why we put ourselves through bleak art

We meet for a long delayed book club meeting later this week - the book in question is The Wasp Factory by Iain M Banks.

I’ve not finished the book so haven’t looked into it at all, beyond finding a quote calling it ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’.

It turns out that aside from the first book, Less by Andrew Sean Greer which did have its own moments of darkness, the books we’ve read have been universally bleak.

When this was pointed out by one of the group, it got me thinking about the art that I enjoy, the art that I find truly transformative.

I have a tendency towards bleak stuff. I love Fight Club, the related Mr Robot, Children of Men. I love a dystopia, a post-apocalyptia or a study in darkness. I loved My Absolute Darling, an exploration of survivalism in the face of sexual abuse. 12 Years A Slave was a masterpiece I’ll probably never watch again. I like harsh music like Yeezus, stylised harsh truths set over jarring beats and synths.

Why is bleak art appealing? Well a cursory search turned up a few interesting points:

Silvia Knoblock-Westerwick, the lead author of a research paper published at the Ohio State University states,

“People seem to use tragedies as a way to reflect on the important relationships in their own life, to count their blessings.”

Maybe my interest in bleakness isn’t actually an expression of deep-seated nihilism but is in fact a roundabout attempt to connect with my friends and family, to remind myself how lucky I am to have them.

Aristotle posited that tragedies are healthy because they force us to confront negative emotion, help us to purge ourselves of it. You can understand this when you look at Fight Club and the undoubtedly alluring philosophy of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden.


In some respects you envy this freedom, imagine what it would be like to blow it all up, like the narrator does his apartment and start anew, able to do anything you wanted.

The truth is though that this freedom is scary. To have nothing, to believe in the primacy of nothing is scary and it scares the narrator in the end. He rejects Tyler, blowing him out of his own head. Confronting Tyler, becoming the expression of his own id, makes him realise that these emotions are negative and that they are not what he wants. His method of purging them is admittedly extreme, but you can understand his journey as you feel the same emotions as a spectator.

“Tragedy is more important than love,” argued C.S. Lewis. “Out of all human events, it is tragedy alone that brings people out of their own petty desires and into awareness of other humans’ suffering. Tragedy occurs so we will learn to reach out and comfort others.”

Tragedy moves you outside of yourself, forces you to put things into perspective and appreciate that there are things bigger than yourself. I received what I felt was an asinine comment when discussing books some months ago, saying that ‘as a man, I couldn’t understand what it was like to be raped/murdered’ etc. When I pointed out that this person also couldn’t understand as they’d never experienced those things either, they got annoyed. I could never understand the travails of Solomon Northrup, of course I couldn’t, but watching the film moved me beyond me, imagining how he must have felt returning home and admiring the physical, emotional and mental fortitude that he must have developed to make it home.

In this respect, knowing that I’ll most likely never understand this experience allows me to feel a deep sense of gratitude. To know that we’re lucky, that the world is improving in many ways, that these things happen less and less, is a great gift that bleak art can give us. It reminds us that we should be thankful and not complacent. As history recedes and the news moves on, great art ensures that the lessons of the past are not forgotten.

At least there’s a decent reason that I’m putting myself through this book.