A cult of nihilism: Fight Club and its relation to our generation

Jenny Deegan

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When people quote Fight Club, we hear two things— “don’t talk about fight club” and the famous quip from Tyler Durden, “we buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

It’s a scathing social commentary, sure, but the fact that it is perhaps the most famous line to survive the movie is at least a little bit ironic. After all, Tyler Durden is our antagonist, and it is against his amassed cult of nihilism that our anonymous protagonist struggles.

There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance between Fight Club’s intentions and its perception. The movie pits a main character searching for meaning against the plot of a domestic terrorist; a man who scorns the inner workings of society and promotes an agenda of violent revolution against it, a man who is, ironically, our protagonist’s secret other half— the devil to his angel, so to speak. Though the main character (let’s call him ‘Jack’) is at first enthralled by Tyler’s eccentricity and persuasiveness, their relationship sours as Tyler’s many quirks turn deadly. He starts to exert more and more control over Jack’s life; commandeers his love interest and his home as he grows his bitter agenda outwards. In both a psychological and physical aspect, Jack is fighting the influences of pessimism, disappointment, and emasculation in his life; all culminated in Tyler Durden, his sociopathic alter-ego.

We’ve all seemed to adopt the Tyler Durden narrative. As bewildering as it may seem, when I search the movie or ask my peers about it, all that turns up are are the piece’s praises as an anti-system commentary. In a world where we’re from birth taught suck strictly black and white morality, the individual picks the villain. We pick Jack’s demons. But why?

Well, Tyler has another quote that gets passed around pretty often:

“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. We’ve been all raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t, and we’re slowly learning that fact… and we’re very, very pissed off.”

And there it is. Jack’s demons are our demons: pessimism, disappointment, emasculation. Low attainment for low pay. Life as a jilted lower class. We have dreams that we want to come true, and in the world we live in it’s tough as shit to make them— at least Tyler understands.

But it’s also Tyler who wants to implode the city. Tyler, who straps Jack to a chair and puts a gun in his mouth. Tyler, who forces him through an agonizing chemical burn for the poetics of it. Tyler, for all of his beautiful cynicism, only serves to bring the everyman down.

The idea behind the ingenious film Fight Club, I believe, is that nihilism never profits. If anything it is only a self-destructive force, warping everything in its path into bitterness and violence. The life of the consumer is not a pearly one, and we as a society do suffer from its effects; it’s not unfair to say that we’ve been dealt a shitty hand. But at least we get to play at being millionaires and movie gods and rock stars when we try to make something of this life— and if we fail, at least there is Marla, with whom we can watch the buildings burn.

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A cult of nihilism: Fight Club and its relation to our generation