SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, XVI #49 (Nov. 1989): 369-378.

Books in Review

Kenneth Berri

Jules Verne: Forward Into the Past

reviews of:

Arthur B. Evans. Jules Verne Rediscovered: Didacticism and the Scientific Novel. [Contributions to the Study of World Literature, No. 27.] Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988. xv + l99pp. $37.95.

Jean Bessière, ed. Modernités de Jules Verne. [Publications du Centre d’Etudes du Roman et du Romanesque. Université de Picardie.] Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988. 245pp. FF150.

Jules Verne rediscovered? How is it that he ever left us, from the libraries of our childhood to animated cartoon versions of Journey to the Center of the Earth on HBO television? The initial goal of Evans’s study is to reacquaint the American public with the “known and unknown” Verne with whom, he assumes, that body of readers, perhaps including academic scholars, is unfamiliar. Given the astonishing discrepancies between the bowdlerized yet heretofore standard English translation of Journey and the original French (a comparison he introduces early on), Evans’s point is surely well taken here. The immediacy of the in medias res opening of Verne’s text is completely abandoned in dubious favor of an overly-simplified, nationalistic, and chauvinistic (the unnamed translator was probably British) reduction of the characters. The charm of Verne’s wit and penchant for amassing details is literally lost, only to be replaced by a facile, retrospective background-building in which Axel is rebaptised Harry and Professor Lidenbrock becomes Hardwigg! (This, perhaps, a synecdochic translation of the old professor’s obstreperous stubbornness in continuing the journey to the center of the Earth.)

Evans’s threefold methodology offers a plurality of critical perspectives, aptly suited for such a complex author as Verne. His ample bibliography—including titles of original editions with dates of publication, titles of English translations, modern French reprints, secondary sources and related works—is a valuable critical resource to have on hand. His argument privileges the heretofore neglected didactic value of the Voyages extraordinaires as an educational project and concludes with some very plausible similarities between the Voyages and modern SF when each is considered in the context of its own historical period as a means of increasing one’s social and cognitive adaptivity to advances in scientific technology. Although Verne’s narratives use traditional literary topoi and modes of referentiality, the

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“adaptivity effect” upon a young reader of the Voyages is comparable to Alvin Toffler’s suggestion in Future Shock that SF be required reading for today’s students.

Part One gives some basic historical background on the impact of the Industrial Revolution on l9th-century French society and the debate on the importance of scientific instruction in the curricula of public schools at the time. Evans shows how the Voyages combine the two main literary responses to the socially alienating force of science—Romantic occultation and rejection, Positivistic glorification and popularization—in a synthetic reaction. This reaction is also apparent when one compares the early and late work. He then discusses the ramifications of Verne’s relationship with his major publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, his “spiritual father” and literary mentor, the editor of the Magasin d’Education et de Récréation. Part Two is written from an ideological perspective, and places Verne’s scientific pedagogy in the light of the conflicting literary ideologies of Positivism and Romanticism. Part Three “analyzes the poetics of Verne’s narrative practice and concentrates on the textual mechanics of his didactic discourse” (p. 4).

The study of Hetzel’s social, moral, and psychological influence on Verne’s writing is fascinating material. (However, since the entire first part offers the historical background to the creation of “The Educational Project of the Voyages extraordinaires,” its division into three extremely short chapters seems hardly justifiable.) Not only did Hetzel deflect Verne’s desire to write for the theatre (even though Verne and d’Ennery’s theatrical adaptations of Autour du monde and Les Enfants du capitaine Grant were immensely successful in their day); he was a harsh censor, often on religious grounds, who also was able to inflate the Voyages with more quasi-scientific knowledge than Verne alone was inclined to include. So Hetzel largely succeeded in bringing science into the family circle, despite the exaggerated aims of his complete enterprise outlined in his preface to the series of Voyages: “to outline all the geographic, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format that is his own, the history of the universe.” It is no wonder that, at the beginning of Part Two, Evans (p. 37) cites Pierre Macherey’s observation in Pour une théorie de la production littéraire that Verne’s texts often seem strangely at odds with their own focus.

Part Two, “Ideological Subtexts in the Voyages extraordinaires,” studies the double goal of the educational project: to teach social adaptation to new science while reassessing and instilling the moral values of the family. In order to de-alienate the novum of scientific technology, there is social stasis in most of the novels, “a static portrayal of basic societal structures” (p. 34). This supposedly would allow young readers more easily to integrate new scientific information into their lives. At this point in his study, Evans’s reading of the Voyages as a “representational model for enlightened social adaptation” prefigures the “buffer effect” of SF in his conclusion. Ever

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considerate of his reader, Evans always announces what his next strategic move will be, and often reiterates the preceding argument before moving on. After looking at Verne’s taxonomies of a natural universe of mathematically codifiable laws and forces, he examines the social and professional hierarchies of Verne’s heroes which ensure that their lessons will be well received. Most regrettably, women are conspicuously absent from this position. Male-bonding pervades the Voyages, and the relatively few female characters are usually beloved sweethearts who become adoring wives. (In this nearly exclusive man’s world, where would one begin to do feminist criticism?) Verne’s scientists, whether they be like the mysterious Captain Nemo or the purely objective professor Lidenbrock, are the brahmins of a rapidly advancing scientific technology who often write books by way of fulfilling their moral duty to enlighten those beneath them. The characters’ textual production—journals, diaries, or books—mirrors the social and pedagogical function of the Voyages as an educative instrument. Evans concludes that the parameters of Verne’s Positivism reinforce the lessons embedded in the fictions of “a unified and ordered vision of reality as well as means to more effectively cope with it; one that attempts to delineate science, both as a philosophy and as a practical tool, and to proselytize its value for a deeper understanding of (and one’s survival in) the modern world” (p. 57).

Chapter 5, “The Romantic Vision,” is intended as a contrastive pendant to the previous chapter on “The Positivist Perspective.” Evans’s interpretation of certain romantic narrative elements that serve to render science more “palatable” yet at the same time also question its social and moral implications shows how both subtexts serve to broaden and enhance the scientific didacticism of the series of Voyages. He takes into consideration three functions of the aesthetic valorization of science: the Promethean mythification of the human conquest of the cosmos; the “humanification” of certain technical devices, especially machines whose monstrous beauty heralds the tenets of Marinetti’s Futurism; and “the magic-fication of science itself—where it acquires the wondrous properties of sorcery” (p. 65). In analyzing the storm that strikes the professor, Axel, and their guide, Hans, as they cross the subterranean sea on their raft, for instance, Evans traces the gradual transmutation of electricity from the narrator’s quasi-scientific observations of the phenomenon to the supernatural properties of the same force at the climax of this scene in Journey. This, among others, would be an opportune moment to explore elements of the fantastic within the Romantic vision which conflict with the usual insistence on positivistic realism yet serve to generate a more generically complex narrative.

Evans is more conclusive when he deals with the pessimistic turn critics notice in Verne’s work around 1880, when he moves from a generally affirmative popularization of science to a much more pessimistic and cynical outlook. The underlying reasons in Verne’s case are both personal

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and historical: financial burdens and three deaths in three consecutive years (of his mistress, his editor, and his mother), besides (in the public arena) a long-term economic crisis in France (1882-95) and a soaring military budget, thanks in part to the acquisition of the latest advances in military hardware. Evans alludes to literary movements, motifs, and trends contemporary to this period in which Verne’s work “becomes progressively tinged with overtones of Baudelairian spleen, of Huysmans-like introversion, or of Jarry-esque derision” (p. 82); but it would also be of interest to study Verne’s later works, say from Robur-le-conquérant (1886) on to Maître du monde (1904) within the literary context of fin-de-siècle Decadence, another neglected genre. Evans traces what seems to him to be a cyclical pattern in the evolution of Verne from the initial “generic” Romanticism of the early years (ca. 1850-62), through the proud Positivism of the Hetzel period (1862-86), to “the sometimes trenchant anti-Positivist Romanticism of his later work (1886-1919)” (p. 101). Since this same chronology parallels the evolution of l9th-century literary genres from realism to symbolism to decadence, we might also interpret the changes in Verne’s attitude towards science as the early warning signs of the decadence of modern scientific technology.

Verne’s moral lesson is clear, from the nefarious Herr Schultze in Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum (1879), who threatens to explode and destroy France-Ville with his ballistic missiles, to Robur, the enigmatic hero who in a later novel becomes Robur the megalomaniacal madman: “scientists not only have a moral obligation to educate society..., but also to safeguard society from the fruits of their own labor” (Evans: 92). Verne speaks out against problems which still plague us, from the possible extinction of whales to the pollution of the air we breathe, and levies a general aesthetic criticism of modern industrialization.

The ideological journey in the Voyages does go hand-in-hand with the fictional and stylistic one. But Evans’s optimistic reading of the value of knowledge in the Voyages, geared to bolster his argument in favor of the affirmative power of Verne’s didacticism, seems precariously unilateral. Where he sees dualities, rightly enough, I prefer to see a dialectic of conflicting yet mutually necessary and reciprocal counterparts—Positivism and Romanticism, realism and the fantastic, ideology and literature, science and morality—which operate within the oeuvre to give it a unity as well as a disunity, an awareness of tremendous nescience as well as the compilation of enormous knowledge, mystery and mathesis, signs of one’s demise as well as survival. The “oscillating heterogeneity” in the Voyages as they “travel from one ideological pole to the other and back again” (p. 101) is actually a mutual dependence, a literary, ideological, and epistemological shuttle of dialectical counterparts that is reversible within a given novel at any time. Each side of the dichotomy needs the other.

In his discussion of narrative elements which valorize the didactic

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message, Evans maintains that “knowledge is portrayed as an object to be possessed—one that confers social status, wealth, and above all, power to the possessor...” (p. 148). Yet despite the “happy end” imposed by Hetzel’s censorship of the Voyages, the majority of the voyagers fail to reach their destination. Although Evans writes that “the triumphant protagonists are constantly portrayed as having conquered more knowledge—for themselves and for the world” (p. 148), other critical readers of Verne, as well as some of his own fictional characters, perceive the other side of this coin of knowledge. By way of reference, consider this bit of dialogue in L’lle mystérieuse: “What a large could make with all one knows!” says Pencroff, to which Cyrus Smith replies: “And how much larger a book one could make with all one doesn’t know.”1 What one knows should also make one aware of how much one does not know. The book of nescience, at least according to Cyrus Smith, outweighs the book of knowledge.2

Part Three exhaustively examines various narratological and rhetorical techniques Verne uses most effectively to convey the didactic scientific message of the Voyages, affirming that indeed the “the medium is the message.” Evans studies the bipolar movement in narration between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the alien, the unusual and the commonplace, through which an alienating novam is presented pedagogically, to assuage any fears in the reader. “Finally, having fulfilled its (pedagogical and narratological) task, the novum disappears and the mimetic status quo is once again reconstituted” (p. 104). By comparison with contemporary SF, then, one could say that Verne’s scientific fictions are “soft,” the text itself doing the work of de-alienation and explanation for the reader; in new SF the reader, through forced cognition, must participate in the text, filling in absent paradigms in order to recuperate meaning.3

Evans compares scientific and literary discourse, in their purest manifestations, as diametrically opposed forms, referring to the attention Foucault draws in Les Mots et les choses to the ideal of a pure scientific discourse as an important epistemè in Verne’s historical milieu.4 Pedagogy becomes the door through which scientific discourse is inserted into literary discourse, buffered by a series of textual devices that Evans enumerates in his last chapter in order to maintain the reader’s identification with traditional literary motifs and plot structures like the heroic quest, the rite of passage, or the initiatory journey.

Chapter 6, “Narrative Exposition and Pedagogy,” analyzes the presentation of scientific pedagogy in three separate categories: direct exposition or, in other words, unmediated pedagogical passages including extratextual references like footnotes and non-linguistic devices like illustrations and maps, a key feature of the Hetzel edition of the Voyages; semi-direct exposition, in which the rapport between the meta-narrator and the characters is particularly crucial; and indirect exposition, whose main problem is how to give authoritative credibility to a character—especially a non-scientific

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one—who is responsible for conveying a didactic message. However, the more such didacticism is mediated through the fictional characters in this type of exposition, the more direct its impact on the average reader, and ultimately, the less polarized the realms of science and fiction themselves (p. 136).

The seventh and final chapter, “Ancillary Didactic Devices,” is a detailed catalogue of: reiterators, which implant the pedagogy in the reader’s mind through repetition; animators, which enricher the lesson with drama, humor, or word-play; valorizors, which emphasize the value of learning; and buffers, “which provide emotional security throughout the process” (p. 138). Of particular interest is the self-reflective quality of the valorizors—for instance, solipsistic references in one novel to characters in other novels or to other narratives. This is an aspect of “the continual gesture of enclosure,” as Roland Barthes calls it in the essay “Nautilus et bateau ivre,” which depicts Verne as a fanatic of plenitude always trying to constrict the world, “to people it, to reduce it to an enclosed and familiar space, in which Man could then comfortably reside....”5 In this sense, the Voyages represent a vision of the world which, despite incidental setbacks, occasional frustrations, and malevolent villains, is impossibly perfect in its narrative circularity. More than a future indicative, its orderly universe is a “past perfected.”

So what are we to make of the case for Verne’s modernity or “modernities”? Compared with the fine focus of Evans’s study of didacticism in the scientific novel, the collection of essays by various hands, Modernités de Jules Verne, is an iconoclastic ensemble of ideas with no collectively definitive or restrictive boundaries. Their editor, Jean Bessière, privileges the qualities of ambivalence, heterogeneity, and irresolution in Verne’s oeuvre; the collection offers open-ended critical explorations which range from studies (by Robert Pourvoyeur and by Evans) of the linguistic etymologies of proper foreign names and “franglicismes” to opaque and cryptic metatheoretical rhapsodies on “Jules Verne thanatographe” (Alain Buisine: “Voglio morire....”) and on his equivocal approach to science in an essentially narcissistic universe filled with self-reflective objects (Bessière’s “Jules Verne: point mort, sacrifice de la mimesis”). Pourvoyeur gives an important clue to the background of some of these riddle-like essays when he announces that “th[is] colloquium on the modernity of...Verne is put under the sign of ambiguity” (p. 69).

The first two essays are companion pieces. Olivier Dumas’ “Jules Verne retrouvé ou les héros verniens trahi par Hetzel” studies the publisher’s puritanical censorship of Verne’s writing and makes a plea for the restoration of the original texts which appeared in other publications before falling into Hetzel’s hands. Daniel Compère’s “Jules Verne en ses miroirs” explores the notion of textual enseignes as moments in the text which are like hidden mirrors reflecting Verne’s identity embedded in the text. Both essays make a token nod to modernity. Although the tenor of his essay is

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vague and arbitrarily associational, Perrot investigates the relationship between elemental force in the Voyages and Verne’s political ideas.

Jean Chesneaux’s “Jules Verne et la modernité: des Voyages extraordinaires à nos années quatre-vingts” is one of the fairest roses in this Picard bouquet. After positing four types of modernity—chronological, selective, politico-economic, and qua “specific social formation” (p. 55) in the global community of today as we approach the end of the 20th century—he then discusses the inversion of Verne’s early in his late novels (L’lle à hélice [1895], for instance, as the inversion of L’lle mystérieuse [1874]) and relates Verne’s premonitions of industrialized cities of perdition to the ecological debacle that is consuming our world, the destruction of a planet by its own inhabitants. Chesneaux suggests that Verne offers a confrontational response to this most negative aspect of modernity in the cross-armed posture of defiance and protest displayed by so many of his heroes, a pose Verne himself often struck for photographers: “Wasn’t he already confronting modernity?” (p. 66).

Pourvoyeur’s “L’Invention des noms etrangers chez Jules Verne” offers some intriguing and enlightening philological explanations of many of Verne’s foreign proper names as a test of their authenticity. How could an English translator ever have changed “Lidenbrock” to “Hardwigg” if he (or she) had known that Liden is possibly an Old Low German form of Leute (people) reconstructed as Liede, and that Brock is a German word for swamp; so that the professor’s name, “swamp of the people” is mirrored in the fossils and bones of animals of the tertiary and quaternary prehistoric ages strewn along the shore of the subterranean ocean he explores during his journey (pp. 75-76)?

Evans takes a pragmatic approach to “Le Franglais vernien” and presents a mini-concordance to Verne’s “franglicisms” as a sort of modern Babel. Daniel Mortier compares structural economies of the novel and theatre in “Le récit et le spectacle, Jules Verne et le théâtre,” concluding that the novels themselves offer their own “spectacular” vision, especially because of the ambiguities in narrative point of view, which are nearly impossible to convey in the theatre (for instance, Phileas Fogg in Around the World is either an honest man or a scoundrel depending on whether the standpoint is the valet Passepartout’s or inspector Fix’s).

Many of Verne’s critics have studied the significance of geometric forms like the circle, the line, the ellipse, and the hyperbole in the Voyages. In “Etranges voyages de la ligne,” William Butcher examines the aspects of three kinds of lines—spatio-temporal, logocentric, and conceptual— in relation to a dominant notion of circularity and idea of perfectibility. Butcher proposes one of the most credible theoretical cases for Verne’s historical modernity: in his “linéomanie,” he often creates a unidimensional world-as-text without resorting to highly technical and dehumanized aspects of SF (p. 129). According to Butcher, Verne uses the line conceptually to represent the human desire to occupy space and to give a sense

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of order to an uncontainable mass of scientific knowledge, an attempt to narrate the non-narratable (p. 136).

Maryse Ducreu-Petit also explores circular systems and “seconds”— second mates, sons of fathers, and characters who reappear in subsequent novels—in “Personnage second et redoublement du personnage,” whose own metaphors of exploration relocate their affiliative heritage. As she writes, playing on the ambiguity of doubler: “what you have doublé [doubled or passed] in a circular system you always join up with again some day” (p. 153). The modernity of her conclusion lies in the temporal ambiguity of a character in present time who simultaneously recovers, voids, and perfects his past by evolving into the future: as he “doubles,” negates, and then substitutes himself for his captain, father, or master, he also renews and perpetuates paternal authority. This notion of “rediscovery” involving the perfectibility of the past is another aspect of Verne’s modernity metaphorized in the contemporary critical activity around Verne that theoretically “perfects” the monumental authority of the Voyages through multiple and divergent readings of their symbolic forms and scientific, didactic, and psychological agendas.

Voyage au centre de la terre comme auto-analyse,” by Mireille Gouaux-Coutrix, uses a Freudian psychoanalytic approach to uncover the latent content of Verne’s image-repertoire that makes Journey, the second novel in the series, such a delirious and fantastic account, radically different from the first, Cinq Semaines en ballon, which is a very straightforward presentation of 19th-century surface-of-the-world geography. Her thesis makes Journey into a topological model for others in the series in which the central question of the scientific inquiry remains unanswered (De la Terre à la Lune, Autour de la Lune, and Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras). Largely contradicting the argument of Evans’s book, she demonstrates how the scientific novel “stops short,” rapidly quitting “the positivist terrain” in favor of secret forays into the fantastic (p. 204), a subversion of Pierre-Jules Hetzel’s orders in which, according to Gouaux-Coutrix, Verne re-enacts his conflict with his father Pierre (pp. 209-10). Professor Lidenbrock becomes a condensation of the father-figure as non-libidinal knowledge which is ultimately daunted by the superior revelatory power of Axel’s own fertile imagination as a poet and a dreamer as well as a mathematician (p. 211).

Christian Chélébourg’s “Le paradis des fossiles” also presents an interesting counterpoint and extension of Evans’s explication of scientific didacticism in the Voyages—this time by an analysis of the role of science in Journey. Whereas Lidenbrock’s identity as a professor mineralogy and a naturalist doubly authorizes the pedagogical function of scientific discourse, Verne’s story creates a narrative space in which time is absolved, a uchronia which privileges fullness over coherence: prehistoric animals from vastly different periods as well as the mysterious “fossil-man” of the quaternary age who is their shepherd appear within the same space. At this point, the

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narrative synthesizes science and strangeness into a “fantastic parenthesis” which enables Verne to sketch a fantastic speculation that he could not otherwise propose in strictly realistic terms: “The fantastic text here fulfills one of its essential functions: of permitting the emergence of a meaning that one resists formulating in realist terms” (p. 224). Much more than a basic ingredient of the fictions, science supplies conceptual and imaginary models in the Voyages and has a mimetic as well as a fantastic relationship with the fictional text. Chélébourg also suggests that the development of the novel itself becomes a metaphor for the investigative process of natural history which, in a sense, brings fossils back to life. At the same time, his study opens a door to further investigations of the fantastic dimension of the Voyages.6

Verne’s work is the constant focal point of many divergent critical approaches that produce conflicting if not contradictory readings and conclusions.7 This is one of the most salient aspects of the critical modernity of the oeuvre: the facility with which the novels lend themselves to interpretation by such a heterogeneous group of poets, writers, and critics as Apollinaire, Ray Bradbury, Gaston Bachelard, Michel Serres, Roland Barthes, Marie-Hélène Huet, and Simone Vierne. The ensemble of the Voyages extraordinaires remains a truly open work whose future of readers and critics is assured by the rich depths of its erudition as well as the soaring heights of its imagination—an oeuvre which, like Janus, looks both backwards and forwards, to the past and the future.


  1. This and other translations from the French are by RMP.
  2. Andrew Martin articulates this problematic in the Voyages most eloquently in The Knowledge of Ignorance (Cambridge, UK: 1985):

    There are no antitheses in the Voyages: entropy and negentropy, knowledge and ignorance, eating and being eaten are not opposite forces engaged in a conflict for pre-eminence; rather they constitute the twin aspects of a single reversible process. The function of the Vernian savant, as of the text, is to rectify a lack: but as he goes about filling in gaps he creates still more gaps waiting to be filled, enlarging the original lack. Eating generates appetite, eating away at the consumer (‘range par la faim’); ordering generates disorder; the expansion of the book of knowledge entails the yet greater expansion of the book of ignorance. If eating fragments, and fragmentation frustrates knowledge, then to the initial equation ‘connaître, c’est manger’ must be added its obverse: ‘manger, c’est méconnaître.’ Epistemophilia therefore implies anepistemophilia. The more the savant eats, says, or knows, the more there is remaining to be eaten, said, or known. (p. 178)

  3. See D. Suvin, Metamorphoses of Scientific Fiction (New Haven, 1979), pp. 3-15; also Marc Angenot, “The Absent Paradigm: An Introduction to the

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    Semiotics of Science Fiction,” SFS, 6 (1979): 9-19.
  4. See Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les choses (Paris, 1966) p. 309, on “the Positivist’s dream,” cited by Evans, p. 106.
  5. See Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (Paris: Seuil, 1957), pp. 80-81, cited by Evans, p. 153.
  6. Of course the classical reference work here is Tzvetan Todorov’s Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris, 1970), which Chélébourg cites. For a brilliant new study of the relationship between the fantastic and realism in l9th-century narrative—an attempt to understand the fantastic through realism—see Deborah Harter’s Figuring the Disfigured Body: The Poetics of Fantastic Narrative (unpublished dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1989).
  7. Angenot makes this point in his “Jules Verne and French Literary Criticism (II),” SFS, 3 (1976):46-49. The Huet study to which I presently allude he sees as interpreting science as Verne’s “vehicle to recreate history by projecting not that which will be but that which might have been” (p. 47; Angenot’s emphasis).

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
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