James M. Dowdy
James M. Dowdy

Embracing Ellsworth

Instead of the present article, I originally intended to write a follow-up to David C. Adams's Issue #39 contribution, Exterminating Ellsworth. I wanted to give a concrete example of how the sneering and philosophically destructive spirit of Ellsworth Toohey — arch-villain from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead — merely pervades the 1999 film The Fight Club. Unfortunately, things seem worse than I initially imagined and, if this film and its wide acclaim are any indication, Ellsworth has nearly won.

To give appropriate context, I need to spoil the story. Fight Club begins with our sleepless middle class Narrator (Edward Norton) mumbling to us in vowels while Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) holds a gun in his mouth. Thus begins the nightmare flashback.

The Narrator recounts his general aimlessness, manifest as insomnia, which eventually led to his visiting a testicular cancer support group. Perceived as another cancer sufferer, he becomes emotional with Robert "Bob" Paulson (Meat Loaf), who grew breasts from testosterone replacement therapy. The Narrator's insomnia is cured and he becomes hooked on the sympathy and surrogate sense of purpose he finds as a disease faker. He attends more support groups, finding similar solace in them until another faker, whorish Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter, astonishingly), starts invading his turf.

Later, our Narrator meets Durden, a high-priced liposuctioned-fat-to-soap alchemist and avocational bomb maker. Soon thereafter, the Narrator's condominium blows up. He calls Durden, presumably for a place to stay, who offers boarding if the Narrator will punch him-Durden, you see, doesn't "[W]anna die without any scars." Fighting ensues, pugilism supplants support groups, and Durden forms an underground fight club where men willingly beat the crap out of each other. Their club, based in Durden's dilapidated home in an abandoned industrial zone, soon becomes a semi-fascistic cult with Durden's own anarchistic manifesto: to put an end to excessive consumerism and billboard advertisements of pretty-boy six-packed underwear models. Durden's convinced these things emasculate and disillusion men, who were promised by television that they'd "[A]ll be millionaires, movie gods, [or] rock stars." His "Project Mayhem" begins by terrorizing, at gunpoint, convenience store clerks who don't pursue their own ambitions. Nobody is physically harmed initially, beyond voluntarily accepted contusions and bloodied noses; later our Narrator punches Angel Face (Jared Leto) into a one-eyed snaggle-toothed bloody mess because he just "[W]anted to destroy something beautiful" (incidentally, this was censored in the UK due to excessive violence). Big-breasted Bob is an eventual casualty of a Project Mayhem demolition of public artwork. Bob's death is too much for our Narrator, who vows to put an end to Durden's anarchy.

We eventually return from the flashback, having learned that the Narrator is actually Durden's alter ego. Unfortunately, now he has his gun in his own mouth and has masterminded (as Durden) the imminent implosion of two buildings of a top U.S. credit agency — credit being the root of modern angst. To prove he's in control, he fires. Unfortunately, the bullet penetrates his cheek, he lives to see Marla (whom he's been fucking all along, as Durden), and the buildings collapse. He then dismisses, with nervous giggle, the last few days as part of a strange week. Roll credits.

Three of 1999's most popular films are best described with single-word philosophical concepts: existentialism (American Beauty), determinism (The Talented Mr. Ripley), and nihilism (The Fight Club). And while the first two at least acknowledge that value is possible, if only to the lucky, the third denies it to all. Fight Club consists of a philosophical vacuum.

Various people (cf. reviews at www.imdb.com) defend Fight Club's nihilism by suggesting that it's too "over the top" to be taken seriously, or that it's a comedy. If so, what the hell does it mean for violence to be "over the top" and how is it funny? No life-loving human pokes fun at terminal cancer, pain, death, and mayhem in that way. Sadly, the necessarily angst-ridden people who smirk at such things find all the security in numbers they want, simply in the similarly smirking faces of their peers.

Another defense offered is that "The Fight Club is about the violence we do to ourselves." If so, wouldn't a documentary about drug abusers, sadists, or the recent and tragic Colorado Columbine High School shootings be more effective? If the movie had presented hypotheses about alternatives to violence or nihilism and then tested them in a dramatic form, it might teach us something. Instead, we're left to wallow in self-conscious sewage. Fight Club's attempts at profundity were instead pretentious and, worse, offensive to the memory of nihilism's casualties.

The only plausible defense I've heard concerns the nature of art, specifically tragedy, and refers to Aristotle's comments in his Poetics. There he discusses the catharsis (purgation, purification, or cleansing) of negative emotions. Fight Club was big on purging, yes, but not in any lasting sense — it force-fed us emotional ipecac and then demanded that we swallow our own metaphorical vomit.

To its credit, this movie plausibly presents how cults might develop in philosophical voids. On this matter, the film reflects an explicit message of the book, in which Durden confesses to a psychiatrist that we aren't special, nor are we crap or trash, instead, we just are. Ultimately, though, Fight Club preaches destruction either explicitly, as in Durden's axiom, "Self improvement is masturbation. Self destruction is the answer," or implicitly, by ignoring the fundamental choice one must make: to find one's own way and values in life or, simply, to give up. Fight Club implies that value was always an illusion, so disillusionment is the excuse for tantrums and ignoring the choice to live.

But Durden was right about one thing. Most men are emasculated, though not because of commercialism, advertisements, or other modern creations. Instead, worse than with testicular cancer, men choose the method of their gelding by giving up their unique strength: intransigence of spirit. It's a fight to maintain the conditions of joy, especially when nihilism's theme song, "Give up!", plays loudly. Sadly, few seem ballsy enough to fight for the reward.

Ellsworth spoke of needing to drive a wedge into a man's soul to control him, but for all his evil machinations, he overestimated us. Apathetic and unquestioning, men are simply handing over their souls outright, no fuss. Ellsworth is winning.

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