Edward Norton Among Other Mystics
by Tatiana Lawson
Oregon Episcopal School
"In my Fathers house are many mansions" (Palahniuk)
To study Mysticism is to study both mystical experience itself and also deliberate spiritual practice intended for a closer relationship with the divine. Deliberate spiritual practice may be a ritual such as prayer and/or meditation. A chief characteristic, or practice of a mystic, is to eventually reject the material and physical and instead embrace direct experience in order to attain unity with God. Though this is true, Evelyn Underhill states that there is "no harsh dualism," she believes that there is no exact turning point from a "bad material world to a good spiritual world." Instead one is "invited" to a "gradual undivided process of sublimation, penetrating ever more deeply into the reality of the Universe" (Underhill 31). Mystical experience may be thought of as a step toward enlightenment once interpreted as mystical. The experience is the foundation for the spiritual practice or ritual and can directly result in a set of beliefs. The use of the term "experience" is broad; therefore to categorize an experience as mystical, the experience must hold religious context or be decidedly spiritual. Robert Sharf describes mystical experience to be, "generally construed as a direct encounter with the divine or the absolute" (Sharf 96). The moment of revelation must be explained as contact with the divine. It should encompass a feeling of existence on some level other than one ordinarily is. Whoever is having the experience should be left with a sense of spiritual direction or a new under-standing of existence. Underhill describes Mysticism as, "the art of union with reality" (Underhill, Mysticism).
Through religious study, certain scholars have defined Mysticism and the necessary objectives. There are different interpretations and approaches to this religion. According to Underhill there are five stages in Mysticism: Awakening, Purgation, Illumination, Dark Night Of The Soul, and Unity. Evelyn Underhill acknowledges that mystics are very different and her five stages should only be applied as a summary of the experience of many. Margaret Smith has Four Tenets Of Mysticism, which are as follows: The soul can perceive, the soul is the spark of the divine, purification is necessary and love is the guide.(1) These objectives are widely known; often used as the basis for comparison when interpreting mystical experience.
Qualities of Mysticism are present within the novel, Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk. The author portrays the protagonist, Joe (2), as a man on a mystical path. His life becomes a pursuit to discover and distinguish the real from the phony. At the end of the novel, Joe nearly reaches the stage of Unity as described by Underhill. Is is trhogh the creation and destruction of Tyler Durden that Joe grasps Unity. Each of the five stages of Evelyn Underhill describes are clearly experienced by the protagonist.
Insomnia controls Joes life before he is awakened. The insomnia represents the pre-awakening stage of his life.
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. (Pg. 21)
Joe is slave to his insomnia ailment but has no way to cure it. The cancer support groups he attends represent his efforts to pacify his unhappiness. Joe does not truly have cancer. Because he lives out a lie during each support group, the good feeling he retains each time he walks away from the group is only temporary. Marla Singer destroys his love affair with the support groups by reflecting his lie with her own, making it impossible for him to have his therapeutic cry. Through their complex love/hate relationship, Marla plays a pivotal role in helping him become closer to Unity.
The first stage that Underhill describes is awakening. This stage is the beginning of the mystical path-the awareness. In this state the interpretation of the awakening feeling may be confused or jumbled, however, the desire to pursue the path is clear. Awakening may consist of "an overwhelming consciousness of God and of his own soul" (Underhill 27). Joe experiences awakening in the initial meeting of Tyler Durden. He had the ability to be awakened, because he accepted that he was unhappy with his shallow life. Joe explains his intrigue with Tyler later on in the novel to his lover Marla:
I love everything about Tyler Durden, his courage and his smarts. His nerve. Tyler is funny and channing and forceful and independent, and men look up to him and expect him to change their world. Tyler
is capable and free, and I am not. (Pg. 174)
Tyler is the imaginary friend that his mind makes up for him. Joe's search for the spiritual discovery is passive (3); he is then awakened when his own mind gives him Tyler Durden.
Purgation is the act of clearing your life of distractions and unimportant things that obstruct the mystical path. Meditation and prayer are two widely used and accepted forms of purging oneself of sins. Purgation is carried through with discipline and morality. It can become evident in this stage how far away the ultimate goal of Unity is. In the state of Purgation many truths are learned about oneself. Evelyn Underhill states that "the self is either suddenly or gradually inclined to 'true wisdorn;' and this change of angle affects the whole character " (Underhill 33).
Within the novel there are two distinct forms of purgation. Purgation occurs when Joe blows up his apartment in the form of Tyler Durden. He realizes in his Tyler state how compulsively attached to his material belongings he has become as a person. Before his purging himself he believes, "I loved that condo. I loved every stick of furniture. That was my whole life It was me that blew up." After the Purgation, Joe reminisces on his former consumer habits referring to himself as a, "slave." He says that you can be "trapped in your nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you" (Palahniuk 44). The Tyler part of him leads him to say, "I'm breaking my attachment to physical power and possessions; because only through destroying myself can I discover the greater power of my spirit" (Palahniuk 110). This is a clear indication of the growth he makes away from
Another form of purgation for Joe is the burning of his hand. He bums his hand with lye and in doing so intends to suffer. He designs this exercise for himself as an experience of pain, and suffering he believes, is the way to understand reality. He refers to it as "the greatest moment" of his life. In order to ease the pain and live through the suffering he meditates on the fact that his hand is not the center of the universe. He believes that "Guided meditation worked for cancer, it can work for this" (Palahniuk 75). The ultimate goal for Joe is to endure the pain. What he calls "hitting bottom," is a metaphor for the Illumination stage as described by Underhill.
Illumination is a reward from the divine, a feeling of consolation (4), that the soul is doing the right thing. This may be a sense of presence and advancement on the mystical path. Illumination may be characterized by light or as Underhill puts it, "the way of illumination, is that which the mind by contemplation, is kindled to the burning of love" (Underhill 33). It is a feeling of happiness and satisfaction from God and is associated with connotations of light. In order to hit bottom one must let all that does not matter truly slide.(5) The act of letting things go that do not matter is difficult for Joe. This means letting go of material possessions and fear of death. When Joe hits bottom he is able to accept death as Tyler puts it in the beginning, "The first step to eternal life is you have to die" (Palahniuk 11). Eternal life, in this passage represents Unity. When Tyler says "die," this means two things. One meaning is to accept that one day you will die, the other meaning is symbolic for leaving the former life of materialism behind and living in a new way. Though it takes a while for Joe to understand what he means by "die," he finally embraces the truth. The embracing of the truth and the spiritual feeling that he is left with at the end of the hand burning are characteristic of Underhill's Illumination. Joe also experiences a vision when the Lye given to him by Tyler puts him under intense pain. In this vision he sees "a bonfire or a branding iron or an atomic pile meltdown at the end of a long, long road I picture miles away from me" (Palahniuk 75). Both of these visual images contain light, which match Underhill's description.
Dark Night Of The Soul is a period of abandonment by God; the seeker feels alone in the quest for Unity. This stage may be described as a second purgation, it is a crucial state in which the withdrawal of presence from God is deeply felt. This detachment that is felt by the senses, creates a period of solitude, which one must endure. Underhill describes that the "mental and moral sloth which keeps us so comfortably wrapped in unrealities must go" (Underhill 34). It is as if this is the last test from the divine before Unity.
Within Fight Club, Joe lives out Dark Night Of The Soul during the time when he tries to set his actions right but no one listens to him. This creates the abandonment characteristic, crucial to this stage of the mystical path. Joe and Tyler together create Fight Club. When Tyler goes too far with fight club, Joe tries to make it stop. It becomes out of control, they end up creating a large cult; which in turn falls out of Joe's hands. In one of his most difficult scenes he tells himself, "I'm not leaving. I'm not giving up. I can beat this. I'm in control here." No one listens to Joe in this scene, it is as though he has no credibility.
And I fly slowly out the door and into the night with the stars over- head and the cold air, and I settle to the parking lot concrete. All the hands retreat, and a door shuts behind me, and a bolt snaps it locked. In a hundred cities, fight club goes on without me. (Pg. 180)
This is when he experiences complete solitude. Joe realizes that all the people who previously admired him only admire the Tyler Durden in him. He makes a point to put an end to it. He knows what he has to do, he must destroy Tyler or else give up all hope.
Unity is the last and final stage of the Mystical path. Unity is characterized not so much by ecstasy but more as an inner reality. Union with the divine results in an enlightenment. Joe is closest to Unity when he is able to rid himself of Tyler forever and continue living as himself. He realizes that his fear of death is gone; he respects the life he has been given to live saying, "My will to live amazes me" (Palahniuk 202).
In conclusion, Fight Club, is the story of the struggle of a mystic. Joe becomes awakened to the fact that his life is superficial. His unhappiness is clearly manifested through his health-he cannot sleep. To deal with this Joe uses an escape, he joins cancer support groups. He deceives others and in the process learns how to cry, thus creating sleep. This however, is only temporary (6) and does not work for long. His lie (he feels) is made evident when another liar is present. This liar is Marla Singer. Joe's subconscious therefore creates this character, Tyler Durden. He creates Tyler in order to cope with the dullness of his life and to gain clarity as to what to do. Tyler relieves him of his trivial life and gives him a new perspective. Tyler helps him find and follow the mystical path. During this phase of his life Joe discovers Purgation through ridding himself of material things and pain with meditation. He experiences Illumination through the vision he sees and the acceptance of death. Joe and Tyler create Fight Club in order to help others gain new perspective on their lives. Tyler goes too far and becomes the opposite end of the spectrum, he goes out of control. When Joe tries to gain full control over his life again, people around him abandon him, he then experiences Dark Night Of The Soul. When Joe realizes there is equilibrium between the two extreme lifestyles, he desires that middle ground. The creation and destruction of Tyler Durden represent the Unity that he finds. The true Unity in mysticism as defined by Underhill states that it is intended for a closer relationship with the divine. By destroying Tyler, Joe intends to find the divine.
(1) The last of the Four Tenets ofMysticism as described by Margaret Smith is 'Love as the guide.' This means (in the Bemard of Clairvaux sense) love directly for the divine, love of God is the ultimate love. Ultimate love is distinct from 'social' or 'carnal love,' which also are two kinds of love as described by Bernard of Clairvaux.
(2) It is difficult to label the protagonist adequately; the reader is purposefully never given a name or identity to contend with. The protagonist takes on the self-made up personage 'Tyler Durden.' From that moment on, others in the novel and movie refer to him directly as Tyler. The difficulty remains for the reader (who may or may not be aware that though they exude two completely different personalities, they are one and the same); it has become habit by some to refer to him as either 'Jack' or 'Joe.' At certain points in the novel when speaking to himself, he'll refer to himself as Joe, for example, "I am Joe's Cold Sweat" (Palahniuk 184). Thus the name 'Joe' is born; the equivalent for the movie being 'Jack.'
(3) A 'passive' quality is one of, William James's Characteristics ofIllumination. His four qualities are: Ineffable-indescribable, too great to be described by words, Transient-passing quickly away, not lasting, fleeting momentary, Passive-something that happens to you, you don't make it happen, being acted on without deliberate action, and Noetic-you know it happened to you but it can't be relayed to anyone, originating in the mind. mental sneculation.
(4) Consolations, as described by Teresa of Avila, are feelings of ultimate contentment. Consolations are a type of fulfillment directly from God as a result of good deeds such as continuous meditation. Consolations do not equal feelings of Spiritual Sweetness which are merely good feelings from other trivial things in life. (Teresa of Avila 67, 73, 81, 50)
(5) During the intense insomnia phase in Joe's life when he attends cancer support groups, he frequents a group for people with brain parasites. During the sessions a meditation is lead by a group leader in which all the people are told to open their chakras, lead themselves into their cave and meet their power animal. Tyler meets his power animal, a penguin that looks up at him and calmly tells him to "slide" (Palahniuk 35). The meaning of this theme is somewhat hidden during the movie but the message is both important and clear.
(6) Temporary feelings of consolations are very similar to Teresa of Avila's description of 'Spiritual Sweetness.'
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.
Sharf, Robert H. ELcperience. Edited by Mark C. Taylor, Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Smith, Margaret. The Nature and Meaning of Mysticism. [handout]
Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Translated and Edited by E. Allison Peers (New York: Doubleday Publishing Group Inc.), 1952.
Underhill, Evelyn. The Essentials of Mysticism. [handout]