Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Journey to the Center of Jules Verne… and Us

Journey to the Center of Jules Verne… and Us

“On May 24, 1863, which was a Sunday, my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, came rushing back towards his little house, No. 19 Konigstrasse, on one of the oldest streets in the old quarter of Hamburg. Martha must have thought she was very behindhand, for the dinner was only just beginning to sizzle on the kitchen stove… . ‘Here he is! I’m off, Master Axel. You’ll get him to see reason, won’t you?’ And our good Martha went back to her culinary laboratory. I was left alone. But as for getting the most irascible of professors to see reason, that was a task beyond a man of my rather undecided character. So I was preparing to beat a prudent retreat to my little room upstairs, when the street door creaked on its hinges, heavy footsteps shook the wooden staircase, and the master of the house, passing through the dining room, rushed straight into his study. But on his way he found time to fling his stick with the nutcracker head in the corner, his broad-brimmed hat on the table, and these emphatic words to his nephew: ‘Axel, follow me!’”

Thus began Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, and in that brief scene he evoked tension and mystery as a prim, bourgeois household is upset by the intrusion of an eccentric scientist and the life of a youth of “undecided character” is transformed by a simple, compelling command: “Axel, follow me!”

If Americans today have any image of Verne it is probably derived from Hollywood: David Niven and Cantinflas riding elephants in Around the World in 80 Days, or Kirk Douglas wrestling a giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Some may also know that Verne’s pioneering science fiction (as it would later be called) inspired Robert Goddard, Wernher von Braun, and virtually all the other pioneers of the space age. Indeed, his book From the Earth to the Moon Direct in 97 Hours, first published in 1865, not only anticipated the Apollo program, but also foresaw that it would be done by Americans, that they would quarrel bitterly over the best technological means, that Florida and Texas would compete for the program, that three astronauts would make the journey in a cone-shaped capsule, that they would use rockets to steer and escape the moon’s gravity, and that they would splash down in the Pacific Ocean to be recovered by the U.S. Navy. More impressive still was Verne’s anticipation of the American culture of technology: a mixture of boundless enthusiasm, private initiative, militarism, and P. T. Barnum commercialism.

But there is much more to Jules Verne than the Hollywood image. The fourth most-translated author in history (behind Stalin, Lenin, and the detective writer Simenon), he wrote sixty-four novels and twenty-one short stories that provide the historian with a complex body of thought on what the world was coming to under the press of permanent technological revolution. One expects to meet in Verne a rationalist and promoter of science. Instead, one finds a Romantic. One expects to meet a bohemian like his contemporary French writers Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. Instead, one finds a paragon of respectability. One expects such a futurist to have been a progressive. One discovers an idiosyncratic conservative. Surely one expects to meet an apostle of progress. But Verne ended his life issuing jeremiads about the dangers of another Dark Age. What is more, we still do not know “the man in full” because one night, at age seventy, Verne perversely burned all his papers.

We do know that he was born in 1828 in Nantes, forty miles up the Loire from the ocean, and that his parents expected him to follow his forebears’ profession of law. But as Jules’s own son later wrote, he had only three passions in life: freedom, music, and the sea. At the age of eleven he tried to stow away on a ship bound for the West Indies. Captured and brought home, Jules promised his mother, “From now on, I will travel only in my dreams,” and at eighteen obediently went to law school in Paris. He obtained his license in only two years, but that second year was 1848, when the Parisian crowds rose up again to overthrow monarchy. Jules embraced the revolution and Second Republic, and made his own bid for freedom by rejecting his family’s home town, profession, and strict Catholic piety. Still, his father, Pierre, advanced him money, even after 1852 when he wrote them of his dream of becoming a writer: la litterature avant tout! He was already devoted to Alexandre Dumas, Daniel Defoe, Victor Hugo, Sir Walter Scott, and James Fenimore Cooper, and devoured Edgar Allen Poe when he was translated into French by Baudelaire in 1854. In that year Verne composed his first fantastic tale, modeled on Poe, called Master Zacharias, or The Clockmaker Who Lost His Soul. But he still sought a medium that would indulge his zest for drama and love of the sea. So he spent his days at the Bibliotheque Nationale reading geography, history, and popular science until, in 1857, he married and joined his new brother-in-law’s stockbroking firm. Predictably, Jules hated it.

Finally, in 1862, he learned who he was: “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.” The result was a manuscript about balloons, which he showed to Dumas, who showed it to publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who printed it under the title Five Weeks in a Balloon. It was an instant best seller, and within two years Jules had quit the brokerage, signed a contract with Hetzel, published Journey to the Center of the Earth (inspired by his honeymoon in Scandinavia), and begun From the Earth to the Moon. Over the next quarter-century Hetzel employed Verne in a campaign aiming at nothing less than the scientific education of French youth. Hetzel was a positivist, a radical, and an outspoken advocate of secular education. His cause was set back for a decade when Louis Napoleon granted Catholic orders a virtual monopoly over the schools and Hetzel himself went into exile. But in 1860 he returned to the family publishing house and launched his crusade. If science was to have no place in schools, then it must be promoted in other ways, in the leisure hours of the French reading public. So Hetzel set Verne to work on at least one “scientific novel” per year in addition to didactic magazine stories meant to spoon feed scientific data into his readers while inspiring a sense of wonder about the unknown.

Of course, neither Verne nor his public needed to be convinced of the importance of science and technology in the 1860s. The industrial revolution was transforming France as railroads and telegraph lines multiplied tenfold and the steel, chemical, and electrical industries emerged. But Verne kept his readers’ minds fixed on the future, and found in the atheist Hetzel a patron rivaling his own Catholic father.[1]

In 1867, Verne fulfilled a long-standing dream when he toured America. He sailed the Atlantic on the gargantuan steamship Great Eastern, made famous the year before when it laid the first transoceanic cable. Verne was impressed by the mighty material civilization of the United States and celebrated the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (as well as the Suez Canal) in Around the World in Eighty Days (1872). But for the first time he felt doubt about the gospel he preached, and portrayed American society as a runaway machine. A second warning came just months after he was awarded the Legion of Honor, when, in 1870, a German army deploying Krupp’s mammoth steel cannons smashed the French army and besieged Paris. Thanks to superior science and technology, it seemed, evil had triumphed.

The 1870s were nevertheless the happiest years in Verne’s life. He enjoyed his celebrity, settled comfortably in his wife’s hometown of Amiens, and purchased the first of three yachts. But beginning in 1879, an unrelieved series of tragedies ensued: Verne’s wife became an invalid, his only son, Michel, rebelled in turn and sired three children by various disreputable women, and in 1886 a demented cousin shot Verne in the foot and left him a cripple. The following year Hetzel and his mother both died, and by 1890 Verne suffered from facial neuralgia and stomach disorders so severe that he could no longer enjoy food and drink. In 1900 cataracts destroyed his eyesight, and in 1905 Verne died at seventy-seven of a diabetic seizure.

Throughout all the searching, success, and suffering, Verne pondered the meaning of the progress of science, and his novels reveal a gradual shift of emphasis from the science itself (with the characters just along for the ride) to the human characters (with the science just serving as vehicle). Indeed, his earliest works are so pedagogical that they might strike us today as boring. One is almost half-way through Journey to the Center of the Earth before the heroes are even underground, thanks to long passages of geological instruction. Earth to the Moon is cluttered with lectures on ballistics, metallurgy, and astronomy. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is full of recent discoveries in oceanography and marine biology. Measuring a Meridian takes its heroes to Africa for the sole purpose of explaining the surveyor’s art. But what made his books popular were the dangers his heroes surmounted as modern knights errant questing for truth and invariably saved by their knowledge of science itself. Axel tries again and again to dissuade his uncle from the mad descent down an old volcanic core in Iceland until Professor Lidenbrock finally insists: “Enough! When Science has spoken, it behooves us to be silent.” In the end, it is Lidenbrock’s knowledge of volcanoes that allows the party to ride an erupting plume back to the surface of the earth. The most striking allegory is The Mysterious Island, in which castaways reconstruct modern society almost from scratch thanks to the presence of the American engineer Cyrus Smith. In the eyes of a simple sailor, “If Smith wasn’t a god, he was certainly more than a man.” We find out later that another godlike figure provided the exiles with invisible help: Captain Nemo.

The message of these novels is a virtual catechism. Science permits human beings to locate themselves in the cosmos, survive perils, unlock Nature’s secrets, serve their fellow man, and finally become “more than a man.” All this might seem to amount to a hyper-empirical positivistic stance: science as a secular religion. Lidenbrock says, “My boy, science is made from mistakes, but such mistakes are good to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” In the adventure of The Steam House, the engineers insist that the history of science must inevitably end in humanity’s total mastery of Nature. In The Mysterious Island, Cyrus Smith is described as a living book “always ready, always open to the exact page they needed,” and the meticulous Phileas Fogg of Around the World in Eighty Days is a creature of his railroad and steamship timetables.

But there was another side to Verne that was anything but positivistic. He frankly romanticized science and technology as fairy lands liberating his middle-class readers (and himself) from the tedium of modern urban life. In his voyages extraordinaires, man’s imagination drives technology, to be sure, but technology in turn expands travel, travel enriches science, and science sparks man’s imagination. What is more, this giddy upward spiral does not reduce humanity and Nature to the level of cosmic machines, but raises all Creation, including man and machine, to a supernatural level. Thus did Axel, traversing a great subterranean sea, stare at the geological layers on the immense rocky cliffs and dream of being swept backward across eons: “Centuries passed by like days. The plants disappeared; the granite rocks softened; solid matter turned to liquid; water covered the globe, boiling and volatilizing; steam enveloped the earth, which gradually turned into a gaseous mass, white-hot, as big and bright as the sun. In the center of this nebula, I was carried through interplanetary space. My body was volatilized in its turn and mingled like an imponderable atom with these vast vapours tracing their flaming orbits through infinity.” Here, just five years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, is a vision of evolution that, far from draining Nature of meaning, calls its readers to worshipful wonder at the majesty and unity of Creation.

The same Romanticism suffused Verne’s technological visions. We learn over and over again how Nature imitates machines. But so, too, do machines imitate Nature, as when Nemo’s submarine Nautilus is taken for a sea monster, Robur the Conqueror’s flying machine for a great bird, and the Rajah of Bhutan’s steam house for an elephant. And just as human beings commune with Nature, and Nature with machines, so do machines commune with human culture, as in the exquisite interiors of the Nautilus crammed with the greatest art, books, and musical instruments. Reason and spirit, Nature and man— once united in Christian orthodoxy but torn apart since the Scientific Revolution — are resolved again in Verne’s imagination.

Verne never shared the precise sources of his mystical, yet modernist vision, but one of them may have been another powerful movement in nineteenth-century France: St.-Simonianism. Henri de Saint-Simon was among those who first popularized the term “ideology” in the decades after the French Revolution of 1789. He elevated science to holy writ and called for a “new Christianity” based on morality without metaphysics, technology without theology, the abolition of politics, and the satisfaction of all human wants through science and socialism. After his death in 1825 his disciples looked to the mystic East for salvation. They planned railroads to connect Asia, Africa, and Europe, and imagined Egypt the “nuptial bed” for the union of East and West. They dreamed of a high dam on the Nile at Aswan, and spoke of “pierc[ing] the virgin membrane of the Suez isthmus with a canal.” They considered the “vagabond electricity that circles the globe” to be “the universal libido” by which the masculine West would fertilize the feminine East and regenerate the human race. There is no evidence that Verne indulged in the wilder fantasies of the St. Simonian circle, but he surely applauded the later technocratic fruits of the movement, including Baron Haussmann’s redesign of the city of Paris, Eiffel’s tower, and Ferdinand de Lesseps’s Suez Canal.

“Axel! Follow me!” But where— and why? How did Verne’s curious Romantic rationalism translate into politics? Did he really believe that scientific progress would transform human nature, or did he foresee the potential of human nature to corrupt science? The evidence is tantalizingly mixed. Verne did support the Revolution of 1848, but when it degenerated into violent class conflict during the June Days he stood on the side of law and order. When Louis Napoleon then overthrew the republic and made himself emperor, Verne at first disapproved. But he was later transported by the regime’s energetic promotion of science and industry and was pleased to receive the Legion of Honor from the emperor’s hand. Verne deplored the socialist Paris Commune of 1871, but was always sentimental about the poor and oppressed, and hated the power of money. In 1888 he ran for town council on a leftist ticket, but in the 1890s stood with the Right during the bitter, anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair.[2] Perhaps we may take Verne’s campaign speech at face value: “In social matters my taste is order; 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.”

The other place to turn for clues to Verne’s politics is his novels. But there, too, contrary trends emerge: support for national liberation movements such as the Irish and Polish, but also a strong pacifist streak; paternalism toward colonial peoples, but a hatred of slavery and imperialism (especially British); sympathy for utopian experiments, but resentment toward state power; affirmation of free enterprise, but assaults on big capitalism (especially American); a celebration of loyalty and community, but sympathy for militant individualism. Consider Propellor Island, a tale hilarious on the surface, but as cynical as Mark Twain underneath. A consortium of capitalists has decided to flee all governmental control by constructing a huge artificial island powered by four mighty engines: a high-tech, floating Xanadu staffed with the best engineers and entertainers. But in the course of their voyage the islanders collide with an innocent Polynesian culture, whereupon bloodshed and internal dissension ensue. Political parties emerge and tyrants seize control of the four propellers until, in an act of all-too-human spite, they set the engines working against each other and the island breaks apart to sink ’neath the waves.

The Survivors of the Jonathan, published posthumously in 1909, was the last in Verne’s long line of such “island stories” in which he played out various thought experiments. This time, an anarchist has fled Europe’s oppression and taken refuge on an island in the Straits of Magellan. Revered by the local Patagonians who call him their Kaw-Djer, he stands on the rocks and shouts in defiance, “No God, No Master!” But he is undone by pity. When an American ship is wrecked nearby, the Kaw-Djer comes out of hiding to teach the unfortunates how to survive. The colony wins recognition from the Chilean government and begins to build a utopia. Before the second year is out, however, sectarian socialists and communists fall into civil war. The common folk appeal to the Kaw-Djer, who again emerges from solitude to restore peace and prosperity. But then gold is discovered and greedy prospectors from all over the world invade to ruin paradise all over again. The Kaw-Djer despairs, “Human nature does not change,” and removes himself to the remotest island of all to die alone, and therefore at peace.

The most enigmatic of Verne’s political spokesmen is Captain Nemo, the libertarian, pacifist rebel who has forsaken the lands of the men he calls “sharks” for the ocean floor. His submarine, implicitly powered by a mighty voltaic cell, is perfect, his crew happy and loyal, and even the shipwrecks he has fished out of the sea love what Nemo has achieved— all except the Canadian sailor Ned Land, who only wants to go home. In his simple way he makes clear that one man’s freedom is another’s slavery. So how can free men live together at all?

In Mysterious Island we learn that Nemo (Latin for “No Man”) was an Indian prince educated in Europe in both art and science: the Romantic positivist again. But upon his return to India he was crushed to learn that his people had rebelled against British civilization (the Sepoy Mutiny) and that the British had slaughtered his family. So he used his fortune to build the Nautilus on a secret isle and create, as it were, a civilization of one. When in the end Nemo’s submarine is trapped beneath the “mysterious island,” he asks engineer Smith to pass judgment. “Sir, your error was in supposing that the past can be resuscitated, and in contending against inevitable progress. It is one of those errors which some admire, others blame; which God alone can judge.”

The last words of 20,000 Leagues are “Captain Nemo and myself” and Verne’s three passions— freedom, music, and the sea — are Nemo’s passions, too. Certainly, Nemo is Verne’s alter ego and a more mature type of Vernian scientific hero. The first type was didactic and optimistic, the second tragic and misanthropic. Indeed, in Verne’s last works the scientists are often not heroes at all. For after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, he began to invent mad scientists and evil geniuses. In The Begum’s Fortune (1879) another Indian rajah bequeaths his wealth to two teams of scientists charged to make great breakthroughs for the betterment of humanity. The teams purchase huge tracts of land in Oregon and set out to fashion rival utopias. The first, Franceville, is a model of public health, welfare, education, and peace. The other, Stahlstadt, is a German industrial slave state, with all materials and labor mobilized for the manufacture of an ultimate weapon. In the end, Stahlstadt’s weapon misfires, the city explodes, and the evil Dr. Schultz is frozen to death by escaped carbolic acid: a double denouement anticipating the death of mankind by fire and ice in Robert Frost’s poem.

At least the bad guys are destroyed. But even the good French scientist poses a very contemporary problem when he first learns of the Begum’s bequest: “the 500 millions chance has put into my hands is the property of science. Are you prepared to be the parliament which shall distribute this budget?” Verne’s later books suggest that he indeed saw the dangers of planned science, whether in the hands of governments or corporations. But that does not necessarily mean that he lost his faith in the march of science and technology. What he lost was his faith in mankind, whether in groups or as individuals, whether socialist or capitalist. And at that point Verne, who had already moved from pedagogy and positivism to prediction and politics, drifted at last into prophecy.

What was the content, if any, of Jules Verne’s spirituality? The apparent conflict between science and religion, after all, was the leitmotif of his era of European history. He seems to have discarded strict Catholicism and he surely opposed clerically controlled education. Yet his best friend once described him as “most Catholic,” and Verne was moved to tears by an audience with Pope Leo XIII in 1884. The evidence of his novels is also mixed. Verne’s characters readily affirm the new theories about the ancient age of the earth and the evolution of life. But they just as clearly pronounce man and Nature to be works of the Creator. Clergymen and the Church are strikingly absent in his novels. Only two priests of any importance appear in the sixty-four volumes, and they function as the partisan leaders of oppressed nations rather than spokesmen for theology. God, on the other hand, is omnipresent both as the Divine Architect and the Providential force behind events. For even though Verne’s awesome occurrences like volcanic eruptions, magnetic attractions, and maelstroms are all painstakingly explained by reference to science, these “acts of God” also serve to puncture the pride of the human protagonists. An earthquake does in Captain Nemo and an electrical storm ends the career of Robur, “Master of the World.” More often, natural cataclysms occur at just the right moment to save the heroes’ lives or shape their character development. In many such scenes, Verne refers to the mysterious purposes of God, The Creator, or Providence. In others, he identifies this guiding force as Nature, Fate, Destiny, Chance, or just The Unknown.

Three things are sure. Verne gradually came to reject the notions (1) that science was the sole key to understanding reality; (2) that science could yield the moral principles needed for its own proper use; and (3) that any of the nineteenth century’s political creeds might overcome human greed, envy, cruelty, lust for power, and pride. Where then could Verne turn at the end, as his personal tragedies also piled up? Is this story going to end in a deathbed conversion with Verne, the apostle of science, returning to the Catholic faith of his childhood?

Well, a priest was present at his demise, but there is no evidence of a conversion in the last story he wrote. “The Eternal Adam” tells of a zartog (doctor) of science in the distant future who has devised an evolutionary, progressive theory of history. Unfortunately, his archeological studies fail to confirm his hypothesis. He finds evidence that periods of advanced civilization seem to alternate with periods of barbarity. Then the zartog discovers a manuscript that dates (the reader knows) from our own era. It describes in bone-chilling terms the destruction of earth by massive floods evidently triggered by some man-made holocaust. The author of the journal then relates how he set out with a few other survivors, like Noah’s family, to begin civilization again. But at the end the author records in despair that the youth have no appetite for the past, and that all human knowledge is destined to die with him.

The zartog lays down the manuscript “feeling the pain of those who had suffered long before, crushed beneath the weight of so much effort expended in vain through the eternity of time [and] slowly and sorrowfully came to realize the eternal cycle of things.”

So Jules Verne departed this life on a Nietzschean note. And the words of Nietzsche’s old pope in Zarathustra may well be considered Verne’s epitaph: “O Zarathustra, you are more pious than you believe, with such an unbelief! Some god in you has converted you to your godlessness.”

(Item: a team of scientists ready to clone the first human being seeks government to host their research: Philadelphia Inquirer, March 18, 2001.)


[1] But where Pierre Verne was generous, Hetzel was mean. Verne did not know it at the time, but the million francs he earned in royalties paled beside the 5 million francs garnered by Hetzel in profits from his books.

[2] Dreyfus was a Jewish captain in the French army who stood accused of spying for Germany. Since there is no overt evidence of anti-Semitism on Verne’s part, it is likely that he sided reflexively with the anti-German “patriotic” camp.

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