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.

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