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David Fincher's Adaptation Of Fight Club

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4760 words Published: 28th Apr 2017

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Originally founded by Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth century, psychoanalysis opened up a whole new perception of the human mind, establishing both revolutionary and controversial theories. In his thesis, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle,’ Freud describes psychoanalysis as ‘the first and foremost art of interpretation.’ [1] A means of uncovering and communicating that which is hidden within the ‘unconscious’ of the human mind. Freud states that human behaviour is a product of an inner-conflict taking place within the ‘unconscious,’ which is ‘the belief of ‘repressed desires, feelings, memories and instinctual drives’ [2] In this essay, I will be applying the ‘id, ego and superego,’ to the main protagonists of David Fincher’s 1998 film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club.’ Not only will I examine character, I will also explore the society that catalyses it and its origins. To gain a more in depth perspective I will be drawing on the ideas of Carl Gustav Jung and Jacques Lacan. Before applying the aforementioned theories, I will give a brief synopsis.

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Fight Club could be described as a social commentary on an individual’s struggle for self-definition and purpose, while also exploring issues of rampant consumerism and alienation. The film follows the unnamed narrator’s memories, as he recounts his schizophrenic journey of self-discovery. From the outset of the story, the narrator lives a seemingly meaningless existence, dominated by a compartmentalised office job and his Ikea-furnished condominium. He has no spiritual direction and his inner-conflict manifests itself in insomnia, which he refers to as ‘pain.’ His doctor assures him that real pain can be seen in a support-group for men with testicular cancer, and directs him to ‘Remaining Men Together.’ On his first visit the narrator finds the emotional outlet he needs, and from this becomes a support-group addict, frequenting different groups, all for conditions he does not have. The relief he gains from this outlet is high-jacked by the arrival of Marla Singer, a young woman, who is also a faker and ‘reflects his lie,’ [3] thereby diminishing his relief. Into this scenario explodes Tyler Durden, the epitome of the person the narrator wishes to be. This chance encounter leads the narrator to a drastic change of lifestyle. After his condo mysteriously burns down, he moves in with Tyler and together they create a new support-group; Fight Club. Primitive and bloody, but with its own codes and ethics, it satisfies the repressed male psyche and soon has a committed following. However, it does not take long for this to spin out of control and develop into the fascist ‘Project Mayhem.’ The narrator, feeling increasingly discomforted by the trajectory of this project, confronts Tyler. The gradual realisation that Tyler is actually his alter-ego, and out of control, results in an attempt to resolve the situation by suicide. The shot destroys Tyler, but the bombs still go off and Project Mayhem achieves its objectives.

Initially, the root of the narrator’s dissatisfaction with life stems from a feeling of emptiness and pointlessness. His mundane job, sterile living environment, his ‘single-serving’ life, compound the overriding feeling of meaninglessness. Eventually this causes him to wish for release; a freedom he feels can be achieved through death in a plane-crash. It appears that the narrator’s disillusionment can be linked with the miss-sold American Dream. The ideal that every young white male American of his era had been led to believe was his due; the high-powered job, the apartment, the money, the girls, the clothes — the film-star lifestyle, had all been reneged upon. As Tyler asserts:

‘Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need…. 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. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.’

His feelings of alienation and loneliness he attributes to the unsatisfactory, rampant consumerism that has failed him. He ponders ‘what dining-table defines me as a person?’ as he flicks through the ‘pornography’ of his Ikea catalogue. He directs his aggression to the multi-national and corporate giants, who have ‘shrink-wrapped’ and sold him the dream.

The ‘Ikea nesting-instinct’ is symptomatic of the changing culture that has robbed the younger American male of his masculinity. In an interview with Gavin Smith, Fincher himself claims ‘We’re designed to be hunters and we’re in a society of shopping. There’s nothing to kill anymore, there’s nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman is created.’

This same sentiment is conveyed in Tyler’s words: We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.’

The gender role issue is further explored in the acknowledgment that the ideal nuclear family has changed in structure; Tyler asserts it is ‘a generation of men raised by women.’ And the narrator speaks of his own father as setting up a new family in the same way you would set up a new franchise (-a remark that resonates his distaste for big business).

The emasculation of men in society can be seen to relate back to the political correctness of the sixties feminist movement. Dr. Henry A. Giroux in his online critique of Fight Club, ‘Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders’ states: “the crisis of capitalism is reduced to the crisis of masculinity, and the nature of the crisis lies less in the economic, political, and social conditions of capitalism itself than in the rise of a culture of consumption in which men are allegedly domesticated, rendered passive, soft and emasculated.” This summarises the cultural impact.

Our narrator is faced with a choice. In order to alleviate his condition he has to find a metaphorical crutch that will support him emotionally and spiritually, allowing him to express his repressed needs. In pursuit of this, his first venture is the weekly sessions at the testicular cancer support group. In this situation, we see men able to talk about their feelings and give vent to their emotions in a safe and therapeutic environment. His encounter with Bob enables him to cry and become ‘dark, silent and complete.’ But he sees a man who has not only been physically but also emotionally emasculated. Thus, the relief is transient and soon the narrator returns to his initial state of discomfort. He needs to be able to feel and for that feeling to be prolonged and satisfying. He needs a less submissive route. This is brought to him in the shape of Tyler Durden and his early invitation to punch him:

‘I want you to hit me as hard as you can.’

Thus, the narrator embarks upon his second journey, which inches him into Fight Club, where he experiences a form of masculine expression that makes him whole. It restores a balance lost from the meaningless society that has both spawned and alienated him. As the crowd exit the bar one night, after a particularly violent bout, the narrator states: ‘Nothing was solved. But nothing mattered. Afterwards, we all felt saved.’ The extreme violence depicted in these fights might be viewed as undiluted sadomasochism, but that would be to ignore the primeval need for noble combat and the ethics that underpin it.

I will now be applying psychoanalytic theory to these characters and themes, discussing their function and overall impact on the text. To begin, I’d like to return to the narrator’s struggle for self, while focusing on Freud’s conception of the unconscious drives. In the ‘Ego and the Id,’ Freud states that the human psyche is split into three separate parts: the id, the ego and superego. These three parts function together and when in correct balance, produce a whole and rounded individual.

The id is the ‘energy of the mind,’ [4] made up of instincts and impulses that continually demand satisfaction. It is, as Freud states, ‘the dark, inaccessible part of our personality’ [5] which we are born with, and it is fundamentally a product of the ‘pleasure principle.’ Freud divides the id’s primary drives into two separate groups: life and death instincts. Life instincts focus mainly on pleasurable survival, such as hunger, thirst and sexual urges, whereas death instincts ‘seek to repeat the earliest, pre-life experience of quiescence.’ [6] It is our seemingly unconscious desire for self-destruction and death. Freud uses an account of his grandson playing ‘Fort/Da (Gone/There) game’ to illustrate the drive’s repetitive nature, as the child’s attempts to familiarise himself with the feeling of loss. The death instinct can be described as the desire for an inner peace; an escape from reality, using the distractions which society offers, however, this may also present itself in aggressive behaviour.

It could be argued that Tyler is a representation of the id: “You were looking for a way to change your life. You could not do this on your own. All the ways you wish you could be – that’s me. I look like you want to look, I fuck like you want to fuck. I am smart, I’m capable, and, most importantly, I’m free in all the ways that you are not.” His lifestyle is not influenced by society; he ‘let the chips fall where they may.’ It is through his desire and will to destroy society, that Project Mayhem is formed. Without Tyler, the narrator would have remained a slave to the Ikea-nesting instinct and influences of culture. He would still be searching for definition in Scandinavian furniture. After coming to terms with his single-serving life, and material existence, the unconscious reservoir is flooded with repressed anger, and it is through his aggression that Tyler is born. Indeed, before Tyler even officially appears on the plane, the narrator is vaguely aware of the ‘death-drive,’ when he toys with the idea of ending his miserable existence by death in an air crash.

The ego, is the civilised part of the conscious, and is spawned from ‘reality principle.’ Freud believed that the ego represents ‘what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passion. [7] ‘ It suppresses the id’s desires and urges, maintaining control like, as Freud accurately describes ‘a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces.” [8] In Fight Club, the ego takes the form of the narrator. As mentioned, the narrator is an alienated individual, suffering from insomnia. When he begins to makes comments like ‘this is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time,’ it suggests the presence of the death-drive, which could perhaps be interpreted as the earliest stages of the narrator’s id seizing control of the reins. It is notable, that through his job and self-sufficiency, the narrator was previously a well-functioning individual. However, evidently a change has taken place and disrupted the balance between the id and the ego.

In some of his earlier work, namely ‘The Interpretation of Dreams,’ [9] Freud argued that dreams were products of ‘wish-fulfilment.’ He uses the term ‘day residue’ to describe the concept that the foundation of the dream is rooted in the events of the preceding day. Children illustrate this concept unambiguously, but the dream content of adults is less clear cut and distorted by ‘dream thoughts’ buried in the unconscious. Thus, the meaning is sometimes partially hidden. This has bearing on the narrator’s situation in as much his insomnia renders him incapable of discharging his repressed desire in ‘dream state.’ Also, weakened by sleep deprivation, the ego that has always held reign and facilitated his function in his familiar ordered world, has become weakened and allowed the id to take over.

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According to Freud, the third element of personality to develop is the superego and this begins to emerge at around the age of five. It is essentially our sense of right and wrong, and as such, is the code by which civilised society functions. It also encompasses our conceptions of conscience and feelings of guilt and remorse. The superego acts to suppress or neutralise all natural urges of the id. In effect, the ego is caught in the middle of a tussle between angel (superego) and devil (id). Freud comments:

“The poor ego has a still harder time of it; it has to serve three harsh masters, and it has to do its best to reconcile the claims and demands of all three.…The three tyrants are the external world, the superego, and the id.” [10] 

In the film, the superego is portrayed as the actual world of the story. The narrator (ego) is dissatisfied and alienated from this world and therefore has little resistance when Tyler (id) asserts himself and moves to destroy the world that has suffocated all sense of self and emasculated him. This sets up a conflict between id and superego and can best be seen in the jobs Tyler has. He inserts subliminal sex images into family films and he contaminates restaurant food with bodily fluids. In Fight Club he creates an underground patriarchal setting that would seem to encourage gratuitous violence. Further, he then embarks upon a montage of capitalist revolution, which initially takes the form of vandalism of civic buildings and ‘corporate art.’ This is stepped up in Project Mayhem and culminates in the ‘Ground Zero’ scenario.

Drawing on Freud’s conceptions of division of the human personality, it is possible to understand how id and ego are strong oppositional forces. Thus, libido (id) fights with the needs of ego to repress desire. Freud defines five stages psychosexual development in the human infant; oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. [11] Balanced individuals have negotiated these with ego suppressing the more unacceptable desires of id. In this context it is appropriate to note the ‘oedipal complex’ [12] in male infants, as its influence can be seen to resonate throughout the film. The male infant’s developing sexuality incorporates the desire for his mother, but this is bridled by the fear of his father’s power, particularly the power to castrate him. Thus, ideally he represses his desire and replaces it with submission to his father’s power, whilst still retaining the affection of his mother. In theory, the boy’s masculinity would be intensified by his strong relationship with his father. Freud maintains that where the father is not present (as in the case of the narrator) or is a weak role-model, the Oedipus complex is not resolved and neuroses arise. The narrator is so afflicted and when id (Tyler) breaks out, they manifest in raging libido; (the sex with Marla), violence (sadomasochistic interaction in Fight Club) and ultimately, an attempt to destroy the culture that has stolen his masculinity.

The fear of castration as the ultimate sanction is a constant throughout. It confronts us strongly in early scene at the support group, ‘Remaining Men Together.’ These men are emasculated physically and mentally and display the desperate need to assert: ‘We are still men,’ even as they weep. In various situations, castration is presented as the ultimate punishment; Tyler threatens Police Commissioner Jacobs with this fate for his participation in the ‘war against crime.’ And indeed, members of Project Mayhem confront the narrator himself towards the end of the film, as his ego strengthens sufficiently to deny them. The importance given to this apparatus is blindingly apparent in a memorable speech by Tyler in the bar after the narrator loses all in the condominium explosion: ‘you know, it could be worse; a woman could cut off your penis and toss it out of a car.’ Thus, id trumps ego.

It could be argued that another aspect of Tyler’s power manifests itself in phallic imagery. For example, the gun he challenges the narrator with, the ‘nice big cock’ he splices into the family film, the dildo, which is, as Marla assures ‘not a threat to him.’ When the narrator regains controls towards the end of the film, all the phallic skyscrapers crumble; a possible metaphor for Tyler’s loss of power.

If we look at the conceptions of other Psychoanalytic theorists, such as Jung and Lacan, we’re able to gain a different interpretation of the narrator’s neurotic behaviour. The views of Carl Gustav Jung were initially aligned with those of Freud, but later, Jung came to believe Freud paid too little attention to soul and religion in his interpretation of human psychology. Jung researched the theory that every personality has two opposing elements, which he called ‘Ego’ and ‘Shadow.’ [13] Similar to Freud, Jung believed that Ego remained in control until something disrupts, in the case of the narrator the trigger is his insomnia and the shadow comes, to the fore. The shadow redresses the swing in the masculinity stakes and restores the balance. Without Tyler, the narrator is incomplete and meaningless. We can also apply Jung’s notion of ‘physical inheritance’ [14] (collective unconscious) and its content of archetypes,’ to other characters within the film. For example, Marla could be interpreted as the ‘anima,’ that is, ‘the female soul image of a man,’ [15] as she replaces the initial childlike form of the narrator’s ‘power animal,’ [16] and her relationship with him is mainly controlled by Tyler (Shadow). There’s also a possible Mana Personality archetype in the character of Bob. As previously discussed, it is through Bob’s emasculated life and turmoil that the narrator is able feel emotionally and relate. Jung believed that ‘the Mana-personality is a dominant of the collective unconscious, the well-known archetype of the mighty man in the form of hero, chief, magician, medicine-man, saint, the ruler of men and spirits, the friend of God.’ [17] The narrator describes Bob’s ‘bitch tits,’ as ‘enormous the way you’d think of God’s as big,’ and the place where he fits, perhaps showing an awareness of his psychodrama.

Jaques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories present yet another reading of the narrator’s psyche. In contrast to Freud, Lacan brought forward a different conception of the unconscious. He asserted a more linguistic interpretation rather than Freud’s previously proposed sexual one. He argued that ‘man is spoken by it’ and that the ‘unconscious is structured like a language.’ Meaning the ‘it’ (id) manifests itself through the power of language. Applying this theory to Tyler, it is apparent that his power is reliant on forms of expression. Throughout the film he controls the narrator through the philosophies and slogans he utters, such as: ‘You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.’ However, on occasion, Tyler’s words are conveyed in the narrator’s speech. In the scene where the boss confronts the narrator about the Fight Club rules, his aggressive response relays the Tyler Durden-esque language. The narrator is aware of this and comments: “Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth.’ Under a Lacanian perspective, drawing on the linguistically-structured unconscious, this further establishes ego’s loss of control, as Tyler claims control of both the ‘imaginary’ and the ‘symbolic.’

To expand this point, I will now give a brief outline of Lacan’s conception of the mirror stage and the three psychoanalytic orders; ‘the symbolic, the real’ and the ‘imaginary.’ Working off Freud’s notion of the Oedipal phase, Lacan claimed the symbolic-real-imaginary orders are products of infantile sexuality, the process of inserting ourselves into culture. [18] We are born into a ‘symbolic order,’ in which we must strive to attain a place and understanding of society. This occurs through the process of uncovering unconscious through language and associations.

Lacan compares this process to that of an ‘infant in front of a mirror,’ [19] whom, when confronted with its reflection for the very first time, sees itself as whole. He explains this is a release of ‘libidinal dynamism,’ which has previously existed as a split entity within libidinal needs. The image that the infant is presented with is described as the ‘Ideal-I,’ which provides an image of wholeness, and consequently creates the ego. Through this image the infant becomes a subject; finding an ‘identification’ of its internal self with that of the external image. For Lacan, this represented the infant’s entrance into subjectivity, allowing it to gain entry to the ‘imaginary order,’ and a familiarity with the notion of ‘self’ and ‘I.’

This all offers a possible explanation to the narrator’s tendency to refer to himself in the third-person, initially in the voice of body parts and later, emotions. On numerous occasions he makes comments like ‘I am Jack’s cold sweat’ and ‘I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.’ This behaviour suggests a regression back to an infantile stage (pre-mirror stage), in which the narrator loses the terms of ‘I’ and ‘you.’ As he no longer feels whole, it could be argued that he wishes to return to the state in which demands were just needs, and repeat the sensation of imaginary wholeness once again.

Lacan’s later work presented a layered conception of the human personality; the notions of the imaginary, (the unconscious) the symbolic (conscious formulated through language and society) and the real (that which resists representation). According to Lacan, a functioning personality relies on these layers, which are kept in check by the Law of the Father. [20] Lacan believed that this Law was the acceptance of castration and the father’s authority. It presented itself through the structure of language itself. When applying a Lacanian perspective to the character of Tyler Durden, he takes on a different meaning. Instead of representing the image of a rampant id, he becomes an occupant of the ‘imaginary order.’ He is, as mentioned before, everything the narrator wishes to be. In this way, he could be described as the perfectionist ikea-model of manhood; a projection of the narrator’s ideal-self, which fits in with modern society’s perception of the handsome, muscular, sexually promiscuous modern-male ideal.

In drawing together the work of Freud, Jung and Lacan, it is possible to see a broad agreement in the conclusions of the first two, but a more complex linguistic element in the work of the latter. Freud, as a mentor, obviously influenced the early work of Jung, and therefore there is a parity in the ideas of id/ego and shadow/ego. Differences occur in their respective perception of libido and religion. While Lacan also applies and Freudian theory in his interdisciplinary work, he then reformulates it, introducing language and structuralism into the spectrum of psychoanalytic criticism.

In this essay, I have tried to apply the conceptions of several acknowledged twentieth century psychoanalytic theorists to David Fincher’s film adaptation of a piece of modern American literature. In the narrator we have seen an post-modernistic Everyman who served as the perfect vehicle to illustrate the modern neuroses; meaninglessness, emptiness. It also raises the spectre that post feminist revolution, the male of the species still hasn’t got a role that gives him fulfilment. Whilst being able to understand the narrator’s psychodrama to an extent, the film’s resolution raises ambiguities. In many ways, the conclusion of Palahniuk’s book depicts a more congruous ending, in which the narrator, after ridding himself of Tyler Durden, is imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital. He believes that he has died and gone to heaven, claiming he has discussions with a God that ‘cannot be taught anything.’ [21] This ending seems to dismiss the focus on consumerism, drawing more on the absence of a father-figure. While this seems like a more coherent ending, it also shows the narrator’s struggle to function without Tyler (his id), and his withdrawal from the society (superego).


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