Gnostic Themes in Fight Club
Since its release almost a generation ago, Fight Club has evolved beyond cultish status as a civilization game changer and modern mythopoeia for the dreaming masses. It is certainly one of my favorite movies. I agree with The New York Times when it said Fight Club was a “cultural mother lode” and the “the defining cult movie of our time.”
But one intriguing (and mostly overlooked) aspect of Fight Club is that it is essentially a Gnostic Gospel of high heresy. And understanding this aspect of this vital film is vitally important for understand the social relevance of the Gnostics today.
I’m going to finally make this case while breaking the first two rules of any fight club.
Well, first speak of what Gnosticism is
For brevity’s sake, even as academia and occultism host their own fight clubs on the term “Gnosticism,” I’ll break down the term down in five components…or more like rules. These rules can be debated to a point, but when compared to other Gnostic-themed films (like The Matrix), they are apparent.
The Gnosis Rule: Gnosis (from the Greek for “knowledge) is a special type of spiritual downloading from higher planes of consciousness. It is a revelatory process that educates us to our true, alien nature, while simultaneously exposing the synthetic nature of sensible reality. Gnosis is not your boilerplate mystic orgasm, but more of a slow simmer into scalding enlightenment.
Thus, the Gnosis Rule flows through the other rules in a crusade for the eventual liberation of the soul. In his book Gnosticism, Stephan Hoeller aptly defines Gnosis as: “Salvific knowing, arrived at intuitively but facilitated by various stimuli, including the teaching and mysteries brought to humans by messengers of divinity from outside the cosmos.”
The Two-World Rule: We live in a counterfeit reality. Whether this counterfeit reality is benign or malignant is a matter of debate (think of Cipher in The Matrix, chewing on his steak while regretting taking the Red Pill and craving to return to digital chimera, before a mildly amused Agent Smith). Regardless, our spirit belongs elsewhere, in a half-remembered home beyond carefully constructed veils of illusion. Ignoring this truth results in negative existentialist conditions: alienation, loneliness, dissatisfaction.
In other words, it makes us human.
The Gnostic Revealer Rule: A messenger of divinity (see Hoeller above) makes contact with us, stirring within our hearts an astral recollection we may or may not pay heed to (in film, the protagonist always does for the plot’s sake, as with Neo or Truman or Donnie Darko). The Gnostic Revealer doesn’t have to be human or even material, a reflex of the active imagination Jung wrote about—the protagonist’s projected thirst for psychic relief. Jamaican accents optional, of course.
The Archon Rule: Cosmic forces or earthly agencies (or both) keep us from daring to discover our true nature as supramundane beings. The Gnostics never contended these entities were intrinsically evil, but they certainly enjoyed feeding off our ignorance or inner light. These Archons (Greek for “princes” or “rulers”) hate nothing more than an awakened individual, and they will go to any measure to maintain the status quo.
The Divine Wisdom Rule: A manifestation of the Divine Feminine archetype enters the fray between Archons and an arising soul. She can be the Gnostic Revealer, the awakened individual, or a didactic antagonist (or all three). However, she is decisively her own character with her own agenda, not necessarily part of the rubric of the storyline.
With these rules established, as well as some spoilers, let us to the Gnostic themes in Fight Club (and if you haven’t seen the film yet, ignorance is surely your bliss).
The Gnosis Rule
The plot of Fight Club centers around the grinding apocalypse of the main character, referred to as the narrator (played by Edward Norton). He may seem to gain decisive disclosure with each event of Gnosis, but he’s actually migrating across levels of understanding of himself and the world around him. In one scene, face beaten after a night of fight club, the narrator explicates the Bataan Death March that is Gnosis with this quote: “Yes, these are bruises from fighting…, yes, I am comfortable with that…I am enlightened.”
With this in mind, we can see how Gnosis continues to drip down the movie’s steep plot until the dam of reality breaks at the end.
The Two-World Rule
The narrator lingers in a counterfeit reality known as Western Culture. He spends his time filling a void with sugary pursuits like ordering furniture from catalogues, while mechanically working a job that bolsters the plantation systems around him. This all results in the narrator believing he’s inflicted with insomnia, when in reality he is sleepwalking through life (Gnostic texts often portray our existence as being in a stupor or half sleep, caused by the dark lullaby of Archons).
That’s one world.
As the movie progresses, the narrator peels off the bondages of sleepiness. In fact, the process in which the narrator awakens can be related to the teachings of a Gnostic sect called the Valentinians. These Platonic Christians proposed that humanity was divided into three races: Hylic, Psychic and Pneumatic. However, an argument can be made that these races were more like modes of existence (considering that to the Valentinians all was a seed of potential where even the dreaded Archons could be redeemed, and no issue was beyond philosophical re-interpretation).
The three modes of existence can then be described as:
- Hylic (Greek for “flesh”): A state of languishing in interests of the flesh.
- Psychic Stage (Greek for “mind”): A state of blended matter and spirit, in struggle.
- Pneumatic (Greek for “spirit”): A state of spiritual clarity.
The narrator in Fight Club undergoes these three modes of existence. At first he lingers in the Hylic mode, immersing himself in a consumer orgy, until his crumbling mental health sends him to the Psychic mode, depicted by his finding solace in various support groups at hospitals. But the emotional gifts of group therapy are not enough, ushering another state of crisis. The narrator gradually enters the Pneumatic mode, completely renouncing his former life and experiencing a complete freedom.
That’s the other world.
In fact, bringing up Gnosis again and how it weaves through the rules, this definition by Jungian/Occult scholar Gilles Quispel truly defines the plight of the narrator’s Gnostic salvation: “Gnosis is going through the Inferno of matter and the Purgatory of morals to arrive at the spiritual Paradise.”
How does this all happen? That’s part of the other two rules.
The Gnostic Revealer Rule
It’s obvious who that is: Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt). It’s also obvious that Tyler’s presence and teachings fuel the narrator’s journey up the modes of existence and into a fierce state of self-awareness.
What isn’t that obvious is that Tyler is the narrator’s alter ego— an imaginary outcrop of all of his hopes and resentments. Tyler may not be material, but he is actually more real than the narrator by his tidal wave effects on the world (represented in his villainous and global Project Mayhem).
Tyler and the narrator’s relationship correlates perfectly with the Gnostic and Hellenist concept of the Daemon (Greek for “helper”). In short, the Daemon is an individual’s discarnate heavenly avatar that aids the Eidolon, the individual’s material lower avatar. In myth and theology, the Daemon could take apparent human form and could indeed be a Gnostic Revealer.
In a more nuanced way, we could look at the Gospel of Thomas, where a seeming Apostle Thomas records the arcane wisdom of a seeming Jesus. But Thomas refers to himself as Didymus (Greek for “twin”); and it should be noted that Thomas is Aramaic for “twin” as well. Furthermore, Jesus indicates often in the scripture that Thomas can potentially become like his master if he takes the salvific information to heart, such as in this passage: “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.”
Taking it a reasonable step forward, it’s not unreasonable to deduct that Thomas and Jesus are the same fragmented entity. Jesus is the Daemon while Thomas is the Eidolon.
This interplay of Daemon/Eidolon transpires often in the Nag Hammadi library, such as in Asclepius, where a hierophant instructs a pupil on the mysteries of the universe. In these writings, there is an electric sense that this is all one consciousness speaking to itself in a theatric stage constructed by the imagination.
Beyond this, the Gnostics advocated a theoretical Jesus—a Christ of Rorschach speculations for spiritual liberation (and that notion incurred the ire of the church fathers). Again from the Nag Hammadi library, in the Secret Book of John, Jesus shape shifts before the (seeming) Apostle John, while the Gospel of Philip states:
“Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not appear as he was, but in the manner in which they would be able to see him. He appeared to them all. He appeared to the great as great. He appeared to the small as small. He appeared to the angels as an angel, and to men as a man. Because of this, his word hid itself from everyone. Some indeed saw him, thinking that they were seeing themselves, but when he appeared to his disciples in glory on the mount, he was not small. He became great, but he made the disciples great, that they might be able to see him in his greatness.”
Talk about psychological projection!
All this points to the beginning of the article where I mentioned the imaginary Gnostic Revealer. Tyler fits this bill—and pays most of the karmic checks in his dark guardian angel form. Just as Daemon Jesus instructed Eidolon Paul to begin a Jewish Mystery Religion, Daemon Tyler instructs Eidolon narrator to begin a postmodern Mystery Religion called Fight Club.
This process of Gnostic salvation may seem a bit prideful. Yet in an interview on my show, Occult scholar Gary Lachman explained that the Gnostic notion is that of “as above, so below, the idea that as humankind, we are all microcosms of the macrocosm. Within us the entire universe exists.”
The Gnostic sensibility, then, basically states that we are capable of accessing the arcane gifts of the cosmos and beyond, which paradoxically lie within if that “within” can detach in a form that can dialogue in relation to our “without.”
The Archon Rule
It is abundantly clear that Fight Club is a story about the struggle of a man against the oppressive systems of the cosmos. That includes his own material form, as it is brutally given in sacrifice during the movie (“I am enlightened”). The narrator, in his alchemical union to Tyler, is going all the way in and all the way out. This narrative echoes the poetic but punk rock rejection of the material world by the Gnostic Sethians of the second century.
A blogger writing about Gnosticism in Fight Club explains that the narrator/Tyler possesses an “extreme distrust and hatred, of material goods, luxury, and wealthy or overprivileged masses.” And that he also has a “disregard for any social luxury or comfort, eventually evolves into cultural terrorism, i.e. blowing up coffee bars, trashing expensive cars found parked on the street, with baseball bats, and while working a theatre job splicing single frames of pornography into family films.”
As with the Sethians, Fight Club is not just satisfied with a mere jihad on a bloated consumer culture and corrupt capitalism. The Gnostics exposed the gods of this world, identifying such figures as Jehovah of the Old Testament as a bullying and bureaucratic demon corralling humanity’s celestial aspect in matter.
Fight Club brazenly picks up this vibe, as seen with these quotes by Tyler:
“You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you, he never wanted you,
and in all probability he hates you?”
“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”
“F**k damnation, f**k redemption. We are God’s unwanted children, so be it!”
One could view these remarks as atheist logorrhea or adolescent revolt, yet there is a magic realism sensibility about the film, where the gods are just a theoretical but impactful as the saviors. Furthermore, Tyler isn’t interested in disproving God, but going directly to war with him, storming the very gates of Heaven while raging in the Hell that is the physical order around him.
As Justin Garrison wrote in his article God’s Middle Children: “Fight Club is a powerful aesthetic expression of metaphysical rebellion.”
(Note: Garrison sadly oversells Voegelin’s ideas on Gnosticism in his piece, but that’s for another sad argument.)
The Divine Feminine Rule
As mentioned before, the Divine Feminine in Gnosticism serves many purposes in her assistance to humanity, truly a trickster deity with many (accessorized) masks. She is a dreamlike force irritating the order of the universe, a beckoning call from primordial states of existence. The Gnostics employed many enigmatic and luminary heroines in their accounts, including Sophia, Eve, Helen of Troy and Mary Magdalene. In some cases, the Divine Feminine was the ultimate player, as in the Nag Hammadi library’s Trimorphic Pretennoia, where she actually saves Jesus from the cross.
In Fight Club, the Divine Feminine can only take the aspect of Marla Singer. Her role in the plot is chiefly to stimulate the awakening of the narrator as he links with his Daemon.
In fact, it’s Marla’s that sparks the narrator’s migration from the Psychic mode to the Pneumatic mode. Her continuous appearance at the narrator’s many supports groups deeply disturbs him to the point he begins seeking alternative means of succor beyond mental therapy, ultimately befriending Tyler.
Marla is a complex figure, busy on her own journey and rebellion, a perfect modern representation of the Divine Feminine Rule. In such writings as On the Origin of the World or the Secret Book of John, the Divine Feminine weaves in and out of the narrative, taking on different characters and characteristics, often as Machiavellian as the Archons. Marla does likewise, popping in and out of Fight Club in varied archetypal roles like the lover, the damsel in distress, or the wise crone.
If there is any doubt of Marla’s role as the Divine Feminine Rule, simply look at her name.
Marla is a shortened name for the German-rooted word Marlena, which is a blend of Mary and Magdalene. As mentioned, Mary Magdalene was a preeminent figure in many Gnostic scriptures such as the Gospel of Mary, Dialogue with the Savior and Pistis Sophia.
It doesn’t end there.
In other Gnostic writings, the Divine Feminine in her aspect of Sophia is lost in the material realms, seeking to unify with her consort to attain redemption. In some accounts, her consort is an aspect of the Cosmic Christ, or the Divine Reason of the godhead. To put it simply and less allegorically: wisdom must consort with knowledge to forge any manner of individuation.
In Fight Club, we witness this sacred marriage. At the end of the film, Marla and the narrator (now one with Tyler), hold hands while witnessing the ostensible destruction of civilization. The symbolism is apparent: the false world disintegrates once an individual integrates with his Daemon to become a living Christ, and then harmonizes Divine Reason and Divine Wisdom that were all along housed in the universe that is his mind.
A more Gnostic tale couldn’t have been devised in the Nag Hammadi library.
Was this on purpose and what is the purpose?
Before addressing this, I should mention that most scholars agree that the Gnostics never saw themselves as rebels of any flavor, but as compassionate redeemers sharing their visionary insights. But then again, the narrator in Fight Club had no intention of revolution when he set out on his quest for wholeness. Sometimes the Daemon wants what the Daemon wants.
It also should be noted that:
- All new religious/social movements are rebellions in themselves, as a new order breaks away from the status quo.
- Both the church fathers and secret societies saw the Gnostics as the ultimate mutineers. They gave Gnosticism galactic attention, even absorbed their ideas in their own struggles on a world stage.
To wit (and I’m sure Tyler would agree): the awakening of any individual is a cosmic rebellion.
With that said and that nod to Clark Emery, I am not aware that the author (Chuck Palahniuk) or the filmmaker (David Fincher) of Fight Club intended any Gnostic themes in their artistic expression.
But I contend that it’s inevitable that many cultural tsunamis like Fight Club will contain the echo of the ancient heresy known as Gnosticism. The Classic Gnostics envisioned a surveillance state overseen by overbearing, omnipotent entities, in which salvation could only be attained by accessing one’s inner universe stored deep within layers of simian personality. And they warned that protracted material pursuits ultimately drowned an individual in a swamp of ignorance and despair and just bad taste.
In other words, the Gnostic nightmare has become a reality in modern times, and that’s a reason Fight Club is so relevant—for it sounds that same alarm.
As the narrator says in the novel version: “If you could be God’s worst enemy or nothing, what would you choose?”
Both Fight Club and the Gnostics, even if inadvertently, chose the first for the sake of a sick cosmos and its ruling agencies.