Wednesday 27 June 2018

Jules Verne: A Literary Pilgrimage

Few Disney live-action films have enjoyed the enduring legacy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Just as Jules Verne's works entered the public domain, Walt Disney took a gamble on fashioning that novel into his studio's first big-budget, Hollywood-made, live-action film. It was a gamble that paid off beyond anyone's wildest expectations. Walt, director Richard Fleischer, and screenwriter Earl Felton used the backdrop of Verne's original story to meditate on the anxieties of the Atomic Age. They captured the fears and hopes of a generation, and did so on a grand scale, with Cinemascope-sized screen, larger-than-life charismatic actors, beautiful underwater photography, and sheer spectacle. In so doing, Walt Disney helped create a new image of Jules Verne… Verne the icon of optimistic futurism.

Walt and Verne, the two optimists. Photo: Disney.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea spawned a whole genre of movies based on Verne's work, including Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), Ray Harryhausen’s Mysterious Island (1961), and Disney's own In Search of the Castaways (1962). His adventures also translated well into three dimensions. Disneyland opened in 1955 with an exhibit of props from the film, which had originally been slated for the Opera House on Main Street U.S.A., the "opening act" of the park designed to draw guests into a sense of childlike nostalgia. That location would have reinforced 20,000 Leagues presentation of atomic anxiety as an artifact of history. Instead it ended up in Tomorrowland (mostly because of that area's pressing need for cheap attractions) where it still implicitly reinforced the idea of Verne as ultimately belonging to a happy, healthy, hopeful future. Further attractions opened with each new theme park built by the Disney company, most recently as a Tiki bar in Walt Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort. 

We come most poignantly in touch with Verne the icon at Disneyland Paris. When designing the park, Imagineers were careful to highlight the connections between French culture and Disney product, no doubt in part to appease France's cultural gatekeepers who were wary of such American "lowbrow" entertainments. The effect conveys an intriguing sense that this is not simply a Disneyland in another language, but that Disney is, in many respects, "coming home" to Europe. Fantasyland has a statue of Cinderella dedicated to Charles Perrault, the Phantom of the Phantom Manor recalls the Phantom of the Opera, and Discoveryland is a version of Tomorrowland based in the Retro-Futurism of Jules Verne. Until 2004, guests could join Verne on a time-travelling adventure in Le Visionarium, soar to the moon in Space Mountain: De la terre à la lune, and investigate the Mysteries of the Nautilus. Discoveryland recreated the colourful atmosphere of an Exposition Universelle like those hosted by Paris in 1889 and 1900, directed by Jules Verne's visionary technological prophecies. Unfortunately Le Visionarium closed in 2004 and Space Mountain was (needlessly) renovated to purge Vernian imagery from its interior in 2005. The Nautilus remains, as does a touching monument to Verne that quotes his famous line: "Tout ce qui est dans la limite du possible doit être et sera accompli"... "All that is within the limits of the possible should be and will be done."

“Tout ce qui est dans la limite du possible doit être et sera accompli”

Disney's adaptations of Verne's stories in theme park and celluloid appealed to, and helped create, the author as a symbol of Nineteenth century optimism and futurism. Nevertheless, the Nautilus of the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a unique creation of Harper Goff's and the Columbiad in Disneyland Paris is far more picturesque than the purely functional cannon described in literature. This visualization is stunningly beautiful, as is the park it is situated in, and it is enjoyable and entertaining in its own right, though one must inevitably be aware that it is a myth constructed over time. Le Visionarium was not based on any one Verne book, but instead the conceit of taking Verne on a trip through time to show how he prophesied the fantastic inventions of the present day. Disneyland Paris distills for us the image of Verne the icon. This Verne is, ultimately, the precursor of Walt Disney's own optimistic futurism exemplified in his original vision for Tomorrowland.

Not far from Disneyland Paris, however, we meet Jules Verne the author, Verne the husband and father and civil servant, and Verne the very mortal man with an immortal imagination and Divine hope. An hour on one of France’s high-speed trains takes you from Paris to the charming city of Amiens, in the Picardie region, a short distance from the shores of the English Channel, where one still finds La Maison de Jules Verne.

Jules Verne's mansion against the background of modern Amiens.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole

Though born in Nantes in 1828 and living amidst the hustle, bustle and literary-artistic culture of Paris when he wrote his first novels, Verne's association with Amiens began in 1856 when he attended the wedding of a friend. Weddings are often efficacious for spurring new romances, and Verne fell for the sister of the bride, a widow with two daughters named Honorine. The following year the pair were married, but living in Amiens was still a long way off.

His father was a lawyer and expected his firstborn son to follow in his footsteps, taking up the family practice. Jules' mother descended from a family of shipowners, and his schoolteacher was the widowed wife of a sea captain. This inheritance, and seeing ships drift in and out of Nantes' harbor, seized the young boy’s mind. He particularly enjoyed the story of Robinson Crusoe, and had once reportedly tried to get himself hired on as a cabin boy to a vessel bound for India at the age of 11. The expanse of ocean and all it represented about the unknown, romantic, and adventurous had claimed Jules Verne as easily as it claimed its shipwrecks.

After a doomed romance with a girl whose father forced into a marriage of convenience with a wealthy landowner ten years her elder, Verne left Nantes for Paris to complete his legal studies. When he arrived in 1848, his family connections admitted him to the most chic of literary salons. He also expressed himself creatively through the writing of dramatic plays. His greatest influence at this time was Victor Hugo, both his theatrical works and his lengthy novels of social upheaval, Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Miserables. It was fitting, as this was also the tumultuous times of the French Revolution of 1848. Witnessing the collapse of the July Monarchy and the Second Republic, and the rise of the Second Empire, within only a few years deeply affected Verne. So too did the rising pace of Industrialization during the Second Republic and Second Empire. The mid-1800's were a new time, an age of political, social, and technological upheaval. Verne was captivated by the idea of progress tinged with catastrophe, and yearned to express it some way. Thankfully, his literary connections brought him into the company of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, Count of Monte Cristo, and many other classic adventure stories. He was inspired and encouraged to begin publishing plays and short stories that explored the social issues of the scientific age. Verne's greatest opportunity came with meeting Pierre Jules Hetzel, a visionary publisher who saw Verne as a new type of author for a new era… An author of "Scientific Romances," of encyclopedic novels of exotic adventure in far-flung locales and the progress of technological invention.

l’Île Mystérieuse - Librairie Jules Verne,
a bookshop in Paris specializing in the works of Jules Verne.

After writing his first few novels, Verne left the lights of Paris in 1869 for the coastal city of Le Crotoy to be with his new yacht, the Saint-Michel, during which time he wrote his most famous novel, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He returned to the hometown of his wife and step-daughters, and their own son Michel, in 1871. Not long after their arrival they purchased the townhouse at No. 44 Boulevard Longueville, where Verne would also spend the last years of his life. It was in 1872 that the author, now settling into more domestic life, published Around the World in Eighty Days and purchased two more yachts, the Saint-Michels II and III. Enjoying tremendous success, Verne moved his family to a very distinctive building down the street. Notable for its tower with a commanding view of the great Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens, this house seemed to reflect the character of its renter. It was in some ways eccentric but also regal, adventurous but urbane. In an 1894 interview with the author for McClure’s Magazine, R.H. Sherard describes the view:
It is a house of three stories, with three rows of five windows on the Boulevard Longueville and three windows at the corner, and three more on the Rue Charles Dubois. The carriage and other entrance are in this street. The windows on the Boulevard Longueville command a magnificent view of the picturesque, if misty, town of Amiens, with its old cathedral and other mediæval buildings. Right in front of the house, on the other side of the boulevard, is a railway cutting, which, just opposite Verne’s study window, disappears into a pleasure ground, where there is a large music kiosk, in which during the fine weather the regimental band plays. This combination is to my thinking a very emblem of the work of the great writer: the rushing tram, with the roar and the rattle of the ultra-modernism, and the romance of the music. And is it not by a combination of science and industrialism with all that is most romantic in life that Verne’s novels possess an originality which can be found in the works of no other living writer, not even amongst those who count most in French literature?
Me, sitting on the steps of Verne's mansion...

...Enjoying this mural painted on the opposite wall of the courtyard.

Amiens and the Cathedrale Notre Dame d'Amiens.

It is also this house that has been preserved as the literary attraction known as La Maison de Jules Verne. Unlike the Verne museum in his hometown of Nantes, La Maison de Jules Verne is historically connected to the author. A tour begins in the former kitchen, now admission desk and gift shop, from which one enters the only rooms preserved in as close a condition to their original use as possible, being the solarium, dining room, and grand and petite salons. After these, decorated in family heirlooms and photographs, we pass into the museum areas. The next room, a living room with a pleasant bay window, looks at Verne's early career as a playwright and his life-changing trip to North America aboard the Great Eastern ocean liner. A small case contains copies of the "Robinsonade" adventure novels that had influenced him so greatly as a boy, including Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson.
The living room, with a model of the Great Eastern.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
The Gothic Revival dining room, the only room in the house that has remained
as the Verne family left it. Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole

A newly added staircase leads up from the first floor to the second, recreating many of the rooms belonging to Verne's publisher Pierre Jules Hetzel. The furnishings from Hetzel's Paris office were brought to La Maison de Jules Verne, including a couch whereupon sat the many luminaries whom Hetzel published: Victor Hugo, George Sand, Honoré de Balzac, and, of course, Jules Venre. Hetzel's influence on Verne cannot be understated. It was Hetzel who gave the playwright the opportunity to move into prose, with the vision for a new family magazine to educate children with a mosaic of scientific facts and exotic adventure stories. The first of Verne's novels, a travelogue of Africa entitled Five Weeks in a Balloon, was published in 1863 to excellent reception. The author's hallmark was meticulous research into the geographies and technologies of which he was writing. Verne became well-known at the local libraries, pouring over every available scrap of information recorded by explorers and colonizers. The hand of Hetzel was also heavy in the process, fine tuning and directing the young writer’s "Scientific Romances." There is still serious debate amongst Vernian scholars as to how much of Verne's early success is attributable to the mentoring of Hetzel.

The new staircase ascending through the house.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Hetzel's desk. Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Hetzel's salon and the furniture that hosted so many famous
literary bottoms. Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole

Nowhere is Hetzel's hand more clearly seen than in his rejection of Verne's second novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Set in 1960, a century after it was composed, Verne outlined a very familiar dystopian future society of efficient mass transit, high education and literacy, financial affluence, industrious commerce, long life expectancy, and worldwide telecommunications networks, yet which was petty, Philistine and bourgeoisie, overwhelmed with economics with no concern for art, music or letters. True art is not actually suppressed like in an Orwellian dystopia... It does not need to be. It is simply ignored. Verne's vision of the future was summarized in one chilling line from the novel: "If no one read any longer, at least everyone could read, could even write."

Hetzel foresaw that such a damning book would strangle Verne's career in the crib and refused to publish it. Paris in the Twentieth Century would not be published until its rediscovery in 1994. He was, however, thrilled for Verne's two-part novel The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, published in 1864-65. This story, inspired by British expeditions to chart the Northwest Passage, was so inspired that Hetzel coined a new term for them: "Voyages Extraordinaires." These Extraordinary Voyages were, in the words of Hetzel, "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe."

One more floor up in Le Maison de Jules Verne and we enter a recreation of the bridge of the Saint-Michel. Standing in the middle of it, roped off from the greasy fingers of aficionados like myself, is the original writing desk upon which Verne drafted Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In that illustrious novel we experience Verne in his purest form. Projecting the existing technology of submarine craft, Verne creates the Nautilus as his means to take readers on a documentary journey beneath the Seven Seas. Long passages explicate oceanic fauna and historic shipwrecks, we sink to Atlantis and rise to plant Captain Nemo's flag on the unexplored centre of Antarctica, and we fight off the sea's savage tentacled predators. It is not only scientific, technological, cultural, and natural wonders that Verne infuses the text with. Central is the key figure of Nemo, a mysterious tourguide who is revealed as a political radical, a terrorist. Verne had originally intended him to be Polish, to make a commentary on the actions of Tsarist Russia. Hetzel feared controversy amongst one of Verne's larger markets and redacted that. Only later, in The Mysterious Island, do we learn that Nemo is actually an Indian prince whose family was murdered by the Raj.

Reconstruction of the Saint-Michel and the desk on which
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was penned.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole

Around the corner from the bridge of the Saint-Michel we find a reconstruction of Verne's library and a section devoted to the fame of Around the World in Eighty Days, replete with board games and cigarette cards. Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea testify to what makes Verne's novels so engaging. The sense of wonder that revels in natural beauty and cultural diversity would be powerful in its own right. Verne takes this further and studies the effect of these things on people. He projects not only invention or colonization, but what becomes of human beings in light of it. What matters in Around the World in Eighty Days is not as much the breakneck pace of the journey as how it opens the mind of Phileas Fogg. We see Paris in the Twentieth Century through the eyes of Michel, an alienated young man who cannot make his way in such a city. The Adventures of Captain Hatteras examines the effects of feverish obsession with conquering nature on the mind of the explorer. From the Earth to the Moon satirizes American affectations for grandiose projects. Twenty-Thousand Leagues and Master of the World ask what may happen if invincible technology gets in the hands of the vengeful or unscrupulous.

Verne's library. Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole

Then the visitor come to the very heart of the building: Jules Verne's study. The tiny room, a stanchioned-off holy of holies, includes his writing desk, pens, globe and the cot where he would sleep. The author's regimen had him rise from slumber at 5:00 am and write for several hours before taking lunch and migrating to the public library to do research. Of his 54 Voyages Extraordinaires, approximately 26 were written in this room, including Mathias Sandorf, Robur the Conqueror, The Purchase of the North Pole, Facing the Flag, his unofficial Edgar Allan Poe sequel An Antarctic Mystery and The Castle in the Carpathians.

Verne's study. Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole

After this high point, a staircase original to the house conducts us to the attic. On the theme that attics contain inherited treasures, this room holds all that which we have inherited from Jules Verne: films, plays, artworks and other inspirations. Here are posters from the Voyages dans la Lune of both Jacques Offenbach and Georges Méliès, Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days, vintage puppet theatres, a brand of pen nibs endorsed by the author, models of Robur’s Albatross and Terror, and other ephemera. A final doorway leads to the tower and its spiral staircase, disgorging us once again in the giftshop, whereupon one can buy the official guidebook to compensate for not being allowed to take photos inside the museum.

The spiral staircase in the tower.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Model of the Albatross and other Vernian inventions.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Poster for Offenbach's Le Voyage dans la Lune.
Photo © Bibliothèque d'Amiens Métropole

As age and infirmity set in, Verne's family left their mansion of 18 years to return again to the townhouse at No. 44 Boulevard Longueville. The last five years of Jules Verne's life, from 1900 to 1905, were spent in this modest dwelling. At 3:10pm on March 24, 1905, Jules Verne passed away from complications due to diabetes. Behind him were left his wife Honorine, son Michel, and some eight to fifteen novels in various states of composition. Verne prided himself on being years ahead of his twice-annual publication schedule.

No. 44 Boulevard Longueville

Towards the end of his life, Verne resumed some of his youthful cynicism and his latest novels betrayed an ever more pessimistic view of the effects of technology and industry on human life. His last years were also beset with tragedy. Honorine became an invalid in 1879, Michel took off to sow his wild oats, he was shot in the leg by a mentally deranged cousin in 1886 and crippled for the rest of his life, both Hetzel and his mother died in 1887, he suffered a facial neuralgia in 1890, and he developed cataracts in 1900 that severely impaired his vision. He also died regretting that he had never curried the favour of the French literary elite. As Sherard reports once again:
It was like the confession of a wasted life, the sigh of an old man of what can never be recalled. It was to me a poignant sorrow to hear him speak thus, and all that I could do was to say, with no unfeigned enthusiasm, that he was to me and millions like me, a great master, the subject of our unqualified admiration and respect, the novelist who delights many of us more than all the novelists that have ever taken pen in hand. But he only shook his gray head and said: "I do not count in French literature."

He also had a touchy relationship with the Roman Catholicism of his father and his youth. The Catholic Encyclopedia insists that he lived and died a Catholic (however libidinous he may have been during his heady days in Paris), and his Catholic concern for people and Providence infused his work even as he drifted in and out of regular church attendance. Verne was perhaps best served by being a Catholic, as it allowed him to balance his Romantic sensibilities with an appreciation for science and technological development. Rather than a conflict between science and religion, it was religion that brokered the marriage between reason and romance.

Romanticism, which was already of global scope by the time Verne put pen to paper, was largely a reaction against the Rationalism of the Enlightenment and its unfortunate outcomes. The moral, economic, social and spiritual destitution caused by technological progress twinged with the Industrial Revolution, scientific discovery twinged with colonialism, and failed political revolts over the known world left the Romantics palpably disappointed. Verne lived to see the factory slums of Paris, the stunning defeat of France by Prussia's modern army, and the collapse of the Second French Republic and rise of Emperor Napoleon III. Romanticism - which emphasized the individual, the emotional, intuitive, imaginative, irrational, visionary, spiritual, subjective, humane, the sublime and the beautiful - looked to the European Middle Ages as a spiritual, intellectual, nationalistic, and aesthetic model, and nothing spoke so powerfully of it as the Church, with its strong traditions of mysticism and scholasticism. All evidence pointed to Verne's trajectory as a Romantic in the best tradition of Longfellow, Cooper, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, or Shelly, or even his friends Hugo and Dumas. Verne, however, made a startling realization: the solitary creative genius of Romanticism could be a man of science, and that technology could be the vehicle to a transcendental appreciation of nature. Reason, rather than being the enemy of the spirit, could be a tool to reach the spirit's fullest potential. In the words of Verne,
It struck me one day that perhaps I might utilize my scientific education to blend together science and romance into a work... that might appeal to the public taste.
Thus was born Scientific Romanticism, as his work and the work of his derivatives was called, and that which distinguishes the work of Verne from the Science Fiction and Scientism that would follow. Nurtured on Catholicism's rigorous balancing of reason, experience, spiritual discipline, Divine revelation, and moral concerns for humanity, Verne was able to admit and to love the exact degree of reason and empiricism required of methodological naturalism in understanding the laws that govern the tangible. He was not, however, limited to it. A dogma of philosophical naturalism could not permit his Romantic, transcendental appreciations of nature and humanity, and so philosophical naturalism had to go. Where a radical atheist like H.G. Wells was content to destroy humanity over and over again in his novels, even Verne at his most cynical could not countenance the moral degradation of such wholesale slaughter. When he did allow the destruction of modern civilization in his final novella, The Eternal Adam, it was only to ruminate on the cyclical nature of progress and decline. The presence of God suffuses Verne's work, in its various guises of Providential events and odes to the Creator's beneficence.

We may never know the full details of Verne's spiritual state, unfortunately. He shut the window of his private life to posterity when he burned all of his personal papers in 1898; a very French act of resignation to fate likewise perpetrated by painter Claude Monet, composer Paul Dukas, and filmmaker Georges Méliès. Four days after his death, his funeral was held around the corner and down the street at the church of Saint-Martin.

St. Martin Church

The funeral procession brought out the entire city of Amiens, which Verne served as councilor and beloved adopted son as well as members of the French government, scientific and literary establishments. Verne's politics leaned to the left, as Romanticism tends to, but his positions on specific issues were a typically Catholic melange of liberal and conservative stands that do not fit easily into the left-right political spectrum. He warned against excesses of either extreme, either too much capitalism or too little, too much government or too little. He was on the side of revolutionaries - as in 1878 - until they went too far into violence and bloodshed, and then he was on the side of law. Above all he carried a respect for the person and their healthy emotional, spiritual, artistic, and economic development. "In social matters my taste is order;" he said, "in politics my hope is to create within the present government a reasonable party that balances respect for justice and religious belief with consideration for people, the arts, and life itself." This is not very different from the "blend[ing] together science and romance" and the mission "to outline all the... knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe." His drive to merge disparate elements into a comprehensive, coherent whole affected every area of his life, making him universally loved and mourned.

The great chain of mourners went from the church, past the Cirque, to the Cimetière de la Madeleine. Verne delivered the speech on the Cirque's opening day, and in 2003 it was renamed in his honour. It sits mightily just down the street from Verne's two homes, and the Boulevard Longueville has since been renamed Boulevard Jules Verne.

Cirque Jules Verne

Cartoon placards promote pedestrian safety en route to the Cimetière de la Madeleine.  

Covering 18 hectares, the Catholic Cimetière de la Madeleine lies outside the city and reflects the affluence of the citizens during the Nineteenth Century. Today, vines and trees have overgrown many of the Gothic Revival crypts, rust and decay claiming tombs and iron details. Though listed on tourist brochures, the cemetery is silent, solemn and empty, but for the odd raven disturbed at the invasion of its aerie. Deep within lies the final resting place of the great author. Sculpted by Albert-Dominique Roze and entitled "Towards Immortaility and Eternal Youth," Verne's grave depicts him rising from the ground, overturning the stone holding down his spirit, soul and imagination. Though gone to this world, Jules Verne has achieved immortality both through his works and a Divine hope.

Not far from Amiens' railway station, there is another monument to the author decorating a lovely little green space. Once again carved by Albert-Dominique Roze, the monument was erected in 1909, four years after Verne's passing, funded by subscription from the children of the world. It alone would be a fitting monument to an author who inspired so many, had he not become a global icon honoured over and over again in film and media.

Many great authors come to be better known as icons for what they represent, or are perceived to represent, than by who they were as people or what they actually wrote. It has happened to Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and Mark Twain, who wryly observed that "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." Though one may write article after article clarifying the truth of a writer and their work, in reality this iconic status is a testament to these authors' endurance. They been immortalized beyond their words, having come to represent something about their genre, their time, their nation, and their philosophy. Verne can mean many things to many people, whether optimistic futurism or the quaintness of Victorian Scientific Romances, the greatness of French literature or the precursor to the Discovery Channel. Even the man who helped refashion Verne into a myth was not immune from myth-making: within his own lifetime, Walt Disney observed that his "brand" had taken on a life of its own, removed from who he was a man. Verne's imagination took him around the world and to this day he is beloved around the world, whether as the historic man and author or as the icon of optimistic futurism.

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