The following is the second installment of a three-part series. The first can be found here.
This interaction prompts the narrator’s first visit to a support group for men with testicular cancer, most of whom had lost their testicles. Here too, we learn a great deal more about the nature of the narrator’s struggle, through the lenses of both himself and of Bob. When the group leader suggests that the men break into pairs and “really open up” to each other, the passive narrator sits alone as the rest of the men, one by one, arise and partner up, until only the narrator and Bob remain. Still, the narrator awkwardly sits, until Bob approaches him and extends a hand, which the narrator accepts.
At first, Bob lays his head upon the narrator’s shoulder, crying as he opens up about his excessive steroid use that, we are led to believe, was the cause of his testicular cancer. Following his emotional revelation, the narrator buries his face into Bob’s chest, and begins sobbing uncontrollably.
This moment, too, is doubly revelatory. On the one hand, the narrator’s emotional outpouring is therapeutic. He says, “I let go, lost in oblivion, dark and silent and complete. I found freedom – losing all hope was freedom.” This loss of hope is not nihilistic, but a release of the tendency toward inward clinging and self-enclosure; and this, we are told, is synonymous with freedom. But this is instructive – the narrator finds freedom because he is able to ex-press emotion (‘to express’ literally meaning ‘to press outwardly’).
Emotions as typically characterized are passive – we are not their active causes; they happen to us. But if the narrator is living a life of passivity, the only way that his emotional catharsis can be understood as liberating is if passivity is only really passive through its active manifestations. To be emotional is, first and foremost, to be. It is to actualize one’s emotions in an outward manner, and thus, to be emotional is, at the same time, to be active. This moment is therapeutic for the narrator because he is, for the first time, living and acting his passivity, and in this sense he is active. It is no accident that the imprint left upon Bob’s shirt by the narrator’s emotional outpouring resembles a happy face.
It is therefore in this moment that the full nature of the narrator’s suffering comes into view. It is not only that the narrator is living a life of passivity; rather, it is the case that he lives this passivity in suppression of his active forces. His complementarity is being suppressed, a point made more salient in the image of the charred yin yang coffee table. This moment with Bob reveals that his passivity can only truly be passive in an active way. The narrator craves complementarity, a fact that he later confesses to Marla in their first conversation, when he says, ‘when people think you’re dying, people really listen to you, instead of…’ at which point Marla interrupts with the recognition, ‘instead of waiting for their turn to speak?’
Bob’s story makes the same point, but from the perspective of activity. Bob had led his life dedicated to his masculinity, in an effort to suppress his passivity and his femininity. He had been a champion bodybuilder, and in his obsessive pursuits of glory in this domain, he had consumed dangerous amounts of steroids, including some which were specifically designed for racehorses.
But Bob’s story highlights his inability to be purely active. First, to embody active masculinity in the way, to the degree and for the reasons that Bob does, is at the same time to turn oneself into a passive object of judgment for the gaze of others. But more directly in the case of Bob, the extreme consumption of steroids had resulted in his testicular cancer, the treatments for which had elevated his body’s testosterone levels, with the result that his body compensated by elevating its estrogen levels.
As a result of his steroid use in the pursuit of unfettered masculinity, Bob had not only lost his testicles, but he had also developed breasts. In this moment, the narrator and Bob demonstrate that the passive can only be passive through the active, and the active can only be so through the passive. Bob also foreshadows a truth that is relevant to the overall plot of the film – efforts to forcibly suppress one pole of the essential complementarity of life will result in the reciprocally forcible eruption of that pole. Bob’s body exemplifies the knowledge that his mind had lacked.
The Big Tourist: Encountering Marla
As we have already seen, in the opening moments of the film, mere seconds before the impending culmination of Project Mayhem, the narrator reflects that “all of this – the gun, the bombs, the revolution – has got something to do with a girl named Marla Singer.”
The night of his first support group meeting with Bob, the narrator sleeps, soundly and peacefully. The discovery of this emotional outlet soon turns, however, into another consumer addiction, as he notes: “I became addicted.”
Moreover, the emotional release that the narrator achieves in these groups, which, we later discover, he attends for a year prior to meeting Marla, is predicated entirely on lies. Each night of the week is dedicated to a different support group, where the narrator assumes a pseudonym, pretending a shared affliction, to parasitically partake in the drama of human suffering, like a vampire feeding on the living. This emotional engagement is the narrator’s newest drug, his new consumption.
As he says, “I wasn’t really dying… I was the warm little center that the life of this world crowded around.” This complementarity is thus, like the identities that he constructs anew each night, illusory and ultimately doomed to exhaust itself, an exhaustion provoked when the narrator first meets Marla.
Marla’s introduction complicates the narrator’s life for multiple reasons. Most immediately, her omnipresence at all of the narrator’s support groups directs his energy back inward. He is no longer able to release because he is ever aware of someone in the group who knows of his deception, and the perceived moral judgment is inhibitive. He says of Marla, “her lie reflected my lie.”
But as he no longer has his emotional release, he can no longer sleep. Moreover, inasmuch as she reflects his own deceptions back onto himself, Marla is sexually intriguing to him. Marla engages in the same lies, but from what appears to be a different set of motivations, and with utter disregard for whatever opinions others might have of her. Where her presence paralyzes him, his presence does not faze her in the least. Her hair unkempt, her clothes outlandish, her habits brazen, she exudes an alluring confidence that captivates the narrator, and much of his early expression of frustration over Marla turns out to be an indecipherable, unconscious attraction to her.
As Lynn Ta notes, “Their relationship develops as a contentious one, but is also characterized by an undercurrent of sexual tension.”(267) We know this because he insists on unnecessarily exchanging phone numbers with her, and when the narrator’s condominium blows up, he first calls Marla’s number, nervously hanging up when she answers the phone.
Finally, the narrator’s interest in Marla is rooted, as becomes apparent later in the film, in the fact that Marla exemplifies a complementarity to her character, one that the narrator has not been able to find in himself. Upon first encountering Marla, the viewer may assume that she is a personified embodiment of activity, yang to the narrator’s yin. She smokes in public in the presence of cancer patients, she speaks exactly what is on her mind, she snags other people’s laundry only to sell it in a pawn shop, she crosses the street when convenient for her, (not the cars), and when she and the narrator part company after their impromptu agreement regarding the division of support groups, she does not seem to care.
But Marla is certainly not Tyler, nor does she play a role parallel to that of Tyler. Marla eventually begins to express feelings for the narrator and seems genuinely sorry at the mention of Chloe’s death, she tends lovingly to the burn wound on the narrator’s hand and inquires in a deeply concerned way as to its provenance, and she is clearly able to be hurt by the narrator’s brutish negligence and cruelty. She demonstrates aspects of active forces, but she is clearly not bereft of passive forces.
She thus embodies complementarity, to which the narrator, incapable as he is on his own of living this complementarity, is drawn. In parting ways, they agree to split up the support groups perfectly evenly, down to an alternating weekly schedule for one of the groups, to compensate for the odd number of days in a week. But before letting Marla slip out of his life, the narrator shouts that they should exchange phone numbers, in case they should need to swap nights for some reason.
This is the narrator’s passive aggressive way of establishing Marla’s contact information, and she seems, by the sarcasm in her voice at his suggestion, to recognize this. Though they part company, the challenge that Marla has presented in the life of the narrator is one that he cannot ignore. Drawn to Marla, but incapable of initiating on his own a relationship with her due to his paralytically passive character, the narrator’s suppressed active forces at last burst forth into the world as the externalized projection of Tyler Durden.
The All Singing, All Dancing, Crap of the World
Shortly after the break with Marla, the narrator “meets” Tyler, officially, for the first time. Seated next to each other on an airplane, Tyler and the narrator strike up a conversation that culminates in their exchange of business cards. This turns out to be fortuitous, because when their plane lands, the narrator returns home to find his condominium and possessions destroyed. The narrator calls the number on Tyler’s business card, a moment that establishes the relationship dynamic that Tyler and the narrator embody.
The narrator telephones Tyler, but as we know, the narrator is passive, not active; and calling someone on the telephone is an activity (the very reason that he hung up on Marla when she answered). It is no surprise that his call to Tyler is unanswered. Conversely, Tyler is incapable of passivity. When the narrator calls, Tyler does not answer. He “69s” the narrator, claiming, “I never answer my phone,” thus establishing from the outset of their relationship the balance of power.
The narrator’s passivity with respect to Tyler’s activity is once again displayed just after their first drink and conversation in Lou’s bar, when the narrator, again in the mode of passive aggression, says to Tyler, “I should find a hotel,” obviously hoping that Tyler will extend an offer without the narrator’s having to ask. It is at this moment that Tyler initiates the first fight of what will become Fight Club.
The introduction of Tyler and the birth of fight club launch a progressively intensifying trajectory of active forces in the narrator’s world. This trajectory is best summarized as a journey from “mischief” to “mayhem.” First, we learn of Tyler’s ‘back story,’ consisting of the nightly contamination of the consumer goods of bourgeois society. He works night jobs, which allows him to issue bodily secretions into the food of upscale restaurants, and splice single frames of pornographic images, specifically male genitalia, into family films.
He steals human fat from the dumpsters of liposuction clinics, in order to manufacture designer soaps, which he then sells back to the very same class of people who pay for liposuction in the first place, ironically perpetuating the simulacra of vain consumption.
This mischief is the logical expression of Tyler’s character. Tyler is everything that the narrator cannot be. He’s chiseled and charming, tough, confident, and daring. He is sexually voracious and, lacking any moral or emotional inhibitions, he is completely free to pursue his desires, actualizing his sexuality outwardly into the world. He does not care about consumer goods, attempting at one point to ventriloquize the narrator with the proclamation that “we reject the basic assumption of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.”
Tyler is not afraid of physical pain, and like Marla, he is uninterested in what anyone thinks of him. As fight club evolves from its phase of anarchic assemblage in the parking lot of Lou’s, to the basement, and finally, into Project Mayhem concentrated in Tyler’s dilapidated Paper Street house, this actively mischievous disposition assumes a more philosophical focus.
Tyler provides and develops the philosophical backbone of the movement and its evolution, culminating in the destruction of twelve major credit card companies. This philosophical undergirding conveys an extreme and imbalanced version of the Taoist affirmation of passage and flux – “I say, let’s evolve; let the chips fall where they may.”
In his essentially active comportment, Tyler is the very embodiment of outwardly directed energy. We can even think of it as an inherently libidinous mode of comportment to the whole of the natural world, manifested to such an extreme degree that in the erotic opening of the self, the self is entirely lost. This kenosis is akin to self-destruction, but this self-destruction is not nihilistic, but expansionary, like an energy source burning so brightly as to exhaust itself.
As the narrator and Tyler board a bus, the narrator looks disdainfully at a Gucci advertisement of two slender and muscularly defined men, asking Tyler, “Is that what a man looks like?” To this, Tyler mockingly laughs and responds, “Self-improvement is masturbation. But self-destruction…” If self-improvement can be thought of as a masturbatory, inwardly directed energy, then Tyler’s Nietzschean self-destruction, with its unflinching willingness to dissolve the self outwardly, can be understood as Tyler’s sense of sexuality itself. Sexuality, activity, and self-destruction are all aspects of the same reality for Tyler.
Tyler’s philosophy is indeed uncompromisingly masculine in its focus. Fight Club is a therapy group explicitly “for men only.” Its therapeutic efficacy lay in its “return to nature” ethos – men strip themselves not only of shirts and shoes, but also of their social statuses, in the name of loosening a perceived societal feminization and loss of power, reclaiming a hunter-gatherer masculinity.
In their early weeks together, their “Ozzie and Harriet” phase, Tyler and the narrator converse about their aimless drifts through life, with Tyler speculating on the prospect of marriage: “We’re a generation of men raised by women – I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” Later, as the narrator reflects in a voiceover on the significance of Fight Club, he claims that “When a guy came to Fight Club for the first time, his ass was a wad of cookie dough; after a few weeks, he was carved out of wood.” And Tyler explicitly outlines the vision of Fight Club as the agonistic redemption of the “strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived,” who, he says, have ‘no purpose or place… no great war, no great depression… Our great war,’ he says, “is a spiritual war.”
And in a semi-poetic musing offered as the narrator drifts in and out of consciousness, Tyler says, “In the world I see, you’re stalking elk through the damp canyon forest around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you will see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison in the empty carpool lane of some abandoned super-highway.”
Tyler’s vision is one of a post-historic, anarchic state of nature, where unfettered masculinity is the order of the day. As Cynthia Stark writes, “Once this transformation has taken place on a large enough scale, society itself can be transformed. The new society will ensure that men remain men.”(68)
As already noted, Tyler is the antagonist of the film, who is ultimately to be overcome. Thus we should not take Tyler’s views at face value as the voice of the film. However, we should note that there are aspects of Tyler’s philosophical outlook crucial to the narrator’s own character arc, and thus, there are elements of this philosophy that the film leaves intact, even when Tyler exits.
The narrator’s existential paralysis resides in the fact that he lives a life of passivity, attempting to completely suppress his active forces. Everything that Tyler does and says to the narrator involves the effort to reorient this tendency. Destroying his condominium is an attempt to jar him from his obsession with material possessions. The chemical burn upon the narrator’s hand is designed to provoke the narrator’s recognition of his own mortality, to affirm and embrace the fact that he is part of the ‘all singing, all dancing crap of the world’ that will one day pass into the ocean of nothingness.
Tyler’s encouragement to let go of the steering wheel in the limousine, allowing the car to veer off the road, flipping the car and harming its occupants, is his way of attempting to loosen from the narrator his pretensions to control. Tyler expresses (albeit in an extreme way) the activity that the narrator lacks.
However, just as the passive apart from the active cannot be truly passive, the active, unfettered and unmitigated by passivity, cannot truly be active. The most obvious sense of this incapacity is visible in the members of Project Mayhem. As Tyler’s persona, his “will to power,’”intensifies, Fight Club alone is no longer sufficient for Tyler’s actualization. His ambitions shift from the tavern basement, to the widespread disruption of the social order, and ultimately to a nationwide anarchist group bent on destroying headquarters of twelve major credit card companies.
As members of Project Mayhem, the erstwhile members of Fight Club are stripped of their identities. Subjected to days of humiliation and rejection before admittance into the Paper Street house, they shave their heads, relinquish their names, dress like soldiers, surrender their rights, and fideistically chant the tenets of Project Mayhem, all the while attempting to coherently reconcile the increasingly schizophrenic dictates of their leader. The members of Project Mayhem leave behind one life of servility, only to embrace another. They are no less subordinate under Tyler’s regime than they were in their lives prior to meeting Tyler. Tyler’s activity can only be such by way of a massive assemblage of passive foot soldiers.
Vernon Cisney is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Deleuze and Derrida: Difference and the Power of the Negative (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) as well as Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).