"To kill God and to build a Church are the constant and contradictory purpose of rebellion" (1) --Albert Camus Throughout their lives, human beings seek meaning, community, and purpose. People want to understand what it means to be alive. They want to love and to be loved by others. They want reasons to live. Happiness is imagined to be the reward for those who are able to satisfy these desires. At the same time, human beings experience the world as a place in which these aspirations are often unfulfilled. This tension between longing and disappointment often prompts questions such as "Why is my life so unsatisfying?" and "What can I do to make my life what it ought to be?" Answers to these questions can differ in levels of sophistication and soundness. Fight Club, written by American author Chuck Palahniuk, is a provocative and compelling novel about Americans that addresses these questions.
Originally published in 1996, Fight Club won a few regional fiction awards in 1997. In 1999, a film-adaptation was released starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. In an afterword to the 2005 paperback edition of the novel, Palahniuk reflects upon the degree to which his story has captured the imagination of American readers and the broader culture. He explains that illegal fight clubs inspired by Fight Club have emerged in different places in the U.S. Academic conferences about the novel have been held. People have legally changed their names to Tyler Durden. He tells a story about going to a haunted house in which the guide changes the rules of fight club into the rules of the tour. According to Palahniuk, the guide had no idea who Palahniuk was or that Fight Club was even a book. About the positive response to his novel since it was originally published he writes, "Since then, thousands of people have written, most of them saying 'thank you.' For writing something that got their son to start reading again. Or their husband. Or their students." (2)
For readers who may be unfamiliar with the story, a brief summary is appropriate. Fight Club is set in the United States during the mid-1990s. As the title itself indicates, violence is a central theme in the novel. In Fight Club, feelings of alienation, powerlessness, and consumer captivity drive the narrator (no real name is given) to rebel against society, to "destroy" his life, and to seek individual meaning and community with other human beings on a new and authentic foundation. He meets a charismatic visionary named Tyler Durden. They become friends, and together they start the first fight club. Growing numbers of young men are drawn to fight club, and fight clubs start to spring up around the country. The characters believe that fighting is the only way to reassert their physical strength and masculinity in a society they perceive as weak and effeminate. But these clubs are about more than men punching and kicking each other in the name of manliness. Wherever it exists, fight club is a community, equipped with dogmas, scriptures, and rituals, devoted to obtaining the truth about existence through acts of violence and self-destruction. Later, the narrator, Tyler, and others start Project Mayhem, a terrorist organization committed to bringing the enlightenment its members have achieved in fight club to the rest of the world. Project Mayhem's first acts of terrorism are crude pranks, but their activities quickly increase in scope and violence. Eventually, the narrator becomes disenchanted with Tyler, fight club, and Project Mayhem, and he tries to stop them all. The novel ends on an ambiguous note when the narrator is confined to an insane asylum.
In Stranger than Fiction, Palahniuk states: "[A]ll my books are about a lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people." (3) For Palahniuk, this theme is especially important in contemporary America. He argues that the American Dream amounts to little more than achieving power and material satisfaction, but success in America brings only emptiness and isolation. Palahniuk goes on to explain that purposelessness and alienation from humanity eventually prod lonely individuals to try to reestablish contact with the world. (4) The characters of Fight Club express Palahniuk's general intuitions about the inadequacies of American life, and they connect their unsatisfying experiences with the shallow materialism of America's consumer culture to a more serious problem. They sense that dissatisfaction with American capitalism is actually a symptom of a deeper spiritual crisis. This insight shapes the manner in which the characters in the novel attempt to overcome despair and create meaningful lives.
As the following argument will show, Fight Club is a powerful aesthetic expression of metaphysical rebellion. Explaining the centrality of this rebellion in the novel will require a deeper textual analysis of Fight Club that draws upon a broader philosophical framework. In the mid-twentieth century, Albert Camus and Eric Voegelin worked separately on similar problems and issues. Each thinker identified and analyzed various disorders in modern philosophy and politics. Some of the concepts they developed can also be used to analyze works of art. In this article, Camus' notion of metaphysical rebellion, as explained in The Rebel, will be combined with compatible ideas from Voegelin, especially his notion of gnosticism, found in The New Science of Politics; Science, Politics, and Gnosticism; and other works. References to the political theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the early-twentieth century American scholar Irving Babbitt will shed further light upon metaphysical rebellion and the mindset out of which it emerges. Both Camus and Voegelin see Christianity as playing an essential role in creating the environment in which metaphysical rebellion becomes possible. Fight Club takes place in the United States, a nominally Christian society, and the characters draw heavily upon Christian ideas and imagery. Some consideration must therefore be given to Christianity. What Fight Club and the metaphysical rebellion at the heart of the novel might tell Americans about life and themselves will be addressed as the article draws to a close.
Metaphysical Rebellion: A Preliminary Account
In The Rebel, Albert Camus explores the experiences of life that tend to culminate in acts of rebellion. He explains, "Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that, somewhere and somehow, one is right." (5) In the most general sense, the rebel finds the world to be a deeply disappointing place. This experience stems mainly from a conception of justice to which he feels the world does not conform, but could and should be made to conform. The rebel does not understand his sense of justice as subjective and arbitrary but as universal and authoritative. When his vision of justice is realized, he believes it will nurture the elements of human existence that had previously been ignored or denied. Rebellion can take many forms. One obvious form is that of a slave rebellion. In resisting his master, the rebel slave declares the injustice of his condition as mere property and affirms his innate dignity as a human being. Metaphysical rebellion is the most extreme variety of rebellion because this type of rebel "protests against the condition in which he finds himself as a man." (6) It is not merely specific political or social arrangements but human nature and reality itself that the metaphysical rebel rejects as defective and unjust. He rebels against the entire structure of existence.
Eric Voegelin independently developed a concept very similar to Camus' notion of metaphysical rebellion. In a number of essays and longer works, Voegelin argues that an essential characteristic of modernity is "Gnosticism." Whether it finds a contemplative or a political expression, Gnosticism attracts a particular type of person. The typical Gnostic is frustrated with his existence. To one degree or another, this experience is common among all human beings. One of the most important ways in which the Gnostic differs from the rest of humanity is in his refusal to hold human beings primarily responsible for their unhappiness. In Science, Politics, and Gnosticism Voegelin writes, "If in a given situation something is not as it should be, then the fault is to be found in the wickedness of the world." These sentiments are combined with the idea that the world can be transformed and thereby cured of its injustice. As Voegelin explains, "All gnostic movements are involved in the project of abolishing the constitution of being, with its origin in divine, transcendent being, and replacing it with a world-immanent order of being, the perfection of which lies in the realm of human action." Thus, human beings are thought to be capable of undertaking this "change in the order of being"--provided they have a true understanding of reality, a plan for change, and a prophetic leader to guide them. Under these circumstances, the Gnostic believes he can save himself and the world. (7)
Drawing upon these thoughts from Camus and Voegelin, metaphysical rebellion can be described in a provisional manner as a rejection of God and the world on the basis of the rebel's conception of justice and his desires for individual meaning and human community. The metaphysical rebel holds God accountable for the suffering and injustice of the world. Finding little or no guilt on the part of human beings for this disappointing state of affairs, the rebel attempts to rectify the mistakes of an indifferent or cruel divinity. Total revolution is imagined to be the key to placing the world upon a just foundation. It is the process through which life will finally be invested with true meaning, purpose, and the spirit of brotherhood. It promises to transform human nature and the world. Metaphysical rebellion also serves as the source of a new religious faith. It allows a community to form around a belief in the possibility...