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Initially founded by Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth century, psychoanalysis introduced a whole new perception of the human mind, forming both ground-breaking and controversial theories. In his thesis, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle,’ Freud illustrates psychoanalysis as ‘the first and foremost art of interpretation.’ Which is concealed within the ‘unconscious’ of the human mind. Freud states that human behavior is a creation of an inner conflict taking place within the ‘unconscious,’ which is ‘the belief of ‘repressed desires, feelings, memories, and instinctual drives’. To understand the theory of id, ego, superego, this essay analyzes the main protagonists of David Fincher’s film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1998). I will examine character as well as explore the society that beholds it and its origins. To get a more in-depth assessment I will also be drawing on the concepts of Carl Gustav Jung and Jacques Lacan in this investigation.
Firstly, the essence of the narrator’s disappointment with life stems from a sense of emptiness and futility. His mundane job, living situation, and his ‘single-serving’ life, compound the overriding feeling of meaninglessness. Ultimately, this triggers him to hope for liberation; liberty he feels can be attained through death in a plane crash. It seems that the narrator’s cynicism can be related with the miss-sold American Dream. The forever out-of-reach ideal that every young, white, male American of his age had been led to imagine was his due; the high-powered job, the apartment, the money, the girls, the clothes — the film-star lifestyle, had all been reneged upon. As Tyler declares, ‘we’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires. His feelings of estrangement and aloneness add to the inadequate, unbridled consumerist society that has failed him. He deliberates ‘what dining table defines me as a person?’ as he flicks through the ‘pornography’ of his Ikea collection. He directs his anger to the multi-national and corporate giants, who have ‘shrink-wrapped’ and sold him the dream. The ‘Ikea nesting instinct’ is suggestive of the shifting culture that has stripped the younger American male of his ‘manliness’. In an interview with Gavin Smith, Fincher claims ‘We’re designed to be hunters and we’re in a society of shopping’. The same opinion is expressed in Tyler’s words, ‘We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me’. This gender role question is further examined in the acknowledgment that the perfect nuclear family has transformed in the structure; Tyler states that it is ‘a generation of men raised by women.’
Now applying psychoanalytic theory to these characters and themes, I will be considering their function and general impact on the text. To start, I’d like to go back to the narrator’s battle for self, whilst concentrating on Freud’s view of the unconscious drives. In the ‘Ego and the Id,’ Freud claims that the human psyche is divided into three distinct parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. These three components function together and when in proper balance, create a complete and rounded individual. The id is the power of the mind, made up of impulses and instincts that constantly demand gratification. Freud separates the id’s principal drives into two groups, life and death instincts. Life instincts focus mainly on pleasing survival, such as thirst, hunger, and erotic urges, while death instincts seek to replicate the earliest, pre-life experience of dormancy. It is our seemingly unconscious yearning for self-destruction and death. It might be argued that Tyler is a depiction of the id as his life is not motivated by society; he ‘let the chips fall where they may’. It is through his longing and will to crush society, that Project Mayhem is founded. Shorn Of Tyler, the narrator would have endured being a slave to the Ikea-nesting instinct – He might still be hunting for meaning in Scandinavian furniture. Subsequently coming to terms with his single-serving life, and material existence, the unconscious reservoir is flooded with repressed anger, and it is through his aggression that Tyler is born. Indeed, before Tyler even officially appears on the plane, the narrator is vaguely aware of the ‘death-drive,’ when he toys with the notion of ending his depressing existence by death in an air crash.
The ego is the developed part of the conscious and is created from a reality principle. Freud assumed that the ego represents ‘what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passion’ as it stifles the id’s yearnings and urges, maintaining control. In Fight Club, the ego takes the shape of the narrator. As mentioned, the narrator is an estranged individual, experiencing insomnia. When he begins to make remarks such as; ‘this is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time,’ it indicates the presence of the death drive, which could be interpreted as the initial stages of the narrator’s id taking control. It is notable, that all through his job and self-sufficiency, the narrator was formerly a well-functioning individual. However, evidently, a change has taken place and disturbed the balance between the id and the ego.
In some of his earlier works, namely ‘The Interpretation of Dreams,’ Freud argued that dreams were products of ‘wish-fulfillment.’ He uses the term ‘day residue’ to explain the idea that the base of the dream is rooted in the events of the previous day. Children demonstrate this concept clearly, but the dream substance of adults is less clear cut and warped by dream notions buried in the unconscious. Thus, the meaning is sometimes partly hidden. This has bearing on the narrator’s condition as much his insomnia renders him unable to discharge his repressed desire in the dream state. According to Freud, the third element of personality to develop is the superego and this starts to emerge at the age of five. It is fundamentally our sense of right and wrong and is the code by which civilized society operates. It also covers our perceptions of conscience and feelings of guilt and repentance. The superego acts to suppress the urges of the id. In effect, the ego is stuck in the middle of a battle between the angel (superego) and the devil (id). In Fight Club, the superego is depicted as the actual world of the narrative. The narrator (ego) is unhappy and alienated from this world and consequently has little resistance when Tyler (id) asserts himself and tries to destroy the world that has suffocated all sense of self and emasculated him. This sets up a battle between id and superego and can be seen in the jobs Tyler has. He incorporates hidden sex images into family films, and he soils restaurant food with bodily fluids. In Fight Club he builds an underground patriarchal locale that would seem to encourage gratuitous violence. He then embarks upon a montage of capitalist rebellion, which originally takes the shape of vandalism of civic buildings, which escalates to the creation of Project Mayhem.
Drawing on Freud’s theories of classification of the human personality, it is possible to comprehend how the id and ego are powerful oppositional forces. Libido (id) struggles with the need of the ego to repress desire. Freud defines five stages of psychosexual development in the human infant; oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Balanced individuals have negotiated these with ego suppressing the more deplorable desires of the id. In this context, it is suitable to note the oedipal complex in male infants, as its impact can be seen to echo throughout the film. The male infant’s developing sexuality includes the desire for his mother, but this is curbed by the fear of his father’s power, especially the power to castrate him. In an ideal world, he stifles his longing and replaces it with surrender to his father’s power, whilst still holding the affection of his mother. In theory, the boy’s masculinity would be strengthened by his deep relationship with his father. Freud insists that where the father is not present (as in the case of the narrator) or is a weak role model, the Oedipus complex is not solved, and obsessions arise. The narrator is so affected and when id (Tyler) breaks out, they manifest in rampant libido; (the sex with Marla), brutality (sadomasochistic interaction in Fight Club), and ultimately, an effort to destroy the culture that has robbed his masculinity. The anxiety of castration as the ultimate punishment is persistent throughout and it confronts us strongly in the early scene at the support group, ‘Remaining Men Together.’ These men are emasculated substantially and mentally and demonstrate the desperate need to assert: ‘We are still men,’ even as they cry. In numerous situations, castration is offered as the ultimate punishment; Indeed, members of Project Mayhem face the narrator himself near the end of the film, as his ego strengthens sufficiently to deny them. The importance given to this apparatus is extremely apparent in an unforgettable speech by Tyler in the bar after the narrator loses everything in the condominium explosion: ‘you know, it could be worse; a woman could cut off your penis and toss it out of a car.’
If we look at the theories of other Psychoanalytic theorists, such as Jung and Lacan, we’re capable of gaining a different understanding of the narrator’s neurotic behavior. The opinions of Carl Gustav Jung were originally affiliated with those of Freud; however, Jung came to consider that Freud paid too little interest to spirit and religion in his analysis of human psychology. Jung studied the theory that every personality has two conflicting elements, which he called ‘Ego’ and ‘Shadow.’ Comparable to Freud, Jung believed that Ego stayed in control until something dislocates, in the case of the narrator, the trigger is his insomnia and the shadow comes to power. We can also apply Jung’s concept of ‘physical inheritance’ (collective unconscious) and its content of archetypes,’ to other characters within the film. For example, Marla could be interpreted as the ‘anima,’ that is, ‘the female soul image of a man,’ as she replaces the initial childlike form of the narrator’s ‘power animal,’ and her relationship with him is mainly controlled by Tyler. There’s also a possible Mana Personality archetype in the character of Bob. As previously discussed, it is through Bob’s emasculated life and turmoil that the narrator is able to feel emotional and relate. Jung believed that ‘the Mana-personality is a dominant of the collective unconscious, the well-known archetype of the mighty man in the form of hero, chief, magician, medicine-man, saint, the ruler of men and spirits, the friend of God.’ The narrator describes Bob’s ‘bitch tits,’ as ‘enormous the way you’d think of God’s as big,’ and the place where he fits, perhaps showing an awareness of his psychodrama. This all offers a possible explanation to the narrator’s tendency to refer to himself in the third person, initially in the voice of body parts and later, emotions. On numerous occasions he makes comments like ‘I am Jack’s cold sweat’ and ‘I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.’ This behavior suggests a regression back to an infantile stage (pre-mirror stage), in which the narrator loses the terms of ‘I’ and ‘you.’ As he no longer feels whole, it could be argued that he wishes to return to the state in which demands were just needs and repeat the sensation of imaginary wholeness once again.
Lacan’s later work presented a layered conception of the human personality; the notions of the imaginary, (the unconscious) the symbolic (conscious formulated through language and society), and the real (that which resists representation). According to Lacan, a functioning personality relies on these layers, which are kept in check by the Law of the Father. Lacan believed that this Law was the acceptance of castration and the father’s authority. It presented itself through the structure of language itself. When applying a Lacanian perspective to the character of Tyler Durden, he takes on a different meaning. Instead of representing the image of a rampant id, he becomes an occupant of the ‘imaginary order.’ He is, as mentioned before, everything the narrator wishes to be. In this way, he could be described as the perfectionist Ikea model of manhood; a projection of the narrator’s ideal self, which fits in with modern society’s perception of the handsome, muscular, sexually promiscuous modern-male ideal. In drawing together the work of Freud, Jung, and Lacan, it is conceivable to see a broad agreement in the assumptions of the first two, but a more complicated linguistic component in the work of the latter. Freud, as a mentor, understandably influenced the early work of Jung, and consequently, there is a similarity in the ideas of id/ego and shadow/ego. Differences arise in their individual perception of libido and religion. While Lacan also applies and Freudian theory in his interdisciplinary work, he then reformulates it, introducing language and structuralism into the continuum of psychoanalytic critique.
In this essay, I have attempted to apply the theories of several established twentieth-century psychoanalytic theorists to David Fincher’s film adaptation of a piece of contemporary American literature. In the narrator, we have seen a post-modernistic Everyman who acted as the ideal vehicle to demonstrate the modern neuroses; meaninglessness and emptiness. It also introduces the specter that in the post-feminist revolution, the male of the species still hasn’t got a role that gives him satisfaction. While being able to comprehend the narrator’s psychodrama to an extent, the film’s ending raises ambiguities. In many ways, the conclusion of Palahniuk’s book portrays a more appropriate ending, in which the narrator, after freeing himself of Tyler Durden, is imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital. He imagines that he has died and gone to heaven, saying he has discussions with a God that ‘cannot be taught anything.’ This ending appears to shelve the focus on consumerism, drawing more on the absence of a father figure. While this appears to be a more logical ending, it also shows the narrator’s battle to function without Tyler (his id), and his alienation from the society (superego).
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