Monday, July 8, 2013

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, part 6: The Last Words of Captain Nemo

In our previous reading, Captain Nemo visited a Lost Continent, slaughtered a bunch of whales, (but only the mean ones), and claimed possession of the Antarctic Continent. Ned Land has been concerned about this last feat. No human has ever ventured south beyond the 70th parallel before and he feels they have trespassed in Places Man Was Not Meant To Know. Ned fears that disaster must inevitably follow.

Ned is right.

Returning north from the convenient patch of open water near the South Pole, the Nautilus is once again passing underneath the massive bank of ice that we know today as the Ross Ice Shelf. By chance, the ice under which the Nautilus is sailing shifts, and the change in equilibrium causes a huge chunk to flip over, striking the Nautilus.

"Just an incident, Captain?" Aronnax asks, recalling the episode in the Torres Straits.

"No monsieur," Nemo admits gravely. "This, time it is an accident."

The Nautilus is now floating in a narrow ice tunnel, sandwiched between the ice shelf above and the huge block of ice beneath. The tunnel is closed off at both ends, so they cannot simply sail their way out. More importantly, their air supply is limited; they have already been underwater for thirty-six hours since leaving the South Pole. The Nautilus' reserves will only last them another forty-eight. Already the air onboard the submarine is beginning to grow stale as the level of carbon dioxide in it is rising. They have only two days to free themselves from the ice.

Nemo sends out his crew in diving suits to work chipping away at the ice beneath them with pickaxes, rotating every hour. Aronnax and his companions join the work crews; obstinate and belligerent Ned is the first to volunteer. Verne takes us through the next tense forty-eight hours, measuring the slow progress of the work crews, and the horrifying realization that the water around the Nautilus is freezing faster than the crew can dig. The air in the submarine grows stale; Like the astronauts of the Apollo 13 mission a century later, Nemo has no means to remove the carbon dioxide.

The resourceful Nemo comes up with a plan. By heating water in the distillation apparatus the Nautilus uses to make fresh drinking water and then pumping the boiling water into the trench his men are digging, Nemo is able to arrest the freezing of the ice. Then, by filling the submarine's ballast tanks with water and letting it drop into the trench, he can use the Nautilus' own weight to crush the remaining layer of ice.

They are now free of their icy prison, but the Nautilus is still beneath the ice shelf, and hundreds of miles from the open sea. It has now been five days since they last replenished their air supply and the Nautilus' reserves of fresh air have been completely exhausted. Aronnax nearly passes out.
Suddenly, I regained consciousness. A little air was entering my lungs. Had we surfaced? Had we at last cleared the ice shelf? 
No! It was Ned and Conseil, my two good friends, whe were sacrificing their lives to save mine. There was still a few atoms of air left in one of the tanks. Instead of breathing it themselves, they had kept if for men, and while they were suffocating, they were giving it to me, drop by drop. I tried to push the tank away from me, but they held my hands, and for a few moments I felt the joy of breathing!
Nemo has one last trick up his sleeve. When he judges the ice above him is thin enough, he angles the Nautilus upward and rams it against the ice shelf. The Nautilus' spur, which has punctured steamships and slaughtered sperm whales, now hammers into a twenty-meter thick layer of solid ice. It takes repeated tries, but finally the Nautilus breaks through! The hatches are opened and Aronnax and the Nautilus crew -- along with the reader -- can once again breathe!

Once free of the Antarctic ice, the Nautilus continues northward, up the coast of South America. Conseil has a shocking encounter with an electric ray, which jolts him into forgetting his usual formality in his manner of speaking.

While cruising near the Bahamas, Aronnax remarks that the nooks and caves they see out the window of the saloon may well be home to giant squid. Ned is skeptical of sea monsters and suspects that giant squid are figments of over-imaginative scientists. He has some justification; he was right about Aronnax's "narwhal", and in Verne's day there were very few documented sightings of giant squid. This doesn't stop Aronnax from delivering another of Verne's educational lectures, describing what was known or conjectured about them. Before his lecture is over, just such a squid swims into view; then another, and soon the Nautilus is traveling through a school of them.

Suddenly, the Nautilus comes to a halt. The aggressive squid have been trying to attack the Nautilus, and one of them has managed to foul the propeller. Nemo announces that they will have to surface and do battle with these creatures.

Yes, this is the chapter I've been promising and which everyone has been waiting for: the one with the squid in it. The Nautilus' battle with the Giant Squid is probably the iconic image from the novel. At very least, it's the most famous scene from the 1957 movie. Because if Japanese cartoons have taught me one thing, it's that everything is better with tentacles.

In looking back at this scene in the next chapter, Aronnax invokes the author Victor Hugo, whom Verne greatly admired. Hugo had included a fight against a huge octopus in his novel, The Toilers of the Sea. Some readers had called that scene improbable, so the Nautilus' battle with the squid is sort of a "Take That" against the critics of his hero.

In the fight against the army of squid, one of Nemo's crewmen is seized by a tentacle and calls out "Help!" in French. Aronnax is shocked; he hadn't realized there were any of his countrymen on board. This is the only occasion in which he heard a member of Nemo's crew speak in anything except the Nautilus' official language. Before the crew can come to the unfortunate man's rescue, the squid ejects a jet of ink and retreats underwater, taking its victim with it.

Several other squid have pulled themselves onto the deck. One of them comes close to bisecting Ned with it's sharp beak-like mouth, but Nemo comes to his rescue, hacking at the creature with an axe and giving Ned the chance to drive his harpoon into its triple heart. "I owed you that!" Nemo says to the Canadian, recalling the earlier episode with the shark.

Eventually, all the squid are driven off, and the Nautilus continues on its way. As it approaches the northeast coast of the United States, Ned pressures Aronnax to speak to Nemo once again about releasing them. Aronnax's enthusiasm for their voyage has cooled since the battle with the squid; but he doesn't see how talking to Nemo will help. Nemo has been avoiding him lately. But at Ned's insistence, Aronnax agrees to seek the Captain out.

Nemo explains the reason for his absence. In an earlier chapter, Aronnax had observed that none of Nemo's discoveries would benefit science. Now Nemo shows him what he has been working on.
"Here, Monsieur Aronnax, we have a manuscript written in several languages. It contains a summary of all my studies on the sea. God willing, it shall not perish with me. This manuscript, signed by me, including the story of my life, will be sealed in a small, unsikable container. The last man of us all to survive on board the Nautilus will throw it into the sea, and it will drift wherever the waves may carry it."
The Professor is impressed by this, but asks Nemo if it would not be better to allow him and his companions to carry the manuscript to civilization?

This provokes Nemo's anger. He has not changed his attitude since he first picked up the Professor and his companions in the Pacific.
"Monsieur Aronnax," said Captain Nemo, "I will tell you today what I told you some months ago: Whoever enters the Nautilus must never leave her." 
"But this is slavery that you are imposing on us!" 
"Call it whatever you like." 
"But everywhere a slave has the right to regain his liberty! Any means he may use to escape are justified!" 
"Who has ever denied you that right?" replied Captian Nemo. "Have I ever tried to bind you with an oath?"
Persuasion is not going to move the Captain. Ned plans another escape attempt as the Nautilus nears Long Island, but a hurricane coming up the east coast blocks the plan. The Nautilus then heads out into North Atlantic. For a few days, it cruises about in circles, as if trying to find a precise spot in the ocean.

Nemo is looking for a specific spot, but also marking time until a specific day. He takes the Nautilus down to the site of a sunken ship; a French ship which had seen heroic service not only in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay during the American Revolution which lead to Washington's victory at Yorktown, but also under the French Republic after the French Revolution. Nemo has chosen to visit the remains of this ship on the anniversary of its sinking in a battle against the British.

"The Avenger!" Aronnax exclaims, recognizing the ship's history.

"Yes, monsieur, the Avenger. A wonderful name!"

But as the Nautilus returns to the surface, a large ship approaches it; a man-of-war. Aronnax is unable to make out the ship's colors and so cannot tell what nationality it is. Ned's gut reaction is to jump into the ocean and swim for it if the warship gets close enough. Then the warship opens fire.

"If Monsieur doesn't mind me saying so," Conseil says, "I think they've recognized the narwhal and are firing at it."

Aronnax realizes that Conseil is correct. Captain Farragut would have returned to port by now, and the world must know that the mysterious "sea monster" is really something much more dangerous. The Nautilus would be a terrifying weapon if Nemo were to use it for vengence. Then Aronnax remembers the night in the Indian Ocean, when Nemo locked him and his friends in their cabin and when the Nautilus suffered an unexplained collision; and he realizes that this is exactly what Nemo has been doing: using his ship to strike back at the civilization he hates.
Then he suddenly let go, and turning toward the warship, whose shells were raining around him, he shouted: 
"Ah, you know who I am, ship of an accursed nation! I do not need to see your colors to recognize you! Look, I am going to show you mine!" 
And walking on the front part of the deck, he unfurled a black flag similar to the one he had planted at the South Pole. 
Captain," I exclaimed, "you are going to attack that ship?" 
"I am going to sink her, monsieur." 
"You wouldn't do that!" 
"I shall do so," Captain Nemo replied coldly. "Do not presume to judge me. Fate has let you see what you were not supposed to see. We have been attacked. Our answer will be terrible. Get down below."
The Nautilus leads the warship away from the site; Nemo does not wish to mingle the wreckage of his enemies with that of the valiant Avenger. For a while Aronnax engages a desperate hope that the Nautilus will make its attack on the surface, as it did when it struck the Abraham Lincoln, making it easier for he and his friends to leap from the Nautilus to the warship. He has no more qualms about escape. But Nemo orders the Nautilus down several yards to strike the warship beneath the waterline. It plows through the unknown enemy ship like a needle going through sailcloth

Aronnax rushes down to the saloon, where Nemo is standing at the great glass viewing panels. Together they watch the warship slowly sink to the bottom and its crew frantically struggle and become engulfed in the cold abyss.
I turned toward Captain Nemo. That satanic judge, that veritable archangel of hatred, stood there, still watching. When it was all over, he walked to the door of his stateroom, opened it, and disappeared. I followed him On the far wall, beneath the paintings of his heroes, I saw a portrait of a woman, still young, with two small children. Captain Nemo stood looking at them for a few moments, stretching his arms toward them. Then, falling on his knees, he burst into deep sobs.
After this horrific episode, the Nautilus seems to travel aimlessly, heading northward. Aronnax wonders if they are now heading for the North Pole, but Nemo is no longer updating their position on the charts. The ship has abandoned its usual routine and now surfaces only occasionally for air. Aronnax sees little of the crew and nothing at all of Nemo.

Then one day, Ned announces another escape attempt. The Nautilus is within sight of land. They have no way of knowing what country it is, but they have to make the attempt. Once again, as in the attempt at Vigo Bay, Aronnax spends a tense evening waiting for the planned time. With a half hour to go, he hears organ music coming from the saloon and realizes it is Nemo. But Aronnax will have to cross the saloon in order to get to the ladder leading to the ship's dinghy.

He silently creeps across the room, hoping Nemo won't notice him. Suddenly, Nemo stops playing. He rises, walks right past Aronnax without seeming to see him. Aronnax hears him murmur: "Almighty God! Enough! Enough!"

Aronnax hurries to the dinghy where Ned and Conseil are waiting. But there is commotion going on elsewhere in the ship. They hear the word "maelstrom!"

They are approaching the Moskenstraumen, a tremendous whirlpool located on the coast of Norway created by the tidal forces between the Faroe and Lofoten Islands. Edgar Allan Poe, another of Verne's literary heroes, wrote a famous story about it, "Descent into the Maelstrom".

Despite the danger, Aronnax and his friends board the dinghy and unbolt it from the Nautilus. Swept into the swirling vortex of water, they struggle to keep the boat afloat. Aronnax is knocked over and his head strikes one of the dinghy's iron ribs and loses consciousness.

He awakens in a fisherman's hut on one of the Lofoten Islands. Aronnax, Ned and Conseil have all survived. But what of Nemo? Was the Nautilus sucked into the maelstrom and destroyed? Has Nemo finally found the peace his tortured soul so lacked? Aronnax cannot tell.
However strange his destiny be, it is also sublime. Did I not experience and understand his destiny? Did I not live that unnatural existence for ten whole months? So, to that question, asked six thousand years ago by the book of Ecclesiates: "Who has ever fathomed the depths of the abyss?" two men, among all men, have the right to reply: Captain Nemo and I.

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