I Am Joe’s Catathymic Crisis

English 206

Professor Tweedy

December 12, 2019


23 years ago Chuck Palahniuk’s first published novel, Fight Club, hit bookstores. Its success did not happen overnight. In fact, it took three years and a movie misrepresentation direct by David Fincher and written by Jim Uhls starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helen Bonham Carter to become an inescapable part of popular culture. The novel originally sold 5,000 copies, it only reached best-selling status after the movie was released on DVD. The movie fared no better than the book at release. It garnered more negative reviews than positive and only ran two weeks in theaters for being pulled. Fight Club was repackaged for DVD where it finally found its audience creating an interest in the book making Chuck Palahniuk a famous author. The First Rule of Fight Club may be not to talk about Fight Club, but it provides a lot to talk about: religion, consumerism, violence, self-mutilation, masculinity and emasculation, rebellion, isolation, and the search for identity. What is not talked about is Chuck Palahniuk’s homosexuality or the topics of self-destruction that is prominate in all of Palahniuk’s novels and mental illness. Through the transgressive novel Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk reports on the internal struggle of repressed homosexuality through both the narrator’s mental illness and catathymic crisis.

Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Hans Maier, introduced catathymia in 1912 as a psychological disorder. “From the Greek kata and thymos meaning in ‘accordance with emotions’, [Catathymia] is a psychological process or reaction activated by a strong and tenacious affect connected to an underlying complex of ideas. The affect, when stimulated, overwhelms the individual’s psychological homeostasis and disrupts logical thinking” (Schlesinger 307). Using the Ideas presented by Maier, Dr. Frederic Wertham later came up with the theory of catathymic crisis in 1937 as an explanation for violent and what appears to be on the surface motivationless crimes with five stages. The stages in this process are “a thinking disorder occurring, a plan to create a violent criminal act, internal emotional tension forces the criminal act which cleans to a superficial calmness where the need to commit a violent act is eliminated, and finally the mind adjusts itself and understands that thinking process that lead to the criminal act was flawed and the mind adjusts to prevent further criminal activity” (Garrison). The term was adopted by criminologists to understand serial killers and later to explain infanticide and sexual homicide. However not all who experience catathymic crisis are compelled to commit mass violence. It can be turned inward as well as self-destructive tendencies or suicide. Catathymic crisis can be any unexpected explosive outburst of impulsive, often destructive behaviour, understandable only in terms of unconscious motivation including displaced anger, self-destructive tendencies, and an exaggerated death drive. It takes many forms such as a child “acting out” for attention, domestic violence, the destruction of property, and suicide. Society chooses to ignore mental illness due to the stigma of mental illness being associated with violence, a myth perpetrated by the media sensationalizing the mental health of individuals involved in crimes such as mass shootings and infanticide. This makes catathymic crisis an ideal topic for transgressive fiction. Transgressive fiction is a genre of literature which focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways. It is based on the premises that knowledge is to be found at the end of experience and that the body is the site for gaining such knowledge. Palahniuk mixes noir, comedy, horror and a political element to create his style of satirical transgressive fiction that more often than not explores catathymic crisis in the form of self-destruction. “There are people out there who will not read books but will somehow they’ll read [mine]. They serve them in a way most fiction doesn’t. I give them a less filtered form of entertainment. I acknowledge some unacknowledged parts of our lives which as a culture we don’t tend to talk about” (Diza and Pekoll).

Fight Club was released during a time when gay rights were being fought over, a treatment for HIV had not been conceived, and conversion therapy was the accepted treatment despite having been removed from the DSM in 1987. It was easier for homosexuals to remain in the closet than face ostracism and discrimination that often resulted in hate crimes. In 1996 Chuck Palahniuk refused to talk about his sexual orientation. He went as far as refusing to have an author’s biography or photo in his books, choosing to remain an enigma. This meshed well with his stance on letting his work stand on its own. “It would be insane to think that the author could control every interpretation of their work…I’d like the work to stand on its own and to be judged on its own. I’ve become exhausted with the constant explanation of [my] work, which I don’t think is necessary. Too much of the presence of the author can get between the reader and the story. Afterwards, the reader will no longer see themselves in the story; they will see too much of the author” (McDonald). Palahniuk’s books, including Fight Club, provide satirical journalistic commentary on what it means to be human in a less than perfect world with interesting results. “Very little of what I do is invention – most of what I do is journalism” (Beaumont-Thomas). “I usually start from something in my own life that I can’t resolve, so I turn it into a metaphor for months or sometimes years I’ll exhaust all of my emotional reaction to this issue by making it enormous on the page” (Morton). Fight Club is a product of this time and has held up well. It is still relevant 23 years later spawning a loosely based sequel, Adjustment Day, where the mischief of Project Mayhem as escalated into something much bigger with catastrophic results.

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