Friday, December 2, 2011

An unlikely association

So Cookie Monster is a lot like Tyler Durden.

Stay with me.

I was thinking about Cookie Monster yesterday morning on the way to work, for two reasons.  One is that I was, as usual, grasping at any mental straw I could get my figurative hands on in order to distract myself from the fact that it was 6:23 in the morning and I was on my way to a 6-hour shift in the data entry factory, and the second was that I was trying to forget that the morning before, I had, upon leaving my apartment, neglected to close the door.  For whatever reasons my brain coughed up Cookie Monster, that lovable expression of the id, who I primarily remember from my yearly viewing of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street which, along with Ernest Saves Christmas, was yearly Holiday viewing (meanwhile, I have, to this day, managed to avoid more than a few minutes at a time of A Christmas Story, and in fact had to Google 'christmas ralphie' in order to pull out the title for it.  I have seen It's a Wonderful Life, but it took until my mid-twenties).  For those of you who haven't seen this particular special, Cookie Monster's character arc throughout the special features his repeated attempts to contact Santa Claus, but his hyper-awareness of his own desires and impulses (to wit: he wants cookies) causes him to eat first his pencil and paper, his typewriter, and then the telephone, confusing each of them with the delicious treats he so desperately craves.  The telephone scene is especially heart-wrenching; after staring at the phone, an old-fashioned rotary (the special was created before cellular technology, meaning it now plays as a period piece) he confuses the two ends of the phone for chocolate cupcakes and eats the whole thing.  Unfortunately, just as he finishes his impromptu feeding frenzy, Santa picks up from hold.  The scene is a master class in dramatic irony, as Cookie Monster, horror slowly dawning in both googly eyes, tries in vain to communicate with Santa.  You could cut the pathos with a knife, were you not afraid that he would eat it.  What's worse is that the movie's tag has Susan and Gordon returning to their apartment, only to discover that Cookie Monster has eaten the needles and ornaments from their Christmas tree, having not learned his lesson.  Cookie Monster is the living embodiment of that first tenet of Buddhism, "desire leads to suffering."

I am Jack's addictive personality.
Perhaps that yearly message of suffering is why I took Cookie Monster as a cautionary tale, whose behavior was not something to emulate.  I'm not saying I totally eschew baked goods; I don't even eschew baked goods daily.  But I learned this behavior because sugar and chocolate are delicious, not because I was following the example of a blue monster.  Nevertheless, in an effort that I don't think is entirely misguided Cookie Monster, having declared that he was powerless to control his addiction and accepting change though a higher power (probably Snuffleupagus), legally changed his name to Veggie Monster, explaining that cookies are a "sometime" food.  I can see the logic here even though I recognize that, by becoming Veggie Monster, the blatant absurdity of the character is dampened; most kids are probably not going to be terribly discerning when they see their favorite (although this possibly deserved air quotes since I have no idea how popular Sesame Street is these days) character scarfing down pastries.  Seeing someone who is funny, engaging, appealing, charismatic, or otherwise adjectival behave badly can cause us to link that behavior with the demeanor in our minds, and even if that person suffers negative consequences for the bad behavior we still may not get the message that we shouldn't do what they do.

This brings us to Tyler Durden and why I made the association.  Fight Club (the movie; it's been too long since I read the book for me to be able to confidently speak about it) is a movie where one man, reacting violently against his meaningless rat-race consumerist lifestyle, snaps toward another extreme, that of anarchic nihilism.  Said anarchic nihilism manifests in Tyler Durden, who creates the titular fight clubs and basically sets out to destroy society.  The thing is that Tyler Durden is played by Brad Pitt in probably the best shape of his or anyone else's life, and he just looks so fucking stylish and cool that even if you intellectually understand the meaning of the movie (that neither Ed Norton's nameless protagonist's life nor Durden's are desirable) you'll still likely want to walk out of the movie saying, with some degree of seriousness, that you want to start your own fight club.

I'm not meaning to imply that I'm smarter than anyone else who saw Fight Club; I thought it was cool and bad-ass too and it took me years to come around to the actual, "oh, they're both nuts," thing, but I'm willing to bet that there is a non-negligible population of people who have seen Fight Club who honestly believe the take-away is that you should buy less Ikea furniture, be more manly and solve problems with violence, and I'm 100% certain there's someone who's re-enacted the skin-burning scene.  And I'm not saying that we should never make complicated, layered entertainment with messages you have to dig for, or that we should suger-coat or pull back because someone might misinterpret something or because someone disturbed might watch it and take it the wrong way.  But I don't know how different we, as adults, are from kids who need to be reminded that cookies are a sometime food.  Maybe I'm wrong and people largely got Fight Club, but I find myself feeling like the movie could use a little Veggie Durden.


  1. I'll have something say about this when it's not past my bedtime (yes, I'm about to go to bed before before 10 on a Friday -- my idea of a fun Friday evening is kicking my feet back and reading Kant). For now, this:

  2. I just liked the phrase, "Cookie Monster's character arc throughout...". Priceless.

  3. I have Greeks on the mind these days, and your hilarious essay brought me once more to Athens. Plato was certainly in favor of restricting a child's diet of stories; doing so was, he took it, fundamental to the health of the Republic. Your prescription seems to not be to fast, as we might read Plato as recommending, but rather to be open and honest about what it is that you are eating. I can't resist forming a mental caricature of you jumping up at the end of the movie and yelling, "don't actually quit your job and become really sexy and then blow up buildings, lolz!"

    Fight Club has an interesting parallel in Oedipus Tyrannus -- let me quickly insist that I am not about to commit an embarrassing psychosexual Freudian interpretation. Stay with me. Jonathan Lear has an interesting reading of Oedipus as fundamentally commenting on the attitude of 'knowingness': Oedipus's own actions can't make any sense by his own lights. One choice example: A drunk tells him he's not really the son of his parents, so he consults the Oracle, who tells him that he'll murder his father and marry his mother. If he really took the drunk seriously, as he must have in order to be driven to consult the oracle, what grounds does he have to flee from the very people whose parentage was cast into doubt?

    In Fight Club, Norton has what I take to be a modern parallel of Oedipus's knowingness. He knows that his behavior is manifestly strange. He's cynically aware--in fact, providing a running commentary on--his deceitful support group attendance, the meaninglessness of his job, his disturbance about Marla. But nothing goes beyond the surface. What do these things, these actions, mean to him? Later, how can he not know that he's running the show of Project Mayhem, except through profound self-blindness and splitting? Even in realizing his psychotic dissociation, his inability to metabolize the parts of himself that rebel against his quotidian existence, his only available solution at the end of the film is to kill off those threatening parts.

    Norton refuses to acknowledge Tyler's existence in himself. He refuses to take up, to find meaning in, any real aspect of his life -- is it any surprise that his character has no name? In the very drawing of the parallel to Oedipus, I'm highlighting the mythological arc to Fight Club (and Cookie Monster, in whose story it's clear that Gordon functions as Tiresias, lolz). Viewed that way, Fight Club doesn't introduce something to the viewer that wasn't already there, but riffs on an aspect in the viewer's own world that is more or less dynamically active. Those most drawn to Tyler Durden are, I would hazard, more likely to be those who are likely to act out his role in miniature in the first place. A conscious, external message of "don't really do that, that's not really cool -- honest, Brad Pitt isn't even that sexy anyway" cannot be experienced but as meaningless noise, precisely because the parts of the viewer's psyche that should be playing that role already are failing to do so. That viewer doesn't need a little Veggie Durden, but needs to find a way to learn about who Tyler Durden really is. To be able to interrogate the meaning of their own actions and actings out. An an external superego isn't going to help with that.