Through November we'll revisit the French tradition in the shape of Jules Verne, illustrator Gustave Doré, and scientist-philosopher Jules Henri Poincaré. Our anniversary also gives us an opportunity to once more meditate on the purposes behind Voyages Extraordinaires and the meaning of Scientific Romances.
In response to Randy Nakamura's Steampunk'd, or Humbug by Design, one proponent of Steampunk culture explained the attraction by saying,
This world we've made for ourselves is devoid of wonder. Our tech is sterile, soulless, and impersonal. Sometimes the monotony of it presses in so close it's hard to breathe. Which is why we tell stories.
When challenged, the same same user elaborated,
Perhaps I meant that no matter where we stand, we always know what lies over the next ridge. Googlemaps will tell us. Or we'll buy a Rand McNally product for 3.99 at the gas station. There's no discovery to be made on an individual level.
The loss of "Terra Incognita," the blank spots on the map, is not a new one. Nearly a century before, at the close of the Edwardian Era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle discussed it in his novel The Lost World:
"Do you think, Sir, that you could possibly send me on some mission for the paper? I would do my best to put it through and get you some good copy."
"What sort of meesion had you in your mind, Mr. Malone?"
"Well, Sir, anything that had adventure and danger in it. I really would do my very best. The more difficult it was, the better it would suit me."
"You seem very anxious to lose your life."
"To justify my life, Sir."
"Dear me, Mr. Malone, this is very--very exalted. I'm afraid the day for this sort of thing is rather past. The expense of the 'special meesion' business hardly justifies the result, and, of course, in any case it would only be an experienced man with a name that would command public confidence who would get such an order. The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, and there's no room for romance anywhere..."
Conan Doyle's solution was to create a blank spot by sending Edward Malone off with Professor Challenger to discover a plateau in South America filled with living dinosaurs. The rest of us in the real world are not so lucky.
However, one of the fundamental premises of this weblog is that the loss of romance caused by those filled-in spots on the map, by Rand-McNally and Google, is not an objective fact but a subjective perspective. Yes, the blank spots on the map have been filled in and that much is a fact, but how you react to that is another matter entirely. There most certainly is room left for individual discovery. If it were not so, we would truly be dead and there would be no more purpose to life.
Consider that we live in the Information Age, where nearly all information on every subject can be found at our fingertips with naught but a search engine or an online journal archive. That in itself should be amazing enough. Yet how many of us have actually availed ourselves of this opportunity to become Renaissance Women and Men? Consider that we can easily find satellite photographs and detailed road maps for nearly any place on earth. Yet how many of us have even explored vicariously through those maps, let alone actually been to those places? Project Gutenberg has placed every classic work of literature in an inexhaustible library, yet Mark Twain's sly adage that "a classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read" is truer than ever.
The loss of romance and wonder in the world is entirely a matter of perspective. We may opt to be cynical and jaded and believe that the world doesn't have a new trick to show us, so we'll invent one by dressing up in costumes to pass the time. Or we may come to grasp the great truism that any place you have not actually been to is a blank spot on the map, any piece of information you have not learned is uncharted territory. In the words of our prophet G.K. Chesterton: "The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder."
Alienated with their societies, many will strike off for the furthest corners of the world where they can "go native" with peoples untouched by Western globalization... These same people will more likely than not be ignorant of the culture and history of their own backyards. Many will say that history is boring even though, when asked, they cannot with any clarity recite a single significant fact about it. It reminds one of the religious studies student who passes on the class in Judaism, Christianity and Islam because they think by virtue of being a Westerner, watching the news and being made to attend church on Easter and Christmas that they know all there is to know. They opt for the class in Eastern religions because they are exotic and exciting, but when they get around to Western religions, they discover that they really knew nothing at all about them and everything they thought they knew was wrong.
The premise of Voyages Extraordinaires is not that the world is an empty, closed-in space and that our only escape is through reinventing nostalgia in the funerary dance-macabre of declining modernity. We spend time winding our way through fictional stories of romantic past because they retune our minds to look at the present world in a new perspective. What we are doing is learning about our world through the lens of our history, moving into the future without leaving our culture and traditions behind. As Walt Disney said,
I go right straight out for the adult. As I say, for the honest adult. Not the sophisticates. Not these characters that think they know everything and you can't thrill them anymore. I go for those people that retain that something, you know, no matter how old they are; that little spirit of adventure, that appreciation of the world of fantasy and things like that. I go for them.
If someone leaves this weblog refreshed and invigorated to investigate their past, learn something new or visit someplace they haven't been - even one right down the street - then we have done our job.
Once more we appeal to Chesterton, who illustrates this point by picking on poor old Pimlico:
A local pageant ought to be a festival of real local patriotism, which is one of the finest things in the world. It ought to be concerned with the real pride of real people in their town. Therefore, it ought never to consist of mere dead history; but, as far as possible, of living traditions. Legends should be honoured, if the legends are really current; lies should be honoured, if the lies are really told. Old wives’ tales should be represented, if the old wives really tell them. But mere historical coincidences of place and person, the mere fact that such-and-such a man did stand for a moment in such-and-such a spot — these we do not require in a popular pageant. Suppose they have a pageant in Pimlico — I hope they will. Then let Pimlico lift up in its pride anything that it is really proud of, if it be only the parish pump or the public-house sign. Let Pimlico parade whatever Pimlico delights to honour, whether it is its best donkey, its blackest chimney-sweep, or even its member of Parliament. That is all dignified and reasonable. But it is not reasonable to send somebody to read up dry history until he discovers that William Wallace stopped three minutes at Pimlico on his way to execution, or that on the spot now occupied by the Pimlico Police-court Caractacus made a speech to the blue and bellowing Britons. There is no patriotism in the thought that some alien and uninteresting person stood on the soil of Pimlico before Pimlico existed. The parish has no living legend of the thing. Whatever be the cause of that faint poetic melancholy that does seem to hover over Pimlico, it cannot be referred to any regrets at the fate of William Wallace. However blue the modern Britons may look and feel in that district, it has no connection with the blueness of ancient Britons. There is no true Pimlico sentiment in celebrating names which can be discovered in the British Museum Library, but cannot be discovered in Pimlico. If Pimlico has any real memories, I care not of what, of prizefighters or dandies, or gentlemen deservedly hanged, let her celebrate those traditions. If she has none, let her celebrate what is happening to her now, that at least she may have some traditions in the future.
It is simple to look on history with a nostalgia that wipes away the atrocities and misfortunes of it, imagining that it was somehow gilded in more than gold leaf. It is also simple to be entirely negative on it, thinking that it is all the stinking offal of cities and soot and poverty. It is a better thing to engage that history and understand how it has shaped us, our society, our families, to forgive and rectify the bad and the celebrate the good, true and beautiful... To understand history not as merely the lineage of things in the past, but as culture still living. That is as difficult and exciting a journey as any taken to a farflung region of the world.
Terra Incognita, the land unknown, is perhaps essential to the mental health and imagination of humanity. It spurs us onwards to improve ourselves and our understanding of the world. This unknown land, however, is not a physical location... It is not a place in our world but a place in our minds. Where there be dragons are the inconceivably vast untapped expanses of our learning and experience. Take a close inward look and see how much you do not know of the world around you and your place in its history. Then strike out to explore.