A reading group I’m in recently read Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. It was great fun, and in thinking about the book, it occurred to me that one way to consider Palahniuk’s message was in terms of the Head versus the Heart. The narrator of the book, the Ed Norton character in the movie, is all ‘Head’ following the rules, very practical, living life according to the popular formula for success. And his life is passionless, boring, and lacks meaning for him. Then Tyler Durden – the Brad Pitt character – comes into his life, spouting aphorisms of freedom, passion, rebellion, and ‘Heart.’ The rest of the book CAN be understood as a battle between Head and Heart – reason and common sense and conformity to social values vs unrestrained freedom, spontaneity, and passion. There are of course many ways to read and interpret this very clever and creative book, but this is one. More of my thoughts on Fight Club at bob’s books.
It also occurred to me that “Head vs Heart” can also be a construct for thinking about how we interact with our own world. Head = dispassionate reason and logic, the practicalities of taking care of business, meeting obligations to others and society. Heart = emotion, passion, capacity for joy, love, and sadness, for fulfillment in life, as well as existential angst and unhappiness. Most of us are consciously or unconsciously seeking equilibrium between the two: What is that equilibrium? I think it is different for each of us, and different at different points in our lives. Life and experience give us a better idea of our own personal ‘sweet-spot,’ but it is elusive. And we must beware of becoming too comfortable if/when we think we’ve found our ‘sweet spot.’ A ‘disaster’ is always right around the corner.
Particularly be careful of too much practicality, too much comfort and routine – too much Head – in one’s life. The ‘Heart’ is lying in ambush.
And when we are very angry, or depressed, or when we fall in love (or infatuation) our ‘Head’ is disempowered and its voice is weak and ineffective against the ‘logic’ of the Heart.
Have you ever fallen ‘in love’ with someone who you KNEW was not the right person, or ‘a good idea?’ And noticed how ineffective the Head is in talking you out of those stars in your eyes?
“The Heart has reasons that reason doesn’t understand.” (Jacques Benigne Bossuel)
I think that one of Palahniuk’s key messages in Fight Club is the danger of imbalance, the danger of sliding toward an extreme on either end of the Head-Heart spectrum. The Ed Norton character represents the modern extreme of conformity to social norms; Brad Pitt and Tyler Durden the extremes of passion and rebellion. A more nuanced view of too much ‘Head’ can be found in Remains of the Day – the excessive worship of professional competence and achievement, about which I wrote earlier in this blog. This Head-Heart dichotomy has been a theme of philosophy and literature for millennia.
The Greeks and Romans insisted that the Head rule the Heart. This was a key theme in both Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies, both of whom believed strongly that reason must rule emotion if one is to understand the world and live ‘the good life.’ The Roman Stoics took this idea even further, insisting that reason can also tell the heart how to feel, and with an act of will, our mind can force the heart to do its bidding and have attitudes and feelings that protect the human being from the vicissitudes of a world we can’t control. The Existential philosophers of the 19th and 20th century roundly rejected that view, and argued that passion, commitment, and rebellion against conformity are what give life meaning and value. Nietzsche in particular, railed against Socrates and the Stoics, and argued that each of us should follow our heart to find our own meaning and place in life – regardless of what ‘the herd’ claims ‘makes sense.’ He claimed that in the truly free man, the Heart must rule the Head. Reason and practicality he saw as the hand-maidens of social convention and ‘herd mentality.’ Ayn Rand however embraced reason in her objectivist philosophy, which argues for ‘enlightened self-interest.’ Her philosophy (I believe) echoes and reinterprets Aristotle, and even the Stoics, claiming that the ‘proper’ application of reason is very non-conformist and liberating. You decide.
OK, so what?
So far, I’m playing a ‘Head game,’ examining what Palahniuk was trying to say, looking at various possibilities, connecting them to other authors and intellectual constructs. The ‘Heart game’ would be to ask that ‘existential’ question, “How does this apply to me and my life?” Is Palahniuk accusing me, and can I defend myself? As I was reading Fight Club, I kept reading between the lines, ‘j’accuse, j’accuse, j’accuse!’ (French for ‘I accuse (you)’ and a common expression in some literature).
And so, I ask myself, “Where am I on that Head-Heart continuum and am I happy with that place? “ Today? In general? The answer would be my response to ‘j’accuse.’
And where are you, dear reader? Too comfortable? Is the heart lying in ambush? Or perhaps comatose? Or is the Heart passionately leading a pointless, and destructive crusade, and the Head is either silent, or shouting futilely ‘wake up- you idiot!’ Or are you (I hope) dancing around the sweet spot of balance – what Aristotle might have (but didn’t) refer to as ‘the golden mean?’
You decide. Or do you? It is, after all, your life.
For insightful quotes on ‘the Heart,’ go to: http://thinkexist.com/quotations/heart/
For interesting quotes on ‘the Head,’ go to http://thinkexist.com/quotations/reason/