Monday, July 1, 2013

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, part 5: To the Pole

Due to a combination of bad luck and worse timing, Ned Land has had to abort his planned escape from the Nautilus. Now Professor Aronnax and his companions are headed away from European waters and into the wide Atlantic.

But before we go further, I wanted to backtrack a bit. In the passage where Aronnax is anxiously waiting for the appointed time for Ned's escape attempt, he has a chance to peek inside Nemo's cabin. The Captain is not there, but Aronnax sees on his walls a series of etchings.
They were portraits, portraits of great men of history, whose lives had been entirely dedicated to a great human ideal: Kosciusko, the hero whose dying words were Finis Poloniae; Botzaris, the Leonidas of modern Greece; O'Connell, the defender of Ireland; Washington, the founder of the American Union; Manin, the Italian patriot; Lincoln, shot by a defender of slavery; and finally, that martyr to the emancipation of the Negro race, John Brown, hanging on the gallows, so realistically drawn by Victor Hugo.
Tadeusz Kościuszko is best known in America, when he is mentioned at all, as one of the European noblemen who came to aid the American cause in the Revolutionary War. After the American Revolution, he returned to Poland where he fought against the Russian invasion. Although unsuccessful, he was a tireless champion of liberty and of his country. As I mentioned in last week's reading, Verne originally intended for Nemo to be a Polish patriot.

Markos Botzaris  was an important leader in the Greek war for independence from the Ottoman Empire, and Daniel O'Connell, sometimes called "The Liberator", campaigned for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland and for dissolving the Act of Union which yoked Ireland to Great Britain.

Washington and Lincoln need no explanation, (although it is interesting that the ship sent by the US Navy to hunt Nemo down was named after one of Nemo's heroes). John Brown, depending on your point of view, was either a passionate abolitionist or a fanatical terrorist. Verne would say the former.

These are the men Nemo most admires. The Mercer Lewis translation, revealing the translator's antipathy towards Verne's politics, omits this passage.

But onward into the Atlantic. The day after Nemo's visit to the shipwreck at Vigo Bay, he invites Aronnax on another stroll on the ocean bottom. This is the fourth diving expedition Nemo has taken Arronax on so far, but Verne manages to keep each one fresh and interesting. This time the excursion will be at night time and only the Captain and the Professor will be going. Nemo leads Aronnax up an underwater mountain, and on the other side, the Professor sees an incredible sight: a wide plain illuminated by the eerie glow from an underwater volcano; and on the floor of that plain, ruined buildings and columns resembling the classical architecture of Ancient Greece. Nemo explains the site by picking up a stone and writing on a piece of basalt a single word: "ATLANTIS".

Curiously, this is not the first underwater volcano the Nautilus has encountered. During their cruise through the Aegean Sea, it passed through a place where the water was actually boiling due to volcanic activities beneath the waters. This was near the island of Santorin, which some scholars have speculated could have been the inspiration for, Plato's Atlantis.

The Nautilus travels on across the Atlantic, crossing the Sargasso Sea and stopping at one of Nemo's secret island bases, located in an underground grotto beneath an extinct volcano. Yes, Verne loved his volcanoes. This island is where Nemo's men mine the coal he uses to produce the sodium for the Nautilus' super-batteries.

A secret submarine base located beneath an extinct volcano also figures in Verne's later novel Facing the Flag (Face au drapeau, 1896). This island is located in the Bahamas, and the commander of the base is a pirate named Ker Karraje. It is tempting to guess that Karraje is one of Nemo's old crew who has turned to piracy and is using his former commander's coal mines as a base, but Verne himself never makes the connection. In The Mysterious Island, the Nautilus' final resting place is another island grotto near a volcano; but in this case the volcano is active, and when it erupts, the lava hitting the water of the grotto creates a cataclysmic explosion.

Nemo heads south towards the Antarctic waters. Ned is getting frustrated again. Conseil explains:
"Our poor Ned wants what he cannot have. ... Everything that is forbidden to us is a source of despair to him ... What can he do here? Nothing. He is not a scientist like Monsieur; he cannot possibly derive the same pleasure that we do by looking at the marvels of the sea. He would risk all to get back to a tavern back home!"
They come upon a pod of whales, and Conseil suggests that Ned ask for permission to hunt a few. Nemo declines contemptuously. On a previous occasion, he had permitted Ned to hunt a dugong, in order to provide meat for the crew, but the Nautilus has no need for whale oil.
"Here it would be killing just for the sake of killing. I know very well that this is a privilege reserved for men, but I do not approve of these murderous pastimes. The destruction of these harmless and inoffensive creatures, such as the southern and right whales, by whalers like you, Ned, is a crime. You have already depopulated all of Baffin's Bay, and you will exterminate, eventually, a whole class of useful animals."
Just then a group of cachalots arrive on the scene. Verne makes use of the French language's distinction between baleines, or baleen whales such as humpback or right whales, and cachalots, or sperm whales. The former live on tiny zooplankton, such as krill, which they filter from the water with the baleen plates in their mouths. The latter have honest-to-Melville teeth in jaws that take up nearly a quarter of their bodies and are out-and-out predators. Nemo describes them as voracious creatures and has no qualms about killing them. But he won't let Ned have a try at the cachalots with his harpoon. "The Nautilus will suffice to disperse those cachalots."

I've always found this the most disturbing scene in the novel. After giving an impassioned plea to save the whales, less than a page later Nemo is slaughtering a pod of sperm whales by driving the pointed spur of the Nautilus through them, turning the sea red with their blood.
Captain Nemo joined us. 
"Well, Master Land," he said. 
"Well, sir," replied the Canadian, whose enthusiasm had now cooled down. "It certainly was a remarkable spectacle. But I am not a butcher, I am a hunter, and this was just butchery." 
"It was a massacre of vicious animals," replied the Captain, "and the Nautilus is not a butcher." 
"I prefer my harpoon," retorted the Canadian. 
"Each to his own harpoon," replied the Captain, looking Ned straight in the eye.
Still the Nautilus continues southward, and Aronnax wonders how far they can go. At the time of Verne's writing, all previous expeditions into the antarctic regions had been blocked by impassable walls of ice. The Nautilus, however, is capable of traveling underneath icebergs and ice shelves, (as it's namesake, the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus, did a century later when it reached the North Pole). In the absence of firm geographical data, Verne has to guess what Nemo will find beyond the Great Ice Bank. Following the hypotheses of Commodore Murray, he guesses, correctly, that there is a continent in the south polar regions, but in order to facilitate the plot, he assumes that its coastline dips far enough south that the Nautilus can sail to the South Pole.

In another bit of pure Verne, Nemo has arrived at about the date of the Spring Equinox, the last day the sun would be visible at the South Pole for six months. That way, Nemo can confirm his location with a chronometer: if half the sun's disc is visible on the horizon at noon precisely, then he is at the Pole. He is; and Nemo marks the occasion by unfurling a flag, black and emblazoned with his monogram "N". He gives a speech, noting the explorers who proceeded him in penetrating the Antarctic Circle, and then claiming possession of the antarctic regions...

"In the name of whom, Captain?" Aronnax asks, hoping Nemo will state his country of origin.

"Mine, sir!"

NEXT:  Accident or Incident? Trapped beneath the Ice; Nemo's Moral Event Horizon; the Maelstrom and Captain Nemo's Last Words. All this and THE GIANT SQUID!!!

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