Monday, June 1, 2009

His Name Was Robert Paulsen

Last night Shel and I watched Fight Club, that standard of post-modern masculinity. This was partly motivated by the recent comparison between cycling clubs and the fictitious “fight clubs” in the film as noted by the CyclingTipsBlog. This similarity is explicit in the coining of the Wednesday night ride the “Wednesday Night Fights” by many of the club riders here in CU.

The last time I watched the film was in the fall of 2000 (- it might have been spring 2001) as a freshman at Purdue. That feels like a lifetime ago – almost 9 years now – and I am certainly a different person sitting on the couch taking it in. Back then the “post-consumerism” appealed to me, as well as the uniting of diverse men for a common cause. Perhaps this is something built into all men, not a mob mentality (though it could quickly become that), but a desire to be part of something bigger, greater, and beyond ourselves.

Yesterday the film struck me by its honest critique of consumerism. The stinging lines (“white collar slaves”, “the things you own end up owning you”, “what kind of furniture defines me as a person?”, “I was almost complete (as a person by having a this wardrobe and those furnishings)”, “you die a little every minute” or something like that…) ring true in our culture, and as we all probably know - it is quite easy to get caught in a cycle of seeking fulfillment in stuff.

A fascinating thing about leaving consumerism is that it isn’t as simple as having some oddly clothed street fighter shout at you to “snap out of it.” In the film the clubbers participate in fights as a form of release from their monotonous soul suffocating jobs (whether waiting tables or in the other modern serfdom: the cubicle). The challenge, pleasure, and pain (in large doses) are all more real than their “real lives,” dominated by custom and societal expectations. The link between the consumerist, facile, and self-obsessed culture (“self improvement is masturbation”) and the 8-5 set is implicit in the film. The modern cycle of work-stress-buy to manage ourselves is not explicitly named but is conspicuous by its absence when the men depart from society and enter the monastic paper company/project mayhem. Thus the fight clubs provide the outlet the men need from the chains of everyday life. As Jack floats among terminal illness support groups for self-coddling early in the film, Fight Club takes over as the film progresses. There is a shared experience in the community that is more powerful and compelling than that of society which is the platform for their freedom.

The value of human life was affirmed in the film (no, really!). The repeated (seeming) carelessness of several characters (Marla’s walking indiscriminately through traffic, Tyler’s car crash, the “human sacrifices”, even Jack’s discharging a pistol in his mouth-!) all underscore the value of life by taking it seriously and living “the way I ought to” rather than “waiting” for tomorrow to start “really living”. The “Carpe Diem” ethos is based on the seriousness of death and the fundamental goodness of life. Ironically, in the film as in life, getting past the fears of failure, pain, the opinions of others, and death are all prerequisite to living fully and freely (as an adult). These elements reminded me of Jonathan Edwards’ famed resolutions (while redundant at times, worth the time).

The life of the mind is quite deceptive and the difference between perception and reality is brought to the fore by Jack’s schizophrenia. Shel’s reaction to it after the film was: “That makes me overwhelmingly sad for schizophrenics.” My response: “But they live such interesting lives.” Oh well.

It struck me that the goal of project mayhem, the cause that the burnt out post-moderns united around, was the destruction of the American Capitalism that gave force to their movement. The crowning achievement of Mayhem was the backdrop of the film’s closing: the destruction of several credit card corporate headquarters. No doubt this would wreak havoc on the companies but even in 2000 near the time of the film’s release we were safely into the “information age” and equipped with off-site backups for something like credit card information. The means to their goal of “erasing the debt and creating chaos” is inherently destructive, temporary, and symbiotic. Surely the daily lives – much less the paradigm – of the masses would not be changed by this event, although many would be inconvenienced which is the irony of the film’s statement; the petty lifestyle of Americans would simply be interrupted yet perpetuated, not revolutionized by this action. Furthermore, consider that the destruction of buildings in rebellion against the hated material system does not accomplish the ideological and “spiritual” goals pursued – they fought fire with fire, which didn’t build a new Heaven and Earth. What would be much more compelling (IMO) is a new way of life that built something grander than the current system. The desire for equality, freedom, and “reaching one’s potential” (or whatever you want to call it) is good and should be encouraged, not hindered. Would the anarchist, legalistic (“the first rule…the second rule…”), exclusively male monastic mayhem movement not do better if it embraced both genders, built instead of tore down, and allowed the flourishing of individual expression (rather than the conformity and anonymity of the bee hive – “you are not special, you are part of the same compost heap…”)? Would not the Kingdom of God do just those things and be a more compelling community to work amongst? Doesn’t the Church last and grow where Mayhem will end in irrelevance?

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