Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off. (Fight Club)
What is causing men in America and around the world to do extreme, bizarre, insane acts of violence, anarchy, and social abandonment? Kids blast bullets in to other kids, men mow down their coworkers, a hermit lives in the wilderness mailing bombs, a young man wanders into the Alaska thicket never to be seen again, a deranged Steve Irwin look-a-like lives with the grizzly bears and gets eaten by them, and young Muslim men plow air planes into buildings. The movie Fight Club, directed by David Fincher, may have some answers. The main character, who is left nameless throughout the movie, is disillusioned with his life. An uncelebrated pawn in a capitalistic society, he is depressed, attending support groups just so he can make himself feel better, working a boring job inside an office, decorating his apartment in chic furniture and decoration, and wearing the latest fashion apparel. His mind slowly begins to unravel, and we are left with a stark picture. Men are at war with themselves, restless in a society that feminizes, and forces them to work for nothing, to own the nicest furniture, hippest carpets, and the latest technology. But these things do nothing; they are hollow, meaningless, and horrifying. We are "the forgotten generation," with nothing to put our frustrations on, nothing to release the pent up energy, rivalries, and grudges. Men are lost in a world that doesn't need them; a society that has no substance, just saturated name brands, and absurd, mass-produced peripherals. In this culture -- which idolizes celebrities and super heroes -- men feel the need to make a name for themselves, but find it impossible. How can you find your voice? How can you leave a mark on the world? How can you make your mind at peace? For some it becomes an obsession. The problems have been building for decades, but lately with the onset of the Columbine shootings, Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, and September 11, things have slowly begun to spin out of control. Every night there seems to be another tragedy unfolding somewhere across the world, be it in Mumbai, Baghdad, Berlin, Washington D.C., or Madrid. Henry A. Giroux, from his essay Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence, has this to say about men's crisis:
White, heterosexual men in America have not fared well in the nineties. Not only have they been attacked by feminists, gays, lesbians, and various subaltern groups for a variety of ideological and material offenses, they have also had to endure a rewriting of the very meaning of masculinity. As Homi Bhabha has recently stated, the manifest destiny of masculinity with its hard boiled, tough image of manliness has been disturbed, and its blocked reflexivity has been harshly unsettled. [...] A rampant culture of consumption, coupled with a loss of manufacturing and middle-management jobs presents white males with an identity crisis of unparalleled proportions. The male hero of the modern day work force is no longer defined in the image of the tightly hewn worker using his body and labor to create the necessities for everyday life. The new workforce hero is now modeled on the image of the young computer whiz yuppie who defines his life and goals around hot start-up e-commerce companies, day trading and other get rich before I'm twenty-one schemes as well as the conspicuous consumption of expensive products. Moreover, as white, heterosexual working-class and middle-class men face a life of increasing uncertainty and insecurity, they no longer have easy access to those communities in which they can inhabit a form of masculinity that defines itself in opposition to femininity. In simple terms, the new millennium offers white, heterosexual men nothing less than a life in which ennui and domestication define their everyday existence. (Henry A. Giroux)
What is a good life? Is it really some cubicle-bound hell that most men find themselves in? Living from day to day, making concession after concession to conform to the sterile view of modern man? For some, it's a hard monkey to throw off the back, too big, too massive to bear. Men deal with this struggle in different ways. Some resort to violence. As in "Fight Club", where the hero gets taken under the wing by the macho-man, anarchist Tyler Durden. The two quickly form a club. A club that men can relieve their inner frustrations with violence. In the movie, Tyler is the head for the chaos movement which plans to take out the government, and "start over." The perfect 20th century man; a 20th century that has bred a generation of apparent "sissies" who are eager to prove themselves by resorting to violence or social solitude. Who want to show what it means to be a man in a woman's world. A theory that has crossed over into our youth's culture as well. When contemplating the horrors of the Columbine shooting, one has to wonder how deep the crisis goes. Has our culture really gone as far as corrupting even our high schools? Has the inability of our young males to act -- as prisoners of our culture -- caused them to show the same signs of hopelessness that the men who shoot up the office, blow buildings to dust, and traipse off into the wilderness show? As Richard E. Miller states in his book, Writing At the End of The World, "...one is left with the inescapable fact that the hierarchical, exclusionary environment of mandatory schooling that fosters feelings of rage and helplessness that cannot be contained" (Miller 3). The world of high school is not that different from the job one. Both have a high emphasis on competition, being promoted or going to the next grade, both seem like the end all and be all of one's life. In other words, being in high school is not that different from having a job. Miller tells us that the police eventually conclude that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's goals broiled down to one thing: fame. Miller says, "We might say that Harris and Klebold wanted what all writers are said to want [fame]" (Miller 26).
I find the more and more I look at examples, one thing is certain, men and boys alike feel trapped by the information age. Restless, confused, the desire to be more than what is offered, the need to be famous, and like Tyler Durden said, "We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't" (Fight Club). And this fact has proven one thing: men are confused on with whom they are supposed to be, and sometimes the results can be disastrous. One of the other men Miller tackles in his book is Ted Kaczynski:
In his manifesto, the Unabomber provides his theory about the root cause of the felt sense of powerlessness he believes characterizes life in the modern era generally. As the Unabomber defines it, "human beings have a need (probably based in biology) for something that we will call the 'power process,' which has four elements--goal, effort, attainment of goal, and autonomy" (201; par 33). Humans need to have goals they can strive for and attain autonomously. Is it through this process, the Unabomber asserts that "self-esteem, self-confidence and a sense of power are acquired." And when humans are denied access to this process and the felt sense of autonomy that attends it, the results are "boredom, demoralization, low self-esteem, inferiority feelings, defeatism, depression, anxiety, guilt, frustration, hostility, spouse or child abuse, insatiable hedonism, abnormal sexual behavior, sleep disorders, eating disorders, etc." (205; par. 44) (Miller 62)
So what was Ted Kaczynski's goal? To start a revolution. Miller says, "The Unabomber's hope is that his words will set off this anarchic, apocalyptic, redemptive revolution, bringing together all the dispossessed in a coordinated effort to dismantle the technological advances that have increasingly deprived life of its meaning and its pleasures" (Miller 63). In other words, the Unabomber is not that different from Tyler Durden. Did Kaczynski believe he was fulfilling his need to have goals? Did he believe that society was blocking his dreams? What the Columbine boys and the Ted Kaczynski had in common was one desire. They wanted to be infamous. They wanted to be "somebody". They wanted to be remembered after they died. Yes, they wanted to be George Clooney, Tom Cruise, or Brad Pitt (who ironically played Tyler Durden). Mega stars.
Strikingly, even to myself, I agree with the Unabomber in one regard: man's search for meaning. The need by one to have goals, to continue, to strive for something, to plan out your life based on some form of guidelines, and to dream. Last year in my University Studies class we read a book titled Man's Search for Meaning. It was written by the holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl, who believed he had found the meaning of life inside the confines of hell, a concentration camp. Viktor discovered that he could endure anything as long as he had a goal in his mind; namely, that he would meet his wife once he escaped. Frankl wrote, "What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him" (Frankl 166). He continues, "What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment" (Frankl 171). Two people from wildly different backgrounds came to the same conclusion: you make your own meaning in life. But is American culture hindering that effort? Are we not allowing young men to make proper goals? Is our culture saying: you are non-existent if you aren't famous? You are a nobody if you aren't a celebrity? Is the American dream tainting our minds?
Another development that is not completely unique to the post-modern age is men who abandon the human world. Who run off into the wilderness of Alaska, Montana, the Dakotas, or even to the poor of the third world. Men who reject America's reality and search for their own. People like Timothy Treadwell and Chris McCandless. In some ways the two are as similar as lost twins. Both died in the beautiful Alaska wilderness. Both abandoned the American world for their own versions for utopia. But in others regards they were quite different.
Treadwell, who is the subject of a movie directed by Werner Herzog titled Grizzly Man, was an enthusiastic Californian who lived with the bears in Alaska for 13 summers, documenting them via video camera like a children's television program, and crossing invisible line after invisible line. In his design of the film, Herzog seems to hold disgust for the man, but indeed is in awe of what he accomplished: "I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil. As if there was a desire in him to leave the confinements of his humanness, and bond with the bears, Treadwell reached out seeking a primordial encounter, but doing so he crossed an invisible border line" (Grizzly Man). His receding hairline covered by boyish locks of platinum blond hair and often a bandana, his voice high-pitched, and his clothes hip, Timothy was a drug addict, an alcoholic, horny, name something off and he was probably it. A deeply disturbing figure, but at the same time, fascinating, he was obsessed with bears which he rambunctiously nicknamed Rowdy, Mr. Chocolate, among other names. In early fall 2003, he and his girlfriend were attacked and devoured by a grizzly bear. The audio of death was recorded and can be heard on such video sites as Youtube. On the tape, Treadwell is heard screaming at his girlfriend that he is being attacked, to get the frying pan, and her yelling back to stay still, then eventually to fight back. Both were found the day after partly consumed. Timothy was flamboyant, the Steve Irwin of Grizzly Bears but not as endearing. He claimed to be in love with the bears, picking up their dung as if it was holy, saying "I love you, I love you, I love you". His footage was amazing, and bears terrifying, wild, dangerous, but at the same time awesomely beautiful. Timothy was a truly lost individual, trying to find peace by running away to the no man's land, discovering solace by living with the animals. Another middle class suburban kid losing his head and running away.
Chris McCandless, who also fled from his upper middle-class home and took on the name of Alex Supertramp, basically made himself become a hobo, a transient. He believed that a life worth living was one in constant flux, living off the land, never staying anywhere for too long. McCandless traveled across the American West, through Mexico, making friends as he went. Finally, like Treadwell, he went off into the Alaskan wilderness for a spiritual retreat, dying of starvation there. His body a gaunt figure inside a forgotten bus, frail and tucked inside a sleeping bag. But what he represented is what makes his story truly great. Chris was trying to find meaning in a country he couldn't understand. He hated the ordered world, the world of no advancement, the world of Fight Club, by becoming chaos, rejecting order, finding the meaning by living it. He devoured books, preached his way of life to anyone that would listen, and prevented himself from making any long lasting relationships. However, he would always write to the people that had helped in the past. In Into The Wild by John Krakauer, Krakauer documents one of these letters to Chris's friend, Ron, in which Chris begged him to abandon his life style:
So many people live with unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within in a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. [...] You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living. (Krakauer 57)
Chris is another victim of American's society. He realized the hopelessness of it, refusing to live his life inside an office, to conform to the humdrum masses. In Chris's head, modern America was beyond saving. He wanted Ron to realize that, to align his way of thinking with his own. Chris, in his own way, wanted to start a movement. Just what might this movement would be? I can imagine it, in the words of Tyler Durden:
In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway. (Fight Club)
But what do McCandless and Treadwell have in common besides the obvious? What drives these men to escape civilization? That answer is easy: both wanted to be important, to be remembered as great men, and to be lauded for their way of life. They wanted to be famous. And both men saw death as a way of achieving this. In Treadwell's last letter he states, "There are many times I feel death is the best option. My work would be much more seriously looked at, and possibly make the difference in living I can't do" (Grizzly Man). Marnie Gaede, an ecologist interviewed in the aforementioned movie, believes Treadwell had an inferiority complex and these statements echo that he didn't think he was worthy to protect the bears. No, that's not it all. He wanted the attention that his demise would bring him. Timothy was exploiting the bears, making his documentary in several different bandanas in multiple scenes, constantly playing with his blond hair. He didn't have the animals' best interest at heart at all; he had his own selfish needs to be a celebrity. Timothy Treadwell was using them. Likewise, McCandless also felt the need to prove himself, to change a misguided planet. I personally believe that he wanted to have books -- that he so cherished -- written about himself, his life dramatized in art, movies, and words. In a way, both McCandless and Treadwell were similar to the Unabomber, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and Timothy McVeigh in that they all needed to change the world. They wanted to leave their mark in the history books, but since our culture wouldn't allow them to do it in our claustaphobic, hard to advance culture, they set out to do it in unprogressive ways. They believed the world had rejected them. They lashed out.
Today's culture has bred a litter of disenfranchised men searching for meaning. They have been raised on the cult of celebrity and the American dream of all or nothing. However, in many cases we have trapped men inside a system of office chairs, desks, black and blue-inked pens, suits and ties, and static computers. A system that forces men into awkward, unrewarding work places and allows little room for change. A system that puts men and women on equal ground, and leaves only a small footing in gender relations. Men are in a crisis of unequaled proportions. Never in mankind's history have we faced a society where two high school boys can kill over a dozen, where 19 high jackers can kill 2,974 people, and where one lost man who died alone in the wilderness of Alaska can become famous. Modern society has created a nation of bewildered men, unfocused, obsessed with super stars and one-man heroes. Where once was cohesion, now there is isolation, loneliness, and quiet despair. There will always be someone out there planning to change the world. If our society doesn't change, there will always be Chris McCandless's, Timothy McVeigh's, and school shootings. There will always be new September 11th's.
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Axline, Nicholas. "Witches and Snowmen." The New Endwellian. 15 June 2008. 8 Dec. 2008. .
Fight Club. Dir. David Finch. Perf. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. 1999. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 2000.
Frankl, Viktor. Man's Search For Meaning. New York: Pocket, 1997.
Giroux, Henry. "Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence." Henry A. Giroux Global Television Network Chair in Communication Studies. 8 Dec. 2008 .com/online_articles/fight_
Grizzly Man. Dir. Werner Herzog. 2005. DVD. Lions Gate Films, 2005.
Krakauer, Jon. Into The Wild. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.
Miller, Richard. Writing At The End of The World. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.