I Am Jack’s Sense of Purpose: Individualism and Tyler Durden in Fight Club

Jack

In David Fincher’s Fight Club, the character Tyler Durden has been often been referred to as the narrator “Jack’s” repressed hypermasculine side, the long held-back aspect of “Jack’s” Self impeded from actualization due to his homogenized identity at the hands of a capitalist culture. But this isn’t the case. Tyler is in fact what “Jack” believes he is lacking (as he indeed appears as a blatantly homogenized drone/clone of American capitalism): the media-represented “rugged individualism” not present in his identity, the sense of agented emotion he’s unable to articulate, endowed with a sense of mischievousness that “Jack” has either never known or has left behind post-boyhood (Ross 2). In terms of the Robert Bly’s New Men’s Movement, Tyler is the hyper-embodiment of the ideal many frustrated middle-class white men feel they should be. But like critics of Bly’s overall message to “wounded” men have shown, succumbing to Tyler’s early allure is revealed as a path to detriment, resulting in the self-annihilation of those who follow him. And the key word here is “follow”.

What Tyler represents, both to the men in the film and those who view it, is not a path to “enlightenment”, as he himself purports, but the self-defeating path to yet more homogenization—exactly what men who would look to Tyler for guidance need less of. Both Fight Club and Project Mayhem (and the New Men’s Movement they comment on) require “members” (i.e., followers), and followers by definition cannot function without leadership. Even with the film’s mentioning of how the cells of Fight Clubs and Project Mayhems are able to operate autonomously of one another, they do so because of the ideology Tyler first infuses into them, and so even if they work without him, they are still operating through him (though even this idea doesn’t truly hold water, since it is Tyler himself who masterminds their coordinated attack of the credit card companies). And as with Bly’s Movement, “[this] is a false promise” (Kimmel & Kaufman 269). Rather, what Fincher tells us through Tyler is that playing follow-the-leader with such an ideology leads to more homogenization.

The New Men’s Movement operates in much the same way, searching for their icons among “mythic heroes who stood for untamed manhood, capable of beating back rapid industrialization and feminization”, reviving the “cult of the warrior, embedded within the new militarism” (Kimmel & Kaufman 280). Tyler is such an icon: untamed by the perceived tail-tucking uniformity of modern capitalism, and able to incite militarist action quite literally through Project Mayhem (“Is Mr. Durden building an army?”). While both Tyler and Bly’s movements are ultimately unhealthy, the question of why “Jack”, and therefore the type of men he represents outside of the film, would choose to seek out such a path remains.

The key lies in understanding “Jack” before Tyler comes along. Working with others who are only “a copy of a copy” in his office, “Jack” is a man who “still [has his] balls” willing to deceive a testicular cancer survivor group, and has “the courage to just run with it” when he manifests Tyler. What this confirms is not that “Jack” has a glaring lack of individualism, but instead that it was there all along, lying dormant until the pivotal car crash scene (more on this in a moment). What the events of the film show (albeit in epic fashion) about “Jack” and other commodified men who find themselves searching for the missing piece of themselves, is that they are looking “for ways to be ‘whole’ again”, and the key to wholeness lies in a combination of self-exploration and self-actualization, not devotion to yet another homogenous social group (since at least some if not all elements individualism must be surrendered in service of conformity to the group) (Ross 2).

“Jack”, however, like most of these kinds of men, first needs a catalyst, since it’s clear at the film’s beginning that he’s indeed immovable in his self-nullifying ways. Ironically, the moments where “Jack” first moves toward embracing this latent individualism are also the first places where Fincher inserts Tyler into the film. When “Jack” speaks of things being a “copy of a copy”, he’s made the connection that he is not a copy simply be realizing such a homogenization exists, and Tyler flashes in frame. When “Jack” reaches out for help about the “pain” he’s in at the medical office, indicating a desire for self-betterment or at least self-correction (i.e., improving the Self), Tyler flashes. When “Jack” is told to “really open [himself] up”, (allowing a release of his “pain”, proactively bettering himself) at Remaining Men Together, Tyler flashes (there’s also a thread here about “Jack” opening up and Tyler’s insistence about “not talking” about things; i.e., the most important rules of Fight Club and Project Mayhem). And just as “Jack” is contemplating telling Marla off (standing up for himself, despite the misogynistic overtones), Tyler flashes.

I believe this shows Tyler as having been a detrimental force to “Jack’s” individualism long before he ever manifests, bubbling not to the surface because “Jack” needs him or somehow unconsciously created him out of a willful desire, but because Tyler is the accumulation of the mythos of American masculinity inside every man, desperate to get out and inflict himself upon the world, a kind of bastardization of the longing for the “frontier”, the “warrior cult”, and the “playboy” deformed into a singular entity by years of media messaging. Tyler appears, in essence, to stop “Jack’s” burgeoning individualism and replace it with his own. In this way, Tyler is like the Frankenstein’s Monster of the hypermasculine ideal, coming to cognition within Jack and then hungry for a life of his own.

Paradoxically, “Jack” reaches a more complete Self through his involvement with Tyler, and the individualism that was his alone (before Tyler and his ideology come along) grows rapidly after the car crash scene. Tyler says to “Jack”, “Stop trying to control everything and just let go”. He wants “Jack” to “let go” of the “control” of his Self. This crash is illustrative of the implanted “Tyler’s” in American masculine males, whereby letting go of their individualism and letting their own “Tyler’s” take over would result in destruction of their own pre-established individualism (since hypermasculine masculinity is always something that must be taught to the individual).

With Tyler disappearing after the crash, the growth of “Jack’s” individuality accelerates: he takes initiative of the situation when Bob is killed, reminding the men of Bob’s unique identity and taking on an authoritative role among the boys playing soldier. He gathers up Project Mayhem files and investigates across the country, now full of courage and independence. And in turning himself in to the police, he shows a commitment to responsibility, a hallmark of the self-reliance of individualism, even more so as he miraculously escapes the officers bent on castrating him. What makes him whole through these scenes is a personal purpose, the one thing he lacked in the beginning of the film, and the very reason Tyler was able to manifest into being.

Yet “Jack” is still impeded in his efforts by the continued existence of Tyler, since this secondary persona can still exhibit control over him, and therefore the safety of others. When “Jack” “kills” Tyler, it is ironically Tyler who gives him the idea by waking him up with the gun in his mouth (perhaps a reference to the typically reckless behavior inherent in hypermasculine identity formation). With Tyler’s line “We have to forget about you now”, it’s clear that the total domination of “Jack’s” Self is his goal, is the goal of the hypermasculinity that he and the New Men’s Movement represents, quashing the individual in the name of phallocentric ideology. “Jack” says, “I am responsible…and I accept that”, and thus his growth is complete, leaving only the death of Tyler to tie up loose ends (to use Tyler’s terminology).

Fight Club is a warning to men searching for wholeness, illustrating that relying on another’s ideology in the quest for individualism only leads to yet more homogenization and mayhem within the Self. Men who feel assimilated by consumerism and stripped of their identities will not reclaim them in weekend warrior retreats or through the mythos Tyler Durden preaches. Rather, the film explicitly shows that the pathway to a unified internal being lies in first looking inward to understand those entrenched cultural definitions of masculinity that society tells men they should be, and then understanding how to overcome them by seeing through their illusions.


Works Cited

Kimmel, Michael S. and Michael Kaufman. “Weekend Warriors: The New Men’s Movement.” Theorizing Masculinities. Eds. Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman. London: Sage P, 1994: 259-288.

Ross, Reagan. “The Cognitive Mapping of Hyper/Hegemonic Masculinity in Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, and Fight Club.

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