Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tyler Durden

Dear Hannah,

Right after Fight Club came out on DVD, my friends and I used to get high on all kinds of things and throw punches on the streets of Italy.  We had rules, because we were too sensible to get hurt too badly: no punches to the face, and nothing below the belt.  If someone wanted out, we let him.  I don't remember anyone fighting any girls, which would have been embarrassing for both parties, whether the man won or lost.  But the point of the matter was that however ridiculous Fight Club looks now, it had an impact on nearly every young man who saw it.  I saw it with nerds who ranted and raved about it in between matches of Starcraft; I pretended it with punks and stoners who acted it under the influence of ecstasy and cocaine.  Nobody who admired the film -- from the jocks to the preps to the band kids -- was like Tyler Durden.  Everyone, on some level, wanted to be like him.


There was really only one thing that caught every young man's attention in Fight Club, and it was what we'd been missing as "suburban" Americans all along.  When you live in comfort, it's hard to prove that you're a man.  If you're under 18, it's even tougher.  You either can't or shouldn't join the Marines, either because you're too young, or because an intelligent person knows that proving that your manhood should be less time-consuming than a career.  You can't go fighting all the bullies in high school, because school authorities aren't very discerning, which makes them very good at persecuting the persecutors of persecutors.  If you're under 18, your contracts are legally voidable, which means it's difficult to even start a business.  In other words, there aren't really too many ways to prove that you can take a beating and keep on going, that you can defend the people around you if things ever get too dangerous, or that you can even devise a serious plan and carry it through to fruition. The question on every healthy young man's mind isn't when he'll finally become a man; the question is how he's going to prove it.  And then in the middle of this mess you find a character who listens to and stops for nobody -- a character who bloodies his teeth for absolutely no reason other than expressing his male aggression, who lives in a dump for no reason other than an aversion to comfort, and starts a cult for no reason other than his wanting to shake the very foundation of the universe.  Tyler is a bad man, but at the very least he is a man.  The question is why anyone wants to be like someone they wouldn't want to share a house with.

On the one hand, Brad Pitt brings glamorous appeal to a sickly persona: it's natural for any boy to want to look like him; the difficulty lies in getting there.  On the other hand, acting like Durden is completely possible to geniuses and dunces, beautiful and ugly alike.  He appeals to our inner individualists in an age ironically jaded by punks and hippies in uniforms; his every action declares that he'll be thinking for himself, and that neither pain nor persons are going to keep him what what he wants to doMen love an ascetic defiance in a leader, especially in matters of war.  Women love the attitude instinctively, because if this kind of thing goes right, they end up with an entrepreneur and a defender: the guy who brings home the bacon, and keeps other men from taking it.  But if it goes wrong?  Well, then they end up with Tyler Durden, the man who destroys the bacon he already had, and then goes on to destroy everyone else's. 

Mankind has a funny way of admiring men for doing terrible things in great ways: it might even be our signature mark.  The silverback gorilla does what he does because it's what he does, because he doesn't know there's a different way to do them.  But men will admire even enemy generals -- devils -- masters of means divorced from good ends.  We'll be jealous of Hitler and Stalin for their genius and charisma, while planning ways to slit their throats for their vices and villainy.  And the unavoidable fact of Hitler's and Stalin's and Durden's impressiveness is that they're all masters of the things that precede virtues and make them possible.  You might call independent thinking and fortitude mechanical or neutral virtues, because they aren't really prudence or charity; but combine them with prudence and charity, and you've got a heck of a man.  Combine them with lust and boredom, and you have at best a Lord Byron, who waltzes into the ballroom, steals the Prime Minister's wife, leaves her a hot mess, and then goes off to war for Greek independence.  At what may arguably be the absolute worst, you have Tyler Durden.

Tyler Durden is to modern Westerners what the nation of Sparta was to our forefathers -- a man who every man pretends to admire, but nobody really wants to be or meet.  To eat black soup and moldy bread; to never raise your own child or have a normal relationship with a lover; to not have any luxuries or bodily comfort or useful money; to spend all day exercising and fighting; to be forced to steal and be surrounded by thieves may be impressive if we're impressed by all the things that make our lives miserable.  But at the heart of the matter, willpower -- however impressive it is, this barren kind of liberty, this spirit struggling in defiance against the body -- was never meant to purchase misery.  It all seems like a horrible waste of humanity, like all the ascetic monks and fakirs and Manichees and Puritans who demand our admiration for ruining their own happiness; the men who walk around with heads held high and sour faces. We have pity for the Puritan: we know that if we find ourselves running for discomfort, it's because on some level we know we've mismanaged and become too dependent on our pleasures.  We know that should we find ourselves dependent, the solution isn't so much to become stoics and sleep on the floor.  We maintain that the secret is to live within the boundaries of a wise but virile moderation, and know that if we're going to lose all the things that make us comfortable, we won't only be okay -- we'll survive, and we'll be happy surviving because we're free men.  And a free man has pleasure as a mistress, not as a master.

Our inborn jealousy of Tyler Durden will always exist on some level, if only because he could have been great; but it will only influence us for the worst if we're never given an example of someone who did it for the best.  Good heroes are the only antidote for anti-heroes; if children are in love with Durden, it was only because they never encountered enough of Ben Franklin -- Cyrus the Great -- King David -- Horatio Hornblower -- Teddy Roosevelt.   And on the other extreme of Tyler Durden's masculine recklessness lies a man who's gone the exact opposite direction. I remember a man once saying (possibly Will Durant, in his Story of Philosophy) that Jesus preached a feminine morality.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.   If Jesus was excessively concerned with taking care of us, it's because there is only one reasonable way of looking at a broken and miserable humanity if you claim to be from heaven, and that is with extreme pity.  Anyone who ruins dinner parties by speaking uncomfortable but necessary truths, and forgoes the comforts of luxury and women despite his fame, and builds a following and purposely loses it, and intentionally walks right into crucifixion for the purpose of saving his friends has to have a kind of defiance in the face of pain and suffering not only uncommon to women, but foreign to the overwhelming majority of leading men.  If Jesus is feminine, then the only acceptable conclusion we can ever reach is that we're all effeminate.  If people worship Tyler Durden, it's because they never discovered that Jesus was tough as nails.

Your father,
-J

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