What Is Fight Club?

I want you to hit me as hard as you can. That’s what Brad Pitt asked of Ed Norton on the silver screen back in 1999. Norton complied, and a cult phenomenon was born.

Before David Fincher directed Social Network, a dark film about existentially desperate young men struggling to create meaning by way of modern communications, he directed Fight Club, a dark film about existentially desperate young men struggling to create meaning by way of consensual fistfights and controlled anarchy.

The movie was a box-office flop, and yet an article written in the New York Times ten years later testified to the movie’s enduring appeal. And on the most visceral level, it has all the elements designed to speak to the average male: good directing; gritty, intelligent dialogue; revenge fantasy; nunchucks.

But the appeal goes deeper. The lead characters, played to perfection by Pitt and Norton, are reacting against a contemporary society that lacks a soul. They design their fight clubs and stage their anti-social pranks with the goal of shedding their connections to that society. For a male audience, the film is an exhilarating reminder that there is something vital missing in their lives. It reminds them that they have suffered emasculation at the hands of a soft and lazy culture. Many men can identify when Pitt’s Tyler Durden delivers a rugged homily to the club’s neophytes:

We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off. . . . We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.

That is a sobering diagnosis, one that resonates with American males whose hearts yearn for a greater destiny they hardly know or dare to describe.

 

Where Fight Club goes astray is in its conclusions: Unleash your primitive urges. Embrace anarchy. Your masculine nature will become purified as a result.

A counterfeit Christianity is established around these principles. Durden, as the Anointed One of the movement, bears a wound on his hand, an indication of suffering endured for a purpose — except that the suffering is self-imposed and a badge of chaos, not love. Each fight club he founds is a kind of Benedictine monastery of the Dark Side, where those who aspire to join must first wait on the front porch in the cold, subjected to harsh verbal abuse day after day. The similarity to St. Benedict’s Rule is stark:

Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry, but, as the Apostle says, Test the spirits to see if they are from God. Therefore, if someone comes and keeps knocking at the door, and if at the end of four or five days he has shown himself patient in bearing harsh treatment and difficulty of entry, and has persisted in his request, then he should be allowed to enter. (Chapter 58)

God exists in Fight Club, but He is to be rejected, because He “doesn’t like you.” As a father figure, He is tied to all of the failed, weak, irrelevant fathers implied in the movie — the ones who provide no direction in life and no fixed moral standards; the ones who capriciously leave their families to remarry and start other families, what Durden describes as “setting up franchises.” If this is a father, and God is a father, then any relationship with God should be avoided. It’s not illogical.

Then there’s man’s fighting instinct — an impulse that has been maligned for decades by a society that has come to believe that humans can be perfected through social engineering. But suppressing that instinct hasn’t made it disappear, only manifest itself in a million other savage ways. We whacked a mole, and the mole came back up as Satan himself.

 

Sheer suppression was never the answer to man’s violent impulse. Letting God purify it and direct it toward its proper end is the only answer. It isn’t a chaotic fight club men need: It’s the Catholic Church.

When a man wades into the present morass of society with the intention of acting like a Christian, he is entering into bloody warfare on a cosmic scale. You want to fight? Fight for Christ. Fight to be pure, disciplined, moral. Fight for the sanctity of life, for the dignity of the human person. Be obedient to God — even if it kills you. You think being a faithful Catholic means a lot of nervous indecision and handwringing? St. Paul would likely smack you for suggesting it, since he writes: “I do not run aimlessly. I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it” (1 Cor 9:26-27).

Do as St. Paul did, and you will become a real man: one who is strong, selfless, noble, and — not by accident — one who is able to be a real father, not just a quivering flake setting up franchises. You will discover what genuine fatherhood is, and what it means to call God “Abba” — in Aramaic, “dad.” Not “ancient paternal figure.” Not “old bearded patriarch.” Dad.

That’s what God is. He wants us to fight, and fight to the death — but for love, not for chaos; for the Love that makes living and dying and struggling and achieving all meaningful; the Love that tells you to give yourself up, no matter how much it hurts, and give all you have to God and to others.

The Catholic Church is the ultimate fight club. Here we train men who can say, “Hit me as hard as you can. In Christ, I will never fall.”

 

Image: (c) 20th Century Fox

By

Dan Lord is a capricious misanthrope living alone in a ramshackle hut by the railroad tracks. That is, he would be if not for the grace of God and his reversion to Catholicism. He now has a BS from Spring Hill College and an MTS from the University of Dallas. He enjoys writing, composing music, and playing with the many children which his loving wife tricked him into conceiving.

  • Carl

    awesome analysis

  • The Jerk

    Looks like someone forgot the first rule of Fight Club.

  • Eli

    Hey, great observations. I agree entirely and applaud the way you put into words my deepest thoughts on this movie.

    Great observations throughout, but my favorite line was:

    “The Catholic Church is the ultimate fight club. Here we train men who can say, “Hit me as hard as you can. In Christ, I will never fall.””

  • Brennan

    Really good article, and I agree completely that the Church is the ultimate fight club. However, one must ask, when men attend the regular parish Mass, is this the impression they are given? With the “Hello, everyone!” at the beginning of Mass on through isn’t the impression given that this is more in tune with a Ladies’ tea party?

    Or the ecumenical movement which runs around wringing its hands and crying because we are not in full unity with Protstants? Is this manly? Further, I believe there is an inbred passivity in Protestantism itself which tends to shun the striving and combat mentioned above and regards it as “works of the flesh”. After all, in Protestantism “you don’t need to do anything” since “Jesus has already done it all for you.” Ok, then, what’s left for a man to do?

    This is one of the reasons I pray for an even greater return of the Gregorian rite so that the principles enunciated in the article can be embodied in our liturgy. I also pray that we don’t cry ourselves to sleep because we aren’t fully united with Protestantism (however, we can always pray for their full return to the Church).

  • Vicki

    ‘Fight Club’ is the post-modern equivalent of ‘A Handful of Dust’ by Evelyn Waugh. It’s a devastating critique of contemporary culture. Like ‘A Handful of Dust’ it doesn’t aim to provide the ultimate answers, catechism style.

    I disagree entirely that the conclusion posited is “unleash your primitive urges”. On the contrary, we witness the inevitable destruction which follows the unleashing of those urges. That destruction, however, leads to a death to ‘self’ and a battle fought for the ‘other’.

  • Jennifer

    Really great post. I’m forwarding this to my friends who work with young people.

  • Robert

    A major premise of the Fight Club, and its evolution into Operation Mayhem, was to right the wrongs of the world by having “everyone start at zero”. The Catholic Church offers this opportunity, to begin again at zero, with a clear set of rules and expectations for righteous behavior. No, you will not become a t.v. god or rock star (as you have slowly come to realize), but you can become a good husband and father, and honor your obligations to family as a lifetime virtue. It is really quite a great effort to be the failed, weak, irrelevant father “setting up franchises”, the straighter path leads to a higher place, and the rules of the Catholic Church illuminate the path. And the church does clearly define what is evil and needs to be annihilated, and provides a fellowship for participation in that noble task.

  • Micha Elyi

    It isn’t a chaotic fight club men need: It’s the Catholic Church.

    Dan Lord

    I ask the questions Brennan asked and conclude that I can’t find the verse instructing “Men, become as women are” anywhere in Scripture*.

  • Carl

    #1 The first rule of Fight Club is, you preach the gospel unceasingly and use words if necessary.
    #2 The second rule of Fight Club is, if words are used apply them using the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy.
    #3 The fight isn

  • Carl

    #4 All are called to fight and fight until death.
    #5 Fight Club is an unceasing and never ending battle in time.
    #6 Wear the Church Magistrerium while fighting.
    #7 Fight Club will go on till the end of time

  • Syd

    Wonderful article and analysis, particularly of why the ending of FC is so disappointing and frustrating. It betrays the most honest, brutal, raw moment of the film when Ed Norton’s character nearly beats the blond man to death. This seems essential: not just that society is empty and soul-less and needs fighting against and therefore consciousness-raising (all of which is true) but that to fight that fight we need to be simultaneously fighting the envy that can lead us (all) to be Cain. The community aspect of FC is essential and part of why the monastic quality of Project Mayhem is so close and yet so far, but FC bites the most (for me) in acknowledging this aspect of fallenness and envy’s inevitable appearance in any community.

  • Rachael

    Every single Catholic priest should read this article.

  • dpt

    Yes, I do appreciate this article and how Mr. Lord concluded it.

  • Rebecca Weiss

    I can’t agree completely with this assessment of FC. Certainly it exposes the emptiness of the contemporary Western idols – materialism, success, efficiency, mass-produced aestheticism – but I don’t think that the movie ends with a rejection of God. It ends with a rejection of the club’s premises – as well as those of Project Mayhem – but also with a restoration of integration. In order to understand what happens, it is absolutely crucial to see the importance of the succession of support groups – in which Norton’s character tries to find meaning in life by plunging into his emotive or empathetic side – thus forcing himself into a stark division of identity: the part of him that seeks hardness and conflict, rejects the solace offered by the support groups. He becomes at this point two people. And as he identifies himself more and more with Durden, he loses his capacity for love and gentleness. The ultimate rejection of Durden, and Project Mayhem, and his willingness to sacrifice himself to save others – as well as to show care, at last, to Marla, who he has hitherto treated as either a nothing or a mere sex object – demonstrate a beginning of a return to wholeness. It’s sort of Dostoevsky-esque.

    You could say, his masculine and his feminine sides are “split” but I don’t like that gender polarization. Women also like to fight and destroy; men also want sentiment and softness.

  • Ryan Haber

    Great, great little study. I’m gonna rent the movie. And I hope, be a better man.

    But not because of the movie exactly. Lol.

  • Zac

    I think it’s worth mentioning the homosexual angle and subtext of the film. The author of the book is now openly gay, and others have commented on the significance of various themes in light of this. It certainly adds a different dimension even to the apparently straightforward existential themes, to the ‘reclaiming’ of masculinity, and the characters’ immersion in their self-destructive subculture.

    It’s still valid in its critique of the nihilism in modern life, but as Dan Lord argues, not in the solution it offers.

  • T.j.

    I have to admit – I read “The Jerk”‘s comment above and giggled. But not because I didn’t love this article; I think it just struck me as an obvious point that they try to drive home in the movie.

    But as I thought about it, I realized this is one of the ultimate messages to men, whether it’s Fight Club or anything else: men aren’t supposed to talk about it. It makes me understand where we fail as Catholic men – even if we are active, good Catholics – if we aren’t talking about it, we are not living out the life Christ wants!

    So the article is good – it is a fight for our faith, a fight for Christ. But we must absolutely re-write the first rule: we must always talk about the Catholic Church!

    EXCELLENT ARTICLE!

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