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Maturity, Inititation, and The Fantasy of Self-Annhiliation


Though it has been challenged in finer circles, the casual film theorist of a certain age will invariably still dismiss much horror and male action in terms of the imprisoning and exploitative “male gaze.” Men are often eager to admit they are “all the same” as far as leering at women on the TV screen, but if they give themselves a little credit, the answer may be far more complex. Instead, these males end up feeling as if they are polluting everything they touch with their eyes: babies, puppies, groceries, you name it… and it’s not far from then that the self-fulfilling prophecy of misogyny creeps in; hatred of women being merely a masked man’s mirror.

the purpose of this essay is to posit a theory that even this elementary definition of misogyny is just a mask for something that runs even deeper and is ultimately positive, namely the desire for total self-annihilation.

There has been much written on this subject about primitive practice of male initiation ceremonies. In these vital rites of passage, denied modern boy unless you count getting drunk and laid at one's prom, the male is differentiated from the mother via a scary rite of initiation. At about the age of 13, a tribal boy is abducted in the dead of night by the men of the tribe disguised in wild animal fur and masks. They take the boy out into the woods, where he thinks he will be killed. Of course the boy is terrified, and thinks his heart will explode from fright, but he is not killed, of course. Instead he is temporarily buried, cut, tattoeed, or marked in some way, to signify he is reborn as a man. The men in the tribe remove their masks and share some tribal secrets with him, and when they all return to the village the next day, the mom pretends to grieve for her dead son, and not to recognize the “re-born” male, whom she then on treats with respect as a fully grown man, and not as her son at all.

The closest I personally ever came to this experience, was probably Boy Scout camp. A particular merit badge or some sort of honor involved going off into the woods with one of the scout masters for two days with only a sleeping bag and a knife, as part of a sort of secret initiation, the details of which those who had done it were then forbidden to tell the other kids.  I didn’t choose to go, naturally. Summer camp was traumatizing enough. But of course, when mom cane to pick me up from camp at the end of the week, she would have treated me no different regardless. Not only does modern man's mom always recognize you as her little boy, she refuses to treat you as an adult even when you are 35, no many times you have been sexually assaulted by scoutmasters in the cover of woods and darkness where no one can hear you scream.

This stagnation of the maternal bond can also be observed in shopping malls all across America in the weird chemistry between a mom and her 13-16 year son when they go shopping together for his clothes for school. They resemble a pair of old lovers, him a tad sullen yet dependent on her car and her money, her with her casual knowledge of baseball or whatever the son is into. It is usually around this time that the mother gets a short, boy’s haircut. The boy meanwhile begins to lose his girlish voice for the deeper drops.

 Our culture’s denial of the importance of the masculine initiation ritual has led to witch-hunts, Catholicism, and Fight Club (1999). The idea of killing or suppressing women to find a masculine ideal is sometimes attempted, but it never works, as it is based on self-loathing. You don’t quell Christianity by killing Jesus. Frances Farmer always rises like a phoenix from the flames to destroy Seattle. The question then becomes this: is all of the horror and pornography in the world, undoubtedly primarily aimed as it is at the “male gaze” supposed to bring on this sort of fantasy of male autonomy? Is it a placebo because we never given the proper initiation as men into this weird society, the initiation that is supposed to be what we trade our intimate bond with the mother for in the first place?

Even behind both of those options is the big pull/push of existence vs. annihilation of self.  The need for spiritual connection to the social order is ignored by our consumer society where spirit is considered the sole province of tired, dogmatic religions, and that anyone with a modicum of intellect is expected to scoff at notions of God and the soul, and then go hit the ATM. Finding that no amount of sex, drugs or money can ultimately stave off this feeling that something is missing in our lives, we turn to fantasy to escape from the burden of self-consciousness. Permanent suicide is out, though. It's just a messy note of defeat; your mom finds you bloody in the bathroom, your younger brother takes all your comic books, nobody really cares, you may have to be re-born and repeat the whole damn thing from scratch. But a training wheels version of suicide can be found in an absorbing book or movie.

If looked at as a graph of good and bad, there would be the “bad” self-annihilation of suicide or alcoholism, the okay self-annihilation of fantasy, and then the “good” version; meditation, yoga, spiritual pursuits involving the gently dissipation of the prison of ego. For a mind dominated by egoic thinking, there is so much resistance to meditation that such deep relaxation essentially is “death” and to be resisted with the same panicked thrashing (also known as “writer’s block.”) When one finally forces oneself into a lotus position and begins deep breathing, the ego babbles in the ear like a woman in the slasher movies trying to talk her way out of the chainsaw wielding maniac’s layer.

Looking back to the tribal boy initiation, it is of course this same terror that allows the spiritual re-birth. The ego runs out of ideas, and surrenders, and then realizes it can breathe underwater. Another metaphor for this would be the terrified Japanese soldiers and civilians in the caves on Pacific islands at the close of World War Two. Taught to fear Americans as torturing maniacs, many chose to die rather than give up to the US soldiers. Those who managed to work up the courage found there were chocolates and sweet tariff breaks awaiting them.

Deep in the collective conscious, we must surely know that this death and rebirth is not only advantageous, but essential. However since we can’t process the information directly, it comes bubbling up to consciousness as a suppressed desire for self-annihilation, which (hopefully) finds a healthy outlet in no-self fantasy until one can muster the courage to come out of the cave and surrender to the chocolate. By no-self fantasy I mean a film, book or imaginative voyage that does not involve egoic flattery (such as imaging oneself a famous rock star, author, or sex god), but rather precludes the self altogether. I argue that this motivation is the real reason that men are attracted to woman-on-woman pornography, and that contrary to typical feminist interpretation they don’t necessarily see it as a thing they are entitled to interrupt and correct in some commanding patriarchal way. Rather it is an opportunity to envision a primal scene in which conception plays no part, and involves no male presence. It can be safely viewed from behind a window in the comforting room of egoless nonexistence. Once a male figure enters into the porn primal scene, the male ego is stirred back into life; one must pick a place of identification.

I would here brace myself for a feminist argument that men don’t identify with women unless there is some hope for empowerment, but I think the whole idea of men needing a Cloverian “hook” to identify with women underestimates the extraordinary power women have in the male mind. Men identify more with women onscreen than they do with men who are viewed more as an older brother or father figure to admire and imitate (think Cary Grant, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, George Clooney) or else as pretty-boy competition; little brothers and rivals in school to be beaten or avoided (Tom Cruise, Kevin Bacon, C. Thomas Howell).  This is an area currently misunderstood by the media, who forget how deep seated self-loathing is in most individuals, in the US particularly. We as men desperately need role models, and so we look up to some stars, but we also hate ourselves, and so look down on others. Women on the other hand are totally other, and as such are no direct competition. I would argue that any man who likes the movies more than he likes televised sports has the ability to be this sort of “bi-sexual spectator.” (Sports on the other hand is a media for an audience that vehemently denies their “other” side, hence closeted gay male signifiers abound in sports – note the infrequency of cheerleader shots compared to ass shots of football players for example.)   One needn’t be gay or bi to be a cross-dresser, consider Ed Wood, who was also a huge movie fan as well as inept filmmaker (and alcoholic.) Compared to the “closeted” femininity of the arm chair quarterback, this sort of heterosexual gender-bending actually works to increase one’s "straight" masculinity in the long term, as the sublimation simply isn’t there to create complexes.


A superb example of the male wish for self-annihilation and its implication beyond suicide is the film FIGHT CLUB. Edward Norton’s character is both himself and Tyler Darden (Brad Pitt), the charismatic, “free” individual who Norton idolizes. Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), the romantic lead, is a distinct separate entity and that is what disgusts Norton about her at first. Basically, the film’s emotional trajectory repeats the history of male maturity so that civilized man can finally “get it right.” To cure himself of his ennui and insomnia, Norton must begin at the beginning. Like so many, he finds his solace in 12-step programs, and in this case, the maternal comforts of another man, Meatloaf (“babies don’t sleep this well” he later narrates after having first discovered the release of sobbing into Loaf’s testicular cancer-generated bosom).  Just as the son ideally spends infancy at the breast of a woman, his initiation into manhood begins by nursing at the breast of a man. The appearance of Marla at the subsequent 12-step meetings is a humiliating reminder of his failure to be a man already. She is a competitive sister inducing sibling rivalry, already “freer” than Norton can hope to be until he masters himself. As Joseph Campbell put it “woman is, man must become.”

Norton gets his chance to move on to higher realms of masculinity with the appearance of Tyler Durden, and the subsequent organization of fight club. Again there is a link to the initiation of primitive societies, where boys engage in violent but structured horseplay and fights to let off steam, solve disputes, and prove their manhood. The fear of pain, humiliation, losing teeth etc., is all part of it, an essential pre-requisite for change into a “mature” male. Football, after-school fights and fraternity hazing are all incarnations of these rituals, but too often the lessons of real change are missed, as these practices fall into the realm of big American beer-swilling mesomorphs too dumb to even feel the pain that would transcend them (the initiation didn’t work the first time around, why would it work the second?). The various tests and trials that Tyler dreams up are all to help release the male from its cage of consciousness, to “let go” of self and emerge as a “monkey ready to be shot into space.” But as the conspiracies grow larger and out of control, and people start getting killed, Norton tries to put a stop to Tyler’s actions. Ultimately this becomes a reminder of why civilization and order were created in the first place. There’s a reason we stopped living like a slob in college, or no longer smoke pot, or despite our longing for freedom, wind up back in the cage time and time again. There is no direction to the quest for liberation beyond that liberation (if I had that Zizek book here, I’d quote it). This is also why revolutions so quickly turn into dictatorships, and the joy of Saturday night’s ecstasy turns into Wednesday’s deep depression. Norton tries to halt Tyler’s spread of malice, but it is too late. In a final chapter, he puts a gun into his mouth and pulls the trigger, in a last ditch effort to stop Durden, who it is revealed is actually Norton and vice versa. The wish for self-annihilation which has been just under the surface of the whole film now rockets out of the depths with a blaze of gunfire.

But Norton does not die. Instead it is hinted that this act of self annihilation has successfully integrated both the free/destructive aspects of Tyler and his own caged but compassionate self more fully. The asocial aspects of the male drive have been incorporated into the socialized self, so the balance of yin yang flow is nice and even. In short, by “symbolically” killing himself, he has passed his own initiation into manhood. It is then he gets the girl, on an even playing field, free of projections, and free of misogyny.

Marla, seizing the day as per usual in FIGHT CLUB (1999)


The critical absence of this initiation process has created a psychological disaster of epic proportions, especially in the U.S. where young people crowd detox centers, 12-step programs, and psychiatric hospitals like never before.  Tales abound of young men who, inspired by FIGHT CLUB, have formed things such as “spoon club” (where they flick each other in the naked shoulder over and over again with a spoon until a welt forms), and backyard “extreme fighting.” Then there’s the things that never get old, like cutting, self-mutilation, bulimia, bull running, all vain efforts at the reunificative bullet to the head that turns Tyler/Norton into a whole man.


Sadly, just as the bible is often reinterpreted dogmatically by religions, rather than as instructional fable, so too does actual suicide often take the place of self-annihilation. Tyler's unifying bullet has nothing to do with actual suicide, which is an incredibly “selfish” (as in self-conscious) act,  motivated by extreme and painful self-consciousness. In fact is the opposite; it is the evil superego’s final triumph over the larger self, it’s “win” against the Tyler/Norton reunion that would have spelt its loss of power. The imagined effect of suicide--the blissful return to the womb--can only be achieved by a total annihilation of self, as in to never have been born or existed, George Bailey-style in It’s a Wonderful Life. But instead of being forced to see how drab your small town is without you, you are spared having to return, and instead are a ghost-viewer on Oz, Mars or wherever for an hour or two a visit. Afterwards you may touch down, renewed or seriously shaken, into your own skin. And sooner or later any egoic freedom will result in a return to ego. Even utter self-annihilation is only temporary. Death lasts no longer than life, all is fleeting, flickering. Only the movie stays the same, a living testament to the fundamental flaws of human memory.

All photos copyright 20th Century Fox 1999
Kill the Dumb!

I Like Myself - With These Words, Tyler and Ed Norton do wed.

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