Thursday, April 14, 2005

Master of the World

Umberto Eco's reflections on Jules Verne are rather interesting (hat-tip: Vox Popoli). I particularly found this passage interesting:

Per quanti meriti si debbano riconoscere al nostro Salgari, il padre di Sandokan non aveva un gran senso dell'umorismo (come del resto i suoi personaggi, tranne Yanez), mentre i romanzi di Verne sono pieni di humour, basti ricordare quelle pagine splendide del 'Michele Strogoff' dove, dopo la battaglia di Kolyvan, il corrispondente del 'Daily Telegraph', Harry Blount, per impedire al suo rivale Alcide Jolivet di trasmettere la sua corrispondenza a Parigi, tiene occupato l'ufficio telegrafico dettando versetti della Bibbia per l'ammontare di qualche migliaio di rubli; sino a che Jolivet riesce a rubargli la posizione allo sportello telegrafico e lo blocca trasmettendo canzoncine di Beranger. Recita il testo: "- Aoh! - fece Harry Blount. - Così è, - rispose Alcide Jolivet". E ditemi se questo non è stile.

It certainly is true that Verne has an excellent sense of humor. I just finished Master of the World , the lovely little sequel to Robur the Conqueror, published in 1904, the year before Verne's death. It deserves to remembered, even if for nothing else, for the spectacular image of the automobile/boat/submarine/flying-machine taking flight over the edge of Niagara Falls in the midst of a lunar rainbow. Here's a passage from Chapter Four:

The public imagination, highly excited, readily accepted every sort of rumor about this mysterious automobile. It was said to be a supernatural car. It was driven by a specter, by one of the chauffeurs of hell, a goblin from another world, a monster escaped from some mythological menagerie, in short, the devil in person, who could defy all human intervention, having at his command invisible and infinite satanic powers.

But even Satan himself had no right to run at such speed over the roads of the United States without a special permit, without a number on his car, and without a regular license. And it was certain that not a single municipality had given him permission to go two hundred miles an hour.

Master of the World is an interesting work in many ways, and shows a great deal of Verne's greatness as a science fiction writer. People sometimes talk about Verne as if he were infinitely optimistic about scientific progress; but this requires a very superficial reading of most of his works, which fully recognize the dangers inherent in the increased power science brings. Master of the World, for instance, brings up a haunting question: What are the police to do when criminals have vastly superior technology? And it is interesting in that the hero of the work is not the inventor (who is the villain) but an inspector in the federal police -- what we would now call an FBI agent -- seeking to capture a criminal with virtually inexhaustible means of escape. He fails. In fact, he is captured himself. The inventor is eventually brought down -- but by what, exactly?

This touches on another issue. Jules Verne was throughout his life a devout Catholic; and the Verne-style of scientific fiction was developed in great measure as a reaction to Poe's explicitly materialistic scientific romances. Verne liked Poe's work, but disliked Poe's tendency to make up science -- and what he disliked most about it was that Poe made up the science in order to avoid supernatural explanations. So Verne wrote a different kind of scientific romance, one that respected the natural and moral order established by Providence. The curious resulting paradox, which has often been noted, is that Poe, the materialist, is famous for his stories about the supernatural; and Verne, the Catholic, is famous for stories that have no explicit supernatural intervention at all. I almost wrote 'no trace of the supernatural'; but this would be clearly false. For while Verne does not (except in his very early story "Master Zacharias") make use of explicit supernatural intervention in his works, they are all filled with traces of the supernatural. Verne does not merely write fiction about science; he also writes of human virtues and failings, and his works contain a surprising amount of religious imagery. It's subtle enough that it can easily slip by the reader in most works. But it's there (one is reminded in some ways of other, very different, Catholic writer whose major works are not explicitly Christian but nonetheless exhibit the trace of Catholic Christianity everywhere: Flannery O'Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien). In Master of the World it is far more explicit than in many of the other works. The hero of the work attempts to set aside the rumors of the Devil; but Robur is nonetheless inexorably associated with the Devil throughout the work. Indeed, the book ends with such an association:

It is easy to imagine what a welcome my old housekeeper gave me when I entered my house in Long Street. When my apparition--does not the word seem just--stood before her, I feared for a moment she would drop dead, poor woman! Then, after hearing my story, with eyes streaming with tears, she thanked Providence for having saved me from so many perils.

"Now, sir," said she, "now--was I wrong?"

"Wrong? About what?"

"In saying that the Great Eyrie was the home of the devil?"

"Nonsense; this Robur was not the devil!"

"Ah, well!" replied the old woman, "he was worthy of being so!"

So the book ends. And Inspector Strock cannot deny it; he himself has just gone on for quite some time about Robur's pride. Robur is not Satan; but in his pride he is satanic. And the old woman, who is superstitious but (as we learn from the story) also surprisingly shrewd, seems also to be dead-on in her assessment that Strock was saved by Providence. Because of his pride Robur, a figure like a Miltonic Satan, is cast down from heaven by bolts of lightning, and falls to his death in the Gulf of Mexico, while Strock, in the same fall, lives. Robur could conquer the human race with his inventions; but when he arrogantly attempts to ignore the natural order itself, he is spectacularly defeated. Providence wins, and Verne doesn't need to give more than a hint to point it out. And, while other works are less obvious than this one, and some are primarily just great holiday fiction, one finds similar, more subtle, hints elsewhere.

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