"The first rule about fight club is you don't talk about fight club. The second rule about fight club is you don't talk about fight club" (48). The first two rules governing the underground fighting rings of Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club serve as more than an attempt to maintain the secrecy of the illegal clubs. The explicit definitions of what the novel's characters can and cannot think and talk about set the stage for the story's examination of the repressive forces of society and the psychological consequences of the ever-present cultural 'no.' The nameless narrator who creates the fight clubs exists in such a state of cultural insulation and repression that the only sublimation of his unconscious desires he finds possible is the projection of the mental struggle between his conscious and unconscious minds into the physical world. This projection starts with physical combat between the two members of the split subject, but eventually gives way to the complete seizure of control by the unconscious half - Tyler Durden - whenever the narrator's conscious half-falls asleep. This drastic realization of Freud's theory on satisfying unconscious desires in the dream state does indeed break the narrator out of the suffocating comfort of his normative social roles. However, as the narrator's unconscious mind gains increasing control over his daily activities, its destructive tendencies begin to destroy not only everything that the narrator hates about his life, but also everything that he discovers makes life worth living.
In the beginning of the novel, the narrator finds little meaning in his life. Completely disillusioned with his job, his love life, and most of all himself, the narrator summarizes his role in consumerist America in the bleakest terms: "Pull a lever. Push a button. You don't understand any of it, and then you just die" (12). In the narrator's perception, materialist priorities have "people chasing cars and clothes they don't need…jobs they hate" (149), and have led him to a point at which he realizes he is "a thirty-year old boy" (51) living in a condo he describes as "a filing cabinet for widows and young professionals" (41). Following all the steps prescribed by society-going to college, getting a job, becoming self-supportive-has led to a dead end for the narrator, prompting him to reflect, "I hated my life. I was tired and bored…[and] couldn't see any way to change things" (172). The narrator finds himself ironically dissatisfied with his state of being "too complete" (52), and his restless discontent manifests itself as chronic insomnia. The narrator's inability to slip into unconsciousness every night is especially telling of his completely repressed state of mind: even the imagined gratifications of unconscious wishes that occur in dreams are impossible for him. Additionally, the fact that he is only able to find solace among the hopeless attendees of terminal illness support groups is a further testament to the narrator's jaded condition. The only way for the narrator to reconnect with his emotions is constant exposure to "proof that one day you're thinking and hauling yourself around and…the next you're cold" (35). However, the emergence of Marla Singer in the support groups takes even that comfort from the narrator, as he feels that he cannot pretend to be sick when she, a faker herself, is present. Additionally, the narrator is compelled to speak to Marla, a person with whom he feels a connection, but is unable to find a way to do so. He assigns a certain importance to Marla and even hints at an attraction, saying of her appearance at Remaining Men Together that, "all of a sudden even death and dying rank right down there with plastic flowers on video as a non-event" (23), and later acknowledges, "from the first night I met her…some part of me…needed a way to be with Marla" (198). However, the narrator's culture has not provided him with any way to connect with other people; his is a generation in which "everyone feels like the center of attention but completely cut off from participating with anyone else" (88). With his group therapy thus rendered useless, his insomnia returns, and in his renewed sleepless state he struggles to cope with Marla's presence and find a way to overcome his mental barriers to meeting his unconscious desires. That solution is Tyler Durden.
The narrator needs Tyler to interact with Marla because the narrator's one example of a sexual relationship-his parents-is one that casts him in the role of the powerless child. His father is largely an absent figure who abandoned the family when the narrator was still young. Thus, the narrator has no knowledge of a direct relationship with a female after which to model his own, other than the infantile notions of the Oedipal triangle that have remained largely intact since his father's departure. While the narrator coexists with Tyler unconsciously, he is very aware of Tyler's position in the triangle he has constructed around Marla: "We have this sort of triangle thing going on here. I want Tyler. Tyler wants Marla. Marla wants me" (14). Because the narrator perceives himself as castrated by culture in his societal relationships and threatened by castration from his father in his sexual relationships, Tyler Durden becomes the empowered third element in the narrator's relationship triangle through whom the narrator can live out his unconscious wishes. The fact that "Tyler never knew his father" (49) reveals the extent to which the narrator's repressed feelings of abandonment by his father have been projected into Tyler, an altogether fitting displacement considering Tyler is himself a projection of the narrator's repressed unconsciousness. Everything in Tyler's characterization establishes him as the physical embodiment of the narrator's unconscious desires. His exclusive holding of night jobs, for example, is analogous to the activity of the unconscious during the narrator's dream state; furthermore, the night jobs themselves are defined in terms parallel with the actions of the unconscious against repressive forces. His work as a deviant movie projectionist, flashing graphically sexual images into otherwise 'acceptable' films (30,60), his role as a "guerilla terrorist of the service industry" (81), tainting the food of the incredibly wealthy, all of his "little acts of rebellion" (76) against the repressive mechanisms of others reveal Tyler as a veritable walking libido. The juxtaposition between what the narrator thinks about while fighting-the dry-cleaning, the bank, his boss-and what Tyler thinks about while fighting-his father (53)-clearly elucidates the complicated ways that the narrator has repressed and sublimated the fundamental frustrations of his unconsciousness.
The narrator channels his primitive energies into Tyler Durden in an attempt to find an outlet for them, and this attempt at achieving freedom is largely successful. Whereas the narrator feels repressed, incompetent, and bound to societal convention, "Tyler is capable and free" (144). The narrator's bouts with the carefree Tyler allow him to eliminate the problems from his life by redefining what constitutes a problem: "Nothing was solved when the fight was over, but nothing mattered" (53). Tyler effectively removes the trappings of repressive consumerism from the narrator's life when he destroys his condominium. He forces the narrator to stop living in his "lovely little nest" (44) and delve instead into the recesses of his own mind. Indeed, the narrator's shift from the physical to the mental world is mirrored by his move from the condominium into the "rented house on Paper Street" (77).
The Paper Street house is a much more organic setting than the condo, and it becomes the locus of the narrator's conflicting split subjects. Indeed, descriptions of the "rented house on Paper Street" color it as the physical representation of the narrator's mind. Tyler, the unconscious, is the original inhabitant of the house while the narrator, with his fabricated social limitations, is a more recent addition. The narrator dwells in one room upstairs and dreams of having sex with Marla (56), while his unconscious manifestation physically acts out this fantasy in the adjacent room. The "lifetime stacks" of magazines that the former inhabitants of the home left there "before the dawn of time" (57) represent the inherited cultural knowledge that the narrator feels compelled to pore over. While the narrator has made a shift from his materially stifling life to a more mentally active state, he remains unable to define himself without the aid of his culturally indoctrinated modes of thought. The narrator literally defines himself and his feelings based upon a series of articles he has read in these magazines: "I am Joe's Gallbladder" when nervous; "I am Joe's Raging Bile Duct" when nauseous; "I am Joe's Inflamed Nostrils" when angry (58-9). The fact that the narrator, who has no named identity of his own, is willing to adopt the emotions prescribed to him by the anonymous, culturally-constructed "Joe" instead of acting on his own feelings shows just how submissive to repressive agents he has become. The role of cultural knowledge as an agent of the narrator's repression is further evidenced by the fact that the he calls on it in times when he comes into conflict with his unconscious rival, such as his resentment over Tyler's sexual relationship with Marla. As Tyler recounts the details of his first encounter with Marla, the narrator becomes "Joe's Clenching Bowels" and attempts to "bury [him] self in a Reader's Digest" (61-2). Thus, the narrator's creation of Tyler has led not to the elimination of his repression problems but rather to their relocation from internal to external.
The movement of the clashing split subject into physical reality has two consequences for the narrator. On one hand, his unconscious is able to find an outlet for years of pent-up desires and to develop a pseudo-vicarious relationship with Marla. On the other hand is that, as a manifestation of the narrator's pure unconscious, Tyler and his destructive tendencies are set loose without any repressive mechanisms to hold them in check. Tyler's unwavering dedication to "self-destruction" and "hitting bottom" eventually threatens the lives of the narrator and everyone he cares about. When relegated to the mental realm, Tyler's attempts to dismantle all social constructions were limited to the narrator's individual psyche; when unleashed in the outside world, Tyler is able to direct his assault on society itself. The first steps in Tyler's scheme for social breakdown occur in fight club, where men strip themselves of social restraint ("the fifth rule [of fight club] is no shoes, no shirts" ) and reacquaint themselves with what it is like to actually feel something, even if that something must be pain. Even language, the most powerful of all socially constructed forces, is transcended by the brutality of the fights, because "what happens in fight club doesn't happen in words" (51). However, the first two rules of fight club hint at something self-contradictory in the clubs. In the sense that they demand that participants keep their experiences in fight club completely separate from their normal lives, the fight clubs repress their own unconscious nature even as they attempt to break free from social restraints. Nevertheless, fight club quickly escalates under Tyler's direction into Project Mayhem, a regimented organization whose sole objective is "the complete and right-away destruction of civilization" (125).
The irony of Project Mayhem is that Tyler fuels it with recruits from the fight clubs whom he indoctrinates with his paradoxical ideals of freedom through destruction. In order to meet his own goals of destroying the elements of society that have repressed him, Tyler becomes a repressive and oppressive force in his own right. Project Mayhem's recruits, whom Tyler refers to as "space monkeys," are taught to believe that "our culture has made us all the same…Individually, we are nothing" (134) even as their identities slip even further into the anonymity of Project Mayhem. Tyler was born from the narrator's dissatisfaction with a mindless existence, but Tyler in turn forces mindlessness onto the recruits. Tyler answers the void that the narrator finds at the end of his social ladder (grade school, leading to college, leading to a job…then what?) with a ladder of his own: jobs lead men to fight club, and fight club leads men to Project Mayhem. The social constructs available for Tyler to combat define the ways that he can combat them, and his extension of the social ladder has its own void at the end, for "everybody on Project Mayhem wants to know what's next" (135). The question of what's next for Project Mayhem remains unanswered because Tyler exists virtually exclusively as a destructive force that is only able to define people in terms of what they are not (143), as opposed to who they truly are. Put simply, Tyler becomes the source of the enforced cultural negatives he was created to fight against.
The narrator awakens to Tyler's totalitarian actions as Tyler consumes an increasing amount of the narrator's persona. As Tyler's true nature begins to reveal itself, it becomes unclear to the narrator whether "Tyler is [his] dream…or if [he is] Tyler's dream" (138). The narrator becomes emotionally opposed to the actions of Project Mayhem after "Big Bob" Robert Paulson, one of the narrator's former friends, is killed in the pursuit of chaos (176-7). It is when emotions become involved that the narrator and Tyler become diametrically opposed: the narrator's sympathy for Big Bob and guilt over his death lead him to demand the disbanding of the fight clubs (178-9): Tyler, being an unconscious manifestation free from the influences of socially constructed emotions, sees the narrator's resistance as merely another instance of repression requiring neutralization. Emotion delineates the schism between the narrator and Tyler even further when Tyler, whose relationship with Marla has been purely sexual, threatens to attack Marla if the narrator does not cooperate with Tyler's objectives (203). The narrator, whose walks in the Paper Street garden with Marla attain an almost romantic aspect, finds himself powerless because of his emotional ties and is almost literally castrated (187) once again.
When Tyler threatens the narrator's relationship with Marla, the narrator becomes fully aware that Tyler has taken over far too much of himself, and that Tyler does, in fact, actually exist within him. No longer defining his body in terms of the socially-written "Joe," the narrator now realizes he has defined himself in terms of Tyler instead: "I am Tyler's mouth. I am Tyler's hands" (155). Just as Marla triggered the narrator's creation of Tyler, she prompts Tyler's destruction as well when she confesses, "I think I like you," (205) the narrator, as opposed to Tyler. Having finally attained the human connection that he desired all along and having overthrown Tyler's power position in the relationship triangle, the narrator kills Tyler by shooting himself through the cheek. Thus, the narrator's means for satisfying his unconscious desire to be with Marla dies even as the narrator attains that satisfaction. However, the narrator pays a heavy price for his mental freedom, and the casualty of the clash of his split subjects is his own mind. Dispatched to a mental hospital and babbling somewhat incoherently about God and Marla at the novel's end, the narrator is shown to have suffered immense damage to both his conscious and unconscious minds. The havoc he wrecks upon himself results in the loss of the very freedom of self-determination that was his driving force. By breaking all of the rules-first of society, then of fight club-the narrator successfully overcomes the limiting definitions of self that culture imposed upon him, only to find himself with nothing to stand in their stead.