Sunday, May 2, 2010
Miniature Landscape 1, Bengtskär, 2008
I just revisited a childhood favorite: Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island. Being a little nerd, I remember being fascinated by the detailed explanations of brick-making, pottery, smelting, forging, shipbuilding, nitroglycerine-brewing, demolitions, and what have you. I think that's what made the book so special for me, above and beyond the other Robinsonades that I read.
Re-reading it was also very interesting, but for rather different reasons. The unspoken attitudes and values that I never thought to question as an eight-year-old now came through loud and clear.
On the surface level, there's Verne's famously unshakeable faith in science, technology, and human determination: the overarching didactic message of the book is that there is no obstacle over which Cyrus Smith the Engineer couldn't triumph (except perhaps a volcanic eruption that wipes out the ground on which he stands, although mysteriously leaving him unharmed).
I think Verne must have been something of a progressive at his time. His adulation of American democracy and her pioneer spirit, the inclusion of Neb the Negro among the colonists of Lincoln Island, the sympathetic light in which he portrays Captain Nemo's struggle against the British all put him politically pretty far outside the European mainstream, although probably more in tune with the French.
On the other hand, despite having his intelligence vaunted on multiple occasions, all Neb gets to do is cook and demonstrate his loyalty to his master, Cyrus; there's a casual comparison of the facial angles of a Lincoln Island monkey with those of Australian aborigines, and Captain Nemo's quarrel with the British is presented in purely nationalistic terms and, of course, as ultimately futile, since he attempted to stand in the way of the inexorable march of Progress. Verne's racism is accepted as a matter of course; it's clear that it would not have occurred to him to question it any more than to question the theory that the Sun generally rises in the East.
The most strikingly barbaric attitude in Verne's book is about nature. It is simply a resource to be exploited and "tamed" -- the jaguars and tigers must be exterminated; native species displaced in favor of imported, more productive ones; coal mined and burned; iron smelted; forests felled; animals killed in ever-more inventive (and cruel) ways. It would be quite possible to rewrite Verne's book as a story of a band of Tolkien's Orcs landing on a beautiful, pristine desert island, and proceeding to promptly turn it into a smoking waste of mills, mines, and quarries.
When I first read the book some thirty years ago, I did not question any of these attitudes. Then again, I was seven, eight, or nine years old. However, I don't remember anyone else questioning them either. There was a TV series made from the book that I watched around then, too. My grandfather's attitude to nature and Negroes was certainly not unlike that in The Mysterious Island.
Times have changed. I doubt that even the most ardent drill-baby-drill advocates are entirely unconcerned about the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – even they admit in principle that nature is something that's worth preserving. And certainly Verne's overt racism is beyond the pale, even if it's moved partly into the covert realm.
I'm pretty sure that a hundred-odd years from now, many of our attitudes will seem as barbaric as Verne's racism, casual cruelty to animals, or entirely exploitative attitude to nature. I'm also sure that it's as hard for us to see what those attitudes are as it was for Verne – he would've been genuinely surprised at the way we think about race or nature, even if we're a long, long way from actually solving any of the problems we've recognized.
Nevertheless, I'll venture a guess. It's not like I'll be here to be laughed at anyway.
One thing that we take for granted almost continually is this: more is always better. A 10-megabit Internet connection is better than a 2-megabit one. A latest-generation MacBook Pro is better than the previous-generation one. A 100-square-meter apartment is better than an 80-square-meter one. A salary of five grand a month is better than a salary of four grand a month. And because these things are better, we want them and strive for them. If we ever pause to consider if these things actually make us any happier, beyond the brief flush of pleasure we get from acquiring them, it almost never goes beyond pious platitudes about the emptiness of consumerism.
If I had to take a guess at what people will shake their heads in disbelief at, a hundred years from now, that's where I'd put my money.