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J. Carter Wood © 2000


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The latest threat to Western cultural mores comes in the form of David Fincher's new film Fight Club, based on Portland, Oregon author David Palahniuk's 1996 minor underground classic. Self-appointed guardians of moral rectitude on both sides of the Atlantic have been in full-throated howl regarding the film's propulsive, nihilistic mix of sex, violence, and millennial ennui. Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) called it "the delusional rantings of testosterone-addicted thugs", and Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) and David Denby (The New Yorker) played variations on a theme when they described it, respectively, as "cheerfully fascist" and "a fascist rhapsody posing as a metaphor of liberation". Alexander Walker, writing for the Express, reported the "outrage and indignation" apparent among critics at the Venice Film Festival, labeled the film "anti-God", and suggested that "it has the additional danger of plugging the notion of founding chapters of bare-fist fighting clubs". There has even been speculation that Fox studios delayed its original spring release in the wake of the Columbine high-school shooting massacre in Colorado. (Both the film and the book contain gunplay and depict the use of -- and discuss recipes for -- explosives.)

Fight Club is neither Fincher's nor star Brad Pitt's first exploration of violent themes. Se7en (1995) was a relentlessly dark, stylish, and compelling vision of nineties noir insanity and murder. That film too was a meditation (perhaps "passing thought" is more accurate) on men, violence, and alienation.  This time, however, author and director appear to have touched a slightly rawer nerve, and many appear to have found the central iconography of the bare-knuckled brawl more disturbing than Se7en's grisly murders-by-number, climaxing with Gwyneth Paltrow's severed head in a box.  

There is a continuing fascination with fist-fighting, perhaps the most stripped-down and essential of all forms of human violence. The harpings of the incensés might lead us to think that pugilism is something that Fight Club invented all by itself. In fact, bare-fisted fighting was a central tenet of Victorian society, the era that occupies a very special place in the amnesiac histories of most cultural conservatives. Furthermore, fist-fighting was linked to a manly variety of nineteenth-century Englishness. Long before the Queensbury rules threw gloves and judging into the boxing ring, British men were pounding each other's faces and torsos with naked fists in prizefights cheered on by some of the most wealthy and respected men in the land. Lord Palmerston, among other aristocrats, was a noted fan, and large sums were wagered on the outcome of set-tos conducted according to long-standing customary rules. A nineteenth-century fighting manual opened with the following poem:

Scorning all treach'rous feud and deadly strife,
The dark stiletto and the murderous knife,
We boast a science sprung from manly pride
Linked with true courage, and to health allied;
A noble pastime, void of vain pretence
The good old English Art of self-defence.

In a sense, all working-class men in nineteenth-century England were potential members of a fight club, but -- inverting Fight Club's oft-repeated maxim -- the first rule of prizefighting was that you did talk about it. Fights, from pub brawls to staged and promoted prizefighting matches, were public spectacles at the heart of communities. These fights were not the modern ten-round masterpieces of glitzy, gloved decorum. There were rules -- one couldn't hit his opponent while he was down, and strikes below the belt were considered "foul" -- that structured the old prizefight. By modern standards, however, it was a brutal affair. Fights could last an hour or two, with as many as thirty or forty rounds. Injuries were often severe and fatalities not entirely unusual. Fighters were cheered on by spectators of all classes, and the working classes adopted the ritual of the prizefight when they "stepped outside" to settle a dispute or to decide who would buy the next round of beer. 

Throughout the eighteenth century, foreign observers noted a peculiar feature of English culture: the ritualized fight. "They do not quit until one of the two asks for mercy", noted one Frenchman, "and since they hardly do that, they will not leave until they are unable to continue". For many writers and commentators, Englishness and pugilism were inseparable. The editor of the Connoisseur in 1754 argued that the "dexterous use of the fist is a truly British exercise", and "the sturdy English have been as much renowned for their boxing as for their beef; both of which are by no means suited to the watery stomachs and weak sinews of their enemies the French". 

Definitions of Englishness were much contested in the nineteenth century, and there was a rising chorus of discontent that emphasized English restraint and refinement: the state sought to stamp out this "brave old English custom" as part of their moral campaign against "vice" and "savagery". A cultural reformation  based upon Enlightenment reason and evangelical Christianity had sensitized a small but politically influential section of middle-class opinion. Eventually, a combination of state repression and market forces destroyed it as a viable commercial enterprise until the rise of modern boxing.

Not everyone was happy to see the decline of this tradition of English fighting. Fears of too much civilization were voiced in the nineteenth century, as part of a more general debate about individual behavior and national character. In 1869, Leslie Stephen, brother of the jurist James Fitzjames Stephen, worried that the male population of England may have become too refined in their mannerisms. He looked to the working class for evidence of a continuing thread of a more vital masculinity: "We have amongst us large masses of a population who have escaped the enervating polish of civilization. To them we may still look occasionally for vigorous passions and decided actions. They have the rude energy, along with the brutal propensities of a more animal existence". Stephen's comments about the "enervating" quality of civilized behavior suggest parallels with the running commentary throughout Fight Club on the bland predictability of modern (male) life.

During its heyday, prizefighting was wildly popular, even if bouts were technically illegal and often broken up by the police. Fighters such as Tom Cribb remain fairly well-known figures, and a plaque remembering Cribb is posted on a wall in London's Leicester Square. There were many lesser-known fighters, some of whom were far from what we would today consider professional, but took their turn in the arena for the amusement (and sometimes enrichment) of the crowd. 

One of these forgotten fighters was Henry Ball. Ball was not, in the argot of the mid-nineteenth century, a "fighting man", or regular prizefighter, but merely a labourer who had a dispute with one of his workmates, George Gray. In December 1843, Gray and Ball fought in Gravesend, Kent, an event attended by up to forty spectators who had traveled by steamship down the Thames. The day proved to be Gray's last, and the otherwise secret bout entered the historical record at Ball's trial. Of Gray, Ball deposed, "When I was in work, he was always at me to fight. He would never leave me alone. We had a fall out and a bit of a fight in the tap room at home, but the landlord stopped us". Later, Ball agreed to fight Gray again, and the date and time were set. "He talked about it all over Kentish Town, and so much was said about it that I was forced to fight him", Ball told the police. The upcoming fight became a local sensation. Ball noted, "There was a raffle at the public house for the money and I fought for a sovereign and it came off last Tuesday". A butcher who attended the fight had traveled from Kentish Town to Gravesend to came to watch and wager, noting, "it had been talked of in Kentish Town for the last fortnight". 

It was, typically, a ceremonial affair: "A ring was formed by persons standing around... Gray and Ball stripped to fight and shook hands together before they began fighting. Some of the seconds also shook hands. One of the boatmen acted as timekeeper". The fight lasted an hour, or approximately twenty rounds -- which were not of uniform length, but ended when one man fell down. "In the last round", this spectator described, "Gray Fell from a blow... I went to him and found him insensible". His seconds attempted the typical remedy for a severe thrashing -- brandy -- but Gray remained nearly unconscious. Some in the crowd took Gray back to London, where he died later that night. Not unexpectedly, Ball did not emerge unscathed testifying, "I am very much bruised and knocked about.  I cannot dress myself yet". 

This sort of ritualized fist fighting survived as a central cultural feature of working-class life into the late nineteenth century.  In 1963, Granada Television recorded an interview with William Luby.  Luby, born in 1883 and a former sweet boiler from Manchester, recalled the prevalence of fighting in his community:

Question: Do you remember your first fight?

Answer: My first fight was for a pair of trousers.... You always settled your arguments with a fight.  You see it was the only expression you had.... In fact, in the workshops [and] the public houses at the time of Sullivan or Corbett, the men were always fighting. In fact, behind my grandfather's house there was a canal and a croft. Any quarrels which my grandfather and any of his sons had with anybody would be settled by one son on the Sunday morning on this croft.

Question: How do you mean... how do you mean by one son?

Answer: Because one son was kept for that purpose, fighting. 

Question: He was a fighter for the family?

Answer: He was a fighter for the family.  Bare fists... And very often his opponent was knocked out. They'd throw him in the canal and then bring him out when he recovered. Course, often as not, a ducking would be enough.

Brutal and unpleasant, perhaps, but certainly not a threat to the social order. Although fighting was often frowned upon by particularly sensitive middle-class social reformers, management of the emergent boxing clubs that were such a feature of working-class life was firmly in the hands of prosperous and upright members of the community. These men saw nothing wrong with staged fights (using the equipment and rules called for under the Queensbury rules) and drew an explicit parallel between sport and street fighting. In an address to the members of a boxing club in 1897, its eminently respectable president stated that the club taught boxing "not as a means of getting men into the professional ranks, but for the purpose of teaching young men how to use their fists when required". Of course, sport fighting had become civilized by this point and featured gloves, timed rounds, and expert judging. While these additions made sport fighting less damaging and more respectable, they also rendered modern boxing, as opposed to its traditional, bare-fisted form, more difficult to translate into street life. 

While the current controversy about Fight Club's bloody fisticuffs reveals a lack of appreciation for the history of English fighting -- Scotland has a somewhat different history with violence rituals -- the film itself is symptomatic of a modern approach to violence very different, if not in conscious opposition, to that of tradition. 

Anthropology and history tell us that men commit the vast preponderance of violence in any society, and most cultures developed some variety of ritual form for the settling of male disputes. For much of that time, fighting was at the heart of the community: if kept within limits, it was a part of social life rather than a marginalized and anti-social threat to stability.  Violence, in many ways, developed organically out of community relations. (This may indeed mark a limitation of modern "communitarian" theory, which is hobbled by its failure to recognize that violence can emerge from a surfeit of community as easily as it can from its absence.) 

Rather than portraying violence as part of the social fabric, Fight Club presents violence as a rejection of a modern, denatured society. The message is implicit in the film's rejection of a shallow consumer society -- the most interesting and enjoyable part of the film. History's denial is more explicit in the book: in its apocalyptic opening scene, Tyler Durden, the id-driven protagonist, claims, "This is our world now, our world, ... and those ancient people are dead". Rather than existing in a meaningful social context, the fight club is initially a vehicle for personal fulfillment and creates a sub-culture in conscious opposition to a bland, over-filtered modernity. Later in the story, particularly after its unexpected twist, the film's primary political or social statement -- which is, if anything, more anarchist than fascist -- suggests a rejection of any meaningful community. Whereas the "rules" of ritual male fighting once limited aggression into socially-acceptable forms, the empty, anti-social aggression in Fight Club leads to an ever-increasing spiral of violence and degradation.

Significantly, both book and film suggest that a generation of feminized men have been distanced from their genuine manliness, and the fight club exists to reconnect them to something allegedly "real". (A rather specious claim: why are primal aggression and violence any more essentially human than, say, the very boredom the characters try to escape? After all, humans may be the only creatures that suffer the ability to suffer a deep and abiding boredom, although all animals experience pain.) Men have always fought to prove their masculinity, but never quite so desperately and, perhaps, pathetically, as in Fight Club, where the violence is drenched in our unique end-of-the-century language of self-help and improvement. The fights are the antithesis of the sociability that used to serve as the context of brawling, and in one sense become simply another "extreme" sport.

Fight Club certainly reflects its culture's mentality of violence. Once, many kinds of physical aggression were often -- though, of course, not always -- channeled into limited and "legitimate" forms. (Domestic violence is one notable exception: violence in the home was rarely so orderly as violence between relative strangers). We have become so civilized that we have pushed violence further toward the margins of society and away from the social contexts that gave it structure, meaning, and, sometimes, limits. We are sensitized to physical force to such a great extent that we consider almost all its forms "violence" -- always used pejoratively -- and repress more of our direct physical urges. While, in general, one applauds these civilizing trends, the dark consequence is that when violence escapes its repressive cage it is frequently even more extreme for lack of any legitimate outlet. 

Fight Club is a mixture of the slack aimlessness of Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X -- with which it shares an interest in liposuctioned human fat -- crossed with a frantic desire to shock through a visceral how-far-can-you-go depiction of increasingly anarchic violence. Questioning the value of a film such as this is not in itself paranoid; Fight Club is, however, likely to be more a symptom of contemporary attitudes to violence and manliness than the instigator of some new level of social anarchy -- although one expects the odd copycat incident that will reverberate through the tabloid echo chamber. Any rational approach to dealing with violence depends upon addressing the continuing, and very real, issues of male aggression and frustration. Blanket denunciations of violence, in lieu of considering what cultural factors might be augmented to structure it into limited forms, merely compound the problem. 




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