What does it mean to be a man?
Fight Club (1999) addresses this dilemma, quite ironically, with its opening first scene - a meeting of “castrated” men, who suffer from testicular cancer. It is filled with pathos, because their suffering resulting from their emasculation, is symbolic of their loss of masculinity in a hyper-capitalist society of the late 90s America.
Jack, the narrator, is the epitome of Rousseau’s “civilized man,” living an isolated existence in a product-obsessed culture, and suffering from a coffee induced/ work pressurized insomnia. He is seen as slave of “Ikea nestling instinct,” with his life akin to the pages of a shopping catalogue. His obsessive desire for trendy furniture, placed throughout his apartment (along with other clever product placement by Fincher like a Starbucks cup, Calvin Klein’s underwear), drives him to live an existence of a bonded labourer, relentlessly oiling the capitalist machinery. He is exemplified as the “Man born free, but is now confined in chains” due to economic and cultural forces of the modern society.
Jack’s freedom only becomes possible through the cathartic process of ‘letting go,’ when he lets his emotions flow freely, by giving up to his baser instincts, which either involves a full emotional breakdown (crying) or succumbing to violence shown in the latter part of the movie. This mental release is seen as being accomplished through a collectivistic living, primarily seen in the help he was getting through support groups, conveniently named “partners in positivity,” and later bought by Jack’s own alter ego- in the figure of Tyler Durden. This philosophy of living within community as natural and liberating is reminiscent of Rousseau’s philosophical treatises of 18th century, which valued intense/passionate feeling above the socially sanctioned behavior or constrained living, common among bourgeoisies of his times.
Rousseau had propounded for the freedom of men away from the amour propre, an artificial life which was centred around pride, vanity, and jealousy as seen to be living by Jack. It was a result of the competitiveness in modern society, critiqued by Rousseau, which constantly pitted one individual against the other along the lines of money and status, losing sight of one’s sensation in the process. As the 18th century European society became richer and more technologically advanced, people started believing in progress as mankind’s positive trajectory from savagery to prosperity. While Rousseau continued to be of an opinion that progress came from man’s happiness and satisfaction, resulting from his pre-social or rather primordial state of living, like a tribalistic existence untouched by culture.
This idyllic state of life was described by him as being spontaneous and empathetic, a form of solitary existence, where individuals lived in being awe of universe and enjoying the simple pleasure of life. Tyler Durden as a character, here, stands for Rousseau’s vision of the “noble savage” who only lives with ideals that are essential to live a basic but fulfilled life. Rousseau when observed the plight of Indian tribes who lived a materially simple and a psychologically rich life, that was soon disrupted with the allure of technology and luxury goods introduced by Europeans, concluded that ruination is brought by the greed for the possession of material goods which fractures community living.
The idea of the “noble savage,” Rousseau’s romantic conception of man enjoying a natural and noble existence as opposed to civilization that makes men slave to unnatural wants and corruption is portrayed in Fincher’s work, with a stark contrast between raw primal state of nature being represented by Tyler Durden, and the material decadence and consequent moral degeneration of culture, as represented by the narrator Jack. The movie succeeds in invoking the natural sentiments of living free. Tyler Durden seduces his audience in convincing them to value primitivity over civilization by denouncing the modern world’s addiction of tripartite sins namely status, machinery, and capital.
Tyler is shown as a maker of soaps which he calls as the “yardstick of civilization” that is used for cleaning, and thus differentiating humans from other lesser beings. Tyler’s question of the importance of objects like soap or duvet is very similar to Rousseau’s dilemma over this civilized way of living- “is the use of these objects essential for survival?” Rousseau believes that a man’s needs should require nothing more than what fulfils his basic necessities. “Lose the tie,” is Tyler’s first instruction before letting go of self, symbolically represented with fighting, where the tie stands for the civilization that bounds the individuals to unessential objects, or metaphorical ‘confinement.’
Fight Club is successful in presenting a remarkable critique of excessive consumerism, as leading to a sick addiction, which is echoed through Jack’s state, “If I saw an ingenious innovation as a coffee table representing the yin and yang, I had to possess it.” The two sides of the narrator, here, his real self and the alter ego is similar to those opposing energies emanating from the Yin and Yang. Jack’s disillusionment with society is what leads him to search for a purpose in life instead of tirelessly chasing cars, or clothes or striving for the perfect body. Inspired from Tyler’s ideology that self-improvement only leads to self-destruction, he attempts to set himself free from the shackles of society and merges with the alter ego to express what Rousseau may call as an “authentic self.”
Though by the end, the question still remains: is Tyler’s philosophy with roots in Rousseau’s political discourse ideal or fit for modern beings to imbibe? By installing anarchy and rejecting every societal norm that had turned them into slaves, Jack/Tyler ends up creating only disorder, destruction, and death of his fellow human beings. When the underground fight club evolves into Project Mayhem and starts pouring into the outside world, members of it begin to dismantle every societal concept, causing controlled, deliberate and channelled turmoil. It yields no result, and answer no question, creating conflict that borders on utter chaos. In the end, it seems Fincher does not subscribe to any philosophy as being the ultimate goal of the mankind but rather a moderation, campaigning for a combination of both. He lets the audience decide for themselves and avoid promoting either the two opposing and radical sides of one diverse thought spectrum.