The Esotericism of Fight Club
By Paraplethon, August 19, 2003
"We have no great war, we have no great depression... our war is a spiritual war, our depression is our lives..."
Tyler Durden in the midst of "Fight Club" explaining in no uncertain terms - SPIRITUAL WAR - just what exactly the ultimate drive of the film, and the book it is based on, is.
Running right the way through the storyline is a staunch position of a virulent anti-materialism; a very apt critique of modern 'advanced' 21st Century society being its sole self perpetuation is a never ending accumulation of material items. This is about as far as any 'critics' took the theme with the cinematic release of the film in 1999, however with the underlying motif as pointed out above, this 'anti-materialism' contains much deeper considerations than a simple critique of society in decay.
"Things you own end up owning you..."
An anti-materialistic stance is a stance recognizing a much greater further reaching substance to our existence than just simply what we can observe with our 5 base senses. It is the realization of the physical, material level as a pale reflection, as a gross, impoverished or even feeble illusion that never-the-less is an intimation of that 'greater substance' to our lives, to our experience of existence. In this it is essentially an embodiment of that old maxim "as above, so below".
With the comprehension of the illusory nature of the physical level - 'tis what is invisible that is most important after all - follows a certain detachment from materialism; a search for the origin of existence rather than wallowing around in its 'pale reflection', being so caught up in the illusions one comes to think that's all there is and fails to see the larger picture, missing a golden opportunity at any real understanding of the completeness of reality. A detachment form the frivolous concerns of a duplicit materialism frees the Being of the shackles that limit our understanding. The material, physical level is a block, a hindrance that demands of us our attention, limiting our scope of the nature of reality to a narrow tunnel vision.
Such a detachment from the wily ways of the material is justly rewarded in more ways than one, a lifetime lived is such a fashion reaps a bountiful harvest in the Beings following physical incarnation. An Alchemist in recent years has pointed out the example of Florence Nightingales zealous resistance - nigh a near immunity to the lethal diseases she was exposed to was due to her previous incarnation, that of a 13th Century Templar Knight living a humble life under a vow of poverty.
However, that we are so caught up in all the frivolity of the physical/material level - perhaps more-so in our time than in any other, requires of the process of awakening to the reality of our situation of subjugation 'a short, sharp shock' as it were, forcing us to open our eyes, both inner and outer, to observe - both within and without. The much slandered Initiate Crowley realized, and practiced this method of 'awakening'; note his vehement anti-christian stance - "those crapulous creeds", his voracious ribald nature and his adoption of the 'mark of the beast', 666 as a personal moniker in the prim and proper Victorian England of strict morality as an example of such 'shock tactics'. Being Fight Club is an esoteric treatise, methods of awakening are expected to be found in it; it just so happens the examples in Fight Club are of Crowley's 'shocking' school of thought. For one; Tyler's total destruction of Jack's flat, destroying all his worldly possessions in one fell swoop, destroying that 'comfort zone' where one can escape from the world, Tyler forces Jack into a position of re-appraisal, of self-observation, of waking from a long and until then, an undisturbed sleep. From that experience on Jack is 'out-of-the-fold'; an outside observer of the goings on of the day-to-day world, critical of it generally and more particularly, critical of his previous position in it.
"We all started seeing things differently, everywhere we went, we were sizing things up..."
One expression relevant to the experience of waking from 'sleep-walking' our way through our daily lives, recognizing how unaware, how un-alert, how disconnected we are in our 'normal' state of being, day-dreaming, the mind - our very attention wandering off from just where and what we are doing is; 'Live the moment'. Focus. On that which you are doing, where you are doing whatever it is, and just who it is who is doing it... YOU. Focus, observe, concentrate and live the moment, the present moment, for the truth is eternity is to be found in the present - the eternal present. All else is folly. Bring your full attention upon the present and don't let it wander... or as the enigmatic Discordian Hagbard Celine puts it; "Don't whistle while you're pissing."
The particular scene in the film where Tyler is giving Jack the chemical burn proves itself multidimensional in it's bearing, for as well as containing the above it elucidates another important teaching of the Path of Awakening and Enlightenment; that of pain and suffering. Tyler tells Jack as his hand is being burnt by the lye; "This is your burning hand, right here! This is the greatest moment of your life and you're off missing it... What you are experiencing is premature enlightenment..." To acknowledge the pain, to experience it, as harsh or tragic as it may seem, is just as much a part of the 'gymnasium of life' as the more cordial sensations. For if the ultimate aim of an esoteric path is the attainment of Unity, all must be acknowledged. In his 'Birth of Tragedy' "...Nietzsche maintains that all Being must be affirmed, both beautiful and ugly, both joy and suffering..." for as the tragic is a "...dynamic phenomenon that brings natures generative force out."
"Self-improvement is masturbation... now, self-destruction..."
Along with the theme of a vehement anti-materialism, that of destruction, or more specifically self-destruction, is a likewise stand out issue the Fight Club material concerns itself with. In the context of the 'Spiritual War' the character Tyler professes, this destruction -be it of Jack's prior inane existence, the destructive tendencies within and between the members of the fight clubs, or of the destruction they wreak on society at large through the agency of 'Project Mayhem', and most especially in the relationship between Jack and Tyler, reveals a most impressive wealth of esoteric material; the theme of destruction is Fight Club's raison d'etre. The destruction so inherent to a narrative of this type is two fold; the violent destructiveness is loosed both outwardly and inwardly, and remaining within the context of 'Spiritual War', this two-pronged attack is traditionally understood to be the lesser holy war and the 'Great Holy War'.
The lesser holy war stems from, is an 'outgrowth' of the 'Great Holy War', the analogy is complete in Fight Club with the development of the outwardly aimed 'Project Mayhem' growing from the inner core of the fight clubs themselves. Effectively, the lesser holy war is battling society itself; when the comprehension of society is a degenerate, decaying system determined in the subjugation of it's subjects, it is the physical war in the physical realm against the 'infidel' - the 'unbelievers' intent on the subversive stagnation of humankinds inherent, latent capabilities that it is possible to 'un-lock' via the agency of the internal Holy War. The theme of a lesser holy war as taking the battle to the streets with the intention to create a societal opportunity where humanities inner development is free to take place, not hindered by our familiar societal constraints is paralleled by 'Project Mayhem' in its foundation - to paraphrase Tyler/Jacks exhortation; "...you erase the debt(karma?) records then we all go back to zero, creating total chaos... so we can all evolve - the chips fall where they may."
"Congratulations; you're one step closer to hitting bottom..."
If 'Project Mayhem' is the external arm of the 'Spiritual War' Fight Club concerns itself with, what then is the inner foundation from which it stems and just what is its methods and purpose. The outer is a reflection of the inner, so similarly to there being a war waged on the 'infidel' in the world at large, there is likewise an inner war waged within the narratives characters against constrictive elements in themselves that are strangling their opportunity of realizing the possibility and developing to their full potential. This is the 'Great Holy War', and is just what Tyler Durden is referring to with his numerous incitements to self-destruction.
Human nature is divided, in each and every one of us dwells a multitude of personifications of ourselves simultaneously, each of which we identify with when it is specifically more dominant and in control. These multitudinous 'i's', these psychic aggregates are accretions of our original sole Beings immersal in this level of existence; with so many influences and commitments to be met and maintained the self responds dealing with the situation by creating differing versions of the self for each and every different situation and occurence that arises. It is the existence of these many various I's, or 'ego's' as they are often called in esoterica, that explains a persons blatant hypocrisy; one minute they are 'this', the next minute they are 'that' and the next yet 'another' and so on and on. That there is no singular element of the Being in continual and lasting control - least of all the original sole entity of the Being, the Soul, is an evident truth to any who wish to study of themselves the most changeable nature of their psychology, exemplified for instance in the figure of speech 'to change ones mind'.
It is invariably the case the ego's are in control of our actions, whether we have consciously created them, or unconsciously so (or otherwise) by giving in to base desires and short term or immediate sensual gratification, we feed them by our minds rumination on them - our thoughts tunning away with themselves with some imagined revenge, or sexual conquest or delusions of grandeur. These thoughts, the 'day-dreaming' - which one Alchemist is correct to call 'the excrement of thought', serves nothing but to stifle and suffocate our true inner Being, our Soul, our Essence - the original and eternal element of our Being that engenders us with life. If we are to free our Essence from such suffocating constriction, we must fight the 'Great Holy War' - our own private, internal project mayhem, and destroy all our ego's.
The fight clubs of the book and films title are principally the inner holy war in action, as well as containing a hefty dose of the concept of 'shock tactics' for awakening. The participants of the clubs are essentially stripping themselves bare, all that they think they are, that they otherwise hold as important is removed when they stand in the centre of a circle of men facing their opponent; a man who likewise represents all the falsity of their day-to-day being. The fighting - "that goes on as long as it has to" is intrinsically an inner struggle to overcome the gross misrepresentations of the Being we hide behind to get through the day in the outer world.
The relationship of the two leads in the story, Jack and Tyler, takes this thesis even further; Jack and Tyler being different personifications of the one being. The outer world knows this being as 'Jack', 'Jack' is the outer form, a yuppie who works in 'Complaints and Liability' of a major car manufacturer, Tyler Durden is his Essence coming to the fore revolting against all the ego's that go by the name 'Jack'. The disagreements, the arguing back and forth and the eventual coming to blows between Jack and Tyler is a perfect example of the nature of the inner, Greater Holy War; such confrontation will be experienced by those undertaking the task of studying within themselves in order to free one's Essence of the entrapment of the ego's - even to the point of a number of forceful disagreeing trains of thought, in the guise of opposing voices in one's head perhaps, going through the mind at once. This is the nature of each and every one of us subsumed by psychic aggregates - an esoteric 'schizophrenia'.
What is to be achieved by undertaking such a path as this - freedom. And this is where Jack-become-Tyler stands at the end of the narrative, at the threshold of this discovery with the world literally, and metaphysically, coming down around him.
"It's only when you've lost everything are you truly free to do anything."
The Zelator, Mark Hedsel, Arrow London 1999
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, Vintage London 1997
The Birth of Tragedy; a study, Nadine Taylor, University of Texas Dallas 2000