I watched “Fight Club” recently, at the recommendation of number two son. It’s a film I’ve avoided for years because, as a strictly non-macho kind of guy, I didn’t think I’d be able to make any connection with it. I was wrong though, and I enjoyed it very much. The premise of the film is that we’re sleepwalking, being fed a junk diet of consumerist crap, that we’re slaves of a deliberately engineered paradigm of debt, and victims of a society that systematically humiliates each and every one of us. For the male of the species this is like being castrated. It damages us, psychologically, turns us into neutered Toms, into lazy, purposeless zombies, our only respite being dangerous opiates like drink, drugs or mindless sedatives like TV soaps.
Fight Club however, restores a man to his essential being by providing a forum where men can simply go and beat the stuffings out of each other. Paradoxically in doing so, according to the story, you regain your self respect, and also respect (where respect is due) for your fellow men. It also opens your eyes to those places, situations and characters where respect is not due, and where your outspoken contempt is morally, if not always legally, justified. The message of the film is thus highly subversive. It was made in 1999, but if anything its message is even more relevant today.
I can’t boast much in the way of testosterone, perhaps even less now than I had in 1999, but I wondered if the film really did have something significant to say about the emasculation of men in the modern age, and what the suppression of our natural energies can do to us in the longer term. I also wondered if we weren’t all a little more grown up than the film suggested, that we men had moved on, embraced our feminine sides and rejected our Martian cave-man roots. It’s a question that was partly answered for me today, by virtue of the fact that last night, incredibly, I managed to get myself into a fight of my own and, though I can hardly say I came off the best, this morning I was feeling rather good about it.
Let me explain.
I’ve been learning Kung Fu for a little over a year. Now, an hour a week’s not going to turn me into the next Bruce Lee, especially at my age, but I’m okay with that. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun, but I enjoy it, and it gets me out of the house. At the club I attend, we do a bit of soft sparring – all pretty tame, slow motion stuff to demonstrate the basic principles. We have a laugh and a joke, also a damned good sweat, and rule number one of our little fight club is nobody ever gets hurt.
Enter Jack. (not his real name)
Jack is an eastern European émigré and recent recruit. He’s short, powerfully built and I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy, but we’re all scared poopless of him because he doesn’t seem able to follow basic instructions, and he doesn’t know how to spar gently. Nor does he understand key language concepts like “go easy Jack”, “Okay, you win” or just plain old: “Stop!”
He only knows how to fight.
By contrast I suspect he thinks by now we English fight like a bunch of cissy-girls, that is if our little Kung Fu club is anything to go by. Hopefully he’ll move on soon to find some bigger, rougher boys to play with, perhaps down on Liverpool docks, or teasing the bouncers in Manchester on a Saturday night.
We’re not supposed to be fighting, Jack. We’re only playing, all right?
Pairing up for sparring these days is like watching a game of musical chairs – everyone trying to avoid Jack. Okay, I suspect you already know where this is going.
After an unexpected mid-sparring reshuffle last night, I found myself making the covered fist gesture to Jack. We were about to play a game called tee-shirt tag. You try to “tag” your partner on his upper body with the flat of your hand. He tries to block you and vice versa. Bear in mind we’re not youngsters here – we’re mostly middle aged guys with saggy bellies and creaky bones, and we take our mature conditions into account, never taking things too seriously, or too far. There are no egos here. This is Kung Fu. Not Karate.
However, there are no half measures with Jack.
I knew this was going to end badly when I spied the guy he’d partnered previously. He’d ducked out and was by now looking on from the sidelines, seemingly a little worse for wear. I swallowed hard but otherwise didn’t have much time to consider my fate because Jack was already coming at me like Rocky Balboa. He obviously doesn’t understand the word “tee-shirt” either, otherwise how come I was suddenly having fists landed on my face?
“For @&*$ sake Jack, go easy, mate.”
Jack grins back – something evil in that grin, I’m thinking. I can see him in a grungy bar with a broken bottle in one hand and a chair leg in the other. Anyway, I land a palm on his shoulder, you know – tag his tee-shirt with a quick, playful slap, and he looks at me with an expression as if to say: “Yea, like that hurt.”
“But this is what we’re supposed to be doing Jack. Come on, play the game, man!”
But then he’s coming at me like Rocky again, or like Popeye on steroids, and I’ve just ravished his Olive Oil. I manage to keep his fists off me this time, which I’m quite proud of, but he’s such a bulldozer, I run out space and he has me pinned up against the wall.
He blinks and I manage to land a cheeky tag on on his side. I’m fast, and quite pleased by this, but even though I suspect the dear man believes he’s pulling his punches, I’m thinking by now he’s got a screw loose, and I’m in danger of a black eye, or busted specs, and that the good lady Graeme won’t let me out to play again if I come home with blood on my shirt from a broken nose or a fat lip. I’m also, let’s face it, a breathless beginner trying to defend myself against a powerful opponent who really knows how to fight. I decide the guy needs to be shown this isn’t how we do things. So, when he’s coming at me again, I hold my hand out and lower myself like a cissy on one knee, eyes down in total disengagement, but bugger me if he doesn’t take the opportunity to land several more “playful” punches around my ears.
So much for unilateral disarmament!
“Tee shirt, Jack. Remember? TEE SHIRT! Play the game, old man.”
The instructor calls time. Everyone peels away, gasping for breath and looking for a swig of water. I’m unable to hold my hands steady enough to drink just yet and end up dribbling it all down my front where it disappears into the pool of sweat on my chest. (Bruce Lee, forgive me). When I’ve gathered my wits, I seek Jack out, press him lightly on the shoulder to get his attention. I’m still in bit of a daze . ”You meant that, Jack,” I tell him, finger raised in polite warning, trying to convey the impression that he wasn’t supposed to pretend to mean it quite so realistically. I sense the subtlety is lost on him. He replies with a goofy grin and he mutters something back in his mother tongue. He could be calling me a big girl’s blouse for all I know, but I’m sure he’s not. He’s laughing – good naturedly – at least I think he is.
And me? I don’t know.
I’ve meditated for years, thinking the discipline of it would sharpen my mind, but as those years have passed, my mind feels more and more like mush. For a moment last night though, I was as focussed as I’ve ever been in my life, because there’s nothing like avoiding a fist in the face for sharpening you up, and dispelling all useless distractions. There’s just you and him and nothing but skill and focus in deciding whose blood will be on the floor – and all right this time it was mine, though not literally, thank God.
I’ve had more energy today, more than I’ve had all year, in fact, and I’ve found myself dealing with people I normally avoid, dealing with them confidently, even assertively – which isn’t like me at all. Thinking back, Jack didn’t actually hurt me last night, but he definitely took my breath away, and I need to be more careful in avoiding him next week – but I’m tempted to say,…. I’m not sure I want to.
I think that movie really has something.