The real message of Tyler Durden
Fight Club (the movie)
Fight Club is a subversive, radical film: a brilliant, comically dark, violent, nihilistic masterpiece. Fight Club is a fantastic film in and of itself with excellent acting, interesting direction and memorable scenes, yet it also explores multiple radical themes: nihilism, masculinity, the redeeming nature of violence in a feminized society, but this article will focus on anti-consumerism.
Before Jack is taken into Tyler Durden’s way of life, Fight Club presents Jack as a typical middle class American in the late 90’s approaching the new millennium: living, listening and obeying the dictates of an overwhelmingly consumerist society. Much has changed in the proceeding years since this movie was made, but the unwavering clasp that consumerism holds over the majority of us is still prevalent. Jack’s sense of well-being in this consumerist state is dependent on his ability to buy goods to satiate his desires and his only goal in life was to accumulate more wealth to acquire more goods. The consequences (at least before he meets Tyler) of this mundane, artificial, banal type of existence is that the insomniac Jack lives a deeply unsatisfying life, he cannot sleep and he wants to desperately change his life. According to Fight Club this is the life we currently lead in our post-modern millennium, we lack deep purpose, meaning and grounding in our shallow vapid existence and this has been replaced by counterfeit alternatives that can be bought and sold at a price.
Tyler Durden: “Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.”
Fight Club quite clearly promotes a message of anti-consumerism, although it does not necessarily suggest that an aggressive display of anti-consumerism by ripping modern-day society from its capitalist foundations by blowing up money banks and credit card companies is the solution to Jack’s unhappy life. I’ve seen various commentators assert that this strongly suggests that Fight Club does not believe in its anti-consumerist message and Jack finally regrets this destructive ideology, but this cannot be conclusively stated. Project Mayhem, which is the militant organisation borne out of the fight club franchise, is clearly rejected as the solution to the modern day problem of rampant consumerism, but the film ends before we see whether Jack returns to any sort of anti-consumerist life: either the militant anti-consumerist life that was adopted when Jack lives in a dilapidated house without guaranteed running water and electricity, an extreme contrast to his previous apartment which looked similar to a manifestation straight out of a catalogue magazine; or a more moderate anti-consumerist life where Jack is not living an inauthentic life, with his life hopes, goals and ambitions not dependent on whether he can amass enough wealth to acquire particular goods valued by others and their opinions he cares about.
The previous point about inauthenticity and rampant consumerism also feeds into Tyler Durden’s other excellent quotable lines (of which there are many), one example being when Tyler shouts from the top of a high rise building that is mildly burning underneath him and where his organisation Project Mayhem and himself spray paint green with a large smiley face:
Tyler Durden: “You're 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 contents of your wallet. You're not your khakis.”
In the western world at least we typically make judgement about the intrinsic worth of the person in relation to the amount of power or money they earn from what they do for a living rather than if a person is virtuous or living an authentic life. That is, in today’s world, a sense of a person’s worth is linked to how much a person is worth.
The President of the United States could be the most psychopathic man on Earth and deeply unhappy with his employment (he dislikes the stress, the media scrutiny and would rather live a more peaceful, simpler life) but adores the power that such a prestigious position that this political office entails and the relatively high wage he earns. The majority judgment of the POTUS – regardless of whether he is a successful or unsuccessful in his role – is that he is a great person. We know very little about this individual, such as their personal beliefs, their shady business dealings, their unknown political networks or their level of intelligence, foresight and innovation it took to rise to the top of the political establishment. On the other hand, we could conceivably have many inspiring unemployed individuals that are substantially more virtuous and in their spare time are writing their novels, developing their philosophies and scientific theories. A lot of us in our society unjustly see these individuals as typical losers, educated, well-meaning losers that need to endorse the consumerist society by getting a job they hate to buy shit they do not need in order to fit in with the rest of us – we will see them as having more power in the society as they have more wealth
To be more specific, Tyler Durden’s remark is aimed more at the typical middle class individual. Your sense of importance in life is not tied to the prestige of your employment: you are not the promotion you crave, not the extra £5,000 a year in your paycheck. Although this is not to deny that these are not in themselves important goals for an individual or worthwhile, but not receiving these desires does not make you any less important or worthwhile. In the same way that your sense of importance is not linked to the amount of money you own through your relative’s business, gambling success or inheritance. Your sense of self and your importance to the world is a not a haircut, it is not a pair of Levi jeans, it is not following the new trends on Facebook or buying your Americano at Costa Coffee each and every morning as you commute to the very job you despise. In other words, Tyler Durden is concerned primarily about the large groups of us that are living inauthentic lives by working jobs that have nothing to do with how we want to live our lives and which we commit to working in order to buy products that we believe will make us happy – which they never do. The contemporary solution to many of us is to earn more money to buy more products; on one hand this works as we receive more power and status and thus positive judgment from society, but on the other hand we remain in the exactly the same situation – consumers whose purpose, meaning and goals in life is to merely exhaust products that have been advertised to give us happiness but never do.
Tyler Durden: We're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.
This point is once again reinforced when Tyler sets a homework assignment for the members of Fight Club called human sacrifice. The scene cuts out back behind a convenient store and Tyler has a gun pointed to the back of the head of a convenient store clerk called Raymond K Hessel. He announces to Raymond that he is going to die by shooting him through the head and demands that Raymond gives him his wallet. As he goes through the contents of the wallet, Tyler finds out that Raymond is poor since he lives in a small cramped apartment and used to be a community college student that studied biology for a future career as a Veterinarian. Yet, here Raymond is, on his hands and knees begging for his life at the back of a convenience store where he works. Tyler gives him an ultimatum: you have six weeks to get back on track to becoming a veterinarian or he will find him and kill him. Tyler allows Raymond to escape and Tyler reveals to Jack that he had no intention of killing him. Once again, we can see that Tyler is concerned with individuals that are living inauthentic lives that are irrelevant to how we really want to live our lives or envisaged living our lives as we grew up. Once again consider the dialogue from the scene just illustrated:
Tyler: Raymond what did you want to be?
*Prolonged sobbing from Raymond*
Jack: “Answer him Raymond”
Raymond: “Veterinarian, veterinarian”
Tyler: “That means you need to get more schooling”
Raymond: “Too much schooling”
Tyler: “Would you rather die here, on your knees, on the back of a convenient store”
This is the crux of the question – would you rather die in a convenient store or eventually become a veterinarian? Of course Tyler biases the answer to this question, because had he not robbed Raymond and threatened his life at gunpoint, then Raymond would likely return to the convenient store and continue as normal (presumably with added caution and security). Yet, the genius lies in the fact that Tyler is able to bring the real question into sharp issue by making the issue of mortality in front of us in the here and now. You wanted to be, for example, a veterinarian, but here you are as a convenient store clerk. Why? How does this help anyone and in what sense is this a life worth living? When death is confronted in the face, Tyler is forcing us to realise that everything else – the inauthentic life, consumerism, advertising and other people’s thoughts are irrelevant. Remember Tyler when he says
Tyler: “No fear, no distractions, the ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.”
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