Wednesday, February 08, 2006

It Usually Begins With...

Jules Verne (2/8/1828-3/24/1905) was the greatest proponent of the enterprising spirit of the 19th century, science and invention, founding father of "hard" science fiction, futurist, and prophet. His father, a prosperous lawyer, wanted him to follow in his footsteps, so Verne moved to Paris where he studied law and managed to get his law degree (licence en droit--master's degree in law) in 1850. He held no interest in pursuing the family practice and tried stockbroking. He would try his hand in writing music as well as fiction until 1863 when Five Weeks in a Balloon was published. As he said the year before, "It struck me one day that perhaps I might utilize my scientific education to blend together science and romance into a work...that might appeal to the public taste.” From then on, and for nearly a quarter of a century, his publisher and life-long friend, Pierre-Jules Hetzel (who also published Proudhon) would publish one or more of his stories every year.

Walter McDougall says:
Verne’s pioneering science fiction (as it would later be called) inspired Robert Goddard, Wernher von Braun, and virtually all the other pioneers of the space age. Indeed, his book From the Earth to the Moon Direct in 97 Hours, first published in 1865, not only anticipated the Apollo program, but also foresaw that it would be done by Americans, that they would quarrel bitterly over the best technological means, that Florida and Texas would compete for the program, that three astronauts would make the journey in a cone-shaped capsule, that they would use rockets to steer and escape the moon’s gravity, and that they would splash down in the Pacific Ocean to be recovered by the U.S. Navy. More impressive still was Verne’s anticipation of the American culture of technology: a mixture of boundless enthusiasm, private initiative, militarism, and P. T. Barnum commercialism.

Verne's son later wrote that he had only three passions in life: freedom, music, and the sea. Verne supported the Revolution of 1848, but as it degenerated into violent class conflict during the June Days he would stand for law and order. When Louis Napoleon then overthrew the republic and made himself emperor, Verne opposed him. He would later support the regime’s active promotion of science and industry. Verne deplored the socialist Paris Commune of 1871. In 1888 he ran for town council on a leftist ticket, but in the 1890s stood with the Right during the bitter, anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair. Verne’s campaign platform was:
“In social matters my taste is order; in politics my hope is to create within the present government a reasonable party that balances respect for justice and religious belief with consideration for people, the arts, and life itself."

Verne's novels have contrary trends: support for national liberation movements such as the Irish and Polish, but also a strong pacifist streak; paternalism toward colonial peoples, but a hatred of slavery and imperialism (especially British); sympathy for utopian experiments, but resentment toward state power; affirmation of free enterprise, but assaults on big capitalism (especially American); a celebration of loyalty and community, but sympathy for militant individualism.

While Verne was critical of British imperialism, he was willing to accede to his publisher's request, in order not to offend France's then-ally, Russia (and the Russian book market), to change the origin and past of the infamous Captain Nemo (Verne's alter ego--the Latin nemo is a pun meaning no-one--or nobody--or fish) from that of a Polish noble vengeful because of the murder of his family during Russian repression and partitions of Poland, and the death of his family in the January Uprising to that of Prince Dakkar, the Hindu son of an Indian rajah and nephew of the great moslem anti-imperialist, Tippoo Sahib, full of hatred for the British conquest of India. After the Sepoy mutiny, Nemo devotes himself to scientific research and develops an advanced electric submarine, the Nautilus. He and his crew of loyals cruise the seas, battling injustice and slavery.

Translations of his works into english have often "toned down" or excised his more political (or, rather, antipolitical) comments, so that much of Verne's politics is not available to most readers, partly due to publisher assumption of a juvenile readership. As Walter James Miller has said:
in 1978 Crowell published ... a complete new translation of From the Earth to the Moon, with annotations and appendices to show the errors and distortions in [previous] versions... I demonstrated that, properly and completely rendered, this genuine space novel was also an anti-war classic on a level with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

[Verne] also foresaw the collapse of colonialism, the emergence of new attitudes about gender and androgyny, the industrialization of China, the smoldering of French separatism in Canada, the rise of the American Goliath, the prostitution of science by new power elites: by private financiers and the military-industrial complex... Verne ...explored all varieties of nonconformism, from vagabondism to guerrilla war to philosophical anarchism...[and] gave a voice in his books to every shade of social and political opinion, from utopian socialism to anti-semitism to proto-fascism. Indeed, the great French scholar Jean Chesneaux ranks Jules Verne with H.G. Wells as a major writer of political fiction.

Jules Verne was a true visionary and a writer to be reckoned with.

Just a thought.
Just Ken
CLASSical Liberalism


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