I stepped on an angel today. In a grumpy, atheistic way, during the “happy” holiday seasons, I didn’t care, but my four-year-old son, Archie, did. “Dad, you just killed an angel,” he said to me in his innocent worldview. As I picked up the pieces of the ceramic angel, I wondered what to say to him. Should I tell him the truth of reality or let him live for a few more years in childish safety? But, also, it began a wonder about literature and its foundational base of mythology, its later didactic value, and farther on to its present beauty of window/mirror perception of human experience, and to why had its possibilities of interconnectiveness led to what it has become?
With the angel pieces in the trash; “Dad, Star Wars is on TV,” came Archie’s next excitement, so we sat and watched the old movie. Its mythological modern value seemed to shout to me as I watched the simple story’s mythological plot of good versus evil. My son and I slapped his pretend light sabers at each other, fought our story fight with cries of “Got ya,” across the living room floor, and laughed in the joy of the imagined life and death struggle. I, of course, was Darth Vader (the bad guy) and Archie (my good-guy son) was Luke Skywalker. He stabbed me in the heart and I, in my coming death woes, pondered the question further; why does literature need conflict?
Could it be that the very existence of human experience is the struggle to survive: us against them? We, of course, are always the good guys, for it is our reality and those coming to take it from us must be the bad guys. This dialectical approach seemed obvious to me, for I’d been teaching Literature for years now and the knowledge that this language art has come from the liturgical exercises of religious belief systems was fully in my consciousness. But why has this mythological good versus evil been so consistent?
Could it be, as I have noted in other essays (if anyone’s ever read them) the polarized English language? When the word “good” is spoken to an audience that must respond without thinking, the word “bad” is always the unconscious response. The English language has a polarized approach to reality and, once we have the language as our perceptual “frame of reference,” we see reality as polarized. So then, does this shape the literature we create with this foundation? Or is it something more?
All literature must have conflict or it will not have character motivation. If a plot is “a causal sequence of events,” then the motivation of those events is conflict. I preach to my students that literature has to have one of four conflicts: person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. society, or person vs. nature, for without one of these conflicts there is no story, or poem, or drama. Can it, then be more than the language structure?
Can the need for conflict in literature be from the base of animal/human? For we are both; animal and thinking animal, so does that dualistic reality force the necessary conflict in literature? Or, in a more narrow sense, is it the ethnocentricness of each culture? Since our culture is, in the ethnocentric way, the correct way, then does that function as the drive for conflict in our/all literature?
Or is the conflict need from the human experience of the great fight in life? The fight through the birth canal is punctuated by a smack on the ass and then we begin crying for our needs to survive; so is that the human conditioning of conflict? So we begin having to fight and continue until we are fighting for the last breath of life?
Or in literature, does the audience need the conflict to hold their attention? The modern audience is an uneducated audience, and does the author need to present unsolvable dilemmas to hold such a mind? How many times have you heard the word “bored” in your daily life? The exclamation of this word is a scream of a dulled mind. I will not allow this word in my classes, for when one ignorantly cries of being bored, then that one is not a scholar, but a simpleton who can not think beyond the immediate. So is the conflict then to hold the simpleton norm of modern society to the story?
Archie takes his light saber and stabs me again, Darth Vader, in the heart and says, “You must turn from the dark side,” and I die on the living room floor, lying next to where the angel pieces were once on the carpet. I don’t have an absolute answer for the conflict question, but I know that all literature is driven by conflict or there is no story, no poem, or no drama; no literature. Archie cuts out my heart and holds it up in victory and yells to the kitchen, “I got ‘em, Mom.”
Wifey, Mom—the core of our family—who we are, calls into us, “Don’t you guys break anymore furniture. I don’t want to have to buy another lamp.” A new thought flashes: so, maybe it is the male female eternal conflict that drives conflict into literature? Or is it the lie in which Archie now lives that we, as adults, don’t want to acknowledge? Is conflict strictly an adult way of viewing the world?
I say to Archie our old joke, “Whatever Oedipus does, he wrecks.” We laugh—he has no idea why, and we roll on the living room floor, ignoring the natural conflict of life—angel pieces on the floor. Why does literature absolutely need conflict? The question rolls again in my mind. Sapere Aude.
The End, Written by Kim A. Rush, 2007