Jules Verne, Herman Melville, and the "question of the monster." (19th-century French science fiction author; 19th-century American author)

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Author: Carter Kaplan
Date: Summer 1998
From: Extrapolation(Vol. 39, Issue 2)
Publisher: Kent State University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,277 words

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It is apparent in science fiction author Jules Verne's works that his affinities were sometimes very deeply American. His style of writing, the orientation of his subjects toward certain social and political issues and his enthusiasm for the possibilities and flaws of a young nation (the US) places Verne among the great literary artists of the American Renaissance era, namely Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Verne's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' contains antecedents that may be directly traceable to Melville's Moby Dick, particularly its depiction of a wonderful monster.

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At last, to the East, distant about three degrees, appear'd a fiery crest above the waves; slowly it reared like a ridge of golden rocks, till we discover'd two globes of crimson fire, from which the sea flowed away in clouds of smoke; and now we saw it was the head of Leviathan; his forehead was divided into streaks of green & purple like those on a tyger's forehead: soon we saw his mouth & red gills hang just above the raging foam, tinging the black deep with beams of blood, advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.

- Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Although he wrote in France and in French, Jules Verne's affinities were sometimes profoundly American. His enthusiasm for the giant potentials and tragic shortcomings of democratic America, his technique of detailed verisimilitude, the manner of his wit, and the cast of his orientation toward certain social and political problems firmly locate him among the great "romantic" (or are they "satiric"?) literary artists of the American Renaissance: Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. What is most striking about Verne and these authors is that the character types they explore, although marginalized socially, are yet at the forefront of scientific, technical, and moral (or is it amoral?) progress.

Verne's debt to Poe is particularly conspicuous.(1) Like Poe, Verne exhibits strict adherence to known science or pseudo-science, a journalistic style ornamented by a wealth of technical detail, and a curiosity for radical character types existing at the fringes of conventional society. Early in From the Earth to the Moon - Verne's satire of post-Civil War America and the military-industrial complex - Poe is briefly evoked. Poe is mentioned in passing by a speaker addressing the Baltimore Gun Club. The purpose of their meeting is direct physical communication with the moon. Poe, "a strange moody genius," is connected with a series of hoax newspaper reports of lunar travel. The members of the Baltimore Gun Club, electrified with patriotism, cheer for their literary countryman, "Hurray for Edgar Poe!" (Moon 13) . . . which can hardly be taken for anything but ironic. Just the sort of mob that filled the great hall of the Gun Club also filled the streets of Baltimore with election rioting when Poe was found dead there in 1849.

In his 1864 article, "Poe and His Works," Verne speculates on Poe's novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, claiming "the story of Pym's adventures breaks off in mid-air. Who will take it up again? Someone more daring than I, who does not fear to launch himself into a sphere of the impossible" (Antarctic v). Thirty-one years later, having through his success outgrown his awe for the impossible legacy of his master, Verne was completing his sequel to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, published in France as Le Sphinx des Glaces ("The Sphinx of the Ice-fields").

Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is another work with significant antecedents directly traceable to a masterpiece of the American Renaissance: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.(2) As with Poe's novel, did Verne see in Moby-Dick the basis for a sequel? Both 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Moby-Dick are set against the backdrop of the sea and the exotic forms it contains. Both works portray the odd circumstance of an educated gentleman and a super-human harpooner brought together to solve ineffable mysteries. Both works contain mad or near-mad captains obsessed with loathing, vengeance, and a quest for worldly justice. And both works feature a wonderful monster.

At the level of satire, the tenor of the first chapter of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea strikes directly at the heart of Moby-Dick for its inspiration. Readers of 20,000 Leagues will remember that the year 1866 was marked by a series of strange events. These mysterious and inexplicable phenomena particularly agitated the maritime industry: "Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the governments of states on both sides of the Atlantic were deeply interested in the matter" (1). No one was quite aware of the very first sighting, but suddenly ships from all over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were reporting encounters with an object referred to with awe as "an enormous thing." It was long, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale. Initial reports varied on the size of the object, but as the frequency of sightings increased it was determined the object was approximately 350 feet long, far surpassing the dimensions of any whales admitted to by the ichthyologists of the day. Was it then a shifting reef? Might it be a moving sand bar? But the evidence indicated this thing could transport itself rapidly over vast distances; in one instance over seven-hundred nautical leagues in three days. A fantastic collision with the monster was reported, leading to a very precise and methodical memorandum directed by the officers of the French frigate Normandy. Then a similarly accurate survey of the phenomenon was made by the staff of Commodore Fitz-James aboard the Lord Clyde, and "the question of the monster," as it came to be called, infected the public mind. "In every place of great resort the monster was the fashion. They sang of it in cafes, ridiculed it in the papers and represented it on the stage" (3). Politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and even philologists joined the maritime community in the debate over the monster's nature and significance. The newspapers printed "caricatures of every gigantic and imaginary creature, from the white whale, the terrible 'Moby Dick' of hyperborean regions, to the immense Kracken whose tentacles could entangle a ship of five-hundred tons, and drag it into the dark abyss of the ocean depths. . . . Controversy burst forth between the credulous and the incredulous in the societies of savants and scientific journals" (4). Finally, Verne reports, satirical writers seized upon "the question of the monster," and entreated their learned contemporaries not to admit to "the existence of Krackens, sea serpents, 'Moby Dicks,' and other lucubrations of delirious sailors" (4).

The controversies surrounding the "question of the monster" described in the first chapter of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea suggest a parody of the controversies surrounding the multitude of representations of the whale juxtaposed in Melville's scholarship and imagination. The introductory section to Moby-Dick, entitled "Extracts," comprising copious, odd, arbitrary, and random allusions to whales embodies the divergent points of view on, if you will, the "question of the monster." Throughout Moby-Dick Melville delights in illuminating this controversy as he explores the many differing points of view people hold concerning whale anatomy, whale taxonomy, legalistic particulars of whale ownership, whales as depicted in art, whales as conceived by Christian and cannibal theologians, the etymology of the word "whale," even the psychology and personalities of whales. Contributing his own energies toward this effort and bringing to bear the considerable experience and expertise of a seasoned whaleman, Melville himself examines and probes into the whale from every conceivable vantage point. He criticizes artists' renderings of it, looks for its form in mountains and in stellar constellations, attempts to rationally define and classify it, chases it, harpoons it, eats it, examines its head phrenologically, dissects it, measures its skeleton, boils it down, even cuts off its foreskin, which, after sartorial alterations, he triumphantly wears like a raincoat.

But along with the satirists Verne describes in the first chapter of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, would Melville go so far as to admit his white whale, or even the novel Moby-Dick itself, to be a mere figment of delirious lucubration? Or is Moby-Dick, both novel and whale, even more monstrous for being this lucubratory figment, an awful articulated conglomeration of imaginative swagger, black bile, and what could only be an egomaniac's standard of scholarly attainment?

In chapter 7 of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, entitled "An Unknown Species of Whale," Professor Aronnax, his servant, Conseil, and the harpooner, Ned Land, finally not only meet with but also tread upon the monster. To their surprise they find that it is made of riveted steel plates. Professor Aronnax discovers perhaps what Melville suspected about his own monster. Aronnax says, "There was no doubt about it! This monster, this natural phenomenon that had puzzled the learned world, and overthrown and misled the imagination of seamen of both hemispheres, was, it must be owned, a still more astonishing phenomenon, in as much as it was a simply human construction" (44).

In chapter 35 of Moby-Dick, "The Mast Head," Melville makes an innocuous but significant assertion about the denomination of human inventions. His topic is Captain Sleet's recent invention, the Crow's Nest. Melville says: "He called it the Sleet's Crow's-nest, in honor of himself; he being the original inventor and patentee, and free from all ridiculous false delicacy, and holding that if we call our own children after our names (we fathers being the original inventors and patentees), so likewise should we denominate after ourselves any other apparatus we may beget" (157). It should be noted that Melville adhered pretty closely to this principle throughout his writing career. Each of Melville's works is indeed named after himself. Typee is Melville as Marquesian cannibal. Omoo, Polynesian for "wanderer," is Melville as beachcomber in Tahiti. Mardi, a mythic island archipelago, is the constellation of philosophical and artistic ideals that comprise Melville's imagination. Redburn is Melville as a young destitute gentleman trying his hand at the merchant service. White Jacket is Melville as a conscientious individual coming to terms with his alienation and abhorrence at the evils of the authoritarian world of a man-of-war. Pierre is Melville as a naive and alienated romantic artist coming to terms with his own sexuality and the dynamics and expectations of the American aristocracy. "Bartleby the Scrivener" is Melville as frustrated artist coming to terms with the demands of the market place, the tedium of writing, and the amusing, liberating, but terrifying voice that says "I would prefer not to." "Benito Cereno" is Melville as bound, muzzled, and deposed captain unable to decry the barbarians around him. Israel Potter is Melville as prototypic Jeffersonian Yeoman surrounded by his Revolutionary War counterparts: Benjamin Franklin, the shrewd and cunning organizer; Ethan Allan, the Rousseauean noble savage in white skin; John Paul Jones, the ruthless egocentric warrior with his corollaries, Alexander Selkirk and Juan Fernandez. The Confidence-Man is Melville as metaphysical masquerader and literary slight-of-hand artist. Clarel is Melville as pilgrim seeking his lost faith in the Holy Land. Billy Budd is Melville as a balance of self-destructive naivete, human innocence, and avatar of the Prince of Peace. And of course Moby-Dick is Melville as ineffable mystery, the sum total of metaphysical questions about himself and the universe which will not bear scrutiny or explanation. And in this scheme Ahab is the will to force an answer to these mysteries, to the point of forming them into a tangible entity, into a monster. Ahab is the archetypical monster maker.

I believe Melville's solution to the "problem of the monster" lies in his understanding or his realization that people are the creators of their own monsters. Although veiled in lyrical rhetoric, schoolboy parodies, working-class posturing, and aristocratic condescensions, the novel Moby-Dick yet very neatly, if not systematically, explores the role of semantics and epistemology in the genealogy of human belief systems. In Moby-Dick Melville explores the role and effects of semantic and epistemological issues on the problem of human mythologies, rituals, and institutions.

In all its variations and permutations, only one thing has happened in human history: the reification and institutionalization through language and symbols of mythological explanations of the world. The interaction of these mythological explanations forms the dialectic which is, so to speak, the "question of the monster" that occupies the world in the beginning of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and comprises the scholarship throughout Moby-Dick. William Blake very clearly describes the mechanism of this problem in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

The ancient poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive.

And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity.

Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began priesthood.

Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.

And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things.

Thus men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast. (153)

Working from these propositions Blake sketches a dichotomy between two forms of scholarship, what he calls the Greek and Roman model as opposed to the Hebraic model. The Greek and Roman model embraces the dialectics of memory, orthodoxy, the arbitrary dictatorship of scholasticism, and, as Eric Auerbach suggests, seeks to establish and express reality. The Hebraic model embraces the dialectics of inspiration, the evolution of beliefs, the humanism of poetry, and, rather than expressing reality, seeks to suggest reality. The Greek and Roman model is based on Aristotelian and formalistic analysis, which requires fundamental or "atomic" categories upon which to base its deductions. The Greek and Roman dialectic is thus fixed and cumulative, and only revisable through institutional upheaval - which explains why Blake called the Greeks and Romans "silly slaves of the sword" and declaimed "The classics, it is the classics! & not Goths or Monks, that Desolate Europe with Wars" (778). The Hebraic model is a process of continually revising these fundamental or atomic categories. This is seen in Ezekiel and Revelation where myths and imagery are revaluated, reprocessed, redeemed, and recast into ever newer and evolving forms. In the Hebraic dialectic myths are subject to the vision and intentions of the poet. In the Greek and Roman dialectic, officers within the theocracy are subject to the mandates and standards of the myths which form and justify their institutions.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea can be seen in this respect as an Hebraic recasting of Moby-Dick. Verne's mind is charged with Melville's images and his imagination has been illuminated by the example of Melville's inspiration. Verne's task as a poet in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is to rework Melville's images and recast them in the forms dictated by the continuation of this inspiration. In Blakean terms, the continua of this inspiration is Christ. The ever-evolving expression of this inspiration - the mutations, say, between Melville's images and those same images reworked by Verne, are inspired knowledge, or gnosis. It may be that Ishmael survived the wreck of the Pequod and "the sharks, which glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths," because he had discovered this gnosis within himself (573). Ishmael rejects Ahab's mythologies, and returns to land to recast them.

Verne seizes upon this gnosis and rapidly, though not as rigorously as Melville, sets down his own new form of Melville's icons. Ahab makes Moby Dick a monster:

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it. (184)

However, as Ray Bradbury points out in "The Ardent Blasphemers," his introduction to the Signet Edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:

Captain Nemo instead creates a symbol of the deep, a manifestation of God's huge wonders, submersible, long-ranging, capably destructive, submissive to Nemo's commands. Nemo will course the oceans in his monster, to spread a more personal and therefore more constructive terror in the world. Nemo will not run after Moby Dick. He will rear him whole and live in his belly and be the mystery himself.

In sum Nemo skins together and rivets tight the very symbol most feared and whispered of by Ahab's mind and Ahab's crew. Casting aside any doubts, precluding any inhibitions, Nemo intrudes to the monster's marrow, disinhabits mysticism, evicts terrors like so much trash, and proceeds to police the universe beneath, setting it to rights, harvesting its strange crops, be they animal, vegetable, or mineral-gold from sunken . . . ships to be distributed to the worlds needy. (7)

Verne's solution then is to set aside his fear, examine the monster and identify his own role within it. Ishmael says as much early in Moby-Dick: "Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could be social with it would they let me - since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in" (7). Of all the monstrosities we lodge with, Moby-Dick entreats us to be on friendly terms with what can sometimes be the most horrible inmate of all - ourselves. To this end, Melville offers the metaphor of a monster within us. For Verne, we are in the monster.

The question of monstrosity can be closely tied with the production of texts, with the idea of monstrosity and text closely parallel to each other. As Ahab makes Moby Dick a monster, so he makes the text a monster. This notion of text-as-monster has its roots in the scientific revolution of the late Renaissance. It is convenient to identify its philosophical formulation in the eighth chapter of the second book of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding where Locke elaborates the notion that the apprehension of light and colors are only ideas of the mind and have no external existence in the physical world. In the argument developed in this essay, monsters are a product of the imagination. In poetry, it is surely Milton who has penned the most famous expression of this idea: "The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." Before embracing the idea out of hand, however, the careful student would do well to consider that Milton puts these words in the mouth of Satan. But to continue: Locke's notion is central to Addison's understanding of the creation of monsters, where monstrous birth is the result of unnatural mixtures. In the creation of texts, a monstrous text will result from the unnatural combination of disparate ideas. Shakespeare plays on this notion in The Winter's Tale where it is asserted "This is an art / Which does mend nature, change it rather, but / The art itself is nature" (IV. iv. ll. III-13). That is to say, nature prohibits combinations which produce prodigies. But when nature allows these combinations, then they are natural. The implications of this formulation might be inferred from Walpole's comments on the creation of his Castle of Otranto where he describes his work in terms of an experiment in which he combined elements of ancient romance (imagination and improbability) with modern romance (a conscious intention to copy nature). The result is a fiction in which characters react "naturally" to inventive and fanciful (and impossible) circumstances. Walpole confesses that this invention was borrowed from Shakespeare. Of course the most famous literary monster maker is Mary Shelley, who in the preface to the Standard Novels Edition of 1831 refered to Frankenstein as "my hideous progeny." Barbara Johnson has aptly suggested, "Frankenstein is the story of the experience of writing Frankenstein." (7). In Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, we see Locke's principle triumph as an essential plank of Romantic epistemology. Locke's principle is the fire brought to earth, as it were, by the "modern Prometheus." And this fire was brought across the Atlantic to find further refinement - indeed, ultra-refinement when combined with the deep seated puritanism of American literature which, whether it be in sympathy or reaction, was an important theme in any literary admixture. Surely Emerson looked over the sharp edge into the abyss of relativistic epistemology and realized how the "first person" was so important in rhetoric and yet so monstrous.(3) Indeed, according to this reading, Melville built the great American novel on this theme. It is to Verne's credit that he could so painlessly grapple with this "monster" and introduce a guiding clarity into a debate ("the question of the monster") which occupied literature and philosophy since Shakespeare and Locke. Indeed, Verne's solution - a combination of social activism, Byronic heroics and machine-age optimism - has dominated the positive face of romantic discourse to the present day.

Where Ahab makes the text a monster, Nemo makes the text a machine that looks like a monster. Ahab uses the text to frighten the world for evil purposes while Nemo uses the text to terrorize the world for progressive purposes. It is interesting to note that while he shares profound affinities with the Captain of the Nautilus, Professor Aronnax, the "narrator," firmly rejects the monstrous terrorist aspect of Nemo's program.

Verne shows us how we might take up the mantle of Jonah, enter the monster, and exploit the experience to positive ends. Verne - following after the pattern set by Melville - accomplishes this task by transforming prodigy into parody. And perhaps this is the solution to the "question du monstre"?


1. Poe's influence on Verne has been studied repeatedly; see Desvignes, Di Maio, Meakin, Ponnau, Santraud, Sprout, and Zanger.

2. Ray Bradbury's essay "The Ardent Blasphemers," is the only article comparing Verne and Melville I've found. While Bradbury's insights concerning Ahab and Nemo as well as the whale and the Nautilus are valuable (and discussed at the end of this essay), much of Bradbury's reading is deeply flawed because he too closely (and painfully!) identifies Melville with Ahab. Bradbury also neglects to discuss or explain the references to the white whale in Verne's text. The first excerpts of Moby-Dick translated into French (a summary of Moby-Dick interspersed with translated passages) appeared in France in 1853; see Forgues. An abridged version of La Cachalot blanc was published by Gedalge in 1928. According to Touttain, the first French translation of Moby-Dick was not published until 1941. Touttain points out in a footnote that Verne mentions the white whale in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but Touttain does not discuss or explain the possible implications.

3. Richardson quotes a line that points to the essence of Emerson's revelation: "It is awful to look into the mind of man and see how free we are" (127).

Works Cited

Addison, Joseph and Richard Steele. "No. 413, Tuesday, June 24, 1712." The Spectator, vol. 3. Donald F. Bond, ed. London: Oxford UP. 1965. 544-47.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP. 1974.

Blake, William. The Complete Writings of William Blake. Geoffrey Keynes, ed. New York: Random House. 1957.

Bradbury, Ray. "The Ardent Blasphemers." Foreword to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. By Jules Verne. New York: Bantam, 1962.

Desvignes, Lucette. "De Poe a Jules Verne et du mystere au gouffre." in Actes du VIIe Congres de l'Association Internationale de Litterature Comparee. Stuttgart: Bieber, 1979.

Di Maio, Mariella. "Jules Verne et le voyage au second degre ou un avatar d'Edgar Poe." Romantisme: Revue du Dix Neuvieme Siecle 19 (1990):67, 100-109.

Dimic, Milan V., and Eva Kushner, eds. Actes du VIIe Congres de l'Association Internationale de Litterature Comparee. Stuttgart: Bieber, 1979.

Forgues, E. D. "Moby-Dick." Revue de deux mondes 23 (Jan.-Mar. 1853): 491-515.

Johnson, Barbara. "My Monster/My Self," Diacritics 12 (1982): 2-10.

Meakin, David. "Like Poles Attracting: Intertextual Magnetism in Poe, Verne, and Gracq." Modern Language Review 88 (July 1993): 599-611.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Evanston: Northwestern-Newberry, 988.

Ponnau, Gwenhael. "Edgar Poe et Jules Verne: Le Statut de la science dans la litterature fantastique et dans la litterature de science-fiction." in Actes du VIIe Congres de l'Association Internationale de Litterature Comparee. Stuttgart: Bieber, 1979.

Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Santraud, J.M. "Dans le sillage de la baleiniere d'Arthur Gordon Pym: Le sphinx des glaces Dan, Yack." Etudes Anglaises: Grande Bretagne, Etats Unis 25 (1972): 353-66.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter's Tale. New York: Pocket Books. 1965.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Norton. 1995.

Sprout, Monique. "The Influence of Poe on Jules Verne." Revue de Litterature Comparee 41 (1967): 37-53.

Touttain, Pierre-Andre. "Vingt Mille Ronds De Fumee." Grand Album Jules Verne. Paris: Hachette, 1982. 45-84.

Verne, Jules. An Antarctic Mystery. Boston: Gregg, 1975.

-----. From the Earth to the Moon. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978.

-----. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. New York: Oxford UP. 1996.

Zanger, Jules. "Poe's Endless Voyage: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym." Papers on Language and Literature 22 (Summer 1986): 276-83.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A20913299