Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jules Verne | Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea | 1869

Dear Captain Nemo,

For many years, when I read your story, I thought of it as something that looked backwards. I had a teacher who told me that you were the modern Odysseus, and that even your name referred to Homer's hero. (I forget all of it, but it's at least about the Cyclops, and the false name Odysseus gives, "No-man.") You were there, exiled under the sea, and you were going slowly crazy. You were drunk on your own power, and after you captured Conseil, Aronnax, and Land, you gave them great favors, though only on your own terms. The professor thought that in this way you were like France, or maybe the sea was like France, or the squids. I don't remember. The only thing I remember very clearly is the time that you dosed your guests with sleeping pills. I remember that it was January 18, because that's the birthday of a friend of mine. It's funny what parts of books stick in your head.

Anyway, I now think about you often, and not just because you had wonderful adventures, and fought giant creatures, and torpedoed warships, and steered for the heart of a massive whirlpool. I think of you because the modern day, and the way that we are all in worlds of our own, even as we fear the broader world, reminds me of you. We are all isolated, all petty masters of our own domain, with a growing terror of the great unknown all around us. Oh, one more thing. You always went profoundly into what other men could only imagine. Our age now is largely on the surface. You might not like it. At the end, after he leaves you, Aronnax thinks of the way you piloted the Nautilus into the ocean's worst spots, and he remembers a Biblical quote, from Ecclesiastes: "Who can fathom the soundless depths?" His answer is that you can, and that he can. I hope the rest of us can, sometimes.