Wednesday 16 February 2022

Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Due in no small part to the Disney film adaptation, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has emerged as the pre-eminent classic of Victorian Scientific Romances. Verne alone published 54 Scientific Romances during his lifetime, bearing the brand label "Voyages Extraordinaires." The term was invented by Verne's publisher, Jules Hetzel, to describe a brand new genre of literature designed "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." Twenty Thousand Leagues is, arguably, the greatest of them all.

Illustration of Captain Nemo based on Jules Verne,
by Alphonse de Neuville.

As some critics have observed, based primarily on shoddy English translations, Twenty Thousand Leagues is for the most part a novel about fish. Though an inventive extrapolation on existing submersible technology, the Nautilus is for the most part a plot device by which Verne takes his readers on an unparalleled oceanographic expedition through each of the seven seas. Over its 200-some pages, Captain Nemo is a tourguide through oceans, beneath icecaps, past famous shipwrecks, and beyond Atlantis. But Verne was also an insightful critic of society as well as a literary inventor of technological contraptions. There is more to Twenty Thousand Leagues than fish, or submarines.

Peering out of the salon window,
by Alphonse de Neuville.

Film versions have tended towards the character drama of the Nautilus' captives - French Professor Aronnax, his assistant Conseil and French-Canadian harpooner Ned Land - though their attempts to escape their maritime prison were a minimal aspect of the novel. Twenty Thousand Leagues is not really about them. Rather, they are the lens through which we are invited to, first, see the world beneath the ocean surface and, second, to see into the life of the mysterious Captain Nemo.

The fiery fate of Atlantis, by Alphonse de Neuville.

Though much has been made of Disney's Nemo as the tortured political refugee seeking revenge against and refuge from the rulers of the surface world, this cinematic version is actually the crudest caricature of Verne's mariner. While he has the airs of waging war on war - and it might prompt a post-9/11 society to ask if you can wage wars on tactics like war and terrorism - his is really a much simpler story of revenge. Verne's character is more complicated and politically charged, to the point that the published version was actually censored from the original manuscript. The author's intention was to make Nemo a Polish refugee escaped from tsarist Russia, but Hetzel felt it would alienate the Russian audience. Eventually, in the sequel novel The Mysterious Island, Nemo was revealed as an Indian prince escaped from British India.

Preparing for battle, by Alphonse de Neuville.

Verne is still more ambiguous about Nemo than even simple anti-colonial interpretations permit. Nemo reflects one of the fundamental anxieties of post-colonial Western society, which wishes to redress the endless ream of crimes that made possible its existence and economic prosperity while simultaneously refusing to leave that advantage behind. On the one hand he is the avenger of the poor and oppressed, but on the other he is a colonialist par excellence.

Though professing a desire to escape the world above, he does so only in terms that allow him to take the fruits of that land with him. He fishes the sea for food, but trawls the land for treasures of books, paintings and other things that occupy his salon and library. His library, Aronnax estimates, contains some six or seven thousand volumes, which Nemo corrects at 12,000 with the addendum "These are the only ties which bind me to the earth." Not quite, as amongst the artistic treasures in Nemo's salon are,
...a Madonna of Raphael, a Virgin of Leonardo da Vinci, a nymph of Correggio, a woman of Titian, and Adoration of Veronese, an Assumption of Murillo, a portrait of Holbein, a monk of Velasquez, a martyr of Ribeira, a fair of Rubens, two Flemish landscapes of Teniers, three little "genre" pictures of Gérard Dow, Metsu, and Paul Potter, two specimens of Géricault and Prudhon, and some sea-pieces of Backhuysen and Vernet... Delacroix, Ingres, Decamp, Troyon, Meissonnier, Daubigny...

Add to this the composers whose works rest upon the organ - Weber, Rossini, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Meyerbeer, Hérold, Wagner, Auber, Gounod - and what we have is a cultured man of means possessing refined tastes. Feebly he objects that these "Masters have no age" and that "in the memory of the dead all chronological differences are effaced," invoking the timeless objective value of artistic excellence against the direct social, cultural, economic and chronological processes that permit artistic excellence.

The salon, by Édouard Riou.

The Nautilus which houses such treasures is not the unique product of a lone inventor's sweat and elbow-grease, but is itself very much the product of colonial industry. Nemo reveals his process:
Each separate portion... was brought from different parts of the globe. The keel was forged at Crensot, the shaft of the screw at Penn & Co.'s, London, the iron plates of the hull at Laird's of Liverpool, the screw itself at Scott's at Glasgow. The reservoirs were made by Cail & Co. at Paris, the engine by Krupp in Prussia, its beak in Motala's workshop in Sweden, its mathematical instruments by Hart Brothers, of New York, etc...

The most physical labour was in the jigsaw piecing together of the craft on a desert island. The final tally of Nemo's privileged escape from the terrors of the surface world? "It came therefore to £67,000, and £80,000 more for fitting it up, and about £200,000 with the works of art and the collections it contains." Keep in mind that he is speaking here of the investment capital, prior to having been able to access the riches of the ocean depths. In his life on land, Nemo was obviously a man of considerable wealth and education by anyone's standard. "Immensely rich, sir;" he tells Aronnax, "and I could, without missing it, pay the national debt of France."

The Nautilus, by Alphonse de Neuville.

The land is still required for the operation of the Nautilus' engines. Unlike the Disney film, which ties the electrical power of the ship to atomic power, Verne's device was a sodium extraction method that requires coal in the production of the sodium. The coal, Nemo proudly states, comes from beds beneath the ocean. The burning of the coal for the sodium needs must occur on land, in the shelter provided by the exhausted crater of an extinct volcano in the Atlantic.

Nowhere are Nemo's ties to the land more obvious than when he literally plants his flag and his name over a whole continent. Later on in the novel, without any hint of the irony or hypocrisy, Nemo plants the black flag embroidered with a golden "N" on the snow and gravel of Antarctica and proclaims,
I, Captain Nemo, on this 21st day of March, 1868, have reached the south pole on the ninetieth degree; and I take possession of this part of the globe, equal to one sixth of the known continents.

When asked by Aronnax in whose name he lays this claim, Nemo brusquely replies "In my own, sir!" Finally as the sun slips out of sight on its half-year retreat, he bids it farewell:
Adieu, sun! Disappear, thou radiant orb! Rest beneath this open sea, and let a night of six months spread its shadows over my new domains!

Gone are any pretences of escaping the land or its systems of colonialism and domination. Nemo becomes the sole monarch of the Antarctic, and happily so.

Nemo surveys his new empire, by Alphonse de Neuville.

But for the most part, Nemo's chosen domain of colonial exploitation is the ocean, which serves as his personal political territory, larder and bank. On the one hand he speaks of the liberty of the depths, but on the other hand speaks of his ownership of them:
... the sea supplies all my wants. Sometimes I cast my nets in tow, and I draw them in ready to break. Sometimes I hunt in the midst of this element, which appears to be inaccessible to man, and quarry the game which dwells in my submarine forests. My flocks, like those of Neptune's old shepherds, graze fearlessly in the immense prairies of the ocean. I have a vast property there, which I cultivate myself, and which is always sown by the hand of the Creator of all things.
A hunting excursion, by Alphonse de Neuville.

The society he creates aboard his ship, which makes for the efficient exploitation of the fruits de mer, is a definite mirror of the hierarchies above the waves. The library and salon are Nemo's alone, granted to the three captives, but with no indication that they are at the service of the Nautilus' mostly silent crew. This crew is a nameless presence that exists to serve the needs of the protagonists. Like the Disney film, this has a practical narrative purpose of not bogging the story down with additional characters, with the unfortunate side-effect of creating a deeply classist society aboard the ship. A later Verne film - Master of the World starring Vincent Price and written by Richard Matheson - does give personality to the crew, to much better effect in explaining their loyalty to the mission and their captain.

Repeatedly Nemo demonstrates compassion for the oppressed and impoverished. He reveals his ethnicity only briefly by identifying with an East Indian pearl diver he rescues from the clutches of a shark attack (likely because this is as close as Verne got to figuring out who Nemo was going to be by publication time, if he could not be Polish). He is again shown sending gold ingots up to another fisherman, as well as demonstrating the source of this wealth. Upon seeing the shipwrecks that supply Nemo with his millions in net worth, Aronnax remarks that he pities "the thousands of unfortunates to whom so much riches well distributed would have been profitable, whilst for them they will be forever barren." Nemo angrily retorts,
Do you think then, sir, that these riches are lost because I gather them? Is it for myself alone, according to your idea, that I take the trouble to collect these treasures? Who told you that I did not make a good use of it? Do you think I am ignorant that there are suffering beings and oppressed races on this earth, miserable creatures to console, victims to avenge? Do you not understand?
Saving the pearl diver, by Édouard Riou.

He hands charity to these suffering masses, and certainly claims solidarity, but the question must be raised as to the exact extent of the solidarity. What does this solidarity even mean when one has fled from the life conditions of the suffering into a perpetual escape of relative ease and luxury? Nemo's life is not one of real involvement in the struggle of others as one among them, or attempting to use a position of wealth and authority to affect systemic change to benefit the poor. As Aronnax observes, "I understand the life of this man; he has made a world apart for himself, in which he treasures all his greatest wonders."

Nemo is very much the embodiment of the modern, or post-modern, age. It is acutely aware of the processes of colonial exploitation of people and the environment, but at the same time still insistent on benefiting from those processes. It dispenses charity in the name of solidarity while setting a world apart for itself (which, granted, is still better than doing nothing or, even worse, claiming solidarity while doing nothing). In the end, Nemo is prohibited from reconciling this ambiguity to himself, as the symbolic Maelstrom sends a crazed spectre of himself and his ship to the bottom of the seas, from whence it will emerge in The Mysterious Island.

Aronnax and co. escape during the Maelstrom,
by Alphonse de Neuville.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

The Scientific Romances of Coney Island

When it comes to the amusement park... the classic fairyland of boardwalks, sideshows and rickety old wooden rides... there is no greater an icon than New York's immortal Coney Island.

For the residents of New York living in the Gay Nineties, Brooklyn's spit of beachfront property along the Hudson River was shangri-la. It first drew attention in the wake of the American Civil War, with beaches, clam beds, and horse racing. The first carousel was installed in Vandeveer's bath-house in 1876, with meticulously hand-carved horses. Nathan's Famous invented the hot dog there in 1916. A bustling avenue called The Bowery led to the beach and later amusement parks, but also tempted the visitor with sights, sounds and lights, rides and sideshows, gambling, fortune tellers and dance halls.

This was followed by the island's three historic amusement parks: Luna Park, Steeplechase Park and Dreamland.

Steeplechase Park was built in 1897 and was renowned for its Ferris Wheel and the steeplechase mechanical horse racetrack ride that surrounded the glass and steel Palace of Fun indoor park. In 1940, the Steeplechase acquired the Parachute Jump from the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, where it has remained despite the 1964 closure and demolition of the park. The inoperable Jump is affectionately nicknamed "Brooklyn's Eiffel Tower".

One of the great headline attractions at Steeplechase had been A Trip to the Moon. The ride had been the creation of partners Frederick Thompson and Skip Dundy, was based more or less on the film of the same name by Georges Méliès, and had originally debuted at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, New York. Visitors entered the "station" to see a huge craft with bat-like wings, dubbed "Luna." Once 30 passengers had been strapped in, the wings began to beat and Luna lifted off. First the exposition, then the city, then the earth sped away behind the celestial craft. Eventually they descended through the clouds to the surface of the moon, where they were greeted by dwarven Selenites. These Selenites conducted visitors through the moon's underground passages to an audience with the Man in the Moon and an musical fountain show. Finally they were given pieces of lunar cheese and disgorged back into the park.

A postcard promoting A Trip to the Moon.

How was this possible? A cyclorama, or panorama, was a popular merging of public entertainment and the arts in the late 19th century. These were cylindrical paintings that were meant to imitate a full panoramic field of vision. Sometimes, in order to heighten the effect, foreground items were added that turned the cyclorama into a full diorama in the round. Each successive leg of the flight - the exposition, the city, and the earth - were painted canvas scrolls. 

Steeplechase Park's owner was very impressed by this attraction and leased it from Thompson and Dundy in 1902. At the park, A Trip to the Moon drew over 850,000 guests during one of the rainiest summers on record. Steeplechase ended up being the only existing park at Coney Island to turn a profit that year. But when it came time to renegotiate the lease, the owner decided to lower the cut to Thompson and Dundy, prompting them to take their ride and go home.

Luna Park was perhaps the most magnificent of the three parks. Originally Captain Paul Boyton's Sea Lion Park, it was purchased by Thompson and Dundy as competition against Steeplechase Park. They rechristened it Luna Park in 1903, after the airship. A motto on the gate described Luna as "The Heart of Coney Island", and that it was.

Entering the park, the visitor was swept down a surreal promenade with a replica of Venice complete gondoliers. To the right, the first attraction visitors came upon was A Trip to the Moon.  next came eir new cyclorama show and the very first attraction ostensibly based on Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 

The thoroughfare of Luna Park, with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the right.

Walking down the main thoroughfare, revelers were herded into 20,000 Leagues by a barker clad in Eskimo furs. Like later attractions, visitors descended into the bowels of the submersible craft where, outside the portholes, a bizarre array of wonders revealed themselves. Amongst the scenes cycling by in this trip from the Indian to the Arctic Ocean were fish, coral reefs, sunken ships, wisps of seaweed, tentacled octopus, and even a mermaid.

After this cyclorama of ocean life, the submarine surfaced in the frigid wastes of the Arctic... That is, into a refrigerated warehouse where real icebergs floated about the expansive pool, providing rest to a menagerie of living polar bears and seals. It was also home to a tribe of Inuit (or actors in Inuit garb), complete with igloos and dogsleds. An Aurora Borealis effect was projected on the sky-like ceiling.

A postcard promoting Luna Park's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The cost this magnificent attraction in 1903 was $180,000 (or about $4.1 million in today's dollar). Rides were 25 cents apiece. Unfortunately, it was replaced a mere two years later by the Dragon's Gorge scenic roller coaster, which sent visitors on a trip through the Grand Canyon, North Pole, Africa and Hades.

Fir trees and flags lined this avenue to fairyland, welcoming the harried masses to a timeless escape. The main attraction was the Shoot the Chutes, but visitors also enjoyed the Helter Skelter slide, the circus, and the War of the Worlds miniature naval show (not based on the Wells novel). At the centre of Luna was the Electric Tower and a crystal lagoon, which lit up at night with 250,000 electric lights. Maxim Gorky wrote, in 1907:
With the advent of night a fantastic city all of fire suddenly rises from the ocean into the sky. Thousands of ruddy sparks glimmer in the darkness, limning in fine sensitive outline on the black background of the sky, shapely towers of miraculous castles, palaces and temples. Golden gossamer threads tremble in the air. They intertwine in transparent, flaming patterns, which flutter and melt away in love with their own beauty mirrored in the waters. Fabulous beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful, is this fiery scintillation.

A postcard illustrating Luna Park's evening electric light display.

Eventually the park fell on harder times. The park suffered a fire in 1944 and closed forever in 1945.

Of these past amusement palaces, the story of Dreamland is perhaps the most tragic. This was a Coney Island epic... Built in 1904 as direct competition to Luna Park, Dreamland possessed an almost World's Fair-like atmosphere. Stunning Art Deco buildings overlooked a lagoon and housed miniature Swiss railways and Venetian canals, a Japanese tearoom, an airship exhibit, dance hall, copycat submarine attraction, and a shoot-the-chutes. There was also the Bostock Circus, featuring liontamer Captain Bonavita. At night, the complex, central tower and lagoon - like Luna Park's - were lit up in a million electric lights.

Sadly, an accidental fire in May of 1911 grew unchecked until it engulfed all of Dreamland. The entire facility was reduced to charred cinders, and never rebuilt. Today, the New York aquarium occupies the same plot of land.

Vestiges of Coney Island's playful past still exist. The Cyclone roller coaster was built in 1927, replacing the earlier Giant Coaster. One of the largest remaining wooden roller coasters, its incredible intensity still thrills riders today. The massive Wonder Wheel ferris wheel, completed in 1920, features both stationary and moving cars along its circumference, and is both a designated historic resource and centrepiece of the family-owned, family-oriented Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. In the tradition of Coney Island's long history of sideshows, there is also the Sideshows by the Seashore arts collective and a museum chronicling the past of this remarkable place of enchantment.