Thursday, July 13, 2006

On today's card: Tyler Durden vs. The Misfit

The backstory for this post:

A couple of weeks ago over at Bittersweet Life, Ariel posted this excerpt from James Harleman's review of Fight Club. I've not heard of Harleman before, but to my mind he clearly understands Tyler Durden, and it caused me to leave a brief comment on Ariel's blog, which he then invited me to expand on. So here 'tis, for what it's worth:

What prompted my comment on Ariel's post was this passage from Harleman's review:

Quite honestly, if I didn't believe in God, I would join Tyler Durden in his philosophy. If God didn't exist—if Christ didn't offer salvation—then Tyler would be right... and to live otherwise in this mad world would be hypocritical, and a waste of air.

Compare to this passage from Flannery O'Connor's stunning short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find":
"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," the Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness."
Harleman's bit is as effective an unconscious (perhaps--I wasn't there, so I can't say it was) rewriting of the Misfit's speech as one is likely to find. It struck me as well that, at this level at least, The Misfit and Tyler Durden, in their own ways seek to live an authentic life. They speak a similar language out of a similar desire to live outside of/beyond the need for Something that transcends their respective messy selves.


Durden has decided that nothing transcends himself; as Harleman states elsewhere, he has crowned himself as an übermensch (see the (literal) writing on the wall in the pic above). The Misfit, though he indeed lives his life in a manner true to his nature, does not like that nature, as he reveals to the grandmother at whom he's aiming a shotgun:
"It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would have known [whether Jesus raised the dead]. Listen lady," he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now."
In Fight Club-ese, the Misfit does not like himself; he rightly, from the believer's point of view, sees Christ as an agent for change in his self. If Jesus indeed did what people have said He did, he--and we all--would have no choice but to accept that in order to continue to live authentically. Christ would no longer be illusion but undeniable, inescapable truth.

Two questions have occurred to me, though, as I've been writing this post:

1) The Misfit's dilemma, of course, is that which every believer daily lives/wrestles with: that belief by its very nature is not ultimately confirmed by empirical knowledge. For him--and for Tyler Durden, for that matter--authenticity is defined by that ultimate confirmation. But might there also be another sort of authenticity, one that sees the embracing of the not-empirical as not only possible but as actually (and forgive the oxymoron here) more authentic as a way of living? Surely, implicit somewhere in the believer's decision to believe is precisely that other notion of authenticity. And of course (it now occurs to me), that version of authenticity is perhaps best summed up in a book title: The Imitation of Christ.

2) What if someone living out the doctrine of TylerDurdenianity decides s/he DOESN'T like himself/herself? What if hell is NOT financial systems and nice, safe, boring jobs and a Starbucks on every corner? What if hell is oneself?

Update: This post has been lucky enough to inspire two very thoughtful responses: one by Raminagrobis at When Her Name You Write You Blot, in which he links the discussion here to Beckett's Murphy, and the other by Josh of Thoughts from Kansas, in which he takes issue with the moral absolutism present in the Harleman quote. Be sure to read them both.

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contratimes said...

Dear John B.,

Moments ago this post was recommended to me, and I am glad it was. Interesting, provocative, thoughtful. Thank you for sharing yourself.

If I were to answer your first question (I really can't, of course), I would point to passages in William James' engaging study, "Varieties of Religious Experience." For there he reports studying folks who are more convinced of their subjective (faith) experiences than they are of their objective experiences of the empirical world. Fascinating stuff, at the very least, even if not one whit helpful.

As to your second question, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis' amazing, The Great Divorce. Indeed, I think that it could be easily argued that the self is the source (?) of hell; that permitting a self to live entirely unto its own is perdition. I am also reminded of Charles Williams' spooky and cerebral "Descent into Hell."

Peace to you, always,


R. Sherman said...

Good post.

I agree with you re: The Misfit. He retains, just barely, some of his humanity and even in the midst of his evil-doing, one can see the possibility of redemption.

I also agree, that the worst state a person can be in is to refuse to see the transcendent in himself, to only believe that his existence is limited by a finite period of time. I cannot imagine such a life.


Raminagrobis said...

Thought-provoking, that. I had a few things to say about this that are only tangentially related, if at all, so in order not to clutter up the comments section, I posted them on my own blog.

I haven't read any Flannery O' Connor, I must admit. One for the list I think.

Josh Rosenau said...

It isn't even the absolutism that bothers me, it's the authoritarianism, or perhaps the . The idea that there's nothing holding us to moral behavior but the threat of some authority just rubs me very wrong. Morality may be absolute, and I do think it is objective, but it's also organic. And it isn't just "thou shall not," the important parts are "thou shall." And if you can't enforce that out of genuine desire for good, it won't happen. You can't threaten it.

René López Villamar said...

Hi John,

It's a real shame that Flannery O'Connor's work is very hard to come by here in Mexico, and I have saddly missed the one you cited.

However, in regard to your second question, you seem to forget that Tyler actually hated himself, that's how Tyler came to be the way he is in the first place. The book and the movie both solve this conflict in an entirely different way, but since you comment was initiated by a reviwe of the movie, I think it's important to look at Tyler's actions in relation with the ending of the movie.

Even toguh achieving his apolayptic destruction of the system, Tyler realizes at some point actually that he himself is his own hell, and does something about. Through this action, perhaps, this character is a lot more similar to the Misfit you quote, and, again perhaps, a true believer.

(A similar decision, for example, to the one the protagonist of Trainspoting takes at the end of that film)

Lyn said...

It started at Resurgence in a review of the movie Fight Club by James Harleman and continues via a discussion by AJ, John B, and Josh. I'll continue with some thoughts tomorrow at Bloggin' Outloud. lgp

Lyn said...

Fight Club Discussion Continued - at Bloggin' Outloud.

Mary said...

Hi. I just stumbled across this while googling for Fight Club images and am excited to find such an interesting, thought provoking discussion about Palahniuk and O'Connor. Fascinating blog--I will be coming back.

John B. said...

I thanked you in general for your visit elsewhere, but I feel compelled to say here that this blog benefits mightily from the readers and commenters it's been fortunate enough to attract. That benefit has been out of all proportion to whatever it was that drew them here in the first place.

I look forward to your return visit(s).


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