OK, hold that thought.
If you are a twenty- to thirty-something male, chances are you know exactly where this is going. “The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.” Unfortunately, talking about it is all we are going to be doing over the next few paragraphs. We’ll be listening to the thoughts of Danielle Ochoa, a lecturer for the Department of Psychology in both the University of the Philippines, and Ateneo de Manila University. We’ll be exploring the allure of an underground, bare-fist fighting community, and what it says about those of us who live vicariously through the nameless Narrator, his alter ego, Tyler Durden and their band of mischief mongers.
Chuck Palahniuk’s gritty, darkly funny, watershed novel Fight Club released in 1996 and spawned a cult following as it spoke to–and possibly for–a generation disenfranchised from consumerism, career, even family. That disillusion was an apparent theme woven into every page of the book, a criticism of the shallowness of society, and a yearning to feel alive. Our protagonist, Narrator, recounts his discontent in life, thanks to a job he clearly hates and mundane pursuits governed by his next purchase at Ikea. This pushes him into insomnia, which pushes him to find solace in cancer support groups, and then ultimately experience release in an underground, bare-fist fighting community.
Within three years, the book was on the big screen in a feature film starring Hollywood big guns, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. Shortly following its video release, the Fight Club film achieved cult status as well, and alongside the novel, retains its relevance over a decade later.
Hard-Hitting Questions… and Answers
The big question is why Fight Club is so relevant. Ochoa offers some insight. “Being part of an exclusive and secret group of like-minded individuals is something already appealing in itself,” she says. “It makes us feel like we have an advantage over other people by the mere fact that they don’t know about this secret club of ours. Adding the nature of the fight club makes it even more alluring, as that group allows for a ‘safe’ space for people to manifest something that is forbidden in the outside world.” Secrecy, forbidden acts–it all does sound very enticing, indeed. “To a certain extent, there’s this thrill in doing something that violates the norms of decent society in a setting that validates such behavior.”
And what of the popularity of Fight Club among males? Are violent fantasies more prevalent in men as compared with women? “It’s not so much the prevalence but the types of aggression that we resort to that differ,” Ochoa explains. “Men tend to go for more direct physical aggression, while women resort to relational aggression, a.k.a. back-stabbing and rumor-mongering. We don’t realize that the latter also counts as aggression, but the fact that it hurts another person makes it just as bad (or even worse).” This offers an explanation to the masculine connection with the book.
But do violence and aggression–or the prospect thereof–help us get by? Is there some lasting satisfaction in punching the lights out of someone? “It’s harder to say where the fun of that comes from,” says Ochoa. “Some people like to get hurt because it makes them feel more human. Others might see it as just a trade-off for being able to fight. In any case, most people would rather be the one punching than being punched,” she continues. “As humans, we are ideally capable of reasonable thought and finding ways to deal with our frustration in a more civilized manner, from rationalization to denial,” she says. “Freud actually called these defense mechanisms, and research has supported that people do use these mechanisms in frustrating situations, and they do help in reducing the negative feelings from these experiences. Imagine if we resorted to violence and aggression every time we became frustrated? The world would be even worse off than it already is.”
Along the vein of keeping the world a better place, we ask Danielle Ochoa about the growing popularity of action and combat sports, and what this has to say about humanity’s fascination with risking life and limb, and if this has anything to do with the widespread reception of Palahniuk’s story. “[Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter, said] there is a defense mechanism called sublimation where people release their aggression through socially acceptable means. MMA (mixed martial arts), along with any sport that involves hitting, tackling, punching, etc., offers one such venue for doing so. Some people, usually those high in extraversion, are also naturally more thrill-seeking, so they get satisfaction out of the adrenaline rush brought about by the combination of the danger and the actual physical exertion of these sports.”
“Hit me, before I lose my nerve.”
“How much can you know about yourself, you’ve never been in a fight? I don’t wanna die without any scars. So come on; hit me before I lose my nerve.” — Tyler Durden
That pivotal scene is the threshold between the Narrator’s bland existence, and Tyler Durden’s wonderfully dark Valhalla, with senses on overdrive, and blood leaking from various points on fighters’ damaged, satisfied faces. Certainly, Chuck Palahniuk was onto something deep, a validation of the struggle that the comforts of a materialistic existence have ironically created. In a civilized society, fighting is certainly not socially acceptable, and that might be why books and movies offer us escape, and the consequent solace, at least for a little while.
Maybe that is the place for Fight Club to exist: in the mind, on the page, on the screen, helping us get by and cope with the pitfalls of shallow living.
Or who knows, maybe it actually does exists in the real world, in an actual basement somewhere, smelling of blood, sweat and freedom, the air filled with the sound of grunts, chokeholds and cracking knuckles.
We can never really know.
Because the first rule of Fight Club is–
Wait. I think I’ve said too much.
Special thanks to our resource person, Danielle Ochoa, a part-time lecturer for the Department of Psychology in both the University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila University. Interesting trivia: Dani’s younger sister is a mixed martial arts fighter. To learn more about what Dani is up to visit her blog or follow her on Twitter.