Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Was Verne Scientific?

I don’t really want to answer the question “Is Jules Verne scientific?” He researched his novels meticulously, wrote with vision for the future, and juxtaposed current scientific knowledge with Atlantis and dinosaurs that live in the Earth’s interior. So the obvious answer is that he developed a public persona as a scientific thinker without actually being one. I’m much more interested in whether his protagonist Prof. Arronax from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is scientific. But I thought that “Is Professor Arronax Scientific?” wouldn’t go as well with my post title from a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve learned something recently about Verne translations. It seems all the early English translations abridged his novels severely, leaving out much of the scientific information that he so painstakingly researched. What translation did I read as a teenager? It could have been a nineteenth-century hack job, one of the more modern, complete translations from the 1960s, or a children’s version. I don’t know which one I read, but I remember caring for it the least of all the Verne novels I read. I much preferred Around the World in Eighty Days, Off on a Comet!, From the Earth to the Moon, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Lately I’ve been reacquainting myself with the novel by listening to Anthony Bonner’s translation from the 60s, and my earlier impression has held: it gets tedious too often. Near the end of the novel, just before escaping from the Nautilus, Professor Aronnax reminisces and rehearses all the amazing episodes in his journey of twenty thousand leagues: the underground cemetery, the attack by the natives in Borneo, the passage under the isthmus of Suez, seeing Atlantis, the fight with the giant squid, and so on. Sure enough, these tableaus shine with the lustre of the brightest pearls harvested by Captain Nemo’s crew. But in between these pearls are strung lists of sea creatures. Every new sea reached brings with it a new list of plants and animals, many of them carefully classified all the way from sub-kingdom to species. Was I supposed to learn some biology from this? Was I supposed to keep track of the differences from sea to sea? Was I supposed to be impressed with Verne’s knowledge? I did none of these things. Mostly I just zoned out and, since the characters never develop, waited for the next action sequence.

I can’t even defend the prolix descriptions as a means of revealing Prof. Arronax’s scientific mind; he never performs any science. He doesn’t develop any hypotheses, look for any evidence, run any tests, or draw any explanatory conclusions. He just describes and lists. In fact, he’s so consistently unscientific, I’m tempted to say that Verne did it all on purpose to present us with a charlatan for a protagonist. After all, Arronax never gets anything right. Near the beginning of the book, he dismisses the theory that a submarine might exist and instead assures the world that the monster is a giant narwhal. And he completely misreads Nemo for the bulk of the book and never learns any of his secrets. But I think Verne really meant the professor to be a scientist and just didn’t know how to pull it off in any other way than by listing scientific names for hundreds of things he sees through the submarine’s windows. I’m looking forward to rereading the others, but maybe the early translators were right to abridge this book.

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