Wednesday, April 01, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

"The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears."
-The Captain Nemo Manifesto (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

Frenchman Jules Verne -- revered in some circles as the father of science fiction and futurism -- gave the world the remarkable 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in the year 1869. His long-lived, adventurous and exciting tale of submarines, undersea exploration and a classic anti-hero focuses initially on a strange mystery engulfing the "modern" world of the West.

Specifically the civilized world of 1866 is squeezed in the frightening grip of a “mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon.” Seafaring vessels belonging to various global powers have encountered “an enormous thing,” “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.”

Some believe this animal is a Kraken or other ancient sea serpent, one perhaps a miraculous 200 feet in length. But regardless of its origin or exact dimensions, the beast is crowned the terror of the high seas for its anti-social behavior. That behavior consists of wrecking, sinking and scuttling man's best ships.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is told entirely in the first person voice, a format which encourages an affinity for the characters (and a kind of breathless pace, at points...). Accordingly, in the book's second chapter ("Pro and Con"), the reader is introduced to our stalwart narrator: Parisian, Pierre Aronnax, an assistant professor at the Museum of Natural History in France. A great student of the ocean and ocean life, Aronnax believes the notorious sea monster (which has been sinking ships of all nationalities…) is actually a colossal narwhal or other heretofore unseen deep sea creature.

With his loyal servant – the phlegmatic Conseil – in tow, Aronnax boards the frigate Abraham Lincoln captained by Commander Farragut. Their mission: to “purge” the sea monster from the oceans, so it can no longer prove a threat to mankind. The Abraham Lincoln soon departs Brooklyn for the “dark waters” of the Atlantic and a strange rendezvous with destiny.

In Chapter Four, the reader is introduced to another of the book’s protagonists, “the prince of Harpooners,” Ned Land. Land is a Canadian with “an uncommon quickness of hand,” renowned for his skill, audacity and cunning. Ned is forty years old, “strongly built and taciturn, occasionally violent and very passionate when contradicted.” Land is also a confirmed skeptic when it comes to the existence of the sea monster, and he and Aronnax develop a bond of respect and friendship as they debate the possible “organisation” of a beastie that can reputedly puncture the hulls of metal ships. Not long after an encounter with the American frigate, Monroe, the Abraham Lincoln is attacked by the very sea monster in question, and Ned, Arronax and Conseil are hurled overboard into a murky sea.

Our heroes soon find themselves aboard not a sea monster, however, but rather a “huge fish of steel” (of sheet iron, to be precise). This is the highly-advanced submersible called the Nautilus. The vessel is commanded by Captain Nemo (the Latin word for "Nobody," incidentally.) Nemo speaks fluent French, English, German, Latin and French, and counts his allegiance to no country, no nation, no ideology.

Professor, I am not what you call a civilized man,” Nemo soon explains. “I have done with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right of appreciating. I do not therefore, obey its laws.”

Although Captain Nemo considers Ned, Aronnax and Conseil prisoners of war, he offers them clemency. He invites the trio to enjoy his hospitality aboard Nautilus…though they may never be permitted to return to land. For Aronnax, this is a fair trade, since he will now have the opportunity to study aquatic life close-up. For Ned – a man of the world – this accommodation is unacceptable, and he becomes obsessed with escape.

One of the most impressive sections of the book arrives next, in particular Verne’s exhaustive, and picturesque description of the Nautilus interior; a description which sheds light, not coincidentally, on the nature of its inscrutable inventor, the opaque Nemo.

For instance, the Nautilus possesses a vast library consisting of 12,000 books. Nemo describes the impressive collection of volumes as “the only ties which bind me to the Earth." The captain's study/drawing room is likewise a testament to man's best nature. And Nemo's appreciation doesn't cease with the written word, either. He has a piano/organ there on which he plays the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. The same room also doubles as a gallery for the priceless artworks of Raphael, Da Vinci and Corieggo. It is in consideration of these great human achievements that we come to understand something of Nemo's conflicted nature. He both hates and loves his fellow man...

Also, apparently subscribing to the theorem of healthy mind/healthy body, Nemo reveals to his new guests the peculiarities of his unusual diet (which he indulges in a grand, elaborate dining room). Nemo’s nourishment arrives entirely from the sea, and he reports that he is “never ill now.” Eschewing all terrestrial food, his meals consist of “fillet of turtle,” “milk by the cetacea” and “preserves of anemone” among other undersea delicacies.

Nemo does possess one vice, however, from the civilized world of his day: cigars. Not tobacco, mind you, but rather cigars made of sea weed (and rich in nicotine).

In this section of the text (called "The Man of the Seas"), Captain Nemo also declares his “philosophy of life’ so-to-speak. His manifesto begins with the words “The Sea is Everything,” and then continues to illustrate his obsession with the sea: "It covers seven-tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides...It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the 'Living infinite."

The sea is also the very place where Nemo can escape all the "isms" that he despises in modern life (nationalism, imperialism, etc.). The quotation that opens this review, in fact, eloquently reveals his zeal and hunger for real freedom and independence, as well as his steadfast belief that it only exists in a realm where man is absent. Make no mistake, this is where the book delves into deliberate social commentary. Nemo has fled a world that - while priding itself on being civilized -- has only constructed more efficient ways to kill and disenfranchise man.

Considering his misanthropic viewpoint, what we get in Captain Nemo is an early model perhaps, of the modern “dark” hero or rather, in Byronic lingo, the anti-hero. In other words, a man whom we find admirable and sympathetic in spite his total and utter rejection of that which society at large has judged to be "virtue."

And indeed, Nemo is attractive (and heroic) in so many ways. He's a genius, an intellectual, a man of able body and more-than able mind. He has renounced man’s civilization because that civilization is -- at least debatably -- corrupt. Though Nemo is immensely rich (he offhandedly tells Aronnax he could pay off the national debt of France without even missing it…), he is not an aristocrat by any conventional understanding of that word. He shuns the company of poseurs and fools and devotes himself entirely to a high and noble purpose: the exploration of a realm that has captured his imagination. Some might see Nemo's universe as exile, but if it is, it's a self-imposed one.

Nemo boasts a dark side too; no doubt. He’s not just the explorer; not merely the inventor; not only a brilliant scientist. Much of his current life (aboard Nautilus) is devoted to vengeance, to waging war against a civilization that he deems responsible for a great sin. What precisely that sin is, Verne does not reveal in detail. However, Aronnax does make brief note, very near the book’s conclusion, that Nemo has a picture of a lovely woman and two children hanging in his study. This is his family…his dead family, perhaps. They were lost, one supposes, in one of modern man’s endless wars.

Nemo strikes back at the world that killed his loved ones (maybe...) by sinking the ships of those governments. These acts are murder, no doubt, and homicide hangs heavy on Nemo's extraordinary mind. His last words (“Enough!”) speak plainly and simply (without histrionics) to the psychic weight he has borne to avenge his family; and there’s also some indication that he sets the Nautilus into a maelstrom (whirlpool) as a sort of bizarre suicide attempt; though the final fate of Nemo and his extraordinary vessel are not revealed in this text. (See: Mysterious Island!)

Once Aronnax and his friends commence their stay aboard the Nautilus, Verne paints us a portrait of a magnificent and thrilling world. After defining the incredible capacities of the Nautilus (which runs on electricity), we are escorted on a miraculous “walk on the bottom of the sea” utilizing early diving/scuba technology. There are great beauties at these “obscure depths” and also great dangers…including giant sea spiders and sharks “strong enough to crush a whole man in their iron jaws.”

Arronax, Conseil and Land encounter dangerous “savages” (Papuans) in one interlude, and Nemo steers the Nautilus to the Lost City of Atlantis in another. The Nautilus braves ice bergs and other dangers on a voyage to the South Pole, and Nemo even plants his personal flag there, in defiance of The State (and all States).

My favorite chapter in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, however, involves an attack by poulps: so-called “giant squids.” A school of these ghastly monsters descend upon the Nautilus in terrifyingly swift fashion, and Nemo is forced to bring his submarine to the surface to combat them. There, on deck (and without much by way of personal protection...), Nemo and his crew (along with Ned) hack at the tentacled, hungry beasts with only harpoons and hatchets. It’s an awesome battle, and one that captured my imagination both as a child and as an adult. In one terrifying moment, Nemo loses a lieutenant to one of the man-eating squids, and it's a horrifying fate.

It’s funny how age changes perspective, but when I was a child my favorite character here was the harpooner, Ned Land (played by square-jawed Kirk Douglas in the Disney film). Ned wanted to escape the Nautilus, and was the most traditionally “American” good-guy character or "cowboy" of the bunch. As a more contemplative adult, however, it is the enigmatic and tragic Nemo who endlessly sparks my curiosity and imagination. The great value of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is the mysterious, ambiguous, and compelling nature of this most singular “Nobody.”

In terms of his history, Nemo was originally conceived (in Verne’s mind) as Polish…a European. However, upon reflection and input from his agent, Nemo was made an Indian…one resisting British Imperialism in his own home country. I don’t know that the character's nationality is that critical today, actually, but in general I love the concept and depiction of Nemo: an educated, disillusioned “man of the world” who leaves behind imperfect society and imperfect man for the wonders of the sea. He takes with him only man’s best; leaving everything else above the waves.

Returning to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in 2009, I was afraid I would find the work archaic or distancing (because of linguistic and cultural differences), but quite the opposite was true. I found the book immediate, involving and intimate. The things that vexed Nemo about the world are still with us, even today. War and ignorance prime among them. I also felt, again, that I detected the seeds of so many 20th century entertainments in the book's characters and scenarios. When I picture Nemo hacking away at the tentacles of the poulps, I reflexively remember Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) taking out a space "dragon" with an axe in "Dragon's Domain" on Space:1999. When I consider Nemo's obsession with the sea and exploring a new realm, I'm reminded of Hans Reinhardt aboard his conveyance, The Cygnus in The Black Hole. When I fall in love with that amazing technological wonder, the Nautilus, I think of Kirk's love for his beautiful ship of exploration, the U.S.S. Enterprise.

And truthfully, Captain Nemo seems to fit right in with the 21st century world of The Dark Knight. Like Batman, Nemo boasts a unique moral compass, but the course between justice and vengeance is not always an easy trajectory to navigate. Also like Batman, Nemo has countenanced personal tragedy, hides his true identity (taking the name Nemo as cover...) and has a vast fortune at his disposal. Unlike Batman, however, Nemo is a legitimate menace to the world at large. He has advanced technology, the will to use it, and -- most of all -- is powered by righteous anger.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea remains a wondrous tale, one that has endured the test of time. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and SeaQuest DSV are certainly "children" of this adventure as they involve highly advanced submarines exploring ocean depths, but again, it is Captain Nemo – and the idea of a righteous avenger – that seems to have come forth most powerfully from Verne's book and also taken hold of our modern culture. I know there is a new 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea movie planned and I must wonder if these are the qualities that will be most heavily accented this time around.

That would certainly be an appropriate course heading, so long as Nemo’s other extraordinary and human qualities aren’t given short shrift for the easy-movie shorthand of angsty-broodiness. I'd hate to see him reduced to being an underwater Punisher, for instance. I mean, certainly Nemo wreaks bloody vengeance against those who have wronged him, but his passion for science, exploration and knowledge make him more than your typical angel of death. Those qualities balance the man, and rudder the fantastic sights and sounds of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in a very human, very sympathetic source.


  1. I thought that Nemo was Polish in 20,000 and then Indian in Island because, by the time the latter was published, Poland was liberated.

    Regardless, a wonderful start to the series.

    Out of curiosity, in 20,000 there's a scene where Nemo puts his memoirs in a water-proof box and consigns them to the sea. To my knowledge, Verne never followed up on that promising loose end, but has anybody else? It seems like a great opportunity.

  2. That would make a fascinating tale, wouldn't it? The back-story of Captain Nemo...a prequel!

    I'll look into the Polish vs. Indian origin and see what else I dig up.


  3. Anonymous12:53 AM

    Mr. Muir, I am writing a 'prequel' of 20,000 Leagues that connects Captain Nemo and the Nautilus to the American Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln with a 'sequel' that follows the Captain after Professor Aronnax has departed the boat.
    I have taken inspiration from your very thoughtful blog post. Thank you.

  4. Anonymous10:54 AM

    Very captivating, except it was difficult to navigate so to speak through Verne's unyielding desire to almost overwhelmingly engross the reader in his classification of sea life in each chapter.

  5. I continue to work on my trilogy depicting an alternative vision of Captain Nemo. In Book 2 which parallels Verne's 20LKUS, I make Professor Aronnax a more formidable character as a spy for the French Secret Service of Napoleon III. This Pierre Aronnax is not exactly a James Bond or Jason Bourne, but he does have some skills. One question is: Can Nemo turn Aronnax or will Aronnax turn Nemo? Now back to work.