The struggle of literature


It is almost axiomatic that a good story and a good novel need a good conflict. The idea of a struggle driving the narrative forward seems too obvious to explain. But why should it be thus? Why should the contest, what the ancient Greeks used to call agon, be so fundamental to literature? Why isn’t the victory dance enough? Why do we need to tell the story of the battle and not just list the winners and the losers? Why is the tenacity of the storm so much more appealing than the cloudless sky?

The first articulation of the conflict as the detonator of a plot was made by Aristotle. Before him, however, the ancient Greek philosophers we now call Pre-Socratic were more interested in the nature of being than in that of emplotment. They seized the idea that the underlying principle of life is one big struggle, a clash of elements and properties, percolating from the most fundamental to the most minute details in nature. For Anaximander (6th century BC), the four primary elements are in deep conflict. For Empedocles (5th century BC), strife is the counterweight to love in explaining the variation and harmony in nature. According to Heraclitus (5th century BC), everything is constantly changing because everything is constantly struggling against itself, exhibiting opposing tendencies. 

Struggle is built into the fabric of the universe. The conflict is the norm and the resolution the exception. While every conflict tends towards disentanglement, not every conflict crosses the finish line. Fiction picked up on this insight and weaved it in its storytelling fabric. Everything is a struggle, a battle. The fifth-century Christian poet Prudentius opposes vices and virtues in his Psychomachia, which translates as the Struggle of the Soul, from makhē meaning battle or conflict. The makhē is the ingredient from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (both being essentially a makhē of their protagonists, struggling against themselves, the gods and the world) to the present day. Ulysses’ son was called Telemachus, which means ‘far from battle’, but a Telemachia could easily have been written. 


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