Monday, December 06, 2010

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers

Just about every time that I think I'm finally getting on top of things this term, the term retaliates by slapping me hard a few times; late November to mid-December is always, quite literally, my busiest time of year, and this year it's worse than usual. So I Stargate-marathon while grading papers and quizzes, and commenting on papers, and double-checking quiz grades, and double-checking that course requirements were met, and putting it all together, and taking note of things that I need to change for next term, and answer student e-mails frantically asking me questions about things that are in the syllabus or that were mentioned in the review class they attended, or were emailed to the entire class a week and a half ago, and doing paperwork, and reflecting on the fact that while Socrates is write that no one should be paid for teaching I should nonetheless be paid ten times what I am paid in order to put up with the craziness that goes with grading. It's good fun. And sometimes I take a break reading, which is harder to do than it sounds given that I start feeling guilty about the fact that I am not grading Every Single Waking Moment of the Day.

One of the books I am reading is Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and it's an interesting experience (besides being a fitting metaphor for my end of term grading); I've read it before, but I always find when I re-read Verne that I've forgotten how lush his descriptions are. One always remembers the stories -- the action sequences. But Verne is interesting in that the action-sequences are in a sense just auxiliary: they are there to keep you interested in the descriptions by breaking them up a bit and putting them into a story. And many of his novels -- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is very much a case in point -- consist mostly of continual, enthusiastic descripton of natural phenomena (and even those that don't often make it up in part by enthusiastic description of technology or engineering). And it's part of what makes Verne work: what you'll remember when you close the book is the story (giant squid wrestling with the Nautilus), but what you get caught up in when actually reading the book is the extraordinary landscape, whether it's of sea life or of marvellous machines, or of nations seen while racing onward to some destination. What really shows the quality of Verne's skill as a writer is that the descriptions are not easy (they are full of things that most people could not be expected to know) but they are beautifully written.

In a great many English translations these long passages are cut out. And that's very much a shame. We need more science fiction with passages like this:

What charming hours I passed thus at the saloon windows! What new specimens of submarine flora and fauna I admitted to the brilliant light of our electric lantern! Agariciform fungi, slate-coloured actinies, amongst others the thalassianthus aster, rubipores like flutes, only waiting for the breath of the god Pan, shells peculiar to that sea, which establish themselves in madreporic excavations, the base of which is turned in a short spiral, and lastly, a thousand specimens of a polypier that I had not observed before, the common sponge.

The class of spongiaires, the first group of polypiers, is precisely created by this curious product, the utility of which is incontestable. Sponge is not a vegetable, as some naturalists still say, but an animal fo the last order: a polypier inferior to coral. Its animality is not doubtful, and we may admit the opinion of the ancients, who looked upon it as an intermediary between plants and animals. I ought to say, however, that naturalists have not agreed about the organisation of the sponge. According to some it is a polypier, and to others, such as Milne Edwards, it is a solitary and unique individual.
[This is the Collins Classics version, copyright 2010, p. 174. The French of which this is a translation is below. (Speaking of which, whatever possessed the translator to translate 'salon' as 'saloon' when 'salon' would have done better?)]

After which M. Aronnax continues his discussion of the sponge for several paragraphs, broken up only by his calling Conseil, and why? In order that Conseil might learn about sponges and polypiers, of course. And that's what makes Verne almost uniquely great as a science fiction writer: while he does write about how cool a submarine would be, what he spends most of his time writing about is how cool scientific investigation would be if you had a submarine. He is really and truly enthusiastic about the sponges; he's not afraid to give a little lesson on sponge taxonomy, because he actually has the writing skills to pull it off; and he doesn't dumb it down at all, because his astounding adventures are intellectual adventures as well as adventures in the more ordinary sense. We really do need more writers like him.


Que d’heures charmantes je passai ainsi à la vitre du salon ! Que d’échantillons nouveaux de la flore et de la faune sous-marine j’admirai sous l’éclat de notre fanal électrique ! Des fongies agariciformes, des actinies de couleur ardoisée, entre autres le thalassianthus aster des tubipores disposés comme des flûtes et n’attendant que le souffle du dieu Pan, des coquilles particulières à cette mer, qui s’établissent dans les excavations madréporiques et dont la base est contournée en courte spirale, et enfin mille spécimens d’un polypier que je n’avais pas observé encore, la vulgaire éponge.

La classe des spongiaires, première du groupe des polypes, a été précisément créée par ce curieux produit dont l’utilité est incontestable. L’éponge n’est point un végétal comme l’admettent encore quelques naturalistes, mais un animal du dernier ordre, un polypier inférieur à celui du corail. Son animalité n’est pas douteuse, et on ne peut même adopter l’opinion des anciens qui la regardaient comme un être intermédiaire entre la plante et l’animal. Je dois dire cependant, que les naturalistes ne sont pas d’accord sur le mode d’organisation de l’éponge. Pour les uns, c’est un polypier, et pour d’autres tels que M. Milne Edwards, c’est un individu isolé et unique.


  1. Anonymous2:49 AM

    Saloon is nautical for the large cabin where 1st. class passengers foregather.

  2. branemrys8:30 AM

    Ah, thanks, that would make sense.


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