Wednesday, June 5, 2013

20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Part 2: Captain Nemo

A mysterious sea creature unknown to science has been spotted in the oceans. Vessels have been struck by this leviathan and the U.S. Navy has dispatched one of it's warships, the Abraham Lincoln, to hunt down the beast. Pierre Aronnax, an eminent naturalist from the Paris Museum, joined the expedition, hoping to classify a new cetacean; but he got more than he bargained for when he got knocked overboard and ended up on the creature's back.

The "creature" has turned out to be a submarine vessel and not a narwhale after all. Professor Aronnax, his servant Conseil, and their friend Ned Land, a Canadian harpooner, are now captives on board this vessel and are about to meet its enigmatic commander.

Earlier, when the three were waiting in their cell, Professor Aronnax had speculated, "I think that a mere chance has let us into an importunate secret. So, if the crew of this underwater craft is interested in keeping it, and if their interest is of more consequence that the lives of three men, I should conclude that our existence is more than a little compromised."

The captain of the submarine now confirms this guess. He tells them frankly that he regards them as an annoying intrusion and that he has thought long and hard on how to deal with them. Aronnax protests that the intrusion was unintentional, and that the Navy vessel thought it was chasing a sea monster.

"Mounsieur Aronnax, would you venture to suggest that your frigate would not have pursued and bombarded a submarine vessel as readily as it did a monster?" The Professor does not have a good answer for that.

The captain goes on to tell them he has a right to treat them as enemies and throw them back into the sea where he found them.

"It might be the right of a savage," Aronnax protests, "but not of a civilized man."

This provokes an angry response. "Mounsieur le Professeur... I am not what you would call a civilized man!"

But the captain has decided to have mercy on his unwanted guests. They may remain on board his ship. The only condition he places on them is that on occasion he may require them to remain sequestered in their cabin; apart from that they are free to go wherever they like aboard the ship.
"Forgive me, sir... but this freedom is only the one that all prisoners have, of being able to walk about the cell! That cannot possibly be sufficient for us.... you are abusing your position to take advantage of us! This is cruelty!" 
"No, monsieur, it is clemency. You are prisoners of war! ... You attacked me! You have stumbled on a secret that no man on earth shall ever penetrate, the secret of my whole existence!"
Ned doesn't like this situation one bit, but Professor Aronnax does not see they have any choice but agree. The Captain tells him he might not find it so bad. He is familiar with Aronnax's work, and has a copy of his book in his own library. This is undoubtedly why he chose to spare them. He recognizes Aronnax as a fellow scientist. And perhaps he has been lonely as well.
"Let me tell you, Professor, you will not regret the time you spend on board. You are going to travel through a wonderland. Astonishment and amazement will probably become your habitual state of mind. ... I plan to revisit, in another underwater journey around the world -- perhaps it will be my last, who knows? -- everything that I have so far been able to study on the bottom of the sea, where I have so often been, and you shall be my fellow student. From this day on, you will be entering a new world, you will be seeing what no man has yet seen ... and our planet, thanks to me, will deliver up to you it's last secrets."
Ned and Conseil obviously don't count. But Aronnax is dazzled by the scientific opportunities that have opened up for him.

"How should I address you?" the Professor asks.

"To you, I am just Captain Nemo. To me, you and your companions are just passengers on board the Nautilus." Verne chose to name the submarine after an early submersible craft built by the American inventor Robert Fulton. He tried selling it to Napoleon, but the Emperor could see no use for it in invading Russia and so turned Fulton down. "Nemo" is Latin for "No one", and is symbolic of how the Captain has cut off all ties to his former life on the land. As far as the world is concerned, the man he was is dead, just as the surface world is dead to him.

Nemo takes the Professor to his private dining room for dinner. Ned and Conseil are permitted to dine in a cabin of their own. A bit of classism here, perhaps unconscious on Verne's part, perhaps not. Aronnax is treated by the Captain as an equal; the servant Conseil and the working class harpooner Ned are not. Aronnax is astounded to learn that all of the food on the table come from the sea. "What you believe to be meat, Professor, is only fillet of turtle. And here is some dolphin's liver that you would take for a pork stew. ...there is a cream supplied by the udders of cetaceans, and sugar by the great fucus plants that grown in the North Sea." Even the Captain's cigars are rolled from a variety of seaweed rich in nicotine.

Nemo expresses his rapturous love of the sea.
"Yes, I love it! The sea is everything! ...On the surface, they can still exercise their iniquitous laws, fight, devour each other, and indulge in all their earthly horrors. But thirty feet below its surface their power ceases, their influence fades, and their dominion vanishes! Ah, monsieur, to live in the bosom of the sea! Only there can independence be found! There I recognize no master! There I am free!"
Nemo gives Professor Aronnax a guided tour of the Nautilus. We see his library containing works on virtually every subject, (except, Aronnax observes, political economy). Verne includes shout-outs here to some of his own influences such as Victor Hugo, Michelet and George Sand. These are writers who were out of favor with Napoleon III, the then ruler of France, and so their mention was something of a political statement as well as a literary one. Nemo also has a small but impressive art collection; " last souvenirs of a world that is dead for me." Aronnax is impressed by his collection of specimens of aquatic plant and animal life.

Nemo shows him more of the submarine, answering his questions about how air is supplied underwater, how the vessel can endure the crushing pressures of the ocean depths, and how it can navigate underwater. Here we have Verne in his glory. He has thought out a lot of the details and provides the figures for his readers. Verne tried to be meticulous about these things and had his brother, an engineer, check his math for him in many of his books.

Nemo explains the puzzle Aronnax mentioned early on in the book; how such a fantastic submarine could be built without anyone knowing about it. He had it fabricated piece by piece by several different firms in different countries, each order under a different assumed name. He then had the pieces assembled by his own crew in an undisclosed location.

When Aronnax asks how the submarine is powered, Nemo explains that it all comes from electricity. "My electricity is not the electricity known to the rest of the world," Nemo says enigmatically. Some readers have inferred from this that the Nautilus, like its namesake in the US Navy a century later, is atomic-powered.

At the end of the tour, Nemo leaves the Professor back in the saloon, where he is joined by Ned and Conseil. As they discuss their situation, (Ned wonders aloud if the crew of the Nautilus are also run by electricity), panels on the wall open up and they receive a breathtaking view of the ocean depths through a large window. Even Ned, who has calmed down a bit with a full belly but is still unhappy with their situation, is impressed by the spectacle of the fish swimming by.

"Why should you care, Ned," Conseil teases him. "You know nothing about fish."

"I know nothing about fish -- I a fisherman!"

Conseil tells him he knows nothing about the classification of fish, which Ned strenuously denies. "They can be classified into fish that can be eaten and fish that can't!"

So here Verne gives us another dose of educational material. Conseil patiently explains to Ned the different subdivisions and orders of aquatic life; and to each, Ned gives his own analysis based on his culinary standards. But when a school of fish swims by, Conseil has to admit he has no idea what they are. He has picked up a lot of book-learning from working among savants at the Paris Museum and has a thorough knowledge of classification; he's less adept at actually identifying fish. So we get a bit, which becomes a running gag throughout the book, where Ned will name the fish and Conseil will give it's genus and species. As Professor Aronnax observes, "Without a doubt, Ned and Conseil put together would have made one distinguished naturalist.

A couple weeks pass. The Professor sees no more of Nemo in this time. Aronnax takes to spending some time each morning up on the deck of the Nautilus. Each morning, the ship's second-in-command comes up on deck, scans the horizon with a telescope and says the same thing: "Nautron respoc lorni virch." It takes several weeks for Aronnax to suss out that the phrase must mean something like "No ships on the horizon", but for the time being it's "Klaatu barata nikto" for all he knows.

Then the Professor receives a note from the Captain inviting him and his friends on a hunting trip in the forests of the Island of Crespo. This surprises Aronnax because he didn't think Nemo ever went on the land. He soon finds out that Nemo is referring to an underwater forest. Nemo explains the advanced diving suits he has invented which will allow them to walk about on the ocean floor without having to be connected by air hoses to the surface, as was necessary with diving gear of the previous century. He has also devised powerful air rifles, capable of operating underwater, which shoot electrically-charged glass bullets.

Aronnax is dazzled by the wondrous plant and animal life of the undersea forest. The hunting party spends several hours on the sea floor. The Professor has a frightening encounter with a large, spider-like crustacean, which Nemo easily dispatches. Nemo also shoots a sea otter with a magnificent coat; a species which Aronnax observes will probably soon become extinct. This occurs a couple other places in the text: Aronnax observes that a creature is an endangered species, but the critter is killed anyway. The notion of not killing the critter doesn't seem to occur to anybody.

After a day in the submarine forests, Nemo's party returns to the Nautilus.

NEXT:  French explorers of the South Pacific; a few days on land; Captain Nemo's Thunderbolt; and a New Mystery.

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