The film “Fight Club” (1999) is one of the most controversial films of the 20th century. It tells the story of the a thirty-something insurance worker who meets a charismatic stranger named Tyler Durden. This stranger has a fundamentally nihilistic world view and rejects ideas of self-improvement or of career progression. Instead, he argues that modern morality is simple a veneer that serves to keep people trapped in jobs that they hate in order to perpetuate a meaningless consumer life style. After he has introduced the narrator to his vision of a “Fight Club,” a meeting place where frustrated men indulge in ultra-violent bare-knuckle boxing, Tyler begins to build an underground army and to carry out acts of domestic terrorism. The film ends as the narrator realizes that Tyler is only a schizophrenic projection of the person that he wishes he could be, and as city sky-scrapers are destroyed in the group’s most destructive attack yet.
The philosophy of “Fight Club” is existentialist and its view of morality and ethics is nihilist. Indeed, it is this nihilism that can be seen to inform the film’s conception of existential truth. Tyler fundamentally rejects the idea that there can be kind of transcendent moral concepts that could give meaning to action. He does not believe that anything can reasonably be called “good” or “bad” by referring it a standard of morality that exists outside of a particular act and its context. Instead, he argues that every kind of attachment to such an idea is simply a weakness and a shackle that is placed on a person by contemporary society. Such shackles must be removed if true freedom is ever to come into being. In one scene, he forces the narrator to conquer his fear of pain and of death by subjecting him to an excruciating chemical burn and, once he has cured it with vinegar, insists that it is “only once we have lost everything that we are free to do anything.”
As well as emphasizing that individual freedom can only come into being once attachment to the world has been overcome, Tyler insists that all moral values are simply a reflection of consumerism. As such, he is an existentialist who argues that meaning can only come from an individual and their own consciousness, and that this meaning cannot be prescribed to them by anything above and beyond their own lives. It is this belief that frequently causes him to challenge the narrator to take more risks and to behave in a manner that is less dominated by a means-ends form of reasoning. In one memorable scene and the narrator are driving a free-way in the rain and Tyler takes his hands off the wheel, causing the car to crash. As the two crawl out of the wreckage, he insists that they have just “had a near life experience.” It is only the intensity of experience that can give meaning to a person’s life. Anything else is simply an illusion.
Watching “Fight Club” and reflecting on the issues that it raises has influenced the manner in which I perceive both existential philosophy and nihilism. Importantly, it has enabled me to understand how such philosophies could conceivably be played out within the course of a life time, and also how they may be related to critique of consumerism. In my previous understanding of existentialism, I had not thought to relate the absence of overall meaning to the the way in which capitalism thrives by giving apparent meaning to meaningless acts. In particular, this has influenced poems that I have written since watching the film. These now express an existential morality and they also link this directly to a criticism of capitalism.
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