An obvious theme throughout Fight Club is the partnering perceptions of death between the narrator and his alter ego, Tyler Durden. Obvious though it may be, the intricacies challenge our own perceptions, making us ask which is right. Either? Elements of both? None? And how does this relate to the shift from the modern to the postmodern?
In response to the narrator’s living death, his doctor rejects the plea for chemical escape from the emptiness of the waking dream. He says, “Insomnia is just the symptom of something larger. Find out what’s actually wrong. Listen to your body” (9). From this advice comes the equation of the narrator’s empty soul with his ailing physical form. (Consider the connection of modern form and function.) The narrator recognizes this in himself when he says “the bruised, old fruit way my face had collapsed, you would’ve thought I was dead” (9). This idea of the body and soul as inextricably connected, the former a symptom of the latter, is echoed in the support groups for the diseased. The narrator finds it “easy to cry when you realize that everyone you love will either reject you or die.” Crying cures his insomnia because, for him, “losing all hope [is] freedom” (12). For the narrator, dying bodies, if only in part, are a release from the meaningless empty space between birth and death. Through oblivion and destruction the ultimate end becomes the beautiful freedom of escape from society and all its rules.
Tyler sees things differently. For him, death is not the end. In chapter 1, the opening scene, a gun is jammed in the mouth of the one body that makes his conscious self possible, and the Parker Morris building he stands on is about to slam down on the national museum. Flanked by death on all sides, Tyler says, “We really won’t die … This isn’t really death. We’ll be legend. We won’t grow old” (1). For Tyler, death is a merely the transition of being. He is enamored with becoming legend. To eradicate previous history, that which is trapped in statistic data, financial?records, and even old literature and art is not the true essence of what makes life worth living. He wants to replace the old and dead with the realization of his own legend, “This is our world, now, our world … and those ancient people are dead” (4). The ancient dead he refers to are the living museum legends he is about to obliterate, destroying all historical record of old ways of thinking. For Tyler, oblivion and destruction are not the ultimate end, but a way for him to live forever. In fact, through Fight Club, he endeavors to destroy his own body or form, to find the true meaning of what he is made of, a notion unachievable through the material world.
Recognizing the insanity within Fight Club, there are obviously deep seated issues with both approaches. The narrator, by using other people’s dark, dying bodies in order to recognize the sweetness of life, is cheating and he feels it most when Marla enters the support group scene. “Marla’s lie reflects my lie, and all I can see are lies … and all of a sudden even death and dying rank right down there with plastic flowers on a video as a non-event” (12). His death and rebirth are copies of a non-event. He experienced neither as something tangible or real. He avoids connecting deeply with his own mortality and must return for a nightly fix of something he has yet to internalize himself. This offers no escape from the emotionally barren life he continues to fill with material goods. Without making fundamental life changes (abandoning the goods, living in the moment and relinquishing the desire of dying to escape) he cannot fully escape his nightmare.
Tyler, while fascinated with the idea of legacy and legend, is simultaneously repulsed by it. He finds himself in a catch 22. As with his log arrangement, creating a shadow hand at the beach where “for one perfect minute Tyler had seated himself in the palm of perfection he’d created himself,” he goes on to say, “a person has to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection [is] worth the effort” (22). The question one must ask is would sitting in the palm of perfection have been so sweet had the narrator not marked the moment by bearing witness to it? Moving forward to the high rise scene, how will Tyler survive death without tracking his new chaotic moment in a historical context the very likes which he wants to destroy? History is the very vehicle that transcends death, giving people life long after their bodies fail. (C’mon, Esther. This is where your first chapter Jesus reference enters in.)
We’re left with the utopic idea that one must give up both history and the material while embracing death to appreciate life. This is the path to living freely in the perfection of the moment. But what is perfection exactly? According to the second law of thermodynamics, all systems tend toward a state of disorder. Tyler is stuck between believing that disorder is the natural, perfect state and yet he is lost as to how to create meaning within that chaotic state. According to his actions, perfection is not natural but something to work toward, a human creation subject to individual perspective and impossible to recognize without context. He is at once modern and postmodern.
Wrestling with what death means, whether as an end or a new beginning, challenges us to think about how we order meaning in this world. I turn to the theoretical debate between Lyotard and Jameson on what the postmodern can do after the death of the modern period, in the temporal sense. Lyotard says in Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?:
Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement [of postmodern experimentation], we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return of terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage war on totality; let us be witness to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name. (82)
This sounds much like Tyler’s symbolic eradication of a capital institution (the narrator’s disdain for the body) imprisoning and terrorizing the old meanings of the past (the narrator’s waking nightmare). It is the recognition of and attempt to break free from the modern idea that perfection is a form inextricable from function. Tyler wants a new form, or no form, or maybe just reference to old forms to create new meaning. He wants access to the freedom that lies within the grey areas, the presentation of the unrepresentable. Whatever form this takes in the end, he first and foremost requires a (the) narrator.
Jameson, although he finds himself plagued by the postmodern, also feels that we must do it justice. In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism he says:
This is not then, clearly, a call to some older and more transparent national space, or some more traditional and reassuring perspectival or mimetic enclave: the new political art (if it is possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object – the world space of multinational capital – at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our new positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spacial as well as our social confusion. (54)
Jameson’s conclusion is what Tyler butts up against in his execution of chaos and mayhem. Once you destroy what exists, what do you replace it with? Even when beginning anew, one desires to contextualize experience. For Jameson, cognitive mapping is the answer, tracing how we get to the new even as we eradicate the old beyond recognition. If you destroy the body to free the soul, the soul loses context, unless, of course, the path of destruction from “what was” to “what is” can be traced.