Fight Club: The spiritual fight of Tyler Durden

This arcticle was first released in issue 01/2016 of the german magazine agora42.

Let’s delve into the spirituality of Fight Club. Tyler Durden, the protagonist of the film, is an unobtrusive representative of an average citizen in the capitalism during the turn of the millennium. He is dedicated to security of civilization and financial self-esteem. As an insurance commissioner for a large car group, he has to assess whether recalls of faulty and therefore potentially deadly cars are likely to be profitable for the company. Their policy is that they are only to be implemented if the expected subsequent costs of a legal dispute are higher than the cost of the recall action. The economism of Tyler’s gray office day is complemented by a consummate superficiality in private life. His apartment is always equipped according to the current furnishing trends, residential design catalogs substitute porn magazines and raise the question, which dining set can define his personality.

Behind the inconspicuous mask of the passive consumer, however, is a great unrest. Because of insomnia, he is looking for a doctor in the hope that he quickly prescribes some pills against his suffering. Instead, he is referred to self-help groups to learn what real suffering is. The visit of such meetings – for example, of cancer patients – under false identity and the respective illness, gives him a temporary reassurance. However, when he encounters Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), who acts also a sick person at these meetings, the unexpected stability breaks again. Between the two arises a brittle relationship, which is characterized by constant approach and repulsion.
It is a fundamental change when the protagonist (Edward Norton) meets the “second” Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), with whom he then also establishes a fight club. As it will turn out, this figure exists as an independent person only in his imagination. In fact, it is about himself, he acts as a Pitt-Tyler (for example, if he believes he is asleep), who represents all those personality parts, which are tired of the life guidance to date. Pitt-Tyler formulates a crucial sentence during a speech – exactly in the middle of the film – in which he condemns the pursuit of hated jobs for the purpose of meaningless consumption: “Our great war is a spiritual one, our great depression is our life.” The film reveals itself as the symbolization of an inner process that leads from material enslavement to spiritual liberation.

Light up the shadow
This internal psychological process begins with becoming conscious of the “disturbed” human psyche. According to the philosophical psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), every human being pursues a life-long insatiable desire due to lifelong lack initiated by birth. This desire is structured by an imagined (represented) ego that defines itself laterally via mirror and imagination contents. Since this ego formation is an arbitrary construction on the basis of sensory impressions, it can never be experienced as self-sufficient completeness. External objects are continually occupied with a narcissistic desire to compensate for the internally experienced deficiency. This is a basic condition for capitalist accumulation: No matter how much a person possesses, the person always wants more and has simultaneously fear of losing the current possession. At the same time, the ego maintains a separation between the ego and the assumed non-self (object world) or the ego and society under which a person actually suffers.
Spirituality offers an exit from this lacanic dilemma: If the ego does not exist as an instance, but is “made” – in the sense of being imagined – there must be something from which the notion of this ego and thus the separation between ego and non-ego emerge. It is important to look back on this source in order to see through the selfish conditioning and to step out of the personal thought matrix. Spirituality thus aims to undermine the ego and thus to reveal the non-dual consciousness. It is about conceiving as given into a meaningful overall context. Spirituality is therefore also the art of contentment, since the loss of the virtual lack of life is also associated with the ego loss. The independence, which means “self-contentedness”, makes it possible to leave the hamster wheel of anxious accumulation and to plant empathy and communion on the emotional barrenness of economism.
But one is not liberated from the ego as easily as from a fetter. For, unlike a fetter, the ego is not visible, as long as one is controlled by unconscious programs that are characterized by cultural conditioning and traumatic experiences. The unconscious counterpart to the everyday ego, which moves within cultural and self-preserving norms, was characterized by C. G. Jung (1875-1961) as a shadow. In this place, the spiritual path leads to the Fight Club. If you want to come to enlightenment, you must light up your shadows, unconditionally face your repressions, and consciously permeate all the oppressed negative emotions.

Suffering and freedom
In self-help groups, Tyler can escape the control constraints of his ego-determined mind: “I let go. I lost myself in oblivion, (…) silence, (…) perfection. I found freedom.” That Marla appears after that for the first time is no coincidence. She serves as the mirror figure of this blissful state of unconditional security (love), he meets her at a seminar on the opening of the heart chakra. The fact that Tyler is only at the beginning of his spiritual journey is shown by the intransigent negotiations that he and Marla have about who is able to visit which self-help group without getting reminded of the simulated illness and the self-deception by the other one.
However, the course is set: the loss of the suitcase with branded items at the airport symbolizes the loss of faith in material possessions. The old apartment as a metaphor for Tyler’s psyche is blown up, whereupon he calls Marla. The liberation of the possession is again symbolically directly linked to the representative figure of love (Marla). Since he is still at the beginning of his process, he is still hoping to talk to her, and instead asks Pitt-Tyler (as a mediator between Norton-Tyler and Marla) for help. So the hitherto inflexible Norton-Tyler finds a shelter in a down house, which was occupied by the indifferent Pitt-Tyler – he changes from an owner to an occupier. The entrance ticket to the house of Pitt-Tyler is a fight, which becomes an organized regularity. This readiness for pain corresponds to the willingness to fall into the ravines of one’s own unconscious without securing. Tyler’s spiritual development is advancing. When he came home in an angry or depressed mood, he polished the furnishings in his apartment. The departure from superficiality completes this displacement behavior. The catastrophic conditions in the ailing house disrupt Norton-Tyler more and less and body-optimized Calvin Klein posters are reassured by Pitt-Tyler: “Self-improvement is masturbation. But Self-destruction … “. Tyler does not finish this sentence, but he obviously aims at the destruction of the everyday-self. Every fight removes more power from the unconscious programs: “When the fight was over, nothing mattered, afterwards we felt saved.”
Tyler increasingly emancipates himself against the capitalist world of work and consumption. “The liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perception.” Finally, there is the symbolic scene in which Pitt-Tyler etches the hand of Norton-Tyler: “Look. Do not repress the pain.” This scene, as well as the one in which he is beating himself in the office of the boss, is representative of the whole film because of the conscious acceptance of suffering for the goal of liberation.
The need to surrender to one’s suffering is emphasized by every serious spiritual doctrine. Even the motive of the struggle is not new. In a central script of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, the protagonist Arjuna, under the leadership of God-figure Krishna, moves into the battle against his own relatives. Since Arjuna is uncertain and hesitant, Krishna emphasizes the “sacred duty of fighting” (2.33) “for the sake of the struggle, without considering happiness and suffering, victory or defeat” (2.38). It is important to get into the fight with readiness to make sacrifices and without self-interest. In particular, it is wrong to attribute too much value to phenomena of form, since they divert attention from the invisible power, which is subject to all phenomena and which, in contrast to the occupation with single objects, permanently gives pleasure. In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus, “led by the Spirit into the wilderness,” is exposed to the devil’s temptations: “He showed him all the kingdoms of the world with their splendor, and said unto him, All this will I give unto thee.” Jesus is able to spare these tempting objects, until ” the angels serve him “. Both stories can be understood as an allegory of the confrontation with the covetous self that reduces self-understanding and self-sufficiency to the personal organism, and have a clear message: spiritual salvation thrives on the basis of a conscious suffering – or rather of renouncing action with a self-serving goal.” Only after we have lost everything, we have freedom to do everything,” Pitt-Tyler says.

On the way to the zero point
The candidates for the Project Mayhem (a further development of the Fight Club) are also faced with a “trial of suffering” and persist for three days in spite of all the adverse conditions in front of the doorstep – like monks on the meditation pillow. When the Fight Club rises from its basement existence to the Project Mayhem, it symbolizes that repressions are increasingly becoming aware: “The house has become a living being. “The uncovering of the unconscious programs is only the first step. Pitt-Tyler writes: “Coming to the point of origin is not a weekend break, not a damn seminar. Stop trying to control everything, just let go.” This zero point corresponds to the abolition of the ego-determined mind. The film shows this literally, as on the wall in a scene before Marla’s house behind Norton-Tyler “myself myself ends” is written.
The “myself” of the civilized man wants to control his life not only through insurance and a permanent job. The greater part of his mental process consists in judging the social conditions according to his own world design, in order to generate a world view that is as stable as possible and therefore self-reassuring.  “People do it every day. They talk to themselves, they like to be like they want to be,” explains Pitt-Tyler. This security requirement, perceived as an alternative, leads to latent enslavement – one would like to live up to the world or self-image into which one has locked oneself. A hardcore speculator does not abolish his capitalist logic, because an Occupy protester tells him that this – far from personal enrichment – is a global failure. He would have to revise a self-design that had been cultivated for decades. A change of behavior can only happen when he himself learns that his internal defect can not be sublated by maximum property and he enters his own inner fight club. The result of economic alienation does not lead to a violent revolution in the outside, but through a sometimes painful self-examination. Egoistic enlightenment is a contradiction in itself.

The more pain is accepted, the more unstable the conventional ego-condition becomes and the more desperately it tries to keep the control: “Why did not I know about project chaos from the beginning?”, asks Norton-Tyler during a conflict-laden car ride Pitt- Tyler. As a result of the dispute, Pitt-Tyler lets go of the steering wheel and thus enacts a further detachment from the former everyday ego as well as the related worldview. It comes to a heavy car crash that tells Tyler how the people felt, which in his old life he only recorded statistically. Thus, at the same time, he has broken out of the capitalist principle, all according to numerical efficiency, to arrange everything only by means of categories and figures.
In the chaos project, too, numbers of figures and efficiency are increasingly replaced by compassion: the fallen Bob is mourned by name (up to this scene names were taboo in Project Mayhem); Norton-Tyler recognizes Pitt-Tyler as part of himself and stands up to the police to keep other people from harm. The fact that the policemen belong to Project Mayhem and a disturbing conflict occurs, corresponds to the desperate state of the disorganized ego-mind, which is just before dissolution. On the other hand, Tyler is actively looking for an emotional conversation with Marla (“you must definitely listen to me”), on the other hand he sends her away with a bus. Finally, there is the final battle between Norton and Pitt-Tyler, which ends with the words: “It’s time. The beginning. Ground Zero.” The zero point is reached. When Norton-Tyler shoots himself in the throat and Pitt-Tyler disappears, no one dies. Tyler’s last words before the shot are: “My eyes are open.” That means there is no longer repressed content. The process of consciousness is completed and the illusion of cleavage and separation is abolished. Accordingly, Marla can appear and ask the transformed protagonist about his gunshot wound: “You did that?” And he answers: “Yes, everything’s gonna be fine.” The cycle of lack and desire has come to a halt, external objects, and thus the entire capitalist social system, no longer have any influence on the inner contentedness. Together, Tyler and Marla consider the collapse of the capitalist buildings as a symbol of complete love. For love means to recognize oneself in the other.

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