The Magazine

Fantastic Voyage

The literary (?) career of Jules Verne

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Verne’s tales of adventure beyond the limits of the known world customarily require a visionary savant and explorer, prodigious in his knowledge of natural history and of what used to be called natural philosophy but also versed in the practical survival skills of an engineer, outdoorsman, and high-end handyman. And while a man thus equipped might still know fear, he must possess the will to overcome it. Such are the virtues of Dr. Samuel Fergusson in Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863); Professor Otto Lidenbrock in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864); Impey Barbicane in From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870); Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869); and Captain Cyrus Smith in The Mysterious Island (1874). 

The Verne hero is a walking encyclopedia, an immensely resourceful toolmaker, a stargazer who intends to reach the stars. True human majesty comes from an intellect capable in every useful matter. Recalcitrant Nature cannot but yield before this paragon of pragmatic brainpower. Thus, Impey Barbicane commands the first successful moonshot: 

There was no limit to the invention of his practical mind. For him there were no obstacles, no difficulties, no embarrassments. He was as much a miner, a mason or a mechanician, as an artillerist. He had answers to every question, and solutions for every problem.

Likewise, Professor Lidenbrock, who leads two dutiful followers into the crater of a dormant Icelandic volcano, taking the underground expedition nearly 3,000 miles from the starting point, confronts the fear that there is no way up and out:  

The very elements are against me. The air, the fire, the water conspire to bar my passage. Well! they shall know what my will can accomplish! I will not yield: I will not go back a step, and we shall see whether man or nature will win.

The 19th century marked the coming-of-age of the Philistine, as worldly philosophers and political men proclaimed the New Dispensation of Never-Ending Progress and the Gospel of Work, and the legions of technicians, inventors, entrepreneurs, and manufacturers undertook to bend matter to their will, reshape reality to human advantage. In his essay “Francis Bacon” (1837), Thomas Babington Macaulay rejoiced in the obsolescence of the ancient philosophy of Socrates, Aristotle, and all that lot, which had been “meanly proud of its own unprofitableness,” and cheered on the ascendancy of the sovereign belief in “Utility and Progress,” the practical wisdom “which adds to the comforts or alleviates the calamities of the human race.”   

Everybody got in on this act. Here was the newly founded realm of thought devoted to action in which Verne’s heroes were conceived. Yet while these heroes display the markings peculiar to modern scientists and technical experts, these wonder workers also epitomize the supreme virtues that most modern men pride themselves on having outgrown—but which, in fact, they have grown too small to appreciate and to cultivate. The intellectual passions of Verne’s best men encompass not only the impulse to master Nature that drives the modern scientific project, but also the pure desire to know that made men such as Aristotle god-like.  

In his extraordinary voyagers, Jules Verne reveres the intellectual beauty of the knowledge-seeker and the moral excellence of the warrior. In these new exemplars, the philosopher’s and the fighter’s courage are of a piece. Impelled to search the world by the ardent desire to touch and understand all that it holds, Verne’s seeker withstands every physical ordeal and outfaces every terror that he encounters—and the adventurer’s world of wonders is replete with trial and frightfulness. These heroes embody the best of ancient wisdom and of modern know-how.  

Yet even boldness secured by expertise can come up against overwhelming perils—at which point the most formidable men turn to a power greater than their own and resort to prayer. In the classics that enchanted Verne as a boy and helped direct his creative mind, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), the courage, industry, adaptability, and innovation that enable victims of shipwreck to survive on remote, uninhabited islands are the natural gifts bestowed by God on pious minds and hearts. To thank Him and to accept His guidance, especially when it comes as chastisement, are indispensable parts of wisdom. The Lord helps those who help themselves, and He is also known to come to the aid of those beyond human help.