Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fight Club: Neo-Neanderthals Are a Scourge

One of my AP classes selected Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club as a contemporary novel to read and to discuss following the AP Exam. Most of the students were already familiar with the story from the cult classic film of the same name starring Ed Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter. The novel and film both explore the psychological and existential struggle for self-definition that modern men experience in a suffocating world of hyper-commercialism, ultra-conformity, and uber-femininity. Unfortunately, while the concerns of the narrator and his split personality (Tyler Durden) about male identity and contemporary American society are all too real, the alternative that he (narrator-Durden) proposes is not an improvement, but a regression to man’s primordial sado-masochistic impulses.

The narrator and Durden form Fight Clubs around the country where apathetic men of all ages, races, and professions are galvanized by bludgeoning each other into submission. They eventually form a code (the rules of the Fight Club), creed (anti-capitalist Project Mayhem), and cult (“His name is Robert Paulson” mantra). Basically, the Fight Club members create a kind of perverse quasi-religion equipped with its own monastery of violence where the devotees of the fist don’t contemplate God and his transcendental attributes (the true, the good, and the beautiful), but plot the wholesale destruction of all the same things with an aim toward the establishment of anarchy.

Sadly, the film and its message have gained cultural traction right up to the present day. Ultimate fighting and MMA fights are now all the rage in the youth culture. Ironically, these real-life manifestations of fight clubs operate along the same lines that the adherents in the film set out to demolish. Their primary purpose is to generate profit for all those involved. The emergent commercialization of violence has succeeded in encouraging three deeply disturbing trends:
First, it promotes a new culture of conformity that asserts itself as the proper understanding of manhood, thus claiming a monopoly on masculinity and exiling all other models to the appellation of weak femininity.

Second, it desensitizes young men to violence as never before, which, in turn, increases the potential for human tragedies like what we saw at Columbine High School in 1999.

Third, it degrades women by turning them into objects, calling for the suppression of all worthwhile feminism, and promoting a neo-patriarchal vision of society deeply at odds with the advancement of legitimate women’s rights that were so painstakingly achieved in the twentieth century.
I could spend a post commenting on each of these trends, but I don’t have the time or energy to do so. Let me just say that I reject all three as absurd and patently false. I think that physical violence is a terrible way for men to seek self-definition. The virtue-ethic of the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions provides a much more meaningful avenue for existential development. Men are men by virtue of reason, NOT by virtue of their fists. We shouldn’t accept some materialistic reductionist view of what it means to be men. We are not reducible to mere flesh. We are spiritual beings who are most fulfilled when we use reason for the best of ends not the worst or most convenient, like Neanderthals.

To accept violence to the point of desensitization is to risk revisiting the worst episodes in human history. To give into neo-Neanderthal instinct is to ignore the humanity of not only our neighbor but our own selves. The twentieth century schooled us ad nauseam in the penultimate upshot of such a philosophy in the various holocausts, genocides, and general hatred of that period.

Women, especially mothers, are indeed vital contributors to our masculinity. There is no shame in this. Quite to the contrary, there is great significance in their influence. We first learn love, charity, forgiveness, honor, friendship, respect, dignity, integrity, etc, etc from our mothers, our first teachers. These are not badges of weakness. We are not lesser men for it, but greater men. There may indeed be some excessive feminine influence on modern men, but to overgeneralize about it or to over magnify this influence or worse – to jump to the conclusion that we should reject women or subjugate the fairer sex as an adulterating force on men- is nothing short of insane.

Fight Club appeals to men’s base instincts. It mixes the leftist politics of the protagonist and villain (and likely Palahniuk as well) with a materialist, reductionist, neo-Neanderthal view of masculinity. The end result is a self-portrait of gore and hate and vitriol that contributes nothing to the betterment of the world or mankind. It promotes a false view of man that can and does have nothing but deleterious consequences for American culture. Please, I beg you, reject such neo-Neanderthal ideologies.

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