Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Paris in the Twentieth Century (1994)

"If no one read any longer, at least everyone could read, could even write."

This single sentence from the opening chapter most ably summarizes the theme of Jules Verne famous lost novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Originally written as one of his first novels sometime around 1863, it was rejected outright by his publisher, Jules Hetzel, who considered it inferior and implausible. Not implausible for its technological visions, but for its social vision.

Set in 1960, approximately a century after it was written, Paris in the Twentieth Century outlines a nightmarish future society of efficient mass transit, high education and literacy, financial affluence, industrious commerce, long life expectancy, and a worldwide telecommunications network all of which was still futuristic by 1960. His world is not dystopian in any actual sense of the term. In fact, it is quite like our own, which makes his critiques all the more prescient.

Verne's 20th century is unbearable because it is Philistine and bourgeoisie. Our protagonist is Michel, who has just graduated secondary school with the highest reward for Latin verse, much to the shame of his family. In this time, there is no use for art or letters. The only poetry worth reciting is in homage to the powers of capital. The only painting worth buying is the Jackson Pollock-style chaos of colour without form. The only music worth listening to is the cacophonous modern style that imitates the strum and drang of machinery. True art of form and harmony and skill is not actually suppressed... It does not need to be. It is simply ignored.

Verne's cynical genius, in this respect, was not predicting a global phototelegraphic network. Rather, it was predicting that universities would become glorified technical colleges with budgets for fine arts, languages and literature constantly on the chopping block. When Michel enjoys the likeminded company of his librarian uncle and former Latin professor, the latter bitterly complains that his rhetoric class only has three students and they are so bad at it that he doesn't mind the program being cut the following year.

These moments with his uncle and friends are few and far between. Unionization seems to have passed the 20th century by, so Michel can only get away from his deadening job at a bank on Sundays, and then only occasionally. He has little time for indulging his love of the dusty, unlent books kept in the library's cellar. Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, Chateaubriand, Voltaire, Pascal, Moliere and more authors described as the great generals in the army of French culture have gone the way of the French language itself: dead and dying beneath the demand for technical books and technical language. Twain observed that a classic was a book that everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read. In Verne's future, no one even wants to have read them.

On the contrary, to be an artist is a black mark, a scarlet letter. Calling oneself a poet or a musician is tantamount to calling oneself an imbecile, and they are treated as such. Precognitive of today's opinion columns and letters to the editor, artists are seen as less than useless. They are not only non-contributors to the economic wealth of the society, but active detractors for refusing to do "honest" labour. For example, Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper once infamously remarked that "Canadians don't care about art" and was, thankfully, put in his place by old-fashioned Conservatives who believe that a unique artistic identity is worth conserving. However, that has not stopped his government from quietly cutting funding to the arts, nor his party's neo-liberals from complaining that artists should have to support themselves with their own work and not get government "hand-outs"... while at the same time crying for more "subsidies" and "incentives" to the industrial sector. Across the Western world, when priorities shift to industry and commerce, the arts are the first to go.

Verne is a romantic at heart, and it is interesting to see this approach to things when he, practically single-handed, invented the genre of Scientific Romances. Through the course of Paris in the Twentieth Century, Verne aligns himself strongly with the Romantics. When Michel's uncle is giving a discourse on literature, it is the likes of Victor Hugo who receive the greatest commendations (and several mentions throughout). However, he does not align himself as much with Romantic music. Michel's closest coworker is a musician forced to make a living working the bank's metres-tall and metres-wide ledger book. When the musician gives a symposium on popular song, he speaks approvingly of early Romantics like Beethoven and Offenbach but condemns Wagner and Verdi as the inventors of everything wrong with music in the 20th century.

Despite his reputation, Verne was not uncritical of advances in science and technology. He was not a relentless optimist. His motif was to keenly recognize the inherent possibilities of technological development, both in terms of the technologies themselves and of their social application. He foresaw the potential of technology for advancement and for destruction, for progress and regress, from the possibility of mental expansion in a world collapsed to a circumnavigation of a mere 80 days to the threat of unopposable force in hands of governments and revolutionaries. In Paris in the Twentieth Century the conflict is not that technology is necessarily ruinous. His fear, in the wake of his own stints as a banker and playwright, is a society in which commerce and industry has become the unofficial religion.

Perhaps quite intentionally, given Verne's second-nature as a pedagogue, Paris in the Twentieth Century is a catalogue for the aspiring Romantic. Nested within the lists rattled off by Michel's friends and relations is a plea to pick up the classics and read them. Verne obviously wants his readers to also read Victor Hugo. The soundtrack to his work is not rock music about air pirates, but Jacques Offenbach, who himself adapted one of Verne's stories into an operetta in 1877. So interesting, then, that the lost novel should have resurfaced in the midst of the very sort of world he predicted, almost as a corrective letter from the past.

1 comment:

tantalus1970 said...

It's a decent piece of work. I can't actually remember the whole book all that well, just a couple of passages and the ending.

I'm kind of glad it was rejected. If it had succeeded, I think his literary career would have gone in a different direction, or if it had failed, alternatively nowhere.