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Fight Club: Inhuman or Superhuman?

Dawn Thomas

The German existentialist Fredrick Nietzsche (1844-1900) predicted that human evolution would someday result in an übermensch (or overman). A man such as this is capable and great enough to create a new meaning for the world we inhabit. In the film Fight Club, Brad Pitt plays an übermensch. His outspoken character Tyler Durden offers the weak an outlet: violence and anarchy. He enters Jack's (Edward Norton) life and philosophically evaluates his pathetic and passive lifestyle. Jack, the protagonist, is an insomniac who goes to support groups for ailments he does not even possess. While crying on Bob, a man with testicular cancer, Jack assures himself, "I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom". Surely some people would applaud Jack for giving the weak a shoulder to cry on and showing them compassion. Nietzsche, however, would be appalled by Jack's behavior because not only is he weak, but he also goes to pity parties, "…pity stands in opposition to the tonic emotions which stimulate the feeling of being alive: it is a depressant" (Nietzsche, 1930 p. 11). Pity not only robs Jack of power, but it becomes infectious. Is seeking power really a selfish and bad thing as many people think? Or does our very freedom depend on our will to power as Nietzsche believed?

Nietzsche predicted that as humans evolve an übermensch would be capable of facing the threat of Nihilism, which is the psychological fear that what we take to be true is merely an illusion. For example, Nietzsche says that there is no more: "God, or sins, or savior; and that freewill and a moral order are lies" (Nietzsche, 1930 p. 32). If people suddenly realized that their faith was a lie, then soon everything would lack meaning for them, "the untenability of one interpretation of the world, upon which a tremendous amount of energy has been lavished, awakens the suspicion that all interpretations of the world are false" (Kain, 2009, p.45). We can see the results of Nihilism in Fight club as Tyler Durden discredits the falsehood of others interpretations of the world. He lives in a society where everyone values what they where or own own more than the even know or value themselves. They are afraid to be what they want to be, and stick to their boring routines.

Tyler offers people an outlet. In fight club they learn to defend themselves, and gain confidence. Tyler forcefully gives Jack a chemical burn on his hand and lectures him while he writhes in pain, "Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing. What you're feeling is premature enlightenment. You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you; he never wanted you. In all probability he hates you. We don’t need him! Fuck damnation! Fuck redemption!" Rejecting God for rejecting us is empowering for Tyler, as Nietzsche famously said, "God is dead". Anything that we pity or overly value is a threat to our freedom. We should instead emphasize ourselves, be proud of who we are and what we've accomplished without giving all the credit to an outside source like God, "Nowadays no one has the courage to claim privilege and rank, or to exercise the feeling of pride in himself and his peers" (Nietzsche, 1930 p. 37). What I wonder is, if Neitzsche considered pity to be contagious, then wouldn't pride be as well?

Power Hungry or Pity Party?

We see the dangers of pity, and weakness from Tyler's perspective in Fight Club, but there are also dangers of pride that Jack objects to. Once fight club grows in popularity the members take on a new assignment: Project Mayhem. This project involves destroying public property, and eventually blowing up the headquarters of credit card companies to erase the debt record. The first rule of fight club is that you can't talk about it, but with an increasing group of new members willing to be beaten and hazed in order to join the club, obviously people broke the rule. This implies that power is just as contagious to people as weaknesses such as pity and guilt. Ironically, Tyler as an übermensch has gained power from having many followers, but they are brainwashed with his Nihilistic chants, "You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake, you are the same decaying organic matter as everything else...all part of the same compost heap. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive, the contents of your wallet". The members of Fight Club feel more powerful than ever before, but only through the dehumanization that Tyler has to offer. Why is it that by telling people they are not special, and that God doesn't love them, they feel more empowered than ever before?

The members of Fight Club are brainwashed to the extent that they no longer have names. Perhaps there is a sense of equality that occurs when people realize they are purposeless accidents of nature. There seems to be no hierarchy involved in Fight Club, yet power is still attainable. This reminds me of military training; people must be broken down and dehumanized before you can build them back up into fearless warriors. Likewise, weak people's self deceptions must be shattered before they can be rebuilt into power seeking individuals.

If Willpower is Evil, then Weakness is a Virtue

Jack finally falls asleep after days of insomnia. He awakes and realizes the horrible things that Tyler, his alter ego, has done. Tyler blew up Jack's neat apartment that he valued immensely, telling him, "The things you own end up owning you". He considers himself to be liberating this group of fighting men, but really what has he done to help them? Jack alone has lost his apartment, his girlfriend, his job, and his friend Bob was shot by police.

Tyler reassures Jack, "Were not killing anyone, man; were setting them free. You want to make an omelet you have to crack a few eggs!" According to Nietzsche, killing people is only wrong if you value life. If you don’t strive to live as long as possible in the shadows like a cockroach, then you are indifferent to your death like Tyler, "I don’t want to die without any scars." Even murder becomes acceptable when living a long life is not seen as better than living a short one.

An übermensch, or superman, must overcome the aspects of himself that are falsely imposed; the internalization of external sources. In doing so, he seems to be rejecting the value of anyone or anything outside of himself, and using them as a means to his indifferent ends. This sounds extremely selfish. What is to stop others from internalizing an übermensch as an external source? Any power he inspires defeats the purpose of people learning to empower themselves, unless it teaches them to do just that. Therefore, an übermensch doesn't seem to be gaining power for anyone but himself. Like Nietzsche, Tyler sees his recruits as common slaves to the system, "I see all this potential God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars, working jobs that we hate to buy shit we don’t need. Were the middle children of History, no purpose or place…no great war…no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war; our great depression is our lives." Initially it seems that this talk of the slave mentality is only to brainwash Fight Club members to do Tyler's bidding. If we watch Fight Club from Nietzsche's perspective, however, then we realize that Tyler is simply being brave enough to accomplish everything Jack was afraid to do.

By ridding Jack of his possessions, Tyler thinks he has helped him to realign his false perception that he is what he owns. Ironically, Jack values life, yet he can't think of anything he wants to do before he dies. Tyler, on the other hand, is full of suggestions. He, like Nietzsche's brave lion, has already faced the inevitable. "Know, not fear, know, that someday you're going to die. It's only after we've lost everything that were free to do anything", says Tyler. It is best to stay detached from material gain because it is superficial. Gaining power is much better than gaining pity.

Übermensch: Don’t Kill the Messenger

If anyone tried to blow up credit card company headquarters in an attempt to be, "one step closer to economic equilibrium", as Tyler explains it, they would go to jail. Of course Fight Club is just a movie, but it is rich with philosophical issues relating to our values and identities. Nietzsche believed that our awareness of Nihilism, the meaninglessness of our highest values, had to be obtained before we could in turn establish meaningfulness. It is easy to see Tyler as a tyrant or an übermensch as the bringer of bad news by crushing our faith, but we shouldn't be so quick to kill the messenger.

Jack's friend Bob dies fighting for a cause that he believes in; surely this is more liberating than crying to grown men at group therapy sessions about how his testicles had been removed. And, for once in his life, Jack was a powerful leader, not a follower. He gained respect everywhere he went as his alter ego Tyler. He was no longer charged in restaurants and his psychitzophrenic outbursts weren't questioned. He inspired people to start their own fight clubs all over America. Nietzsche claims, "the concept of power…always includes both the ability to help and the ability to harm" (Nietzsche, 1967, p. 193). It's almost natural to see Jack as 'the good guy' and Tyler as 'the bad guy', but this dualistic approach to life is unrealistic.

Power isn't so bad after all

For Nietzsche good people are strong, they seek liberation and power. Weak people such as Jack view the pursuit of power as wrong, which is why he tries to stop Project Mayhem. Nietzsche doesn’t believe in evil, to him bad merely means common. No one is innocent; anyone in power is capable of inflicting pain. In Jack's case, he hurts his girlfriend Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) by rejecting her after sex and kicking her out. Marla can't really be categorized as a cockroach in Nietzsche analogy because she welcomes death by incessantly smoking cigarettes and walking into traffic without looking both ways, "Marla's philosophy of life was that she might die at any moment. The tragedy, she said, was that she didn't". Marla may not fear death, but she still isn't living life to the fullest like a lion either. She is sadomasochistic and doesn't enjoy fighting others, but shares her pain with them in other ways. Nietzsche's views about willpower are quite intriguing. He believed that power is only considered evil by those who don’t have it, like Jack. Jack fights the part of himself (physically and psychologically) that longs to be liberated, because he is afraid to be 'like the lion' and take risks. Jack wants power from Tyler, and credit for starting Fight Club, but at the same time people have been trained to view what they desire as an evil temptation. We only deny that something is inherently good when we want it, but can't have it. But, is being powerless really a good enough reason to call power evil?

We can live a short life to the fullest with no regrets, or a long life hiding in fear, but we are destined to die either way. The choice is yours.


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© A Schiller and the Authors of each paper, 2010