Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Mysterious Island

Miniature Landscape 1
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.


  1. It's been many years since I read Jules Verne, but the attitudes you mention are very prominent in a re-read of most popular literature of the late 1800's. I remember being rather repelled the last time I reread Kipling, even. The tribalism of that time is really apparent; even other nationalities are viewed with suspicion. Africa is a hell on earth populated by bestial mental deficients, the Chinese are demonized as robotic, sinister subhumans, and anyone of color is automatically suspect of the basest character traits. H Rider Haggard and Fenimore Cooper are adept at setting up Noble Savages that, while worthy of respect as individuals, are portrayed as miles above and beyond their own cultures(and possibly containing some white blood to explain it) all while needing the validation and assistance of whites to solve their problems.The only example that comes to mind of an author that could rise above these meretricious conventions is Mark Twain. Even Conan Doyle,something of a free spirit for a Victorian, though capable of writing a rare story about an interracial marriage with sympathy( "The Adventure of the Yellow Face") repeatedly fell back on both racial, national and gender cliches and stereotypes of the time.

    And speaking of gender stereotypes, don't even start about the portrayal of women.(!) At least you can find a few Noble Savages around in the 1800's, but any female figure you meet is either helpless,frail,prone to inexplicable fits of 'vapors' and fainting spells, but selflessly devoted to home and family,without a thought in her head besides arranging the flowers, or an evil scheming devilspawn bent on seduction and/or mayhem.(Think Madame Defarge, or Bram Stoker's succubi.)
    It really is very reassuring to see that we've outgrown this for the most part, and your closing thought, that we could abandon the upwardly mobile myth and be content with substance instead of status, would be even more so.

  2. I went on a Sherlock Holmes binge a while back. The Adventure of the Yellow Face was a surprise; I don't think I'd read it previously, and it felt like it came from a completely different world than the other stories featuring black, brown, or yellow people.

    D'you know Tintin? Hergé had an epiphany fairly early in his career, and made a complete U-turn in the way he depicted non-Europeans between The Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus. Cigars and before were populated with Little Black Sambos, evil fakirs with supernatural powers and poison darts, bloodthirsty Arabs, money-grubbing Jewish merchants, drunken rampaging Injuns, and what have you; from Lotus onward, he demonstrated (at least) an honest attempt at understanding other cultures and presenting them as... well, just people, I guess. Sometimes he even succeeded pretty well -- Tintin in Tibet is especially good IMO.

    Could Arthur Conan Doyle have had a similar epiphany? Or could said story have been written by somebody else? There's plenty of rumors that he used ghostwriters for some or all of his stories. They're certainly wildly uneven in quality.

  3. Apparently the Dalai Lama agrees with you on Tintin. I'm not familiar at all with the comic.I looked it up on wikipedia and it doesn't look like something I'll be able to find easily here in the US, but very interesting nonetheless. All those stereotypes mentioned are very familiar to me, though, from my childhood reading in the Fifties. I read a lot of animal books, classics, boy's adventures, etc, and all of them have at least a bit of that in some character somewhere. Maybe the conversion you speak of happens when an author actually is forced out of his insular world and confronts a living breathing individual of an 'inferior' race and discovers an actual human being? I know that's what kept me from buying into all of it--I was surrounded with real people of different races and cultures and could compare them to their 2-dimensional avatars in books that felt false and unreal.
    AFA Conan Doyle--he went through a lot of changes in later life, some of which were not for the better, like his drifting into bogus spiritualism, but this was written before all that. I suppose it could have been ghost-written, but it seems to me to have the true Sherlockian feel.I do think Doyle had that streak of British sportsmanship,fair play and belief in the individual that goes so strangely with a lot of concomitant prejudices. He took up several cases of miscarriage of justice, for instance, one against a half British/half Indian lawyer, one against a Jew and another against an Irish homosexual, so the story probably falls somewhere into that box.

    I just read an somewhat partisan online bio of Doyle ( to brush up on all these facts, and I think your point about the stories being very uneven in quality may be more a reflection of his life(and times)being that way. He had a very interesting one, and obviously an oversize, unconventional personality to go with it. Apparently Doyle, heavily influenced by Verne,even besieged the WWI authorities with all kinds of ideas about submarines, body armor and armored vehicles that were dismissed as moonshine but later of course, became quite practical realities.

    Reading about these people and that time is an exercise in trying to understand our own, especially the emerging new 'faith' of science as this post of yours delves into. Wonder if some of the more visionary authors of our own time will turn out to be as predictive or as falsely confident as the Victorians.

  4. Amazon stocks most Tintins, including Tibet. The English translations are very good; I first read most of them in English before my French was good enough to tackle them in the original. Some of them are really pretty good, and definitely a good introduction to Franco-Belgian comics; Tintin, Asterix, and Lucky Luke form the core of the core of the canon.

    (I think you'd particularly enjoy Lucky Luke, as it's a Franco-Belgian take on the Old West. Probably banned in the US because it's really pretty awful about them Injuns. Still funny as hell, though, and wacky enough that it really is pretty hard to be seriously offended about it... I think.)