Art, Bricolage, and Engineering at the End of the World
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013. xi + 416 pp. $30 hc.
In her new book, The Triumph of Human Empire, Rosalind Williams explores what she describes as “an age of anxiety,” when increasing knowledge and control of the surface of the earth seemed to consecrate the triumph of human empire, while reducing and altering the landscape over which it ruled. Williams borrows the term “human empire” from a short utopian fiction by Francis Bacon, New Atlantis, first published in English in 1627, in which the survivors of a shipwreck discover in the South Seas an island ruled by the descendants of the lost city. The island offers the model of a culture based on religious beliefs, rationality, and thirst for knowledge. The head of Salomon’s House, which could be described as an ideal research institution, sums up its goals and ambition in these simple words: “The End of our Foundation is the Knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (qtd. in Williams 17). It may be worth noting that the title page of New Atlantis bore the phrase “A Worke Unfinished.” Some readers argue that Bacon had planned to return to the tale, but one may suggest that Bacon himself knew that the intellectual and scientific model he had sketched out was an open-ended program that could lead to unimaginable powers and prowess, but on a far distant horizon: the acquisition of knowledge is an endless work-in-progress.
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, part of the scientific program described in New Atlantis had been accomplished: the mapping of the world was almost complete, and the planet, writes Williams, “had been reshaped according to human desires with increasing scope, scale, and speed” (334). But progress and the active pursuit of knowledge had a cost. “The intention may be the so-called ‘conquest of nature,’ but these interventions also have the effect of making the planet less stable, durable, and predictable.... World loss, whether through change or migration or both, is the ghost in the machine of human empire, the specter that haunts it with foreboding of endless losses to come” (334-36). Williams proposes to examine the doubts and pessimism that pervaded the times—what she also describes as fin-du-globe anxiety (16)—through the works of three authors: Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Citing their distrust—at times rejection—of civilization as it was understood by the European powers, she notes that “they write of it as an exogenous force and contemplate with anguish the loss entailed by its inexorable advance” (20). Verne, Williams, and Stevenson came from different backgrounds and expressed in their works a variety of political opinions; but all three exemplify in their own way what it meant to feel “trapped by and alienated from their civilization” (20).
Williams’s choices are intriguing and will no doubt surprise those who still consider Jules Verne as an author for children, admire William Morris for his contributions to the Art and Crafts movement, or know Robert Louis Stevenson only as the author of Treasure Island (1883). But, although their lives followed different paths, Williams notes some intriguing similarities in their experiences and beliefs: the importance of water and the North Sea, their sense of exile, their political activities, and, more importantly, their turn to romance in defiance of social and literary tradition.
Verne, the most read and widely translated of the three, has long been known to his readers as a writer fascinated by the powers of scientific imagination and haunted by their consequences. The magnificent machines he describes reflect, to use Arthur B. Evans’s words, a kind of “mechanical mysticism” (130). If these technological wonders open the way to unforgettable worlds, they are also linked to wars and destruction; they engage in battles, they kill, and they do not survive at the end of the novels. The Nautilus, which is presumed lost along with Captain Nemo at the end of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers [Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, 1870], will be solemnly buried with its captain under the volcanic grotto of L’Île mystérieuse [The Mysterious Island, 1874]. Nothing will be saved from this masterpiece: the machine has become a coffin. The fate of the submarine could be read symbolically as Verne’s conflicted feelings about human civilization. If Pierre-Jules Hetzel, Verne’s publisher, was absolutely clear about the positive message he wanted conveyed by the works of his author, the manuscripts, correspondence, and the later publication of Paris au XXe siècle [Paris in the Twentieth Century, 1994] all illustrate Verne’s pessimism and his more or less successful resistance to his publisher. Hetzel exemplifies the triumphant will of nineteenth-century expansionism when he writes in his preface to the Géographie illustrée de la France: “Our civilization is endowed with such an expansive force, it is armed with such powerful means and is a power growing so rapidly that no country, as remote as it may be, will evade its investigations and escape its domination” (iii, my translation). But Verne was perhaps the more clairvoyant when judging of the consequences.
While acknowledging that Verne did not escape from his conservative bourgeois environment, Williams offers, along with a detailed biographical account, perceptive analyses of Verne’s conflicted views about the growing powers that oppressed legitimate national aspirations and led to the eradication of native populations. She notes the initial triumphalism that permeates Cinq semaines en ballon [Five Weeks in a Balloon, 1863], concluding that this novel—the first in the Voyages Extraordinaires series—“presents two assertions of superiority: the collective superiority of Western technical and scientific adeptness and the personal authority of the instrumentally adept, emotionally repressed commander whose mission carries him away from the muddy earth to the great currents of air and water endlessly flowing around the planet” (95). Nemo’s personification of resentful anarchy, his masterful use of technology coupled with his hatred of colonial powers and his compassion for freedom fighters, certainly speaks to Verne’s own views on the dangers and limits of human empire. Williams pays particular attention to the late novels, Magellania (written 1897; published as Les Naufragés du “Jonathan” [The Survivors of the “Jonathan”] in 1909) and Le Phare du bout du monde [The Lighthouse at the End of the World, 1905], in which “the heroes move from defiance of civilization to acceptance of missions of human improvement, symbolized by the construction of lighthouses that triumph over the elemental powers of darkness and chaos” (125). Verne, she concludes, “speaks for human empire and also defies it” (129).
The second part of the book, devoted to William Morris, develops a theme that will acquire considerable symbolic importance in his works: landscapes, from the flat marshlands of Essex to the great river Thames and its tributaries threatened by industrial development. Morris’s residences along the river all play a role in his literary imagination. If Verne sought a particular form of escape through what Williams prefers to call “geographical romance,” Williams turned resolutely to the past, more specifically to the Middle Ages he studied at Marlborough College and Oxford. While launching his textiles and painted papers firm, Morris started composing poetry, The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870), and translating old Norse stories. His discovery of Iceland in the summer of 1871 played a major role in his life. It would be interesting to compare Morris’s account of his travels in Iceland with Verne’s beginning of the Voyage au centre de la Terre [Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1864] where humans (Hans in particular) and horses survive, far from industrial development, in the splendid isolation of the volcanic country.
Morris, unlike Verne, became a Socialist, joining the Democratic Federation in 1883. From then on, his literary works were marked by his conviction that the accelerated pace of progress was accompanied by “a pervasive insensitivity to all the problems of change” (Williams 194). News from Nowhere: or, An Epoch of Rest (1890) is a melancholy quest for a better world that takes the hero up the Thames to a future society where “all signs of squalor or poverty had disappeared” (Morris qtd. in Williams 206). The Well at the World’s End (1896), another fantasy, leads the heroes to Iceland in search of restorative waters. Morris turned to imaginary worlds that have been seen as the forerunners of Tolkien’s works.
Morris’s predilection for northern sagas as a way of reconnecting humans to their past and to nature reminded me of the tremendous success of Ossian, the Gaelic cycle of epic poems James Macpherson started publishing in 1760. Macpherson presented the epic as a translation of authentic tales he had collected through oral transmission. Ossian’s success was prodigious throughout Europe and doubts about the authenticity of the poems did not prevent Ossian from becoming one of the most influential works in the history of Romanticism from Goethe to Chateaubriand. Jules Verne himself quoted Ossian on several occasions to express the unique character of Gaelic landscape and spirituality. The revival of Gaelic and Nordic mythology corresponded to a desire for a new form of expression that rejected the strict constraints of literary classicism and allowed a free range of exalted emotions. Morris, too, was a Romantic. But he was also haunted by the desire to send a social message.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary fame is inseparable from Treasure Island, which quickly became a classic of literary adventure. The youngest of the authors considered by Williams, Stevenson shares with his predecessors a love of the seas and a particular connection with coastlines: his grandfather had received a contract from Parliament to build several lighthouses on the Scottish coast. Educated as an engineer, he spoke with eloquence of a craft that led a man to harbors and wild islands, ships and seas, but ultimately led him back to his drawing and the drudgery of office life. Jules Verne again would have embraced the first part of Stevenson’s description, and his ideal engineers (Nemo, Cyrus Smith) apply their knowledge only to gain more freedom. When Stevenson turned to writing and fiction, he drew fascinating parallels between art and mathematics as two methods of creating a limited amount of order in a world dominated by chaos.
Stevenson’s first travel stories, unlike Verne’s ambitious Cinq semaines en ballon, related more modest inland trips on a canoe or on the roads. But his affair with Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, an American woman separated from her husband and living in France, changed the course of Stevenson’s life. Recalled to San Francisco by her husband, Fanny left. After receiving an alarming letter from her in 1879, Stevenson joined Fanny in America, a long voyage for a young man who had already suffered from acute lung problems. In the section describing Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic and the railway trip across the continental United States, the reader starts to imagine Stevenson himself as a Vernian character endowed with the wit and the observational capacity typical of Verne’s journalists and the romantic inclinations of his artists.1
But the most striking affinity between Verne and Stevenson, at this point, is their attention to coastlines. One remembers the detailed outlines of Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse or his descriptions of the rocky Grecian peninsula in L’Archipel en feu [Archipelago on Fire, 1884]. Stevenson noted during his trip in the United States that “we are creatures of the shore” (qtd. in Williams 285). On his return to England, now married to Fanny, Stevenson wrote his bestseller, Treasure Island, followed by two of his best-known works, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Kidnapped (1886). By 1884, Stevenson had realized part of his dream: he had become a successful writer and had married the woman he loved. But there was to be no rest. His search for a better climate that would cure his lung problems took him to the South Seas, which he explored for several years, from Tahiti to Hawaii, before settling down in the Samoan islands where he would die.
Williams speaks at length of his South Seas experiences and Stevenson’s efforts to find a literary form that would convey his deep conviction that the historical changes he had witnessed in England, America, and the Pacific islands threatened the survival of local populations. His The Wrecker (1892; co-written with his stepson, Lloyd Osburne), his correspondence, and A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa (1892) all reflect his continued wonder at the seas, his undiminished taste for adventure, and his ambitious desire to express his views on the expansion of colonial powers in the Pacific. The modestly entitled A Footnote to History received high praise from the New York Times reviewer who seized on both the political and literary importance of the book: “Such a story deserves to have an ample record in these times. Mr. Stevenson has not only recorded it in an ample way; he has made the record an entertaining and brilliant piece of narrative” (“R.L. Stevenson”). As Williams notes of the last work: “He was writing an epic appropriate not for the Roman empire, but for the human empire” (316). Many other texts would follow, described by Williams as “hybrid romance-realism” about the islands (322).
One in particular attracts the reader’s attention, a violent tale entitled The Ebb-Tide (1893), co-written with Stevenson’s stepson.This grim account of the violence of imperialism echoes, Williams notes, many aspects of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). The epidemic of smallpox that has decimated the first crew of the ship at the beginning of the story—and that is found again later in the most remote island in the Pacific—testifies to the fate of future colonies. Like Tahiti, ravaged by the diseases the Europeans had brought with them in the eighteenth century, the most isolated island in the South Seas is threatened by the most disgraced European adventurers. The islands have not only been corrupted by industrial powers, but also European powers have produced among their own people miserable creatures that have long “gone downward” in an infinite spiral of despair. Stevenson died a year after the tale was written.
In the concluding chapter, Williams sums up the themes that effectively linked three authors as apparently different as Verne, Morris, and Stevenson—in particular, their shared anxiety about the rapid global changes they witnessed and distrusted: “Verne, Morris, and Stevenson all respect the material powers of organized humankind, but they also tell cautionary stories related to these powers.... They see truth in the utopian story and the dystopian one. There are also moments when they see the truth in a story about the world disappearing completely and forever” (334). “Romance,” she adds, “not only expresses their sense of a haunted world but also serves to exorcize its ghosts.... It tells stories about the larger forces, sometimes mysterious ones, at work in the individual and in the world” (336). These authors’ lives, of course, are also a form of lesson in courage, especially their decision to embrace an art to which they were not initially prepared by their upbringing or family tradition. They all became involved in public affairs, although Verne’s public role and political contributions were rather modest. The art of romance the three authors adopted, Williams concludes, “points to experience liberated beyond the tyranny of circumstances, beyond the triumph or the fall of human empire” (347).
The choice of the word “romance” or “geographic novel” to describe Verne’s works, rather than “speculative fiction” or “scientific novel,” may be surprising—particularly from Williams, a distinguished historian of technology. But Verne himself described the Voyages Extraordinaires as both “geographic and scientific novels” (Dumas et al. 88). The reader will also think of H.G. Wells, who would have perfectly completed this gallery of literary portraits. Trained as a biologist, Wells was also a Socialist who chose literature to express his political convictions. But Wells belongs to the next generation, and Williams’s thoughtful analysis of his predecessors helps us to understand Wells’s debts to the hybrid genre they had developed.
For those particularly interested in the relationship between literature and science, or science fiction as genre, Williams describes in two distinct passages the relationship between art and engineering. In the first one, she discusses Morris’s vast range of activities as “engineering.” “It is not a term Morris himself used,” she notes, “since he typically identified engineers as culturally stunted Philistines. In practice, though, he sought to redefine engineering as much as he sought to redefine socialism. His activities add up to an alternative mode of engineering, lay rather than professional, and linked with history and art rather than with science as primary source of practical knowledge” (212). A little later, Williams cites Stevenson’s comparison between mathematics and art: “Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational.... A proposition of geometry does not compete with life; and a proposition of geometry is a fair and luminous parallel for a work of art” (qtd. 251) Williams adds: “This is not engineering as ‘messing around,’ as it was for William Morris.... Through mathematics, the engineer creates order and abstraction, not by imitating the messy complexity of life but by reducing it to manageable forms” (251).
These reflections bring to mind Lévi-Strauss’s famous lines on “bricolage,” and the distinctions he makes between the bricoleur and the engineer:
Consider [the bricoleur] at work and excited by his project. His first practical step is retrospective. He has to turn back to an already existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it and, before choosing between them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem.... But the possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes. The elements which the bricoleur collects and uses are “pre-constrained” like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on their freedom of manoeuvre. (18-19)
But the difference between the bricoleur and the engineer, Lévi-Strauss adds, is not absolute:
The engineer no doubt also cross-examines his resources.... It might be said that the engineer questions the universe, while the bricoleur addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavors, that is, only a sub-set of the culture. Again, Information Theory shows that it is possible, and often useful, to reduce the physicists’ approaches to a sort of dialogue with nature. This would make the distinction we are trying to draw less clear cut. There remains, however, a difference even if one takes into account the fact that the scientist never carries on a dialogue with nature pure and simple but rather with a particular relationship between nature and culture definable in terms of his particular period and civilization and the material means at his disposal…. He too has to begin by making a catalogue of a previously determined set consisting of theoretical and practical knowledge, of technical means, which restrict the possible solutions. (19)
From Morris’s “messy engineering” to Stevenson’s admirable definition of the limited, complete, rational world of mathematics and art; from Nemo’s secret conception of the Nautilus to Cyrus Smith’s ingenious bricolage on Lincoln island, it is fair to say that speculative fiction and fantasy play with all the possibilities of mastering the infinitely complex world of nature. “Any classification is superior to chaos” (15), Lévi-Strauss asserts. The art of Romance explored by Williams, the scientific novel Hetzel wanted to promote and Verne reluctantly produced, Asimov’s robots, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), all aim to create, at the same time and by different means, a seemingly finite, self-contained world—that is, a world under control. But the scientific/mathematical model that sustains this clear and luminous world is itself shattering its completeness and destroying its order. In 2001,HAL kills and destroys the safe and closed environment of Discovery One as surely as the volcano that had previously ruined all of the heroes’ efforts on L’Île mystérieuse. At the end of the movie, a free-floating embryo travels through space, “beyond the infinite.” There will be no closure. The Vernian traveler closes a cycle and returns home, but at what cost? Hatteras was initially meant to die at the North Pole, but at Hetzel’s insistence, Verne rewrote the end: Hatteras survives his expedition and returns to England, but he has lost his mind. Initially, in the first version of L’Île mystérieuse, Nemo never repudiated his love for freedom, and still died absolved of murder. Similarly the “bricolage” that presides over Morris’s tales influenced by Norse mythology gathers and builds models from preexisting materials to produce a new but also unstable world. Stevenson’s Ebb-Tide shows, among other things, the incapacity to find or imagine a truly complete world, be it the furthest island, free from the disease and corruption of human empire.
The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World brilliantly explores the troubled consciousness of writers who were fully aware of the mixed rewards of political expansion and scientific knowledge. The book addresses the complexity of translating human experience into an artistic vision. Williams’s attention to landscapes and geographical discoveries, from the poetry of shorelines to the glory of the Jubilee Atlas, also describes a literary world born from triumph and disillusion. “The mission to chart the globe,” she writes, “is inseparable from the race to claim it” (14). Her book itself reads like a fascinating journey into the uncharted territory of the creative process.
1. See, in particular, Harris T. Kymbale and Max Réal in Le Testament d’un eccentrique [The Will of an Eccentric, 1899].
Dumas, Olivier, Volker Dehs, and Piero Gondolo della Riva, eds. Correspondance inédite de Jules et Michel Verne avec l’éditeur Louis-Jules Hetzel (1886-1914). Vol. 1. Geneva: Slatkine, 2004.
Evans, Arthur B. “Jules Verne’s Dream Machines: Technology and Transcendence.” Extrapolation 54.2 (2013): 129-46.
Hetzel, Pierre-Jules. “Au Lecteur.” Géographie Illustrée de la France et de ses Colonies by Jules Verne and Théopile Lavallée. Paris: Hetzel, 1870. i-iv.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Ed. Julian Pitt-Rivers and Ernest Gellner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966. 18-19.
“R.L. Stevenson: Eight Years of Trouble Have Him for Historian.” New York Times 14 Aug. 1892. Online. 8 Aug. 2014.
Verne, Jules. Le Testament d’un eccentrique. Paris: Hetzel, 1899. Translated (anon.) as The Will of an Eccentric. London: Sampson, Low, 1900.
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