Featured Post


In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Sunday, August 12, 2012


The flat ground rose imperceptibly. We kept walking along with long strides, helped by our sticks. Our process was slow, however, since our feet kept sinking into a sort of thick mud and a growth of seaweeds dotted with flat rocks.
The ground became rocky; Medusae, microscopic crustacean, and pennatules made that soil shine with a faint glow of phosphorescence. I could make out the outlines of heaps of rocks, covered with a carpet of millions of zoophytes and masses of seaweed.
The rosy glow that guided us was growing brighter and lighting up the horizon. I was greatly intrigued by the presence of this fiery beacon under the sea.
Our path was becoming brighter and brighter. The whitish glow came from a peak of a mountain about eight hundred feet height. But what I saw was just a reflection produced by the crystal clarity of the water. The actual source of this inexplicable light was on the other side of the mountain.
Captain Nemo advanced unhesitatingly through the maze of rocks that crisscrossed the bottom of the ocean.
Before beginning our climb, we had to walk along some difficult paths through a vast expanse of brushwood. Yes, it was a forest of dead trees, without lives and without sap, petrified by the water of the sea, dominated here and there by gigantic pines.-- Jules Verne, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.
 Since I've recently completed a re-reading of Verne's LEAGUES-- arguably one of the author's three most famous works-- it occurs to me that the novel might serve as a means of further illustrating the three levels of "dynamicity," as I've defined it in DYNAMIS VS. DYNAMICITY.

I noted in that essay that I had inadvertently followed the lead of Professor Frye in conflating these two abstract concepts, and asserted that from now on *dynamis* would be used in my essays to connote what Frye calls a given character's "power of action."  (What I say of "characters" here also applies across the board to the broader set of *focal presences.*)  Thus the use I made of the term in MIGHT VS. DOMINANCE was by my current standards incorrect:

Dynamis= any kind of energy
Might= an energy which to some degree is "superior" to some unspecified lesser forces
Dominance= a superior energy which specifically arises from conflict

By my revised standards, the first term should be *dynamicity.*  This would include all forms of narrative "energy," from the lowest level to the highest. In the DYNAMICITY essay I specified three levels of energy-- "exceptional," "good-to-fair," and "fair-to-poor"-- all of which cry out for better terms.

The lowest form of energy, what encompasses "fair-to-poor" is best conceived as energy almost at rest, on the level of a coral bed simply growing in place, or of Harvey Pekar making lemonade.

 This category doesn't obviate *all* forms of conflict, but those that appear are, as I indicated at the conclusion of DYNAMICITY, don't rise to the energetic level suggested by Kant's concept of "might."  One example, mentioned in MIGHT VS. DOMINANCE, would be the back-and-forth lamp-stealing in ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP, with Aladdin himself standing as an example of what I called a "z-type" character.

This level of energy I will term the "microdynamic* level.

The "middle" form of energy, Kant's "might," does depend on one form of energy establishing unquestionable superiority over another, with the implication that there is not much of a struggle between the superior force and the inferior force.  In MIGHT VS. DOMINANCE I implied that the demonstration of the flying horse's power in THIEF OF BAGDAD might be used as an example of Kantian "might," but now I tend to regard that in the lower category.  A better example, returning to Verne's LEAGUES once again, would be the Nautilus' slaughter of the sperm whales, whom Nemo hates, perhaps as stand-ins for human predators:

What a struggle! Ned Land quickly grew enthusiastic and even ended up applauding. Brandished in its captain's hands, the Nautilus was simply a fearsome harpoon. He hurled it at those fleshy masses and ran them clean through, leaving behind two squirming animal halves. As for those daunting strokes of the tail hitting our sides, the ship never felt them. No more than the collisions it caused. One sperm whale exterminated, it ran at another, tacked on the spot so as not to miss its prey, went ahead or astern, obeyed its rudder, dived when the cetacean sank to deeper strata, rose with it when it returned to the surface, struck it head–on or slantwise, hacked at it or tore it, and from every direction and at any speed, skewered it with its dreadful spur.
What bloodshed! What a hubbub on the surface of the waves! What sharp hisses and snorts unique to these frightened animals! Their tails churned the normally peaceful strata into actual billows.
This Homeric slaughter dragged on for an hour, and the long–skulled predators couldn't get away. Several times ten or twelve of them teamed up, trying to crush the Nautilus with their sheer mass. Through the windows you could see their enormous mouths paved with teeth, their fearsome eyes. Losing all self–control, Ned Land hurled threats and insults at them. You could feel them clinging to the submersible like hounds atop a wild boar in the underbrush. But by forcing the pace of its propeller, the Nautilus carried them off, dragged them under, or brought them back to the upper level of the waters, untroubled by their enormous weight or their powerful grip.
Finally this mass of sperm whales thinned out. The waves grew tranquil again. I felt us rising to the surface of the ocean. The hatch opened and we rushed onto the platform.
The sea was covered with mutilated corpses. A fearsome explosion couldn't have slashed, torn, or shredded these fleshy masses with greater violence. We were floating in the midst of gigantic bodies, bluish on the back, whitish on the belly, and all deformed by enormous protuberances. A few frightened sperm whales were fleeing toward the horizon. The waves were dyed red over an area of several miles, and the Nautilus was floating in the middle of a sea of blood.

Clearly in this passage the beasts, though powerful in their own right, have no defense against Nemo's mighty submarine. This level of energy expressed in this scene would characterize the Nautilus and its master as "Y-types" if that were the highest level expressed in the entire novel.

This level I term the *mesodynamic.*

Only once in the novel does the Nautilus meet an opponent that proves "exceptional" enough to challenge the powerful machine. That opponent appears in Chapter 18, and to my recollections its big scene usually appears in most cinematic adaptations of the book:

It was a squid of colossal dimensions, fully eight meters long. It was traveling backward with tremendous speed in the same direction as the Nautilus. It gazed with enormous, staring eyes that were tinted sea green. Its eight arms (or more accurately, feet) were rooted in its head, which has earned these animals the name cephalopod; its arms stretched a distance twice the length of its body and were writhing like the serpentine hair of the Furies. You could plainly see its 250 suckers, arranged over the inner sides of its tentacles and shaped like semispheric capsules. Sometimes these suckers fastened onto the lounge window by creating vacuums against it. The monster's mouth—a beak made of horn and shaped like that of a parrot—opened and closed vertically. Its tongue, also of horn substance and armed with several rows of sharp teeth, would flicker out from between these genuine shears. What a freak of nature! A bird's beak on a mollusk! Its body was spindle–shaped and swollen in the middle, a fleshy mass that must have weighed 20,000 to 25,000 kilograms. Its unstable color would change with tremendous speed as the animal grew irritated, passing successively from bluish gray to reddish brown.

The giant squid does what none of the forces of surface-dwelling humans can do: it stops the Nautilus, forcing Nemo and his allies to leave the submarine and fight off both the first squid as well as many other "devilfish" that come to its aid.   Nemo's forces prevail, and thus Nemo-- who is called a "superman" twice in Anthony Bonner's translation-- can be fairly described as an "x-type," an exceptional focal character.

This, the highest form of energy, I term the *megadynamic.*

This level compares well with Kant's concept of "dominance," in the terms he specifies in CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT:

Might is called dominance if it is superior even to the resistance of something that itself possesses might.

It's possible that had Kant been around to read Verne, he might have termed Nemo's slaughter of the sperm whales to be "dominance."  However, in my analysis of narrative dynamics, I find that the *megadynamic* mode better describes the situation of a hero (or other focal presence) entering into combat with an equal or near-equal, rather than in combat with a relatively powerless foe.

Since I've also used Batman as one of my examples in DYNAMICITY, I might also use him here for three more visual examples.

Here's Batman in the *microdynamic* mode, basically keeping his energies "at rest" as he spooks an officious detractor:

Here's Batman in the *mesodynamic* mode, easily thrashing a handful of thugs, as per the Nautilus easily vanquishing a pod of hungry sperm whales:

And here's Batman in *megadynamic* mode, going up against an equally exceptional opponent, even if that opponent's talents are not specifically oriented on hand-to-hand fighting as Batman's are:

 In a future essay I'll relate these three levels of dynamicity to the more general concept of *sublimity,* which I relate to science fiction's "sense of wonder"-- of which Verne's book is a leading exemplar.

ADDENDA: Just to clarify the last part of this essay a bit more, I'm not defining the Caped Crusader himself by any of these dynamic modes, only the particular actions he takes at a given time. 

No comments: