Is Tyler Durden's philosophy just like Buddhism

Fight Club - Capitalism, Enlightenment and Masculinity

Posted on April 27, 2018 by tobihautab

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ATTENTION: contains spoilers!

I finally got around to reading the novel for one of my favorite films - Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, filmed in 1999 with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in the lead roles. The film sticks (except for the end and a few details) closely to the book, which is written entirely from the point of view of the nameless protagonist.

He is around 25-35 years old, works as a recall coordinator for a well-known car manufacturer and suffers from insomnia. He is also dissatisfied with his life and has suicidal thoughts:

"Every time the plane turned too sharply on take-off or landing, I prayed for a crash ... or a collision in the air ... something."

Due to his sleep disorder and depression, the protagonist loses more and more contact with reality and finally develops a split personality. During the day he works as an inconspicuous employee, but after bed his alter ego, Tyler Durden, takes over. This embodies everything that the protagonist is not, but would like to be:

“Everything you always wanted to be, that's me. I look what you want to look I fuck how you want to fuck. I am intelligent, talented and most importantly: I have all the freedoms that you don't have. "

Tyler Durden is the personality that the protagonist unconsciously creates for himself in order to cope with his hopeless situation. The film gives strong indications that they are both the same person, but the protagonist only discovers this when it's too late. At this point, Tyler Durden is increasingly taking control, and as in the novel Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, the protagonist is now desperately trying to make amends for the damage he did that night as Tyler Durden and to stop his destructive plan - Project Mayhem. So what are the values ​​and ideas of this Tyler Durden, the suppressed aspect in the protagonist's soul? What motifs make the novel and the film so fascinating for readers and viewers even 20 years after its publication?

Anti-materialism and enlightenment

The book and the film play very much with the superficiality of American turbo-capitalism of the 1990s, after Ronald Reagon’s tax cuts and in the midst of the speculative boom on Wall Street. Similar to American Psycho, the film pokes fun at the superficial Juppie culture of the 90s, and the protagonist is one of its stereotypical representatives: He is obsessed with material goods, especially furniture and furnishings, in order to fill his meaningless existence: "We used to leaf through porn, now it was home design catalogs". Tyler Durden, on the other hand, lives in a rundown house and rejects the accumulation of material things. In his opinion, these only create the illusion of completeness (if I still have this or that, I'll be happy ...) and perfection that enslaves people: "The things you own will eventually own you!“In general, it is an illusion to want to improve one's life by trying to control it (and consumption is nothing more than an attempt to control one's well-being). According to Tyler, the protagonist should let go of this control in order to finally live properly and authentically.

Fight Club revolves around the subject of death again and again - portrayed in a threatening tone through the eyes of the only female main character Marla Singer, but romantically transfigured by Tyler Durden. For Tyler, the inescapable fact that we are going to die is the greatest and most liberating realization there is. This Amor Fati, to speak with Nietzsche, the complete affirmation of one's own mortality and the accompanying complete affirmation of life itself, represents for Tyler the enlightenment towards which one should already work in life: "Only when we have lost everything do we have the freedom to do everything!"In the person of Tyler Durden, the protagonist burns himself with lye, deliberately drives into a ditch and lets himself be half beaten to death in the Fight Club just to feel his own mortality, and"to get a little closer to the abyss". Ultimately, the memory of death frees you from the many conventions and obligations that the protagonist experiences as a burden. Just as the outside world is only perceived through a dampening veil when the protagonist recovers from his adrenaline rush in the Fight Club, the problems and sufferings of earthly existence appear insignificant in the light of inescapable death.

The absolute affirmation and romantic transfiguration of one's own mortality is accompanied by another ideal of Tyler that borrows from Far Eastern philosophy: the appreciation of the moment as the only reality free from illusions. While the protagonist lives in an illusory world - he visits self-help groups for the terminally ill and practices guided meditation in order to wish himself a better place - only the present moment counts for Tyler Durden, regardless of whether it is beautiful, ugly or painful. This becomes particularly clear when Tyler pours caustic lye over the protagonist's hand: The protagonist should not try to suppress the pain or imagine another place, but rather he should consciously perceive and accept the pain. This is reminiscent of Buddhist mindfulness practice, expressed for example in the Buddha's quote from the sutra about the knowledge of the better way of being alone: “Our appointment with life is in the present moment. And the meeting point is exactly where we are. “Many Buddhist monks were and are able to endure inhuman pain because they are trained through meditation not to suppress the painful moment, but to accept it fully and thereby take away the aspect of suffering from it (think of Monks who pull their own teeth or, in the most extreme case: monks who pour gasoline on themselves and burn them, remaining completely motionless and painless). Of course, the moral aspect (Sila) plays an important role in Buddhist teaching - a pure heart, free from desires, is, according to Buddhist opinion, the prerequisite for enduring unspeakable pain without emotion. But the insane protagonist lacks this purity of desires - pain is only superficially accepted, but in reality the intoxication of pain and suffering is just a kick and as a drug a distraction from the cruel reality. However, there is another aspect of Tyler's worldview related to enduring pain:


The poles male and female play an important role in Fight Club, even if only one female main character appears. The nameless protagonist stands for the female principle: He is passive, soft, fearful, nervous and not very assertive. He has only vague memories of his father, the most important male caregiver in his life. The men with whom he surrounds himself all embody this principle: When the protagonist cannot sleep, he visits a self-help group for testicular cancer patients, many of whom have become sterile and impotent as a result of the disease. The loss of the genitals represents the loss of masculinity, and it is with these men that the protagonist identifies. The only thing that will help with your insomnia is crying yourself on the chest of a former bodybuilder named Robert Paulson. Crying, hugging, talking about his problems - these are the protagonist's female coping strategies, at least until Tyler comes into his life. Tyler is the exact opposite: he is masculine, strong, impulsive, independent and potent - an alpha male, as it is in the book. He is the male counterpoint to the female side of the protagonist - it is not for nothing that the protagonist describes the two living together like an old married couple during the week, with the protagonist taking on the role of the wife.

In the self-help groups for the chronically ill, the protagonist finds an outlet for his frustration and despair - but only until Marla Singer shows up and threatens to let his dizziness explode - after all, he is not sick at all, just looking for attention and closeness. Together with Tyler, the protagonist starts the Fight Club and thus redefines his masculinity.

In the fight club, two men fight against each other while the others form a circle around the fighters and cheer them on. The fights - one against one, shirtless and shoes, for as long as they have to last - resemble an archaic ritual in which the newcomers shed their feminine side and are initiated into a community of men: The Fight Club is the exact opposite of that Support groups. Fight Club members are not allowed to talk about the Fight Club, but they wear their scars - blue eyes, bruises, knocked out teeth - as identification marks and trophies. It is not for nothing that a young man named "Angel Face", who is badly beaten up and disfigured by the protagonist, becomes the first recruit in the novel for Project Chaos, the next level of the Fight Club. Appearance does not matter in the Fight Club, on the contrary - whoever allows himself to be defaced the most shows the greatest contempt for his own health and is thus at the top of the hierarchy.

Instead of emotions and physicality, the Fight Club focuses on aggression and courage. It is not important who wins or loses - the handing out and taking in pain, standing up to the opponent, the injuries sustained in combat - all these are signs of masculinity. Instead of making themselves emotionally vulnerable and opening up, the fighter fades out reality in an adrenaline rush - it is easier to endure in the frenzy of primeval, stone-age instincts:

“When the fight was over, nothing was resolved, but nothing mattered. Afterwards we all felt saved. "

Robert Paulson, who grew female breasts after hormone therapy in the course of his testicular cancer, raves about the fact that he has found something better than the self-help groups. By that he means the Fight Club. The female principle has had its day, and with it the historical experiment of typically female conflict resolution by men through empathy and openness, which ultimately only led to frustration and self-denial.

If the feminine principle is rejected, what is Tyler's ideal of masculinity? Above all in a form of stoicism, a fatalism that makes itself insensitive to the adversities of fate; who no longer has any hope of salvation through a strong father figure and draws a defiant feeling of his own power from this contempt for fate. Resisting pain in the fight club is just one example of this:

“I'll tell you what: Remember that it is possible that God could never stand you. That he never wanted you. If you look at it realistically, he even hates you. But this is not a disaster. We don't need him. Fuck damnation and resurrection ... we are God's unwanted children? So may it be! "

Only those who lose everything have the chance to win everything; and only those who no longer seek love and affection - need more - achieve absolute freedom.

Relationships with women no longer play a role in the male secret society of the Fight Club, the female principle is experienced as mysterious and dangerous: This is how Tyler Durden replies when asked about getting married:

“We are a generation of men who were raised by women. I wonder if another woman is really the answer to our questions. "

The female principle has so far been predominant in the protagonist and the other members of the Fight Club, as the male principle has disappeared with the father's withdrawal. But the female principle has made men - from the protagonist's point of view - wimpy tails who have denied their inner nature. The female principle must therefore be killed in the Fight Club. The woman herself - embodied by Marla Singer - is perceived as a threat: a threat to the self-deception of the protagonist in the self-help groups; Threat to Tyler Durden - after all, it is Marla who confirms to the protagonist that he and Tyler are the same person. In the form of Tyler Durden, the protagonist feels nothing but animal lust for Marla. True feelings develop its feminine, sensitive side. In this way, the female principle becomes a redeeming force in the novel, and even stronger in the film, as the final scene with the protagonist and Marla shows. Only a woman manages to bring the protagonist back out of his own reality created by despair and self-isolation - albeit too late to stop the orgy of destruction of Project Chaos. The novel offers a more interesting, if less cinematic ending: Here the members of the self-help group follow the protagonist together with Marla, even if they know that the building in which he is located is about to be destroyed. The feminine, empathic, caring principle triumphs here over Tyler Durden's death instinct, who cannot complete his work, the destruction of the skyscrapers, in the novel.

Criticism of civilization, anti-capitalism and conformity

Tyler Durden as the destructive side of the protagonist is not only responsible for the Fight Club, but also for the successor organization: Project Chaos (Project Mayhem), a secret association that strives for nothing other than the annihilation of the American, liberal-capitalist Society. This society is portrayed and caricatured by the protagonist in all its superficiality: From “portioned friendships“On long flights without real human communication, to criticism of the advertising industry, which always creates new unnecessary needs, to the contempt of rich women who get sucked off fat and then buy expensive soap made from this fat,” denounces Tyler Durden everything that represents for him the disease of this civilization:

"Advertising makes us hot for clothes and cars, doing jobs we hate, then buying shit we don't need."

Happiness through the consumption of new goods turns out to be just as much an illusion as the supposed equality of opportunity in American society:

“We were raised by television believing that one day we would all become millionaires, movie gods, rock stars… but we won't. And we're starting to realize that. And we're short, very close to freaking out. "

The Fight Club mainly attracts men of the lower middle class - waiters, office workers, mechanics, hardly any academics (with the exception of the protagonist). The hatred of the Fight Club is directed against the members of the American upper class, the winners of the American dream - company bosses, politicians, celebrities. In the role of Tyler Durden, the protagonist describes himself as a guerrilla fighter, not only against the superficial, clean American consumer society - he cuts snippets of pornographic films into family-friendly cartoons - but also against the ruling class, on whom he takes revenge at expensive banquets urinates into the soup or spits into the food as a waiter. The Fight Club is intended as an uprising from the bottom up, as retaliation for the "Second born in history". Here's how Tyler Durden explains to a senior police officer who wants to close the Fight Club:

“Be careful: you are hunting the people you depend on! We cook your meals, drive your ambulances, put your calls through, collect your rubbish. We'll guard you while you sleep. Don't try to fool us! "

What does Tyler's counter-model to the meaningless, strictly hierarchical, unjust culture of America look like? Basically, it is an archaic proto-communism paired with a crude natural romanticism based on Rousseau or the American transcendentalists such as Emmerson and Theraux. Tyler Durden dreams of an end to the far too complicated high-speed society, of a return to nature and a simpler, decelerated way of life:

“In the world I see, you chase moose through the damp, wooded canyons around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You wear leather things that will last the rest of your life. You climb up the thick kudzu vines that entwine the Sears Tower. One look down and you see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison in the empty fast lane of an abandoned super-highway. "

The protagonist's voice is silent about whether there should be private property in this world and whether it would really be so romantic to return to a time without vaccinations, clean drinking water and antibiotics - a sign that he has very clear ideas about it what he wants to destroy, but only a vague idea of ​​what he wants to put in its place.

Every utopian idea of ​​society demands sacrifices in order to realize it, and Tyler Durden is entitled to every means to bring down capitalist society. To do this, he brings Project Chaos to life. However, this is no longer a disorganized, amateurish association in which men can let out their frustration at the weekend, but a tightly organized, paramilitary, sect-like movement that demands complete surrender from the members. Only those who wait three full days without food, shelter and encouragement at the door of Tyler's house, which has been converted into headquarters, can begin their training in Project Chaos. There the new recruit is thoroughly brainwashed and given his role and task in the organization. The men of Project Chaos no longer have names or individuality - Tyler just contemptuously describes them as "Space monkeys - ready to sacrifice themselves to serve a higher purpose“- pawns in Tyler's revenge on a world that is perceived as unjust. In life, every Project Chaos soldier is just a number. Only in death does he get his name back - like Robert Paulson, who is shot by the police during a nightly sabotage operation - and takes his place as a martyr for the advancement of humanity.

The conformism of Project Chaos, the erasure of one's own identity and the merging of a larger collective, represents the last resort out of the individualism trap for the disappointed men who are held down by society - the responsibility that is felt to be too high, for one's own Being responsible for happiness and failure yourself. You don't have to look far to find parallels in the real world - the totalitarian systems of the 20th century, sects and religious fundamentalists are just some of the sad examples of the herd instinct, of which Tyler himself is a charismatic leader and fearless visionary served.

How realistic is Tyler's view of society and could his utopia be realized in today's world? The novel is already 22 years old - the film 19 years - but it probably contributes to the popularity of this timeless classic that the social problems it addresses are just as relevant today. The crisis of capitalism is now as old as capitalism itself since Marx made his first analyzes of this form of human economy. And especially since the global banking crisis of 2008, more and more voices have been voiced that the American model of deregulated turbo-capitalism, especially speculation with huge sums of money from the real economy, but also the permanent pressure for economic growth, the widening gap between rich and poor and the denounce rampant consumption and its problems for the environment. From left-wing groups in Europe to the Occupy movement in the USA to academic advocates of a more just, more humane capitalist order, this criticism pervades all areas of society. We are also familiar with violent groups in the style of Project Chaos - in Germany they are most likely embodied by radical left movements such as the RAF, but still today in the form of left-wing autonomous associations. This goal of Project Chaos is not unknown to us.

Along with the crisis of capitalism comes the dissolution of traditional family structures and with it a crisis of masculinity. Young men - today even described by some as the losers of the emancipation movement - are in fact mainly brought up by mothers, while the majority of fathers have withdrawn from the family sphere into the sphere of work. In the past it was the father who took the boy out of the mother's realm, i.e. women, and introduced him into the men's realm, into work and the public sphere, today this authority of initiation is largely absent. This is accompanied by great uncertainty and the question of what actually makes a man a man. Alleged symbols of masculinity such as alcohol and drug consumption, risk behavior, fitness cult and pornography play the role of the initiation rites of earlier cultures today - without the modern man being aware of his social task and role. The longing for a clear role model - a Tyler Durden, who offers young men a vision of masculinity that can be achieved on their own, is in my opinion still there today - and the balancing act between softie and macho, between the feminine, receptive protagonist , who has to suppress his masculine side, and the masculine, active Tyler Durden, who ruthlessly pursues his interests, is just as difficult for modern men as it is for the insecure characters in the novel.

The interesting question would be whether there could be something like a fight club and the Chaos project in the real world. The idea of ​​a paramilitary group that rejects the values ​​of the state and society as a whole and rejects their overthrow is not far-fetched. Such groups exist in the USA, for example in the form of neo-Nazi and racist underground organizations, the Ku Klux Klan or armed militias (such as the so-called Oregon militia), which particularly criticized the ruling system during President Obama's tenure. These organizations are accused of attempting sabotage and explosive attacks on government buildings - similar to the soldiers of Project Chaos. The difference is likely to be in the political ideology - the Chaos project lacks the revisionist, racist orientation - and in the sheer size.

As the protagonist's life slips away more and more and he turns more and more into Tyler Durden, he describes how he travels through America and sees men with blue eyes, bruises and knocked out teeth everywhere. Fight clubs are springing up everywhere and fighters are being recruited for the Chaos project. The members have long since infiltrated society and have become such a power factor that all opponents who could pose a threat to the Chaos project can simply be intimidated or chilled. Due to the sheer number of members, Project Chaos can no longer be a secret underground society, but should have long since grown into a state within a state, a parallel society. And here, in my opinion, the parallels to the real world stop:

The disappearance of such a large number of young, working men from their usual living environment into a paramilitary association would have to arouse suspicion among the relatives - they could not simply disappear without a trace and plan their acts of destruction in secret. Unlike many successful terrorist organizations, Project Chaos does not consist of relatively independent, loosely connected cells, but is strictly hierarchically oriented towards the person of Tyler Durden, who exercises his power through committees and sub-committees. Only through a few leaks would all files of Project Chaos be traced back to Tyler Durden, who is also completely clueless in his guise as a normal office worker and an easy target. So secrecy is a problem. The second is the question of the boundary between the perpetrators and victims of Project Chaos.

The final plan of Project Chaos is to blow up the headquarters of all credit card companies in the United States. But who would be harmed by this orgy of destruction? With the abundance of targets plus the abundance of initiated members, it would almost certainly be the members of Project Chaos - family members, former friends and colleagues who would be killed. Indeed, not even collateral damage in one's own ranks could be avoided if this extent were destroyed. The victims would no longer be the members of the upper class - insofar as they had not already seeped into the fight clubs anyway, because entry is open to everyone and who says that the rich do not bring the same problems and frustrations with them - but it would be the members and their kind . An enormous amount of brainwashing would be required for such a suicidal act. There are precedents for this, of course - the Jonestown mass suicide, for example, or the firefight between members of the Davidian sect and the FBI - but these were isolated communities, even geographically. The members of Project Chaos couldn't possibly all live in barracks - that would attract too much attention. So you are forced to move in society and are therefore exposed to influences that compete with Tyler's criticism of civilization and the romance of death: television, advertising, politics, therapists, family. The members of the Fight Club may be isolated loners - but they are loners with professions, with social positions, and their radicalization should be noticed at the highest level. Tyler Durden would have to be an organizational genius of the highest order to swear so many men from so many different walks of life to one common denominator. I even find it difficult to create a monolithic enemy image: Marx expected the working class to rise and rebel violently against the class of the haves. What happened across the board, however, was that the working class tried to adapt itself economically to the capitalist class and to imitate it (just as the upper bourgeoisie copied the manners of the nobility). Complaining about your domineering boss may be understandable - also letting go of frustration after a successful beating in the Fight Club - but eliminating the boss, yes of all those in possession, would destroy any social advancement and make all people equally poor. Of course, the hatred of the members of the Fight Club for the upper class could be big enough - but I don't see historical precedents for such a radical rejection of the existing social order, and certainly not in the lush America of the 90s with its luxury problems.

The realism of Fight Club is therefore limited - but that doesn't matter. It is not important whether the vision of the film could be realized or not, but what image the novel and the film reflect back to the reader. Fight Club is so satisfying to read and watch because it plays with problems every man in his life knows about. Every man, whether he wants to or not, will find himself in the protagonist at certain moments. And at certain moments he will wish to be like Tyler Durden. The film draws a fascinating what-if-idea: It increases the frustrations of everyday life, the dissatisfaction with society, the criticism of the ruling system to the immeasurable and asks the question of what if these destructive feelings were to spread at the highest level would break without being held back by any civilizing power or reason. The film tells us more about our own shortcomings than it offers realistic solutions - but that alone can be an effective outlet - at least for the duration of the book or the film ...





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