For most human-beings it has become part of their daily life to begin the day with a series of hygienic routines: from taking a shower, to brushing teeth, to clipping finger- and toenails to the extensive use of cosmetics and dressing with fresh, clean clothes, the act of cleaning the body and an overall clean appearance has become internalized. If one was stop these procedures it would not take very long to experience social repercussions. A certain amount of cleanliness and hygiene is commonly expected these days. Hygiene and beauty are deeply embedded into Western civilization, although the “regular washing of clothes and bodies with soap is a relatively recent phenomenon.” (Corbett, 54) According to Corbett the “realization of the correlation between cleanliness and health, hygiene and beauty” (54) have paved the way for the ascension of soap in contemporary society. Since Chuck Palahniuk´s novel Fight Club was first published in 1996 it has become a worldwide bestseller and is widely perceived as a cult-novel.
The popularity of Fight Club is also largely due to David Fincher´s famous film adaption starring Hollywood superstars Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in the leading parts. Soap is a key feature of Palahniuk´s novel as well as Fincher´s movie. It has also been heavily used as a marketing tool for the latter one, shining from the covers of DVD´s, posters and websites (see Corbett 53). However, the significance of soap for Fight Club goes far beyond mere symbolism. Dominant themes in Fight Club such as consumerism, violence and the question of authenticity can all be linked to the leitmotif of soap. Juxtaposing the questionable hypothesis of Unilever´s slogan with the events in the novel Fight Club stands at the core of this paper. Drawing on theoretical essays from Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard, the aim of this paper shall be to scrutinize and analyze the role of soap in Fight Club with all its implications ranging from violence to authenticity and civilization and its destruction. 2. The Mythology of Soap
“You have to see,” Tyler says, “how the first soap was made of heroes” (Palahniuk, 78)
In 1957 Roland Barthes published a collection in French entitled Mythologies. Contained therein is the essay “Soap-powders and Detergents” which is crucial for this reading of Fight Club. Barthes distinguishes between chlorinated fluids and soap-powders: Chlorinated fluids, for instance, have always been experienced as a sort of liquid fire, the action of which must be carefully estimated, otherwise the object itself would be affected, ´burnt`. The implicit legend of this type of product rests on the idea of a violent, abrasive modification of matter: the connotations are of a chemical or mutilating type: the product ´kills` the dirt. Powders, on the contrary, are separating agents: their ideal role is liberate the object from its circumstantial imperfection: dirt is ´forced out` and no longer killed[.] (35) Barthes further elaborates this distinction by explaining that contrary to chlorinated fluids the function of powders “is keeping public order, not making war” (35).
Soap as chlorinated fluids on the other hand bear the mythology of “a cleansing fire.” (Corbett 57) In the novel, Tyler Durden, the narrator´s alter ego presents his version of the history of soap as such: “In ancient history,” Tyler says, “human sacrifices were made on a hill above a river. Thousands of people. Listen to me. The sacrifices were made and the bodies were burned on a pyre. After hundreds of people were sacrificed and burned, Tyler says, a thick white discharge crept from the altar, downhill to the river. [ . . . .] “Rain,” Tyler says, “fell on the burnt pyre year after year, and year after year, people were burned, and the rain seeped through the wood ashes to become a solution of lye, and the lye combined with the melted fat of the sacrifices, and a thick white discharge of soap crept out from the base of the altar and crept downhill toward the river.” [ . . . . ] Where the soap fell into the river, Tyler says, after a thousand years of killing people and rain, the ancient people found their clothes got cleaner of they washed at that spot. (Palahniuk 76f.)
According to Corbett the website of The Soap and Detergent Association contains a story similar to Tyler´s about the origin of soap. The only difference is that the website talks about animal instead of human sacrifices. This is crucial though, since Tyler in his version “anthropomorphizes the soap” (Corbett 57), as can be seen in the introductory quote of this chapter. According to his philosophy, since the blood of heroes cleaned mankind from the evil that is dirt, Fight Club´s guerilla-terrorist organization Project Mayhem, that is run by Tyler Durden, has to shed blood in order to clean society from its stains such as consumerism and capitalism. Barthes´ distinction between separating agents and cleansing fire is echoed throughout the entire novel with the public order of civilization on the one hand and the attempt of its destruction by Project Mayhem on the other.
“Then you´re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.” (Palahniuk 44)
Fight Club has often been interpreted as a critique of contemporary consumerist-society. This becomes apparent in the business that Tyler opened up in their house on Paper Street: the “Paper Street Soap Company.” (Palahniuk 87) The exact circumstances and implications of the soap production will be addressed later on, but the mere fact that a bar of soap from the Paper Street Soap Company is sold for “twenty bucks [ . . . ] suggested retail price” (Palahniuk 87) affirms the status of capitalist consumerism. Soap is a commodity, in this case it´s even “a luxury item.” (Corbett 59) The Paper Street Soap Company is providing goods for a consumerist society. The unnamed narrator is absolutely cocooned in this consumerist society. He is a showcase of what Mathews calls “a recurring mainstream pattern of passive consumption” (83). Joe lives in an upscale condominium that is seemingly designed to isolate people and hence drive them to focus more on consumption of goods to decorate their home: Home was a condominium on the fifteenth floor of a high-rise, a sort of filing cabinet for widows and young professionals.
The marketing brochure promised a foot of concrete floor, ceiling, and a wall between me and any adjacent stereo or turned-up television. A foot of concrete and air conditioning, you couldn´t open the windows so even with maple flooring and dimmer switches, all seventeen hundred airtight feet would smell like the last meal you cooked or your last trip to the bathroom. (Palahniuk 41) By means of the thick walls and locked windows the narrator is visually and metaphorically enclosed in his condominium and hence indulges in improving it with ever new decor and furniture. He is a slave to his IKEA nesting instinct: “I´d flip through catalogs and wonder: ´What kind of dining set defines me as a person?´” (Fincher) The idea of a dining set defining a person, thus becoming individual identity, points to Jean Baudrillard´s theory of the simulacrum: the fetishism of the signifier, a sign without a referent (see Baudrillard 631ff.). This hyper-reality is made apparent in a scene in Fincher´s movie where a view of Joe´s apartment is presented as pages in an IKEA catalog, presenting the names of the commodities as well as their retail prices.
Simultaneously the description of the condominium in Palahniuk´s novel mirrors what Däwes calls “ad-speak” (168). The acquisition of commodities has even replaced the inherent sex drive: “The people I knew who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue.” (Palahniuk 43) Says Bishop: “Consumers ultimately become chained to their own possessions” (47) to the point that their possessions own themselves. “Shopping has replaced sexual stimulation as the preferred form of self-gratification.” (46) Another aspect of commodification and consumerism in Fight Club is the morbid link between Joe´s furniture and his job as a recall campaign coordinator. Basically speaking it is his job to determine whether a malfunction or problem with one of his company´s vehicles leads to a recall.
The decision being made by applying an inhumane, purely rational formula: You take the population of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), then multiply the result by the average cost of an out-of-court settlement (C).A times B times C equals X. This is what it will cost if we don´t initiate a recall. If X greater than the cost of a recall, we recall the cars and no one gets hurt. If X is less than the cost of a recall, then we don´t recall. (Palahniuk 30) So in “a very literal way, [Joe]´s luxurious lifestyle is made possible by the tragic loss of others.” (Bishop 44) Human-beings are treated as mere numbers in a mathematical equation regardless of individual fates and the narrator practically feeds off of that. Another example of human commodification is Joe´s description of his father´s attitude and actions concerning family. While they seem to be in touch at least every couple of years it becomes evident that the father has not played a big role in raising the narrator when the latter remarks: “My dad, he startsd a new family in a new town about every six years. This isn´t so much like a family as it´s like he sets up a franchise.” (Palahniuk 50)
As ensnared as the narrator is in consumerism, forced and voluntarily, his world seems to crumble when he returns from one of his job travels and finds out that his condominium was blown-up, thereby destroying the entire interior of his home. Observing the ruins and ashes of his materialistic life he´s having an identity crisis: “It took my whole life to buy this stuff.” (Palahniuk 44)
4. Identity and Authenticity
“I am Joe´s Shrinking Groin.” (Palahniuk 170)
While it is actually understandable that one is having an identity crisis when ones home gets blown-up and one is left with nothing but the clothes on ones body, this is really just the surface of Joe´s identity issues. Surrounding himself with all these empty signifiers he feels lost in a world with signs without reference. To him everything is just “a copy of a copy of a copy.” (Palahniuk 21) In order to cope with his Insomnia the narrator visits several therapy groups without actually having the illnesses the other participants of these groups have to cope with. According to Baudrillard a person that in fact simulates to be ill, but shows the same symptoms as a person that really sickened, cannot be distinguished from the truthfully ill by any. In this case the simulation leaves no space for reality anymore and thus becomes part of hyper-reality. (see Blask 30) In Joe´s case he does not show symptoms of the illness but symptoms of the self-help process the therapy groups intend to provide.
After crying with and hugging members of the therapy group he is finally able to sleep again: “Babies don´t sleep this well.” (Palahniuk 22) After Marla Singer appears at the same therapy groups Joe´s insomnia reoccurs and again he feels lost. Further reasons for his identity crisis is the absence of his father which becomes evident, when he declares his generation “raised by women” (50). Emasculation again refers back to consumerism as Blazer points out: “He traded [ . . . ] virility for the comforts of commodity fetishism.” (184) The consumerist society has emasculated white middle class males. This again refers back to the simulation since the substitution of consumerism for potency ultimately leaves the narrator as deprived of his testes as the other members of the testicular cancer group.
In order to regain his masculinity and identity Joe needs to change himself and his body. He wants to be delivered from his old life: Deliver me from Swedish furniture.
Deliver me from clever art.
May I never be complete.
May I never be content.
May I never be perfect.
Deliver me, Tyler, from being perfect and complete. (Palahniuk 46) Here the link between soap, cleanliness, beauty and social conventions and the identity crisis becomes evident. This marks a departure from the public order of cleanliness. The narrator does not want to be clean and pure and perfect anymore. He does not want to look like the “guys trying to be men, as if being a man means looking the way a sculptor or an art director says.” (50) He does not want to resemble the “models that are presented as the ideal aim of hygiene.” (Corbett 54). In the novel this marks the beginning of the actual Fight Club. The narrator leaves the world of cleanliness behind and indulges in dirtiness, in blood-stained clothes and deformed faces. The pain and violence of fighting should mark a return to the real, a return to authenticity. As Bishop puts it, Fight Club is about a man “who tries to combat his disillusionment with consumer culture by turning to violence and anarchy.” (41)
4.1 The Body in extremis
“Maybe self-destruction is the answer.” (Palahniuk 49)
In Fight Club violence is presented as a way out of the void. For the fighters Fight Club is constructing collective identity, since “violence seems to be the only answer to the meaninglessness of consumerist society.” (Däwes 167) Fighting and hence attacking the body of oneself and others substitutes for the afore prevalent commodity fetishism. Instead of buying new furniture and spending time skimming through IKEA catalogs in an isolated condominium, the narrator revels in physical altercations since his first exchange of blows with Tyler: “both of us knowing we´d gotten somewhere we´d never been and like the cat and mousse in cartoons, we were still alive and wanted to see how far we could take this thing and still be alive.” (Palahniuk 53)
The violence that is executed and the pain that is being felt propels Joe to a seemingly higher level of existence: “Me with my punched-out eyes and dried blood in big black crusty stains on my pants, I´m saying HELLO to everybody at work. HELLO! Look at me. HELLO! I am so ZEN. This is BLOOD. This is NOTHING. Hello. Everything is nothing, and it´s cool to be ENLIGHTENED. Like me.” (64) Drawing on Badiou Petersen argues that the violence and fighting in Fight Club can be identified as a characteristic feature of twentieth-century Western mentality, namely the passion for the real in its violent harshness, la passion du réel – ´the direct experience of the Real…in its extreme
violence,` to quote Žižek´s reading of Badiou, ´as opposed to the everyday social reality,` since ´authenticity resides in the act of violent transgression` (138). This transgression is decisively the establishment of Fight Club. Fight club is the place of real experience, rather than just simulation. There is also a strong sense of spirituality towards fight club when the narrator depicts the institution: “There´s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.” (Palahniuk 51)
This new kind of self-awareness is also due to the rejection of social conventions concerning cleanliness and the ideal of beauty: “[F]ight club isn´t about looking good.” (Palahniuk 51). The narrator does not only embrace the dirtiness that comes alongside fighting, he also directly inflicts violence and pain on his own body. Looking like models is no longer desirable, instead the narrator declares: “I just don´t want to without a few scars, I say. It´s nothing anymore to have a beautiful stock body.” (48) The body is being attacked because it is perceived as too clean (see Däwes 167f.). As already mentioned in the introduction this attitude and behavior does not go unnoticed by society and subsequently when Joe starts to appear at work with a beat-up face and blood-stained shirts and he is being sent home by his boss in order to change clothes and readjust his outer appearance in order to conform to social conventions again (see 63f.) Here the boss functions according to Barthes´ explanations, as the separating agent whose task it is to “keep public order” (35). The disastrous backlash of this will be discussed in the final chapter.
As Corbett points out the keeping of public order violently interferes with “fight club´s aesthetic of ´making war`, in which appearance is not based on whiteness [cleanliness], but on utility for fighting.” (55) For Tyler soap is not a separating agent but a cleansing fire. When Barthes describes soap as chlorinated fluids as a “saviour but a blind one” (35) this is reminiscent of Tyler´s baptizing of the narrator, Marla and members of Project Mayhem with a ´kiss burn` brought upon the tortured by a mixing of saliva with flakes of lye (see Palahniuk 74ff.) Tyler wants Joe to hit bottom and realize that death is inevitable, to realize that he has nothing to lose. Only through violence and suffering can one become clean. This interpretation of violence as cleansing mirrors “self-flagellation” (Corbett 58) and thus marks another link to spirituality. Tyler´s act of baptizing by soap as a cleansing fire is presented as the ultimate authority for the real and authenticity, when he announces: “´Because everything up to now is a story, [ . . . ] and everything after now is a story.` This is the greatest moment of our life.” (Palahniuk 75) !!!!body in extremis from Petersen!!!
4.2 Unreliable Narration
“I know this because Tyler knows this.” (Palahniuk 12)
The last quote of the preceding chapter points to another question of authenticity in Fight Club: Tyler saying our life instead of your is a clear indication that Tyler and the Joe are on and the same person. However, Joe´s manifested Dissociative Identity Disorder (see Däwes 171) is not the first instance that leads to unreliable narration. The narrator´s suffers from a severe case of insomnia, sometimes not being able to sleep for several weeks. It is not hard to imagine that with such sleep-deprivation a reliable account of things is impossible for the narrator. Reality gets blurred: “This is how it is with insomnia. Everything is so far away, a copy of a copy of a copy. The insomnia distance of everything, you can´t touch anything and nothing can touch you.” (Palahniuk 21) The doctor Joe consults tells him that insomnia is always only the symptom of a larger problem. The inhumane politics of the narrator´s job have already been mentioned. Hence it is fair to assume that his guilty conscience is the reason can get no sleep (see Blazer 185). He confesses that after “[t]hree weeks without sleep, and everything becomes an out-of-body experience.” (Palahniuk 19) Taking that into account it seems possible that Joe´s guilt and his tormented conscience actually fracture his personality (see Bishop 44).
Hints that the narrator is a split personality are given from the very beginning of the novel on. Two pages deep into the novel a sentence that is repeated throughout the entire novel is stated the first time: “I know this because Tyler knows this.” (Palahniuk 12) On giving the account of the first meeting with Tyler, the narrator asks himself: “If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?” (33) Whereas at this stage in the novel the reader is likely to associate that question with the narrator´s constant traveling and waking up in different cities due to his job, it is evident that right when Tyler appears for the first time Palahniuk immediately alludes to the split personality.
Throughout the novel the reader is constantly pushed to this realization with remarks like “Sometimes, Tyler speaks for me” (12), “Tyler´s words coming out of my mouth” (98 ; 114) or “Tyler and I were identical twins.” (114) Tyler and Joe being the same person is further established by various incidents where Marla appears and Tyler instantly disappears. While Joe does not miss to notice that and wonders whether Marla and Tyler are the same person, he shrugs it off by saying: “you never see me and Zsa Zsa Garbor together, and this doesn´t mean we´re the same person.” (65) Additionally shortly after Tyler and Joe met for the first time, the latter moves into the house on Paper Street. The implication here obviously being that all the events take place on paper: a meta-textual reference.
“Nobody in the audience has any idea.”
5. Soap versus Civilization
“This was the goal of Project Mayhem, Tyler said, the complete and right-away destruction of civilization.” (Palahniuk 125)
“Soap and human sacrifice go hand in hand.” (Palahniuk 75)
7. Works Cited
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. London: Vintage, 2005.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. 20th Century Fox, 2002.
Barthes, Roland. “Soap-powders and Detergents.” Mythologies. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998. 35-37.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulation.” Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. Ed. Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron and Andrew Levy. New York: Norton & Company, 1998. 631-36.
Bishop, Kyle. “Artistic Schizophrenia: How Fight Club´s Message Is Subverted by Its Own Nature.” Studies in Popular Culture 29:1 (2006): 41-56.
Blask, Falko. Baudrillard zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius, 1995.
Blazer, Alex E. “Glamorama, Fight Club, and the Terror of Narcissistic Abjection.” American Fiction of the 1990s: Reflections of History and Culture. Ed. Jay Prosser. London: Routledge, 2008. 177-89.
Corbett, James. “Soap and Anarchy: A Barthesian Reading of Fight Club.” You do not talk about Fight Club: I am Jack´s completely unauthorized essay collection. Ed. Read Mercer Schuchardt. Dallas: Benbella, 2008. 53-61.
Däwes, Birgit. “‘Blank Fiction’? Identity, Representation, and the Unreliability of Cultural Memory in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.” Cultural Memory and Multiple Identities. Ed. Rüdiger Kunow and Wilfried Raussert. Transnational and Transatlantic American Studies 5. Berlin: LIT, 2008. 161-84.
Diken, Bülent, and Carsten B. Lautsen. “9/11 as a Hollywood Fantasy.” p.o.v.: A Danish Journal of Film Studies 20 (2005): 41-50.
Mathews, Peter. “Diagnosing Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.” Stirrings Still: The International Journal of Existential Literature 2.2 (2005): 89-113.
Petersen, Per Serritslev. “9/11 and the ‘Problem of Imagination’: Fight Club and Glamorama as Terrorist Pretexts.” Orbis Litterarum 60 (2005): 133-44.
Zurndorfer, Harriet T. “Imperialism, Globalization, and the Soap/Suds Industry in Republican China (1912-37): The Case of Unilever and the Chinese Consumer.” Working Papers of the Global Economic History Network 19 (2006): 1-35.
[ 1 ]. In the interest of readability from now on also referred to as Joe