SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, I #1 (Spring 1973): 33-37.

Marc Angenot

Jules Verne and French Literary Criticism

From the first studies of the so-called merveilleux scientifique in such essays as J. Aubry’s “Le roman moderne d’hypothèse scientifique” (La Revue des Idées, 1906 No. 37) to the latest monograph by Henri Baudin, La science-fiction (Paris 1971), all French students of SF have granted a prominent position to those works of Jules Verne published under the collective title Les voyages extraordinaires, Most of them regard the thirty novels and stories as a limit a-quo of modern SF and social utopia. This opinion has been reinforced by the fact that such SF writers of the early 20th century as Paul d’Ivoi, Gaston Lerouge, Maurice Renard, and Jean de la Hire fell rapidly into discredit and seemed doomed to oblivion (though some of them are being rediscovered today). This essay will survey the most significant works published in French on Verne, with emphasis on certain recent publications.

At first sight Verne’s life appears to have been that of a grand bourgeois of the provinces. He lived in Picardy during the main part of his career, and his novels were all first published in a quite reputable and safe family periodical, the famous Magasin d’Education et de Récréation of his publisher and friend J.V. Hetzel. But after Verne’s death in 1905, scholars were refused access to his archives, and the Verne family showed such jealous discretion that important episodes in his life are still veiled in shadow. The standard biography, Jules Verne: Sa Vie et son oeuvre (Paris 1928), by Mme. Allotte de la Fuÿe, Verne’s niece, though useful, fails to clear up many of the mysteries.

Verne’s work also seems simple and clear at first sight. For a long time critics tended to measure its merits by its accuracy in technological prophecy, ignoring both the archaic aspects of Verne’s “inventions” and the glaring technical contradictions and impossibilities on which they were often based.

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Present-day critics are studying Verne’s imaginative gifts, narrative techniques, and world view, passing over the illusory scientific or parascientific value of the novels, which has at last come to be considered simply irrelevant. Nobody today would try to link Verne’s originality with his so-called prophecies. Moreover, it has become obvious that he was not even the first writer to orchestrate scientific themes that had previously lain fallow. Pierre Versins, the indefatigable Swiss student of SF and utopia has clearly demonstrated that all of Verne’s inventions—travel to the moon, submarine ships, artificial satellites, live fossils, super explosives, serial vehicles—had been described in previous utopian romances. Verne’s genius is not to be found in the origination of discrete concepts.

Before World War II Verne was generally considered a paraliterary phenomenon, and his admirers, gathered around the “fanzine” Bulletin de la Société Jules Verne (1935-1938), saw themselves as a small group of passionate amateurs. But already in the mid-20s the surrealists had drawn attention to the place Verne deserves among the great imaginative writers. It is interesting to set certain obsessive situations in Verne’s narrative side by side with recurrent images in surrealism: the subterranean world, the city seen as a Gothic-novel castle, the voyage to the abyss, the land of plenty, the undeciphered message, etc. Such interest bore fruit during and after World War, II, when three comprehensive studies were published in rapid succession: Bernard Frank, Jules Verne et ses Voyages (Paris 1941); René Escaich, Voyage à travers le monde vernien (Brussels 1951); and Ghislain de Diesbach, Le tour de Jules Verne en 80 livres (Paris 1969).

Critics now began to study the novels in terms of myth, and sometimes from an ambiguous psychoanalytical point of view. In the 1950s, instead of what had been considered a pedagogical picture of scientific progress ad usum delphini, they began to discover a secret work developing along the ritual steps of initiation: preliminary purification, perilous travel, ordeal, attaining the point suprême, death and transfiguration. Pure fantasy is clearly rejected by the author of Le Château des Carpathes (The Carpathian Castle), for the enigma always yields to a rationalist explanation. Unlike Wells or E. R. Burroughs, Verne has no sympathy with telepathy, spiritism, parapsychology—and yet his imagery, even though hidden by a positivist and didactic phraseology, goes far beyond the most unbridled dreamings of his contemporaries.

The reader of Voyage au centre de la terre (Journey to the Center of the Earth) is enthralled by the inimitable didactic tone of the passages that explain the theory of central fire, the geology the carboniferous age, or the habits of the great reptiles—a tone that transfigures the most pedestrian lecture into a kind of mysterious incantation. But in the romanesque episodes the reader also discovers a secret message analogous to the message of the parchment that induced Professor Liddenbrock and his nephew to plunge into the crater.

Grottoes, subterranean passages, caves, abysses: the images of hidden depths are repeated in many of the novels. And in Vernean initiatory travel, truth is nocturnal, subterranean, locked up in shadows. This theme has been studied by Michel Butor, a novelist of the first rank and a critic who has reflected shrewdly on the nature of narrative. His essay in

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Répertoire I (Paris 1962). “Le point suprême et l’Age d’or à travers quelques oeuvres de Jules Verne” contributed greatly to the recognition of Verne’s genius. This theme has also been tackled by S. Vierne: “Deux voyages initiatiques en 1864: Laura de George Sand et le Voyage au centre de la terre” in Mélanges George Sand (Paris 1969). In addition to Journey to the Center of the Earth Verne wrote at least three other extremely interesting examples of the initiatory romance: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, The Carpathian Castle, and Black Indies.

Marcel Moré has written two pioneering volumes of essays: Le très curieux Jules Verne and Nouvelles explorations de Jules Verne (Paris 1960 and 1963). His method is difficult to define. He seems to apply himself at one moment to a narrow biographical problem and at another to a conventional theme: Verne and the sea, Verne and music. But Moré is never banal: facing a writer who so often used the cryptogram motive, he evidently started with the conviction that there was a cypher to be found in the Voyages, underground strata to explore—concealed signs and secret passages connecting the ill-known life of the novelist with his work. If Moré is from time to time questionable, he is always stimulating.

Moré made a valuable contribution to Verne studies by demonstrating that Verne’s sources were not confined to the scientific literature of his time. It is of course important that Verne read scientific journals carefully, but it is more striking to find in his novels the influence of—or even references to—utopian socialists like Fourier and Saint-Simon, German and English romanticists, or Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bakunin.

Moré insists upon a parallel between Verne and Villiers de l’Isle Adam. A contemporary of Goncourt and Maupassant, Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle Adam (1838-1889) can be considered the last true representative of romantic fantasy, the last Gothic novelist. His novel L’Eve future (which deals with an artificial woman fashioned by Thomas A. Edison—or rather, a romanesque, mysterious, and far from historical avatar of the famous American engineer) combines in a fascinating way scientific themes (the use of electricity, the building of a robot) and romantic dreamings (Edison’s laboratory having become a sort of Castle of Otranto, Villiers rediscovers the themes of the Liebestod, the eternal feminine, etc.). The confrontation of the author of The Future Eve with the author of The Carpathian Castle, a very similar novel, is quite revealing. Such confrontations could be extended, and one could find a place for Verne among such 19th Century writers as Charles Fourier, Eugène Sue, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Gobineau, Léon Bloy—all ambiguous social visionaries, politically reactionary in many respects, but still rebels, radical social critics, and dauntless aesthetic innovators.

Pierre Macherey has made an interesting but questionable contribution to the Marxist interpretation of Verne in Pour une théorie de la production littéraire (Paris 1966), which contains both a chapter on Verne and one on Defoe as Verne’s “thematic ancestor”. In the differences between Robinson Crusoe and The Mysterious Island, Macherey finds a changing bourgeois ideology with respect to technology and man’s power over nature. More important—for our purposes—is the fact that Macherey takes Verne’s novels as a means of exemplifying and illustrating a thesis on links between ideology and narrative. He sets out to find a method that would allow the literary theoretician, first to detect the unique

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“ideological project” that has determined the central topic of the work under study (in Verne’s case, “man’s rule over nature”), then to describe the figuration imaginaire and symbolic system put into the service of that project, and finally to produce some hypotheses on the interaction of ideology and narration. But Macherey’s theories are disappointing when put into practice. He remains within a very simple-minded, vulgar Marxist, Plekhanovian tradition, somewhat refurbished on the surface. The result is a simplification of the links that probably do connect the author’s imagery with his world view and ideological themes.

A socio-political study that I find much more relevant than Macherey’s is Jean Chesneaux’s Lecture politique de Jules Verne (Paris 1971). Chesneaux does not deny the importance of Verne’s interests in science and technology, or in theoretical, somewhat whimsical speculations, but he argues that these interests are subordinated to a “comprehensive political analysis of man’s relation to nature”. He studies the political ideologies with which Verne’s work is embued, ideologies to which attention had previously been drawn only in Kenneth Allott’s English-language study, Jules Verne (London 1943). He distinguishes the influence of the 1848 style of humanitarian socialism, the presence of some Fourierist and Saint-Simonian topics, the expression of an ambiguous anticolonialism combined with a virulent Anglophobia (Measuring a Meridian, Off on a Comet). Behind his surface bourgeois conservatism, Jules Verne—a very secret man, as Moré has pointed out—concealed audacious political views.

Intended first of all for a teen-age audience and apparently dedicated to a pedagogical glorification of moderate and positive bourgeois values, Verne’s narratives incurred no reproaches from the educators of his time. Even so, it is not difficult to find in them a network of themes and theses tending toward socialism, phalansterism, or even anarchism. The grand bourgeois of Picardy, anticommunard and antidreyfusite in his correspondence, produced a work which glorifies social rebellion and political revolution, a work in which Captain Nemo, Robur the Conqueror, Mathias Sandorf, and Kaw Dzher rise up against a besotted, enslaved, and condemned society. In Robur the Conqueror, and even more clearly in Mathias Sandorf, Verne rediscovers the narrative structure of the romantic popular novel: deliberately separated from society, the Promethean hero sets out as knight-errant and avenger to redeem the social order he has condemned by rescuing the oppressed and punishing the villains.

There have also been various attempts at a formalist reading and structural description of Verne’s work, which has proved intriguing to many of the critics involved in the radical renewal of literary theory in France in the last ten years. In 1966 there was a special Jules Verne issue of L’Arc (No. 29) with essays by Jean Roudaut, Michel Foucault, and Michel Serres, and in 1970 there were essays by Serres (Critique, April) and Roland Barthes (Poetique, No.1). These critics insist on a very subtle system of transformations, a set of motives immanent to the text, and often tend to a mythical explanation. In his L’Arc essay (p 18), Serres argues that Verne “collected and hid under the sediments of picturesque exoticism and up-to-date science, almost the whole European tradition of mythology, esotericism, initiatory rites, and mysticism.” I would be

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reluctant to accept such a view.

From our survey of the recent criticism of Verne’s work it is apparent that we are witnessing an evolution of critical attitude in France toward the genres of which Verne’s work is representative: social utopia, science fiction, and fantastic romance—genres long considered only from narrow-minded points of view. The most important contemporary critics and philosophers have contributed to the clarification of Verne’s very rich and complex output. Step by step, eliminating many misreadings, they have been winning for Verne a first-rank position in the history of French literature. This evolution is of course related to the present upswing in French studies of SF, which are showing signs of vitality after a long period in which the neglect of SF was relieved only by archaic, gossipy, and inadequate commentary.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/11/14 20:41:34 $