’s life for oneself led to a belief in the potential of human beings to shine. Instead of crushing one’s individuality to fit into a mold of conformity they paraded difference as a sign of rising above the bonds of society. Nowhere is this more beautifully illustrated than in Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra”.
“-We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset…”
These differences in ideological standpoints lead the heroes of the Beat Generation and the hero of “Fight Club” to different fates.
“To repeat, Beat is not a strong position and can hardly work out well. The individual young man is threatened either with retreating back into the organized system or breaking down and sinking into the lumpen proletariat.”
-Paul Goodman (Growing Up Absurd)
In retrospect, perhaps this very possibility is the reason why the Beats did not offer an alternative to mainstream society. As is demonstrated by the fate depicted in “Fight Club” the creation of a new social milieu brought about its own collapse under a different set of rules and defined values. The Beats, on the other hand, never bound themselves to one leader or one set ideology, opting instead for a more positive communistic feeling. Without a definite set of imposed standards different ideas could be expressed in their literature. At the same time that the Beats criticized and rebelled against society they also contributed beneficial writings that we can study today. This fact allows for the overall effect of the Beats to be viewed as positive. Ultimately, I see the desperate situation shown in “Fight Club” as a warning against a society in which literature has lost its meaning as a viable rebellious tool. The outcome depicted in this film only detracts from society without creating something lasting to be learned from. Through artistic expression the Beats left a lasting impression that still resonates today. Although they may not have brought about definite changes in their time perhaps, through the immortality of their work, someone will be inspired to make changes that will prevent anything resembling the events of “Fight Club” to occur.