What valiant foemen, like to autumn's corn,
Have we mow'd down, in tops of all their pride!--
HENRY VI, Part III, Act 5, Scene 7.
In my initial meditations on the nature of combative and subcombative modes, I treated them in terms of narrative values. In those early essays my sole consideration was whether or not the narrative centered around a literal combat. This consideration speaks to narrative structure but not its reception by the audience partaking of the narrative.
Later I realized that Kant’s two categories of “the sublime”—that is, “might” and “dominance”-- possessed broad applicability to the audience’s responses to the narrative; responses in which audience-members felt emotions of awe or wonder in the presence of exceptional dynamicity. I will now label these experiences of sublimity “significant values.” They do not come about by accident, but because the artist of the work hopes to draw forth such emotions in his audience. Both “might” and “dominance” encourage the audience to identify with entities or conditions of exceptional dynamicity. In most of my examples I’ve cited entities or conditions whose dynamicity is of a metaphenomenal nature, but the same operations of sublimity pertain to isophenomenal narratives, as I demonstrated in the NUM-INOUS CONFRONTATIONS essays.
My first example of a combative narrative was William Shakespeare’s MACBETH, where the entire narrative tension builds to the climactic combat of Macbeth and Macduff. I still assert that MACBETH is a combative work, in terms of its narrative values.
But does the play possess a combative significant value? Most of Macbeth’s murders are committed in stealth, not in battle, whether by him or by proxies. It’s true that Macbeth and his fated enemy Macduff are both presented as courageous, doughty warriors. Minutes before encountering Macduff, Macbeth slays a young soldier named Siward. When Macbeth fights Macduff and finally learns that the latter is his destined bane, Macbeth still refuses surrender.
Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damned be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!
--MACBETH, Act 5, Scene 8.
However, I can find nothing in the play that makes the two characters “exceptional” in their dynamicity. They are good fighters, without a doubt, but not necessarily exceptional. Lacking that dynamicity, both the characters and and the play lack the significant value of combative sublimity. If there is sublimity in MACBETH, it arises not from the audience's watching the characters locked in combat, but from beholding the pitiless fate that raises Macbeth up and then casts him down.
MACBETH is a play with what I term “marginal metaphenomenality,” due to the prophecies of the witches. However, no such metaphenomenal content appears in CORIOLANUS. At its outset this play seems to be building to a climactic combat between Roman general Caius Marcius Coriolanus and Volscian general Aufidius, who have fought on the battlefield so often that they go out of their way to best one another whenever possible. In Act I, scene 6, Coriolanus praises his enemy’s might as being beyond the pale of his own common soldiers:
none of you but is
Able to bear against the great Aufidius
A shield as hard as his.
One scene later, the two generals fight. To Coriolanus’ demand that the Volscian “wrench up thy power to the highest,” Aufidius shoots back:
Wert thou the Hector
That was the whip of your bragg'd progeny,
Thou shouldst not scape me here.
Can one view these allusions to superhuman status as indicators that either opponent is superhuman? Certainly not. But the utterance of such allusions—coupled with the fact that these two have repeatedly fought before, with neither man prevailing—suggests that they are, within an isophenomenal context, exceptional. Thus the significant value of combative dominance does appear within the sphere of CORIOLANUS.
However, there is no narrative combative value here. Despite the suggestions that these enemies may finally sort out the question of superiority by play’s end, CORIOLANUS is, unlike MACBETH, not centered around a combat. Instead, Coriolanus’ arrogance brings about his disaffection from his fellow Romans, leading to a temporary alliance with Aufidius and the Volscians, and finally to an ignomious demise rather than a heroic confrontation.
So, to recap:
MACBETH= narrative combative value YES significant combative value NO
CORIOLANUS= narrative combative value NO significant combative value YES
Though there’s a great deal of violence and vengeance in Shakespeare, most of it does not pursue the combative mode with respect to either narrative or subjective values. If one should desire (for symmetry’s sake) a canonical literary work that contains both a narrative and a significant combative value, one would probably have to settle for one of the most Shakespeare-influenced works in the canon, Herman Melville’s MOBY DICK. Melville’s novel takes place within the realm of the uncanny, where the characters exist in what purports to be a naturalistic environment, yet everyone partcipates in weird rites, strange portents, and so on. On one level Ahab and the White Whale are merely mortal beings; on another, they are sublime presences, with Ahab taking the persona of the Satanic over-reacher attempting to “break through the mask” of inscrutable Deity, represented by the cetacean, who remains unfathomable even after Ishmael has attempted to break him down into his species down into its constituent parts.
In RISING AND FALLING STARS I established that it was possible for a work to fall into a given mythoi-category (say, “adventure”) even if one of its two major aspects—“plot” or “character” aligned better with another mythos. This would only be the case when the “adventure-plot” dominated over the “drama-characters,” my chosen example being that of the James Robinson STARMAN.
In a similar manner, narrative values can trump significant values in terms of determining whether or not a work is combative. Based on that assertion, I would say that MACBETH remains a “combative drama” even though it lacks the significant value of sublime dominance between two contending forces. In contrast, I would not consider CORIOLANUS combative in that I feel the subcombative narrative values predominate. As I continue to consider other cases I will probably come across examples where the reverse verdict proves true for each example.
In conclusion (of this series), I’ll note that I’ve not yet applied this distinction to any of the movies I labeled as “combative” on my movie-theory blog NATURALISTIC UNCANNY MARVELOUS. Off the top of my head I would guess that most of those thus far cited share both narrative and significant combative values. Possibly I’ll review my past estimations further in light of these new formulations.