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Fight Club and the Effects of Anger

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Fight Club and the Effects of Anger

by Timothy Cairo

Anger is an emotion that is particularly difficult to locate upon the moral spectrum. Unlike greed or happiness, the actions that result from anger are of such a broad variation that it is equally plausible to characterize the emotion as positive as it is to determine it negative. In zeroing in on anger as a catalyst to progressive social change, Bell Hooks defines the emotion as a positive force, and as a necessary requirement for leveling societal inequalities. On the other hand, April A. Gerlock's study of war veterans and their responses to anger presents the emotion as an inherently negative force which tends to give rise to de-humanization and violence. Upon the surface it appears that these divergent views of anger are irreconcilable, however, if we look outside the realm of academic discourse to mainstream culture it is possible to find portrayals of anger that are able to negotiate these, seemingly, conflicting views of the emotion, suggesting that these views are indeed compatible. David Fincher's 1999 film Fight Club provides a representation of anger, over the course of its narrative that depicts the emotion, both, as a positive force of social change as well as a stimulus for violence and de-humanization. By employing Aristotle's definition of anger, and analyzing the emotion within the context of different stages of the film's narrative, it will become clear how both Hooks and Gerlock's opinions can co-exist within a rounded portrayal of the emotion of anger.

Aristotle defines anger as, "an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one's friends,"(1). In Fight Club, Ed Norton's character Cornelius is presented as an angry and disenfranchised office employee on the verge of a breakdown. Aristotle maintains that to feel anger one must have been slighted by a specific individual (2), however, Cornelius like Bell Hooks in her article "Killing Rage" feels slighted by society at large, creating an anger that, like Hooks', is complex in its manifestation and in its direction. Cornelius' anger is multi-faceted, he feels that society has slighted him through mass-marketed promises of fame, fortune, and excitement while, instead, delivering a reality of conformity, personal commoditification, and occupational slavery. Cornelius' alter-ego Tyler succinctly defines the source of Cornelius and his cronies' anger in a monologue later in the film:
"Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, having us working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We have no great war; no great depression… our great depression is our lives. We're all raised on television to believe we're gonna be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won't, and we're starting to learn that fact, and we're very, very pissed off."

Cornelius desires to accomplish something monumental, but even beyond that he longs to take control of his destiny and to stop fearing death. However, as much as he is enraged by modern society, and desires change it is the comforts of this society that inhibit him from taking action. Bell Hooks suggests that upper class African Americans often suppress their rage "because their lives are comfortable,"(3) a theme that is reflected in Fight Club by Cornelius' Ikea furniture and his designer wardrobe which act as a diversion from his anger and disdain towards modern commercial culture. By inhibiting his rage, Cornelius eliminates any possibility of change and takes on a hopeless existence, illustrated by his acceptance of the role of someone who is terminally ill; each night attending a different meeting devoted to helping people cope with their impending death.

Throughout its first act Fight Club makes continual suggestions that Cornelius' frustration and anger is intrinsically linked to some sort of crisis of masculinity. It is not by chance that the first group meeting Cornelius attends is for men who have had their testicles removed due to cancer. Nor is it coincidence that Tyler, when consoling Cornelius on the destruction of his condo says, "It could be worse, a woman could cut off your penis while you're sleeping and throw it out the window of a moving car". And most importantly, it is not by co-incidence that it is the appearance of a woman at Cornelius' group meetings that causes him to abandon his hopelessness and re-embrace his anger. In the context of the film Marla Singer's character is symbolic of the freedom and assertiveness that Cornelius associates with the male gender and longs for as a result. Where Cornelius has become dependent on the group meetings in order to function from day to day, Marla attends merely on a whim, explaining to him that, "It's cheaper than a movie and there's free coffee". Marla further asserts her power over the relationship between her and Cornelius by refusing to cease her attendance of the meetings despite Cornelius' heartfelt appeals and his confession that he is unable to swallow his anger so long as she continues to be present. It is this disregard for Cornelius' needs that leads him to re-embrace his anger, a natural result according to Aristotle who writes,
"Thus a sick man is angered by disregard for his illness, a poor man by disregard for his poverty, a man waging war by disregard for the war he is raging, a lover by disregard for his love, and so throughout, any other sort of slight being enough if special slights are wanting."(4)

However, it is not only due to Marla's disregard that Cornelius re-discovers his anger, but also through his envy of Marla as well. Marla gracefully controls her own destiny without a fear of death, or a dependency on material things, a freedom Cornelius longs for and resents in her, not only because she possess these qualities, but more accurately because she is a woman who possess these qualities. Now feeling even more ineffective as a man Cornelius creates his alter-ego, Tyler Durden, in order to cope with his anger, but in doing so manages to achieve something positive in the process, a result that is very much in accord with the pro-anger writings of Bell Hooks.

Granted, most people would not consider the creation of a club where men congregate to pound the tar out of each other to be a positive achievement. However, within the, somewhat twisted, logic of the film the fight clubs created by Cornelius and his alter-ego Tyler are held out to be both a positive and a monumental creation. Within the context of the film, the fight clubs are presented as filling some estranged need of the attendees rather than functioning as the source of any kind of sadistic pleasure. They are compared by Cornelius to a "Pentecostal Church", which is a metaphor for the clubs' role as a sacred ritual of masculinity, too long absent from civilized society. By putting the fight clubs into this context the film presents them as a positive institution; a cathartic need for disenfranchised males, like Cornelius, to assert their masculinity in the least harmful manner possible. To Cornelius' surprise, many others share his sentiments and before he knows it fight club has become a national phenomenon which satiates his desire to accomplish something truly monumental, even if it fails to grant him the ability to overcome his fear of death and grant him the control over his destiny that he continues to long for.

Bell hooks writes that "Like all profound repression, my rage unleashed made me afraid. It forced me to turn my back on forgetfulness, called me out of my denial. It changed my relationship with home- with the South- made it so I could not return there"(5). These changes that Hooks describes arising in herself as a by-product of tapping her rage are directly paralleled by Cornelius' situation in Fight Club. It is Cornelius' rage, forged by modern society and spurred by Marla that incites him to undertake the endeavor of creating fight club. Cornelius too changes his "relationship with home" so that he "could not return", symbolized in the film by the destruction of his condo and the creation of Tyler who becomes the personification of Cornelius' rage and the catalyst to the creation of fight club. However, although Fight Club agrees with Hooks regarding the fact that rage can be very useful as an inciting factor behind social change the film is cautious to take the argument too far. Where Hooks maintains that anger is the combustion engine behind social change, Fight Club limits anger's role to that of a spark plug, essential to begin the movement, but once initiated, the film maintains, that driving is best left to more stable and dependable forces. This is illustrated in the film as Tyler's rage continues to grow beyond fight club, leading to the initiation of Project Mayhem.

Gerlock observes that, "Military training is reported (Eisenhart 1975) as equating rage and anger with masculine identity in the performance of military duty"(6) . This is certainly paralleled in the third act of Fight Club, where Cornelius and Tyler, in accordance with Hooks' writings, allow their rage to govern the evolution of fight club, and in attempt to further assert their masculinity against the lingering specter of Marla Singer, give birth to the militaristic endeavor of Project Mayhem. Project Mayhem attempts to "take fight club out of the basements" through militia-like guerrilla tactics, but quickly spins out of control, succeeding only in violence and de-humanization. Gerlock elaborates on this theme, explaining that, "In a combat zone the dehumanization of others can expand beyond just the enemy (Shatan 1978). Horowitz and Solomon (1978 p. 278) assert that "… problems of control over violent impulses are complicated whenever real violence has occurred, whenever human beings are dehumanized or devalued, and whenever reality and fantasy images are fused","(7). This passage by Gerlock clearly summarizes the dangers of allowing anger to be the guiding force behind one's actions as encouraged by Bell Hooks. These concerns are reflected in Fight Club through the film's negative portrayal of Project Mayhem. By fusing "reality and fantasy images" in the form of Tyler Durden and the unrealistic goals of the Project, Cornelius institutes a regime that instills in its members the very things that fight club was designed to negate. The blind faith formerly placed in commodity culture is transformed into blind faith in Project Mayhem, to which the first rule is "you do not ask questions". The former rejection of mass-marketing and big business is contradicted by Project Mayhem's large scale publicity stunts and nation-wide franchises. Even fight club's hostility towards the conformity of office culture disappears within the regime of Project Mayhem which demands uniform military style haircuts and fatigues. All these factors, born out of anger, evidence the failure of Project Mayhem on the basis of its own hypocrisy as well as the dehumanizing effect of the Project's demand for complete conformity to its militaristic regime.

Gerlock also cites violence as a by-product of anger fuelled military cultures. This too is presented in Fight Club as evidence of the ultimate failure of the rage-driven Project Mayhem. Where the fight clubs employed violence as a ritual enacted upon those who consent to fight, upon the advent of Project Mayhem this violence is re-directed, towards society at large. The anger of Project Mayhem ultimately leads to violence in many forms, including the threatening of the city's police chief at knife point, the destruction of ten office towers, the near murder of Marla Singer, and the death of Bob Paulson. It is Bob's death that forces Cornelius to re-assess the effectiveness of Project Mayhem and realize that action driven solely out of rage, as suggested by Gerlock, can only lead to de-humanization and violence. This epiphany on Cornelius' part allows him to ultimately form the conclusion that in order to put an end to Project Mayhem he must purge his anger, which is personified by Tyler Durden. To eliminate, both, his anger as well as Tyler, Cornelius reasons that he must eliminate himself, and in attempt to do so puts a pistol in his mouth and pulls the trigger. It is this act that signifies Cornelius' acquisition of that which he has sought over the entire course of the narrative; that is to no longer fear death and to gain control of his own destiny. In attempting to end his own life Cornelius gains propriety of both these things, but it is only by first deciding to purge his anger that he is able to achieve this eventual success. Thus, the film maintains that although anger can be a motivating factor in achieving positive results (i.e. the monumental success of fight club), if anger is the only factor driving an action it can only lead to violence and de-humanization. By purging his anger, Cornelius' gains those things that have eluded him throughout the film and finally is able to interact with Marla as an equal, illustrated in the last shot of the film which portrays Cornelius and Marla for the first time in an equitable position, holding hands in a caring manner, centered symmetrically in the center of the frame.

Fight Club affirms Bell Hooks position that anger can function as a positive force in achieving social change through its portrayal of Cornelius, whose rage motivates him to create fight club, a necessary and lacking institution within the logic of the film. But the film, through its negative portrayal of Project Mayhem, also affirms Gerlock's position which finds anger to be a largely violent and de-humanizing force. Thus, the film is able to synthesize these two seemingly contradictory opinions upon the nature of anger into one somewhat rounded portrayal of the emotion. By applying these seemingly contradictory academic discourses to an artifact of mainstream culture, it can be determined that these views are not in fact as divergent as they might appear, and that they are indeed compatible within a holistic presentation of the emotion of anger.


(1) Aristotle trans. W. Robert Rhys, The Rhetoric Book II, online: [url][/url] at pg. 1
(2) Ibid.
(3) Bell Hooks, "Killing Rage" in Ending Racism (New York: Henry Holt and Co. 1995) at pg. 13
(4) Aristotle, supra at pg. 2
(5) Hooks, supra at pg. 16
(6) April A. Gerlock, "Veterans Responses to Anger Management Intervention", Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 15:393-408 (January 1994) pg.393, at pg. 394.
(7) Gerlock, supra at pg. 395

Posted October 26, 2004