In this classic NERVE essay, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk proposes a new religion. One that recasts the spell of a good narrative as divine. It first appeared on NERVE in 2005.
In 1998, while in Los Angeles for the filming of Fight Club, I went with friends to the Getty Museum. All those antiquities, the decorative objects, all the galleries of stuff being looked at by hushed tourists, my friends and me. That endless parade of masterpieces, it was too much. Grinding, the way a day of yard sales can be grinding as your eyes find a name for each object, a place in history, a story. Too many famous stories butted together on that hilltop above Los Angeles.
Of course, I turned that day into a story.
In the 1970s, during my childhood, museums were more hands-on. You went to galleries to destroy fine art. You took a sledgehammer and mashed the nose of the Pieta. Or you kissed a picture and left lipstick. You tried to spray paint the Mona Lisa, or planted a bomb that would trash some Miros. These days, of course, the Getty had guards and Plexiglas and motion detectors.
So wandering with my friends, I asked them: “Instead of stealing or attacking established art — what if some frustrated artist tried to sneak his paintings into the world’s museums?” This artist would paint each picture, matte and frame it, put two-sided mounting tape on the back and wrap the picture inside his trench coat. He’d arrive like us, then open his coat and stick his work on a wall, right there among the Picassos and Renoirs.
This little yarn became a short story called “Ambition” and a screenplay. The story, about an artist desperate to find his place in history, I wrapped into a novel called Haunted.
This May, “Ambition” and Haunted will be published.
On March 13, the Metropolitan Museum of Art found a lovely, gold-framed portrait of a woman wearing a gas mask, stuck on the wall of their gallery. On March 16, the Brooklyn Museum found a portrait of an eighteenth-century military officer holding a can of spray paint. The Museum of Modern Art found a painting on March 17, depicting a can of cream-of-tomato soup. The Louvre and the Tate museums have found similar paintings stuck on their walls.
According to the New York Times, this is the work of a British graffiti artist named Banksy, who wears a trench coat and fake beard as he hangs his work among the masterpieces.
A coincidence? Or, are we more the same person than we’d like to admit? My thoughts are so much your thoughts that they hardly qualify as mine. The darkest fantasy you keep buried, someone else will get rich, singing about on the radio.
Is it better to hide your dark idea and hope that all other people do the same, or to depict and share that dark idea?
While writing Fight Club, I talked to friends about the idea of a movie projectionist splicing porn into family films. One friend told me not to use the idea, saying it would prompt people to salt porn into everything. When the book was published, countless people wrote to tell me they’d already been splicing sex into Disney films, pissing into restaurant food, or starting fight clubs. For decades.
Still, do we do more damage when we share our dark fantasies – when we explore them through a story or song or picture? Or when we deny them?
Stories are how human beings digest their lives: by making events into something we can repeat and control, telling them until they’re exhausted. Until they no longer get a laugh or gasp or teary eye. Until we can absorb, assimilate even those worst events. Our culture, it digests events by making lesser and lesser versions of the original. After a ship sinks or a bomb explodes — the Original Tragedy — then we have the news version, the television movie version, the talk radio versions, the blog versions, the video game, the Franklin Mint Commemorative Plate versions, the McDonalds Happy Meal version, the one-liner reference on The Simpsons. Echoes that fade.
Then, like the funny story you used to tell at parties, the story that would always get laughs, about how you took acid and ate half a fur coat one night, we stop telling that story. NOT because it stops making people laugh — but because we’ve digested the event. It’s resolved, and telling that story in any form no longer serves the teller.
Maybe why Radiohead no longer plays “Creep” in concert.
Maybe it’s why we dream — compulsively telling stories, processing our experience like the food in our guts, even while we sleep.
But the stories we’re afraid to tell, to control, to craft — they never wear out, and they kill us.
At least this is what I tell my friends when they ask me to shut up. To not give people any new ideas. This is my story about telling stories about telling stories. My way to digest what I do.
I tell people: The sooner we can tell a story, the quicker we can wear it out and make it a cliché, then the less power the idea will have.
Until the past century, religions used to give us a place to tell even our worst stories. Depict our most-terrible intentions. Once each week, you could turn your sins into a story and tell them to your peers. Or to a leader, who’d forgive you and accept you back into your community. Each week, you confessed, you were forgiven, and you received communion. You never strayed too far outside the group because you had this regular release. Maybe the most important aspect of salvation is having this forum, this permission and audience, for expressing our lives as a story.
But as church becomes a place where people go to look good — instead of being the one, safe place where they could risk looking bad — we’re losing that regular storytelling forum. And the salvation, redemption and communion it allows.
Instead, now people go to therapy groups, twelve-step recovery groups, chat rooms, phone-sex hotlines, even writers workshops, to turn their lives and crimes into stories, express them, craft them, and in doing so be recognized by their peers. Brought back into the flock for another week. Accepted.
With this in mind: Our need to turn even the darkest parts of life — especially the darkest parts — into stories… our need to tell those stories to our peers… and our need to be heard, forgiven and accepted by our community . . . how about we start a new religion?
We could call this the “Church of Story.” It would be a performance place where people could exhaust their stories, in words or music or sculpture. A school where people could learn craft skills that would give them more control over their story, and thus their life. This would be a place where people could step out of their lives and reflect, be detached enough to recognize a boring pattern or irrational fears or a weak character and begin to change that. To edit and rewrite their future. If nothing else, this could be a place where people would vent and be heard, and at that point maybe move forward.
It would be a forum safe enough for you to look terrible. Express terrible ideas.
In modern history, frustrated, powerless people have turned to churches. During the last years of segregation, people found each other in churches and recognized they weren’t alone. Their personal problems were not only their own.
This “Church of Story” would give people a forum for connecting. Here, we’d have a regular time and place and permission to tell stories to each other. Instead of ignoring this need or fulfilling it at Starbucks in the window of time created by a cappuccino — or wearing a fake beard and gluing our story on the wall of an art gallery — we could give people the permission and structure they need to gather. To tell stories. To tell better stories. To tell great stories. To live great lives.