Tyler Durden, Yvon Chouinard, And Growing Up

I watched Fight Club the other night for the first time in over a decade, out of curiosity if it would still seem as important as it did when I  first watched the charismatic Tyler Durden come on screen and announce the rule that you do not talk about Fight Club. Fourteen years later, I realize two messages from the movie helped shape my life: Figure out how to feel alive. Be something; don’t buy something.

It’s funny, if you google the words “Fight Club generation,” you’ll get a handful of stories about mixed martial arts and its explosion in popularity. For a film that didn’t make much of a bang at the box office when it came out, Fight Club gave us a lot to consider: the evolving (devolving?) idea of masculinity in our society (“we’re a generation of men raised by women”), the glamorization of violence, mortality (“this is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time”), consumerism, nihilism, and lots of other big ideas.

I memorized one of Tyler Durden’s lines immediately, very likely repeating it an annoying amount of times to friends: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need.” A few months later, I (barely) graduated college with a marketing degree.

Watching the film 14 years later, I realize I never started my own fight club, I managed to get comfortable with my position on the masculinity/femininity spectrum, I’m a little more averse to onscreen violence, and then Edward Norton’s anonymous narrator character walks through his carefully-curated bachelor apartment and says, “I’d flip through catalogs and wonder, ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?'” And I realize I spent most of those 14 years resisting buying a lot of stuff.

I think Tyler Durden was the first anti-marketing, anti-consumerism voice I’d ever heard, and he taught me to not be a sucker, to step back and look at what we’re all chasing, and ask, “Is this for me?”

And there was the fighting, the bizarre phenomenon of grown men finding meaning in beating the crap out of each other: I want you to hit me as hard as you can. Real-life fight clubs sprang up across the U.S. after the movie came out, but that wasn’t what most of us took away from the movie. The fights were a sleeping generation waking up, feeling something visceral for a few minutes, popping out of their weeks of walking around numb, and long hours staring unblinking at glowing screens.

I went outside, into the mountains, and felt cold I couldn’t mitigate by turning up a thermostat on a wall, rain I couldn’t hide from under a roof, pain as lactic acid burned my legs and I gasped for air scrambling up boulders at 12,000 feet, and scared the shit out of myself dozens of times climbing exposed rock routes. Holy shit, I’m actually alive, I discovered.

Fight Club (the movie, not the book) turned 14 on October 15th. It’s not a significant anniversary, unless you were in college when it came out—in that case, right around now, you’re at the traditional “midlife crisis” mark. You’ve grown up, maybe “sold out” a little bit, and the young idealist in you has probably sacrificed a few things.

I quit smoking, quit drinking, quit doing lots of stupid things, haven’t been punched in the face since 2000, figured out how to earn an OK living, have several types of insurance, and … have ads on my blog. But I think, among all the literature I read in college while smoking Camels on the front stoop, Tyler Durden’s was one of the clearest voices, and it helped me develop a pretty good bullshit-o-meter when considering the things companies try to sell us and we try to sell ourselves. It was the perfect time in my life—just before entering the workforce—to have someone tell me to question the paper chase. A few years later, I got into the outdoors, and I felt alive. And I read Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing, and heard a very similar ethos—if you don’t need it, don’t buy it.

After I watched the movie again a couple of weeks ago, I found an interview with Edward Norton, published shortly after Fight Club came out. He told the interviewer that Fight Club was the first book he’d read that captured how he felt about his generation, that the world of advertising had created despair and paralysis, and that “we’ve been reduced to a generation of spectators.”

That’s from a 14-year-old interview about a 14-year-old movie. Is it still relevant? A friend of mine just watched the movie again in the last month as well, and pointed out that besides a couple of antique-looking computer monitors shown in the film, Fight Club hadn’t aged at all. That movie could have been made this year, my friend said.


30 replies on “Tyler Durden, Yvon Chouinard, And Growing Up

  • Tom G.

    A runout lead on choss is my basement brawl. Not sure which is healthier, but the air is fresher outdoors.

    Another homerun Brendan.

  • Christa

    Love this! Climbing was my “Fight Club;” its what made me unplug from The Matrix (another oldie but goodie), question the status quo and resolve to a life by my own definition of success. It certainly hasn’t been the easiest way, but its been the more fulfilling one.

  • Eric

    That last line is a haunting one. It COULD have been made this year. What should have been a wake-up-call for a whole generation seems to have largely fallen on deaf ears.

  • Tim

    For me one of the essential lessons of the book is that it is okay, even healthy, to get your ass kicked from time to time. Both to keep the ego in check but also to liberate you from the mendacity of a life guided by fear-based calculus. Good one Brendan!

    • Chris German

      Don’t buy it or steal it, go outside and do it! Become Fight Club in real life, get out of the norm and do something everyday.

      I feel our youth has no future… they are told from the beginning. You will go to school, you will get a job, you will then go to college, you may find your love at college or after, you will get a full-time job, you will start a family, you will be in debt from college, car loan, house, etc. Then you will retire with the little amount of money saved up in your 401K. So you can have some smart line to say on your grave stone.

      That is the future for the youth now…

  • Casey

    Great post, Brendan!

    Could we (American Alpine Institute) link to it in next week’s conditions or news blog? It’s spot on, and we’d like to share it with folks.

  • pimpbot

    A lot of folks I tried to turn on to this movie basically dismiss it as male testosterone fueled action crap. Either they didn’t really watch it, or they completely missed the point. I have no desire to start beating the crap out of my brothers out there, but I do feel we need to be less dependent on ‘the system’. So many folks I know would never even attempt to change a flat tire. They have the spare in the trunk and the tools, but don’t have the basic know-how of what is involved in even the most basic of mechanical fixes. That is the whole problem. We are used to paying people to do stuff for us… cook, build, garden, fix things, etc.

  • Jill Homer (@AlaskaJill)

    Eye-opening that this movie is 14 years old. I also viewed it as life-affirming at age 20, probably watched it a half dozen times that year, and I’ve always been averse to violence on the screen. Even though this film glorified self-inflicted violence, and even though the only female character was submissive and mainly there to be object of derision in a film about emasculation, I connected with this story because of it portrayed the freedom and joy of visceral experiences in an increasingly disconnected world. And in many ways, Fight Club may just be even more relevant today than it was in 1999 — in the wake of two major financial recessions and continuing economic unrest — the Millennials are even more enslaved in the hopeless debt cycle than our generation.

  • AaronF

    Great write up Brenden! Reminds me of the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, “Do one thing everyday that scares you”. There are so many people living the robot life cycle…….

    Another film that had an effect on me like that was Natural Born Killers. Most people would get caught up in the brutal violence of the film and fail to see it’s portrail of how we immortalize criminals.

  • Skozer

    Nice, but Patagonia`s don`t buy it if you don`t need it rings pretty high on the bullshit meter. Why do they keep fixing what`s not broken? Then filming Steve House, Colin Haley etc saying ” this is so great and cool” while dressed in the last fashion?

    Great site keep it going

  • SB

    From they way-back machine…1989’s “Say Anything” lead characte Lloyd Dobler: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”

  • knuckler

    Propagandhi released their 20th anniversary cd this year. A little while back I saw them live in a strip mall in Vegas and they played a song from their original album. They introduced the song by saying, “Sadly this is still topical.” The song’s about Palestine…

    The real mid-life crisis is how apathetic we get as we “grow up.”

  • Kate

    I saw Fight Club once when I was about 19 or so, and it was so visceral and frightening that I still have it seared into my memory. I don’t need to watch it again. It’s like somebody branded it into my brain. The whole “This is YOUR PAIN. OWN IT.” scene with the lye? Yeah, that was what I was thinking while laboring with my son. It’s what I think about when I climb off widths in Vedauwoo and when I pound through a Crossfit WOD. It was definitely a powerful movie, and I know many other (really incredible) people who were likewise moved by it.

  • Abomb

    First off I agree that as a society we tend to work our asses off to collect money to buy tons of shit we don’t need. I think we tend to fill our lives with stuff to help make our lives feel more meaningful perhaps.

    On another note, I don’t want to totally dog on Yvon Chouinard, but you’re reference in the article is similar to other things that I’ve either seen him say or Patagonia do. It just seems absurd for someone to say one thing and do the opposite. Such as, suggest don’t buy stuff and then make millions off of selling some of the trendiest/hippest/douchiest outdoor apparel out there. On top of that, their items are manufactured in the third world yet still expensive. Does Patagonia pay any regard to environmental destruction in the areas where their items are manufactured or just the places their athletes want to go climbing? Just curious…

    • kenny the chainsaw

      @Abomb: great point about Patagonia and Chouinard. While I have not read “Let My People Surf,” I think it would probably answer a lot of questions about his business practices. I recently read Mark Jenkins article about Yvon Chouinard in his book “A Man’s Life.” While the article is a few years old, it does a great job answering some of the questions you posed about him. The rest of the book is great too!

      But in the meantime here is a link to article about Chouinard: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/climbing/rock-climbing/King-of-the-Dirtbags.html

  • Josh

    It’s funny how meaningful good pop art can be to thinkers. The sad part is that’s as far as it seems to go. Only a handful will derive some sort of meaning and apply it to a personal ethos. V for vendetta is another one. It’s an amazing comic that could be written today and still speak with the same voice. It just seems futile though. Walmart will still dominate, McDonald’s will still dominate, cable news shouting matches and “talk” radio will still dominate. When ethical living pops up on the radar, it’s quickly shot down as elitist and douchy or European. Oh well time to go shopping.

  • Josh

    It’s funny how meaningful good pop art can be to thinkers. The sad part is that’s as far as it seems to go. Only a handful will derive some sort of meaning and apply it to a personal ethos. V for vendetta is another one. It’s an amazing comic that could be written today and still speak with the same voice. It just seems futile though. Walmart will still dominate, McDonald’s will still dominate, cable news shouting matches and “talk” radio will still dominate. When ethical living pops up on the radar, it’s quickly shot down as elitist and douchy or European. Oh well time to go shopping.

  • Jim McAllister

    Nice column, Brendan.

    Glad to see that you enjoy the good life in the mountains. Probably none of your friends these days would believe that you used to scarf down patty melts!

    My hat is off to you!

  • Charlton

    “You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”
    Brendan, this post struck a chord and reminded me of some ideals that I continue to fight for in my own life. Thank you.

  • TJ

    Glad to hear you haven’t been punched in the face since 2000. You had quite a bad streak going for a while. Just ordered your book on Amazon, looking forward to the read.

  • Tony

    I have just been pondering the same topic in my own blog. “Why don’t we wear things out any more?” Not only do we buy stuff we don’t need but a lot of it is inferior quality too and won’t last long at all. Most of my generation have tools and equipment that belonged to our parents and are still functional but I worry that such a concept of continuity is doomed. Let’s not just stop buying stuff we don’t need but let’s also only buy stuff that will last and enjoy wearing it out or passing it on.

  • Marc

    I just realized I’m supposed to be having a midlife crisis instead of the time of my life. I think this movie did impact me in positive ways. Between that movie and a quote I can’t remember who said it, “the problem with the world today is it’s entirely possible to go your entire life and never know whether or not you are a coward”. Made me take more chances and learn more things and always push outside of my comfort zone.

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