At the heart of every story lies a universal theme: good versus evil. The way it manifests may vary greatly, but it will be present in its many forms across all genres of fiction. To achieve the happy ending, our heroes must conquer the evil. In the tragedy, it is the evil that does the conquering. Even in humorous writing, there will be some sort of obstacle to overcome (evil) despite the comedy playing out on the pages. And because it is even present in such ‘happy’ stories, we call it conflict instead of good versus evil.
This ability to conceive the idea of evil –of suffering– is unique to human beings. Cattle, for example, don’t think ahead of time about what they will encounter upon entering the slaughterhouse. Everyone, every single one of us that has ever lived has experienced suffering and evil. Why then, are we drawn to it in our books, music and art? Because let’s be honest, we are drawn to it. Even when there isn’t a positive outcome vis-a-vis the hero vanquishing the villain, the happily-ever-after romance, the underdog team winning the game at the buzzer. Think Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath.
In music, an entire genre –The Blues– arose from the experience of African American slaves in the Deep South.
Some of the greatest individual works of art as well as whole artistic movements are heavy with dread: Hieronymus Bosch, for example; Georgio de Chirico, Edward Munch, and Kay Sage are others.
For the writer, composer or artist, their art itself can be a coping mechanism. The especially gifted will tell you they are compelled to create. Without this release of creativity, they would go mad. Some ‘go mad’ anyway –the inability to manage the melancholy, the internal (or external/physical suffering) then leads to self destruction– while others are able to harness the dread and put it back in its cage when they’ve made use of it.
When we the observer, are drawn to this outlet for pain, on some level we recognize the dread lurking within. “That,” we say, “is how I feel.” “This happened to me.” “I am hurting, confused, scared, angry, desperate, lonely too.” Whatever the medium, we see in it, a mirror of our own experience. So because conflict and suffering IS the common experience of all mankind, artistic expression of that experience resonates strongly with every one of us. Art isn’t always pretty, but it is successful if it makes you feel something.