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Jewish World ReviewSept. 21, 1999 /11 Tishrei, 5760

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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My Real-life "Fight Club": Violence Mistaken for Vengeance --
THE MOST INFLUENTIAL AMERICAN MOVIE in years hit the Venice Film Festival last week, producing intense arguments that spilled out into the street.

According to a reporter from The Telegraph (London), "critics from a dozen countries stood in huddles, fiercely debating what they had just seen" The movie was "Fight Club," in which a charismatic figure played by Brad Pitt persuades Edward Norton-the sort of Gen-x yuppie Pitt calls a "feminized man"-- to give up trying to be a good boy and, in order to prove his manhood, punch Pitt in the nose. The idea takes off, and Fight Clubs spring up all over, in which young men fight one another, then strangers on the street, ultimately driving urban society into glorious anarchy.

The author of the novel Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk apparently wrote it while living a sheltered existence cosseted by a writer's group in Portland, Oregon. I, on the other hand, am one of the few men to have tried out his idea, 30 years ago, my medium not words and emotional sensitivities but blood and pain. And I can tell him from my own experience: to fight other men in a completely feminized world does not achieve a darned thing.

True enough, the idea is attractive. In 1969, I transferred from the all-men's college I attended and joined the first class of 32 boys at Bennington, until that moment a women's college. The 590 or so Bennington girls who surrounded us were reputed to be bloody-minded, fiercely avant garde and feminist, and justly proud of their ability to do without the presence of men. Their reputation proved to be understated. And so, to relieve our feelings of inferiority, some of us formed the Bennington Boys' Boxing Society. We staged informal matches in dormitory living rooms, sometime between ourselves, sometimes against the suitors from Harvard and Columbia who still haunted the former girl's college. We were weedy and unwelcome Ulysses', ineffectively defending our 590 disgusted Penelopes.

So for me, the Bennington experience is more than the background of candle-illuminated bookshelves full of Lorca and Anais Nin, more than the feel of dried-out bits of Bocour acrylic paint in a headful of long brown hair, more than a collage of Swedish clogs, leotards, and carefully-kept journals. My Bennington was also the acrid taste of the rubber mouthguard, the sound of leather on muscle, the fear I felt when facing off against a hulking Harvard boy whom I had never seen before, the feeling of shock and lightness of head when a single blow from him (he turned out to be on the Crew!) dropped me to the floor.

Physical fighting was almost a new experience for me. I grew up in a Chicago neighborhood so dangerous that, as a white boy, to allow myself to be caught in a fight on the street after the age of puberty would be suicidal. Instead, I learned to negotiate, to bluff, to plead for my life. Until I went to Bennington I never had the experience of writing a poem, using a welding torch (in sculpture), trying to do Graham contractions, hitting a man in the face. Did our fighting experience affect our manhood or our standing among our 590 sisters? It only increased their contempt for us-a thing I would not have thought possible.

So I can tell you that the antidote to wimpishness we pioneered at Bennington, and now fully-blown in "Fight Club," simply will not do. Fighting for the sake of fighting is not the point. What is wrong with man in the age of feminism has nothing to do with whether, out of an urge to express himself, he can punch out a fellow-wimp. Instead, I'd recommend to my brothers a much more neglected function of male idenitity: revenge.

Pitt in "Fight Club"
A new book by Anne Burnett on ancient Greek tragedy argues convincingly that the Greeks found successful revenge completely admirable, representing, as she says, "order itself in its original and vital form." Viewing a revenge tragedy on stage was good for the audience-it sent "more vital men back into a more vital city." Of course there were famous female revengers in classical tragedy-Electra, Medea, and that favorite of Hamlet, Hecuba. But these early Bennington girls were exceptional. Revenge is a man's job, and, if properly sought, may be our only hope. If only Professor Burnett's book had been published in time for Bernard Lewinsky to read it 19 months ago. Think how much we could have been spared if Dr. Lewinsky had appeared in front of the White House in January 1998 brandishing a horsewhip, crying out for vengeance?

We tend to overvalue violence while disapproving of - or at least misunderstanding-vengeance. I think this is backwards. And we make the further mistake of trying to fight violence itself-in the hopeless form, for example, of writing new gun laws to be disobeyed-rather than to avenge ourselves on those men and women who commit violence, and to dissuade them, by being prepared to use force, from injuring us in the first place. Simply to bloody Brad Pitt's nose-however tempting--gets us nowhere.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


©1999, Sam Schulman