Paper Topic: Wilderness, freedom and the power of the individual — what it means to live wildly and freely in Thoreau’s “Walden”, and the 1999 film, “Fight Club”.

As I read excerpts from Thoreau’s “Walden” earlier this semester, as often as I found myself critically opposed to the text’s subjective and often opinionated and personalized philosophies, I was just as often intrigued by the question of wilderness, personal freedom and the limits of the human being seeking to have both while living feasibly. In addition, I frequently scribbled marginal notes every time I caught Thoreau saying something I’d heard resonated in contemporary works of fiction, the similarities of which I’d first failed to notice. During the course of his discussion of the American farmer, and more generally, the American property owner (in the sense of land, home and personal possessions), Thoreau made a comment about the poor farmer coming to realize that “his farm has got him”. It was in this moment I realized I’d heard something very similar coming from the mouth of Tyler Durden, the anti-corporate, charismatic figment of Edward Norton’s imagination in the 1999 film, “Fight Club”. After investigating the connection, I discovered that the two works held much in common, with some important exceptions. Thoreau left behind urban, civilized America for the woods in search of personal freedom and enlightenment; however, the white-collar, average-income, consumerists-turned-anarchists of “Fight Club” work to do the same by living by the most austere standards within the bounds of a large, modern American city. Further, Thoreau admits the necessity of community and the limits of the lone forest-dweller, living on the fringes of high civilization but not entirely in the uncultivated wild. “Fight Club”, on the other hand, idealizes the personal power available to the individual who is farthest removed from civilization and culture — constructs that come at the cost of personal freedoms. The question that these works have prompted me to explore, then, is how closeness to wilderness assumes greater personal freedom, and closeness to civilization assumes greater surrender of personal freedom. In addition, I want to compare and contrast the opposing opinions surrounding the freedom / wilderness relationship and determine what ratio of civilization-to-wilderness both “Walden” and “Fight Club” believe allows humans an ideal position in respect to one another and nature.

Questions to be explored…

1) Why does civilization / wilderness allow the individual fewer or greater personal freedoms? Is wilderness necessarily better? What is lost when we retreat from the organization of high civilization?

2) What are the moral arguments presented by “Walden” and “Fight Club”? What is considered radical or problematic, and what is considered ideal? At what point does personal freedom become morally unsound, or does it? Do (or should) humans have moral obligations in respect to one another? Are these obligations naturally or culturally constructed?

3) What is the significance of, and attitude toward community in “Walden” and “Fight Club”, if these things apply? What is the function of community in relation to humans living by simpler, “uncivilized” means? Are wilderness and community (not civilization, but community, on any scale) opposed or harmonious?

4) How are personal experience / knowledge (i.e. informal education, folk knowledge) and shared, or cultural experience / knowledge (i.e. formal education) valued in “Walden” and “Fight Club”? Is there a kind of knowledge gained from wilderness that civilization cannot account for, and why is it important to the “free” individual?

Advertisements

16 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by rebsheppard on October 27, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    I like your idea of comparing a contemporary work with “Walden” and examining it from an ecocritical perspective–in fact, that’s not too far off from what I’m doing. I find your question #2 to be really compelling and challenging, as moral arguments are often hard to pin down (especially within the context of a film).

    I think it might be beneficial for you to incorporate the book version of “Fight Club” into your research as well–I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it’s a lot like the movie and it might help you in providing a sound textual basis for the claims that you’ll make in your paper. Good luck!

    • I agree with rebsheppard that reading the book might be a good idea for the paper. As we all know, movies based on books tend to cut out a lot of the juiciest stuff. That doesn’t mean you can’t still talk about the movie and give a film analysis, but the book version may help to clarify a lot of the points you’re looking at.

  2. Posted by bhough on October 27, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    I love your idea for the final paper! I find your ideas really intriguing, especially this question:

    What is the significance of, and attitude toward community in “Walden” and “Fight Club”, if these things apply? What is the function of community in relation to humans living by simpler, “uncivilized” means? Are wilderness and community (not civilization, but community, on any scale) opposed or harmonious?

    I think you could take this question even further by looking at the differences in the text and the movie regarding involving one self with other people. What I mean by this is Walden chooses to live an entirely solitary life while at Walden, but Tyler Durden becomes exponentially “stronger” as his army of workers continues to grow (although he does not tend to care about this group of people). You could take this idea in many directions, but the question to be asked, i guess, is:

    Does reliance on people have any correlation with one’s closeness to nature? Does the presence of people have to mean a sense of community, and, likewise, does the absence of people mean the absence of a community?

  3. Great topic, I particularly like this question:

    What are the moral arguments presented by “Walden” and “Fight Club”? What is considered radical or problematic, and what is considered ideal? At what point does personal freedom become morally unsound, or does it? Do (or should) humans have moral obligations in respect to one another? Are these obligations naturally or culturally constructed?

    And specifically the question in there: At what point does personal freedom become morally unsound, or does it? I think this is an interesting idea to analyse because we do stand to loose quite a bit by completely “going against the grain” and separating ourselves from society.

    Another question I think would be worth addressing:

    You mention: What is lost when we retreat from the organization of high civilization? BUT what about what is gained? What do we stand to gain individually by separating from the burdens of society?

  4. Posted by yribaf on October 27, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    I think you have chosen a great topic. It’s similar to what I will be writing as well. I liked this question particularly:

    4) How are personal experience / knowledge (i.e. informal education, folk knowledge) and shared, or cultural experience / knowledge (i.e. formal education) valued in “Walden” and “Fight Club”? Is there a kind of knowledge gained from wilderness that civilization cannot account for, and why is it important to the “free” individual?

    I think this will be an insightful question to analyze in relation to Walden and Fight Club because learning from personal experience and from shared knowledge create vastly different mindsets. It should be interesting to see what you have to say regarding this in relation to different ways of life.

    Another question you should consider is:

    What kind of society does each form of knowledge create within civilization and the wilderness? What purpose does each form of knowledge have in Walden and Fight Club?

  5. I know you have heard that your idea is great, but I am going to have to reiterate that it is great, picking Fight Club was really a great move. I would be interested though in hearing how you would incorporate literal nature into your paper, or the absence of it in Fight Club. And I would venture to ask how does man benefit from being closer to wilderness or in the case of Fight Club to a more primal form of human nature, if Native Americans (who have been considered closer to be closer to an animalistic nature) have been looked down upon?

  6. Posted by bharta1 on October 28, 2011 at 12:15 am

    Narrator: “It’s just stuff”.

    Tyler Durden: “The shit you own, ends up owning you.”

    Yes! When I read Walden sometime ago I was pretty much convinced that Chuck Palahniuck just translated Thoreau into a modern vernacular. I’m glad someone else picked up on it too. Nicely done. Anyway, the quote above I found particularly related to Thoreau’s reference to the “superfluity” of American culture, and certainly you could compare Norton’s character to the factory worker striving for the corporate CEO’s chair behind the desk. This is where our elasticity is lost, according to Thoreau.

    1 and 4 are great questions. I like the idea of folk experience as a different perspective from say the insider or urbanite trying to escape while the folk experience may be looking at or in an urban society. Which one has the more capable or clear vantage point? And concerning question 1, it is imperative to question what is so valuable about wilderness and discuss its difficulties.

    I would also suggest maybe a small portion supplement the apocalypse trope, obviously you probably thought of that. But as Durden wants to destroy the debt and return the society to zero debt, what kind of freedom can be bad? And who comes to power after one power gets the guillotine? Which always seems to be problematic. Who has the skill to pick up the pieces after the apocalypse?

  7. It’s seems like you’re getting at contrasting “Fight Club” with “Walden” – putting them on opposite ends of the spectrum. Civilization vs. Wilderness, Community vs. Individuality. Freedom vs. Entrapment. I would like to maybe see how there are traces of the polarity present in the other. I like question #1, which explores these dynamics.

    I would suggest:

    – Are these two texts as diametrically opposed as they seem?

  8. Posted by al002 on October 28, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I think this will be the most interesting paper of all the topics I’ve seen. Great connection and I’m very eager to see your paper. I am curious (and hope no one has asked this already) about if one rejects society/civilization and embraces the anarchist/wilderness can human nature survive without laws and order? It is natural for humans to form hierarchical relations when a larger number of humans are grouped together but if one is solitary these do not exist and I wonder if you could contrast against both texts using that? Your question I found most interesting…well to be honest they were all intriguing!!

  9. Your first question is the one I found the most interesting. Wilderness is often portrayed as being better than civilization because one can become closer to nature, but is it better than civilization.

    Another question could be: Can the wilderness also be harmful to live in as oppose to civilization if people do not know how to survive in it?

  10. Posted by lmc908 on October 28, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    I find your connection between nature/wilderness and Fight Club very intriguing. The idea of finding the wilderness within ourselves, or just wilderness in us is one that should be explored. I find your first question the most interesting. One would think that moving away from civilization would expand one’s personal freedoms, but it might actually diminish them. We may gain more mental freedom, but our lives become more limited.

    5. Is there a wilderness within ourselves? If so, is it still necessary to move away from civilization to find it?

  11. Posted by christys21 on October 28, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    I found interesting your questioning of whether living with nature assumes more personal freedom and vice versa.

    A question I asked myself was whether there would ever be a middle ground or what would be necessary for one to not have to lose personal freedom when not living in nature. What circumstances would be needed for someone to not be connected with the wilderness, but not lose any of their personal freedom.

  12. Great topic and great questions. I am particularly interested in 1 and 2, though I think you should consider them all as you brainstorm for this paper. Here’s a question I would like to add, but I won’t number it (since people have kinda failed at the whole numbering thing):

    Do urban spaces stand outside of nature or can they be recuperated as part of nature? (I suggest doing some research on nature and urban spaces, as this is a hot topic in ecocriticism and environmental philosophy right now. It could help a lot in making an argument on how nature functions in Fight Club, rather than casting the film’s setting as completely outside of nature).

  13. Posted by etrotta on October 28, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    I think you have a great topic for this paper. Both of the works you chose take very radical stances on civilization. I really like your 3rd question about community and its importance. One question I would like to add is “Do the underlying messages of these works advocate some form of bioregionalism or are they based more on complete anarchy/ destruction of society?”

  14. Posted by michaelmichaelsmith on October 28, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    I, of course, love “Fight Club,” and think it would be an excellent modern example of how materialistic living is unnecessary, and in many cases, harmful to the moral character of individuals. I like Q2 and aim to expand it a bit with my question.

    Q6 (If you dont # I take your spot!) – To what limits does a persons freedom extend when it directly reduces or harms others freedom? Is the clash of freedoms mainly a symptom of high population density present in cities? How would Tyler Durden influence Norton if after losing his apartment, he elected to escape into the woods?

  15. Referring to 3 comments up, I wonder similarly if wilderness can exist in an urban setting. What is significant about the story of fightclub is the goal of project mayhem: the forced reversion to pre-culture, pre-society, pre-technology. In the novel/film tyler explains his vision of a future where the cities are overgrown and men hunt along vacant streets. Is this an attempt at bringing the wilderness into the urban setting? or perceiving that which is already present?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: