get the PDF: Rev. 18 March 2005 for the University of St. Francis 14th annual ELL Conference.
Perhaps the most universal of all mythological archetypes is the hero, traditionally a bold, noble figure, a gleaming knight or dashing king or even a brave youth. But many myths go one step beyond a simple hero and introduce a messiah. More than any other element, Christ figures are particularly telling even in modern culture. The term’s very namesake, Jesus Christ, is the most famous of ideological martyrs for the very reason that he is said to have died not simply for a cause, but for the salvation of every human, subscriber to the Jesus As Karmic Counterweight theory or not.
Chuck Palahniuk, most famous for penning the novel upon which 1999’s Fight Club was based, incorporates messianic qualities into most of his main characters. For the uninitiated, Palahniuk’s writing is defined by morbid sequences of events, surrealism, and a preoccupation with ponderous, DeLillo-esque social commentary, not the least of which is that people harbour bizarre and damning fetishes, secrets, and virtually no control over self and destiny. What better summarises Christian self-deprecation?
The only element that divides Palahniuk’s Christ figures from those of traditional writers is his fondness for antiheroes. Like Camus’ Meursault, Palahniuk’s Tender Branson or Victor Mancini are neither noble nor particularly likable, but serve to blur the distinction between Saviour and Saved, to completely erase the line between our need for a saviour and our ability to save ourselves. Perhaps more damning is that Palahniuk’s saviours are not messiahs at all, but icons of vice, masquerading under veils of salvation. There’s a fine line between crazy cult and revered religion.
In Choke, Victor Mancini is a sexual addict, an intertiatic struggling to reconcile himself with other people in ways that don’t involve closet sex or tense, confusing interaction. While visiting his anarchic, dying mother in a nursing home, he willingly becomes a scapegoat for all of the senile, decrepit denizens there, admitting to a whole host of awful crimes such as killing puppies or raping his “sister” (Choke 154). The storyline goes so far as to suggest that Victor was conceived from Jesus’s DNA by means of the Holy Prepuce, the circumcised foreskin of Jesus (228). Victor is a truly pathetic individual, mired in his own sick impotence, who for some reason takes upon the sins of the world to set its mind at ease but is patently unable to forgive himself or his mother. This is not an enjoyable Christ: the book’s climax involves sex toys, a loss of bowel control, and manslaughter, among other things. But here is a Christ to whom we can relate, whose flaws we can understand, who really does, in spite of all, labour to have a great soul. Victor does not consciously choose his addictions and downfalls. He only wants acceptance, peace, and a surcease of sorrow, but it seems as though the machinations of an uncaring and morbid world manage to find the kinky chinks in his panoply. For instance, Victor cannot really afford to keep his senile mother in St. Anthony’s nursing home, but he continues to make the payments, and shows up nearly every day to feed her. At the same time, however, he becomes entangled in a relationship with a resident doctor and ultimately becomes the misguided tool of his mother’s undoing. Mancini is a textbook case of a man who loves too much without quite knowing how to love.
Survivor‘s Tender Branson is a cult survivor who becomes swept up in a storm of media glitz and well-oiled advertising machines, a simple sack-wearing housekeeper with a stupid haircut who, with the aid of a multimillion dollar ad campaign, black market Russian drugs, and a manic stylist, becomes a literally glowing TV messiah, a televangelist to end all televangelists. “Help me. Heal me. Save me. Feed me, the letters say. Messiah. Savior. Leader, they call me. Heretic. Blasphemer. Antichrist. Devil, they call me” (Survivor 88). Needless to say, a false saviour, but one who, though he tried to be a truly great person, is misused and misinterpreted and misunderstood until he martyrs himself in the name of sanity. If nothing else, Survivor is an indictment of the established media machine that turned a catastrophic religious cult into a slick ideology for the masses, transforming a pious domestic laborer into an artifice with drugs and compelling explanations and promises of money. “According to the agent, the biggest factor that makes you a saint is the amount of press coverage you get” (Survivor 152). This is by no means a perfect person, but here is a Christ with whom we can sympathise, who really does, in spite of all, labour to make his life right and reconcile what he is with what he believes. In his turbulent relationship with a redhead named Mercy, readers see that Tender truly is tender; like most of Palahniuk’s messiahs, Tender is a fool for women, in this case the exact opposite of Victor Mancini. Tender is a virgin, literally frightened by the idea of sex, but inexorably drawn to Mercy as a companion and a vision of beauty.
Fight Club’s Tyler Durden is purely a figment of imagination, but nevertheless manages to create a truly massive, force-to-reckon-with, underground movement of disgruntled white collar thugs and impressionable laborers united by a common, egalitarian (if somewhat anarchic) goal. Durden caused mayhem, destruction, and death, but here is a rebellious Christ for whom we, like so many others, may become apostles, believing so resolutely in his message. Moreover, here is a Christ that only ever wanted to be happy, to fill the chasm in his soul. Fight Club opens up with explicating Durden’s addiction to support groups, his desire for acceptance and catharsis. By the end, he’s a pop messiah for disgruntled men who look to him for meaning in their lives. Alex Tuss, in his essay “Masculine Identity and success,” says, “[Durden is an] icon for all the other alienated and angry white men who flock to be members of Fight Club” (4). Not only that, but the success of Durden’s movement, much like Christ’s, eclipses his own involvement. In the end, a impotent stranger to his own creation, Durden says “In a hundred cities, fight club goes on without me” (Fight Club 180). How startling then, that he finds a life of brutality and mayhem instead, when really all he wanted—notice the pattern—was the love of a woman, in this case another support group junkie, a Mary Magdalene, someone with just as many issues as he, in whom he sees beauty.
With Christ figures who at once inspire so much empathy, so many indictments of the heart, and so much revulsion, what can one say about Palahniuk’s use of such a traditional mythic element in the context of unpleasant, modern storytelling? Put simply, these models of fetish and redemption, these tight bundles of contradictions, these lovably damnable Jesuses are the new messiahs of our age. Just as Christ was tragic in a traditional sense, so these Tenders and Victors and Tylers are tragic in the sense that they are diminutive souls who have not realised their capacity for greatness. We, as Hegel suggests (Hamilton 231), can at least sympathise with the two forces acting upon them, even if we on some level can condemn one and laud the other.
Unfortunately, for so many, botched messiahs are never messiahs at all, at any time, for any reason. As Palahniuk himself notes in Survivor, “And if Christ had died from a barbiturate overdose, alone on the bathroom floor, would He be in heaven?” Or “If Jesus had died in prison, with no one watching and with no one there to or mourn or torture him, would we be saved?” (152). If our traditional martyrs and messiahs hadn’t had their crosses, would they have their martyrdoms? It is doubtful. But our modern messiahs do, because their Christ complexes are not tied to avatarism or perfect heroism. Rather, these misfits become popular iconography purely because they summarise and comment upon the human condition in a way that the remoteness of traditional heroes prevents them from doing. Therein lies the crux of contemporary mythology and tragedy.
Messiahs don’t always need to physically save us from harm. Sometimes, all they must do is point us to truth. Palahniuk’s Jesuses, all of them flawed with fear and fetishism, scrambled towards the truth: Victor Mancini away from his turbulent past and his addictive present, towards a better understanding of his mother and the love of Dr. Paige; Tender Branson away from his history with a cult, away from his sexual hangups and lemming mentality, towards an inner peace and the love of Mercy; Tyler Durden away from his hive-collective job and strange dependences, towards a truer outlook on life and the love of Marla Singer. Even if they fail in their endeavors (and they generally do), readers are still given glimpses of their initial aims, of the truth they sought. Their saviour status within the narrative may amount to very little, as the people who follow them are left disillusioned and alone, but to readers, these characters are messiahs still, because they have illumined the darkness of the modern sociological maze.
Palahniuk’s messiahs serve several extrinsic purposes. Most importantly, they and their contemporaries are normative of modernism. Having moved away from the idealistic Romantic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, literature began to focus less upon individual worth and more upon the debilitating effects of corruption upon society, all the while redefining what “corruption” is. Modern western literature, with the exception of that based substantially in Christian mores, is a rejection of Platonist moral absolutism. Augustine’s Platonist idea of metaphysics places Jesus as the divine Truth (Augustine 228). The very idea of moral relativism—a central tenet of modernist and post-modernist thought, i.e. Nietzsche—makes an infallible Jesus character necessary fallacious. Our previous idiom for examining and interpreting life, that of the rich Judeo-Christian ethos and narrative, fell inevitably to modern authors’ iconoclasm. Augustine posits that insofar as something exists, it is good, the product of benevolent creation. Sin and self-destruction, therefore, are synonymous, whereas good and peace or love are also synonymous. When Palahniuk says his characters are “lonely [people] looking for some way to connect with other people,” he implies that, in the Platonist viewpoint, they are trying to leave the cave for a closer relationship with the sun, but at the same time implicitly rejecting a hard, straight path or ideology to achieve that end (Stranger xv). The search for love, the search for truth, the search for goodness, is, in Palahniuk’s world, an inevitable consequence of dispassion and disconnection; that, when pushed far enough down and away, one begins an inexorable trek, in the grand spirit of Dante’s Divine Comedy, through and up to the light. Or, as Tyler Durden says, “First you have to hit bottom” (Fight Club 63).
The most poignant iteration of Jesus’ many literary hats is best summed up by Palahniuk himself in Survivor: “We walked around for an hour, and she told me about different twentieth-century art movements and how they depicted Jesus crucified. In the oldest wing of the mausoleum, the wing called Contentment, Jesus is gaunt and romantic with a woman’s huge wet eyes and long eyelashes. In the wing built in the 1930s, Jesus is a Social Realist with huge superhero muscles. In the forties, in the Serenity wing, Jesus becomes an abstract assembly of planes and cubes. The fifties Jesus is polished fruitwood, a Danish Modern skeleton. The sixties Jesus is pegged together out of driftwood. There’s no seventies wing, and in the eighties wing, there’s no Jesus, just the same secular green polished marble and brass you’d find in a department store” (Survivor 244). What of the eighties, in fact? Martin Scorcese who directed the ever-controversial Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, said, “What I’ve tried to create is a Jesus who, in a sense, is just like any other guy in the street. In his struggles to reach God and find God, he reflects all our struggles. I thought it would give us all hope” (Qtd. in Grogan 8). If the tide of new messiahs—not only in works of Palahniuk, but throughout the modern literary canon—are any indication, it does.
- Augustine, St. Augustine: Earlier Writings. Louisville: Westminster John Knox P, 1979. 222-283.
- Grogan, David. “In the name of Jesus.” People Weekly 8 Aug. 1988: 40-44.
- Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. New York: Norton, 1930. 227-238.
- Palahniuk, Chuck. Choke. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
- Palahniuk, Chuck. Stranger than Fiction. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
- Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Holt, 1996.
- Tuss, Alex. “Masculine identity and success.” The Journal of Men’s Studies Wntr 2004: 93-10.