Verne and Baudelaire in the Capital of the Nineteenth Century
January 2, 2009
Two Writers and a City
In November 1848 Jules Verne set out for Paris from his home city of Nantes, telling his family he would continue his law studies but in his own mind intending to make his mark in literature. The times were unsettled. In France the Second Republic had just been proclaimed, while other governments across the Continent were trembling and falling. Verne was eager to get to Paris in time to see the Second Republic inaugurated in a solemn ceremony on the Place de la Concorde. Along with a friend of his age, he took a stagecoach to Tours–the railroad did not yet extend all the way to Nantes—intending to take the train the rest of the way. At Tours, however, they discovered that all the railway cars were reserved to transport National Guardsmen to the capital. Verne and his friend tried to sneak on board but were detected by a gendarme who noticed they had no uniforms, swords, or papers. They had to continue by stagecoach. By the time they arrived in Paris and made their way to the Place de la Concorde, the ceremony was over and the crowd had dispersed, leaving only litter and tattered decorations.(Allott 1940: 13-14; Allotte de la Fuÿe 1956: 35-36; Butcher 2006: 71-72).
Jules Verne moved out of Paris in 1871, at another revolutionary moment: that of the invasion and defeat of France by Prussia and the subsequent bloodbath of the Paris Commune. Verne had indeed made his mark in literature, but only after a long period of financial and artistic struggle. His first big success finally came fifteen years after his arrival, in 1863, with the publication of Five Weeks in a Balloon. This novel led to a contract with publisher Jules Hetzel committing Verne to produce three (later two) novels a year—a treadmill of literary production that was financially rewarding but personally exhausting. The novels written while Verne lived in Paris include many of his best and best-known works: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1864-5), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (1869-70). Verne and Hetzel gave the series the collective title of voyages extraordinaires, “extraordinary journeys into known and unknown worlds.”
By the time Twenty Thousand Leagues appeared, Verne was in the process of a slow but steady withdrawal from Paris, which he found distracting, expensive, and landlocked. In 1857 he married a widow from Amiens, a provincial city 70 miles north of Paris (connected to the capital by a direct railway line) and 40 miles inland from the North Sea on the river Somme. Beginning in 1864 Verne spent summers and later whole years in Le Crotoy, a fishing village on the estuary of the Somme. There he bought a small fishing boat, named it the Saint-Michel, converted the cabin into a “floating office” and sailed it for weeks at a time, on writing voyages, to North Sea ports and beyond.
During a voyage up the Seine to Paris in the summer of 1870, Verne was almost caught behind the Prussian lines when war broke out. After months of turmoil—four Prussian soldiers were billeted with the family, Hetzel fled Paris, one of Verne’s cousin died in Paris during the Commune–he decided to move to Amiens (Allott 1940: 116; Butcher 2006: 213-15). For him it was a middle landscape between city and sea, between the civilization he needed to publish and the escape from civilization he needed to inspire his imagination. In a letter to a friend, Verne explained:
On the desire of my wife, I am settling in Amiens, a wise city, safe, even-tempered, where the society is cordial and lettered. One is close to Paris, close enough to catch its reflection, without the insupportable noise and the sterile agitation. And after all, my Saint-Michel remains anchored at Le Crotoy.
[Beal 1985: 14 (my translation)]
Verne settled in Amiens, buying a house overlooking the train tracks to Paris, writing dozens more novels, using the societies and libraries of its “cordial and lettered” society research them, and taking frequent sailing trips as long as health permitted. He died in Amiens in 1905, in a first-floor bedroom of the house he had bought in 1871.
Amiens enabled Jules Verne to write the long series of extraordinary journeys–but the series was defined and launched during his years in Paris of the Second Empire. Between the revolutionary bookends of 1848 and the Paris Commune, between his arrival and his departure, Verne lived and worked in Paris when it seemed more than a city, more than the capital of France, when it was la capitale du dix-neuvième siècle, in the memorable phrase of Walter Benjamin. City, art, capitalism: this is the tripod supporting the now-standard interpretation of the significance of Paris under the Second Empire, as both crucible and the emblem of modernity. According to this interpretation, the raw energy of commercial capitalism and the physical rebuilding of Paris under Baron von Haussman generated an artistic response, epitomized by the work of the poet Charles Baudelaire.
Jules Verne arrived in Paris a few years after Baudelaire settled there and left a few years after Baudelaire’s death in 1867. Unlike Baudelaire, Verne plays no role in the standard interpretation of Paris as capital of the nineteenth century. This may have been understandable in earlier generations, when critical opinion treated Verne as a writer of adventure stories for children, but it is less understandable since an impressive crew of literary and cultural critics in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century have analyzed the literary and intellectual richness of the extraordinary journeys.
The most obvious reason for the neglect of Verne’s connections with Second Empire Paris is that he rarely writes about the city. He takes readers to the moon, to comets, to the depths of the oceans, to the center of the earth, to the poles, to regions of the earth far away from Europe. Verne himself declared that his artistic mission is “to paint [peindre] the entire earth, the entire world, under the form of the novel, in imagining adventures special to each country, in creating characters special to the environments where they act.” In practice, these “environments” were almost anywhere but the heartland of Western Europe. In his imaginative writing (as opposed to geographical atlases Verne wrote for Hetzel primarily as money-makers) Paris, Western Europe, and the British Isles are typically places to leave from to go exploring and to return to with stories of exciting adventures of faraway places. The story happens elsewhere.
The one novel that Verne set in “the capital of the nineteenth century” was his first: Paris in the Twentieth Century, written about 1860, before he started working on Five Weeks in a Balloon. It was written at a time when Verne was profoundly discouraged and emittered after a dozen years of mostly fruitless efforts to succeed as a writer in Paris. Paris in the Twentieth Century portrays the city as the capital of a cruel, greedy, utilitarian capitalism which leaves little room for artistic imagination or even simple human kindness. It implies that Paris in the twentieth century—a thinly disguised portrait of the capital of the nineteenth century—is largely to blame for Verne’s personal and artistic frustrations. It exacts some revenge through nasty portrayals of the current captains of industry and seeks pity for the fate of the poor starving artist. These motivations do not make for exhilarating reading. The novel careens between angry realism and sappy romanticism, veering off at its end into its most gripping but depressing episode, a fantastic but futile journey to the grave.
After the success of Five Weeks, Verne submitted the already completed Paris manuscript to Hetzel, who rejected it brusquely: “It is a hundred feet below Five Weeks in a Balloon,” Hetzel wrote to the Verne. Hetzel went on to assail it as poorly written, boring, and populated by unpleasant characters, notably the hero, “an idiot.” Publishing it would be a disaster for Verne’s career, Hetzel concluded. Verne was already writing the book that would become Captain Hatteras. Hetzel had read some of that manuscript, loved it, and published it in 1864 as the second installment in the extraordinary journeys series. Hatteras too was a great popular success.
As for Paris in the Twentieth Century, the draft manuscript was locked in a metal safe, remaining there until 1989 when one of Verne’s descendants moved the safe upon sale of a family home. He had to blast it open with a blowtorch and there found the manuscript under a pile of linen. After authentication the novel was published in French in 1994 (selling over 200,000 copies the first year) and thereafter translated into 30 languages, including an English edition in 1996 (Weber 1996: xxiv-xxv).
It is understandable why Verne is rarely associated with Paris of the Second Empire: he hardly ever writes about the city, and when he does so, he expresses mainly bitterness about it and desire to escape from it. Baudelaire’s poetry is also pervaded by hatred of and longing to escape from bourgeois civilization, but it pays much more attention to the city that arouses these responses. For both Verne and Baudelaire, however, living in Paris of the Second Empire was the source of defining life experiences and was crucial in their artistic formation, as they sought to shape new language adequate to expressing their experiences. How does it change our understanding of the relations between material and literary history if we turn to Verne, as well as to Baudelaire, as a representative artist of the capital of the nineteenth century?
MATERIAL AND CULTURAL CHANGE
Leading writers on Paris at this transformative time—Walter Benjamin, T.J. Clark, David Harvey, and Marshall Berman, among others—are too sophisticated to rely upon a simple model of substructural material changes resulting in superstructural artistic responses. A more subtle version of this model may be implied, however, in descriptions of Paris of the Second Empire as an interactive network of individuals, social organizations, technological systems, cultural products, and non-human nature—an ensemble linking, in endless loops of co-evolution, material, social and artistic change.
T. J. Clark points out the circularity in this argument: modernism has its circumstances in modernity. “It is not enough to say, as we all do now, that the terms of modernism and the facts of Parisian life are somehow linked” (Clark 1984: 14). Attributing historical change to a co-evolving network highlights connections that might otherwise be ignored, but it also blurs analysis of causality and priority. Above all, it blurs a fundamental distinction among the elements of the network: of all of them, only individual human beings possess self-consciousness. Self-conscious individuals interact with the world (including the collective products of human action) in uniquely reflexive ways. They are stimulated by their immediate environment, they express it–and they also use their imagination to go beyond it.
In commenting on the need to go further than asserting linkage between the terms of modernism and the facts of Parisian life, T.J. Clark adds “the circumstances of modernism were not modern…” (Clark 1984: 15). In the case of Verne, the material circumstances shaping the “terms of modernism” for him included the facts of life in the port of Nantes as those in the streets of Paris. Not only the capital city, but also the provincial port, was undergoing massive changes that stimulated his imagination: he brought memories of these changes with him and visited Nantes frequently during his years in Paris, as the once-thriving port continued to decline and to shift from trade to industry as its economic base. It is Nantes that is the source of Verne’s strongest and most persistent desire, that of leaving the land for the sea, or some other mobile medium, preferably in the company of a few other men (leaving behind women and children) in a technologically advanced vehicle that allows experience without entanglement. It is also Nantes that is the source of his keen awareness of the evils of civilization: as he well knew from family and civic connections, it had been for centuries the apex of the French slave trade.
Once Verne moved to Paris, what he found most stimulating in the city was not the material milieu but the cultural one. When he arrived in 1848, he headed immediately for the literary and especially the theatre crowd, still swept up in Romanticism, which had dominated French letters in the last generation. Verne’s instincts for individuality, creativity, and freedom were aligned with those of writers such as de Vigny, de Musset, Goethe, Schiller, Hugo, and Dumas father and son. For most of his time in Paris, Verne concentrated on writing romantic comedies: Dumas fils helped bring his first play to the stage.
Like so many other artistic immigrants to European capitals, Verne found there (in the words of Raymond Williams, speaking of early twentieth-century London) “a community of the medium; of their own practices,” above all the practice of language:
To the immigrants especially,…language was more evident as a medium—a medium that could be shaped and reshaped—than as a social custom….Over a wide and diverse range of practice this emphasis on the medium, and on what can be done in the medium, become dominant
(Williams 1985: 21-22)
Verne, unusually, was part of two very different communities of medium and practice. Almost from the start, in addition to writing for for the theatre, he also wrote short non-fiction or lightly fictionalized articles for popular magazines on topics of exploration and discoveries. During his years in Paris, he became increasingly involved with Saint Simonians and enthusiasts for new inventions such as Jacques Arago, Henri Garcet, and Nadar [Félix Tournachon], who was active as a photographer and also as a promoter of heavier-than-air flight.
These friends and pursuits led Verne to develop a very different kind of discourse from that of Romantic drama. He read and wrote in the circles of learned societies and popular journalism: some of his earliest published articles were imaginative non-fiction, or a precursor of what would now be called science journalism. During his twenty-plus years in Paris, through many moves from one cheap apartment to another, Verne took with him a desk that had two separate drawers: one for science, one for comedies (Allotte de la Fuÿe 1956: 89). Eventually, it would be Verne’s non-literary friendships that helped him more than salon society in shaping his own destiny as a writer. His own great invention, launched in Five Weeks in a Balloon, was a new literary invention: the geographic romance. By combining comedy and science, he invented a new kind of novel, uniting the crackling dialogue and fast-paced events of the stage with exposition of new geographical knowledge and settings. He combined obsessions brought with him from Nantes with cultural experiences he found in Paris to create extraordinary journeys carrying him far from the city.
Verne’s first, long-forgotten novel about Paris did not succeed, either as art or as commerce. It was a negative learning experience, for both Verne and Hetzel: neither the gritty details of realism nor the imaginative escapes of romanticism—the two leading alternatives of l9th century literature–were adequate for coming to terms with the social, economic, and material powers at work all around them. Much of the narrative is that of a realist, even naturalistic, melodrama: the grim story of an artist, trapped in an uncaring mercenary world, who seeks to build a romantic refuge, a human world within the cruel imperatives of bourgeois economic and political power. When the haven collapses, another Paris emerges: a city transformed by mysterious processes of climate change into an unearthly terrain, where realism and romanticism alike give way before an unknown world dislocated in both time and space . Paris in the Twentieth Century is a strange and unstable brew of realism, romance, and fantasy.
ACCURSED PARIS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
When Paris in the Twentieth Century was first published in the 1990s, critical and popular attention focused on the supposedly prophetic technologies of the fictional future city: an extended subway system with driverless trains, power from subterranean atmospheric systems, FAX-like machines, and “gaz-cars” running silently on the surface. If these systems seem prophetic, it was because Verne, as was his habit, based them on current prototypes, reports, and speculations. (Two years after the book appeared, there were some 500 gas-powered carriages on the streets of Paris). The inventions were intended to be imaginative, but not imaginary. In the text Verne names some of the sources of these devices, and his descriptions are thickly larded with names of contemporary inventors (Unwin 2006: 33-7; Unwin 2000: 130).
The theme of the novel, however, is not organization of the material world but that of human consciousness. On the opening page the reader is transported, without any explanation of how or why, to August 13, 1960. A crowd gathers on the former Champs du Mars to attend the prize ceremony for the Academic Credit Union [Société génèrale de crédit instructionnel]. Michel Dufrénoy–sixteen years old, an orphan from Brittany, an aspiring writer–is introduced as winner of the Latin prize for his centralized public high school. When the audience mocks him for such a useless accomplishment, he throws the prize book, the latest Factory Manual, on the ground—the first of many defiant but futile gestures he makes in the face of this brutally utilitarian society. Michel is oppressed by a machinery of instruction that favors mathematical, descriptive, mechanical, physical, chemical, and astronomical subject matter for the purpose of training in industry, commerce, and finance.
This is not fantasy; it is not even the future. Paris of the Twentieth Century exists in a temporal twilight zone, where the imagined future is an exaggerated version of the Second Empire. The instructional credit union running Michel’s school is transparently an educational version of the Crédit Mobilier established in 1852 to provide financial backing for the rebuilding of Paris:
Now, construction and instruction are one and the same for businessmen, education being merely a somewhat less solid form of edification.
Verne 1996: 5
There is nominal liberty to do what you will, in the future city, even if it means studying Latin. However, investments and institutions are all organized to reward commercial pursuits only. The unidentified narrator bemoans the lack of interest in and support for literature and the arts, especially the French language. It is “an age when everything was centralized, thought as well as mechanical power…” (Verne 1996: 173).
Even more oppressive than the organization of education is the organization of labor. Michel, needing a job, approaches his banker-uncle Boutardin, one of the inwardly mechanized men of the time:
…he moved quite regularly, with the least possible friction, like a piston in a perfectly reamed cylinder; he transmitted his uniform movements to his wife, to his son, to his employees and his servants, all veritable tool-machines, from which he, the motor force, derived the maximum possible profit.
Verne 1996: 30
Michel becomes part of this machine, put to work in the evil uncle’s bank, where he is hitched to an array of office machines: a calculating machine, with sensitive keyboards resembling a vast piano; electrical telegraphs sending printed messages; and the grand livre, twenty feet high, a bookkeeping system with a mechanism that allows it to be pointed in various directions like a telescope, and with a system of bridges or gangways (Verne uses the nautical term passerelles) that allows it to be raised or lowered according to the needs of the scribe. Michel is assigned to read information aloud to another employee, the copyist Quinsonnas, who enters it into the grand livre, using different colors of ink to code his entries. He works for months before he has a single day off.
Michel gamely tries to make a human world for himself in the midst of this iron cage of capitalism. He strikes up a friendship with Quinsonnas, an aspiring musician, visiting his walk-up apartment, where they are joined by a third déclassé friend, Jacques. These “three mouths useless to society” (the title of chapter seven) spend a lively evening together conversing about the piano-playing, eating, and drinking: “Since that memorable evening, the three young men had become close friends; they constituted a little world of their own the vast capital of France” (Verne 1996: 99).
On Michel’s one day off in the spring after an entire winter of work, he visits another uncle, Huguenin—the good uncle–an artistic soul who lives in a modest home on the outskirts of Paris. Michel enjoys a long talk with this uncle about French literature as they sit in a small room overflowing with books and furnished with well-worn easy chairs. There is even a token of non-human nature: once a year, a ray of sunlight penetrates into the room from the high walls of the surrounding courtyard. They are later joined by some of Huguenin’s friends, a father and daughter. Michel is smitten by the daughter, lovely Lucy. The little group keeps talking, exchanging Latin phrases, and enjoy an excellent dinner.
To round off this fine day, they take a walk to what the most astonishing public works project of Paris of the twentieth century: a canal connecting the plain of Grenelle with Rouen, so that Paris has now been turned into a port. With the precision typical of Verne’s narrative voice when he gets excited about the possibilities of human achievement, he states that the canal is is 140 kilometers long, 70 meters wide, and 20 meters deep, culminating in a long series of drydocks and wetdocks that can accommodate a thousand deep-draft vessels. Also typical is the way such forecast of future achievements are based on those of present projects, which Verne had read about and noted in his “science drawer.” He notes that from the time of Louis XIV there had been speculations about digging a canal between Paris and the sea. He imagines that in the early twentieth century the isthmuses and Suez and Panama have been cut through, and that plans to canalize the Seine are finally carried out. The Rouen-Paris canal is dug with a railway network running alongside to provide towing for the vessels, and the network of docks is connected by drawbridges operated by compressed-air machines. The entrance to the port of Grenelle is proclaimed by an electric lighthouse, 152 meters high, the highest monument in the twentieth-century world, visible from the tower of the cathedral of Rouen.
The scene of Michel, Hugenin, Lucy, and her father sightseeing at the port of Paris sharply changes the tone of the novel. Up to that point, the text has been dominated by black humor attacking the oppressive commercial values around which everything, “thought as well as mechanical power,” has been organized, with occasional interruptions of feeble efforts at retreats from this empire to a more intimate human world of friendship, language, and nature. With the description of the port, another voice emerges, that of technological desire: “In this herculean task, industry seemed to have achieved the extreme limits of the possible” (Verne 1996: 131). This is not the banal, oppressive mechanism of the bank office. Instead, it is the liberating possibility of large technological systems. At the port of Grenelle, sightseers stroll along the splendid granite quais, admiring the spectacle of steamers flying the flags of all nations. Now Paris–like Nantes in its heyday, but with more benign cargo—is connected with the larger world, at once that of physical geography and that of consciousness. The urban prison begins to opened; escape seems possible; new vitality enters the text, and the city:
Certainly it was a magnificent spectacle, these steamers of all sizes and all nationalities whose flags spread their thousand colors on the breeze; huge wharves, enormous warehouses protected the merchandise which was unloaded by means of the most ingenious machines;…ships towed by locomotives slid along the granite walls;…all the products of the four quarters of the world were heaped up in towering mountains of commerce; many-colored panels announced the ships departing for every point on the globe, and all the languages of the earth were spoken in this Port de Grenelle, the busiest in the world.
(Verne 1996: 135-6)
Verne loves large technological systems connecting the world, but most of all he loves vehicles that become their own world. And this is how the tour ends, at one of Verne’s fantasy vehicles: the great ocean liner Leviathan IV, with 30 masts and 15 chimneys, 61 meters wide, so powerful it could cross the North Atlantic in three days, with railroads connecting the decks, some of them large enough to hold public gardens with shade trees and bridle paths. and indeed “This ship was a world…” (Verne 1996: 137).
Alas, this happy day is soon over, as Michel and Quinsonna go back to the workaday grind. Back in the office, back to work on the grand livre, they get into a heated conversation about women and love, during which Quinsonnas makes a sweeping gesture to make a point. He spills bottles of colored ink all over the book. The banker enters and sees the disaster: “That veritable atlas which contained an entire world, contaminated!.ruined! spattered! lost!” (Verne 1996: 151).
Michel and Quinsonnas are fired. At first they revel in their escape from the prison of employment, which gives them the opportunity at least to get out in fresh air. But there are the first ominous signs that non-human nature is fading away in this industrialized world. Quinsonnas warns Michel that metaphorically speaking, it may be a new day, ?but physically, is it growing dark; night has fallen; now we don’t want to sleep by starlight—in fact, there is no starlight. Our astronomers are interested only in stars we cannot see” (Verne 1996: 153-4). When they go to Uncle Huguenin to tell him what has happened, suggesting that they celebrate their new freedom by spending the day in the country, the good uncle responds, ‘But there is no country, Michel!,” going on to explain
For me, the country, even before trees, before fields, before streams, is above all fresh air; now, for ten leagues around Paris, there is no longer any such thing!…by means of ten thousand factory chimneys, the manufacture of certain chemical products—of artificial fertilizers, of coal smoke, of deleterious gases, and industrial miasma—we have made ourselves an air which is quite the equal of the United Kingdom’s.
(Verne 1996: 157)
Michel tries another job, at a centralized state-run theatre warehouse, but after “five long months of disappointments and disgust” (Verne 1996: 187), he decides he can stand it no longer. After he quits this second job, it becomes evident that the change in the air is even worse than the loss of fresh air. The atmosphere of northern Europe begins to chill with the advent of a new ice age:
The winter of 1961-62 was particularly harsh; worse than those of 1789, of 1813, and 1829 for its rigor and length. In Paris, the cold set in on November 15, and the freeze continued uninterrupted until February 28; the snow reached a depth of seventy-five centimeters; and the ice in ponds and on several rivers a thickness of seventy centimeters; for fifteen days the thermometer fell to twenty-three degrees below freezing. The Seine froze over for forty-two days, and shipping was entirely interrupted.
(Verne 1996: 195)
All over Europe rivers were covered with ice. Grapevines, olive trees, and chestnut trees died; wheat and oat harvests are lost; people died in the streets from the cold. Technological systems no longer functioned, as train engineers perished from the cold and snow prevented movement. Fertility and nature itself seem to retreat.
This new ice age is the pivot of the novel. Before, it had alternated social realism, even naturalism, with romantic interludes, along with a great burst of technological enthusiasm for the new port of Paris. But in the last three (of seventeen) chapter, fantastic elements emerge—fantasy that transmutes the city into a strange new world, as glacial time and polar space take over the capital of the nineteenth century. Michel’s “little world” of friendship and art collapses. Quinsonnas leaves Paris for Germany. Lucy and her grandfather fall on hard times.
Without money, Michel falls into bad habits: he becomes ashamed of himself, rarely visiting his good uncle or Lucy and her grandfather. He is reduced to heating “coal bread.” The progress of science ensures that no one would die of hunger, “But how did he live?” With his last pennies, he decides to buy Lucy a bouquet. “Like a madman,” (Verne 1996: 198), in temperatures twenty degrees below freezing, he runs into the streets, in the snow, in the dark, heading northeast on foot, only to discover that Lucy and her grandfather have been evicted from their apartment. They are all homeless now, and he does not know where to find her.
The last chapters of Paris in the Twentieth Century are a voyage extraordinaire within the capital. A twilight unreality settles over Paris. Dialogue and humor fade from the text as the voice of an imagined observer takes control, indicating that the now nearly speechless protagonist has entered an unfamiliar world (Unwin 2000a: 53). The new narrative voice, like that of a shaman, takes Michel and the reader beyond everyday reality and beyond waking consciousness. The background sounds of ringing clocks give way to eerie silence (Unwin 2000a : 53; Platten 2000 : 81, 87). The text takes both Michel and the reader from the known world to an unknown world, from industrial, capitalistic Paris of the twentieth century—a future but familiar city—to Paris as an arctic waste, an unfamiliar city transformed by climate change.
Verne was already working on Captain Hatteras, and the works he was reading as background on arctic explorations surely stimulated his imagination of frigid desolation. Michel, like Captain Hatteras, makes an obsessive, doomed trek to a terminal point on the earth—but Michel does this in the middle of Paris. Like Hatteras, Michel goes mad as he becomes obsessed with finding a point of meaning: not the north pole, as for the captain, but the whereabouts of Lucy and her grandfather.
As he continues his journey to the unknown, the world becomes transformed not only by cold but by “the demon of electricity” (the title of Chapter 16). There are many descriptions, in the nineteenth century, of the wonders of “the electrical fairy,” including ones by Verne himself, most notably in a chapter of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas titled “Everything by Electricity.” In Paris of the Twentieth Century, however, the electrified landscape is one of nightmare and horror. As Michel walks by the Académie-Française, by the Seine, he notes that “over his head the sky was cluttered with electric wires passing from one bank to the other and extending like a huge spiderweb…” (Verne 1996: 206).
He passes by a morgue, where electric apparatus is used to restore life to bodies “still harboring some spark of existence” (Verne 1996: 208). Then he arrives at Notre Dame, just as mass is ending: the altar shines with electric light, as does the monstrance raised in the priest’s hand “`More electricity.’the miserable boy exclaimed, `even here!’” (Verne 1996: 207). Lampposts glare, electrical signs glare advertisements, an electric concert (two hundred pianos wired together!) disgusts him: he is pursued by the demon of electricity to a scaffold, where an execution by electrocution is being prepared. Electric lights flicker, church bells toll, and all these images of death (morgue, execution) morph into a terrifying synesthesia, as the senses mingle and amplify each other.
In his frozen trance, Michel finds himself back in a village, a refuge from “this deadly capital, this accursed Paris” (Verne 1996: 211) –but it turns out to be a village of the dead, the cemetery of Père-Lachaise, with its tombs grouped like tiny cities. There, from the top of a cemetery hill, he once again sees Paris, from Montmartre to Notre Dame to the lighthouse of the frozen port. He looks at the sky: water may freeze, but the sky seems to offer him a way out of accursed Paris, if he could fly like a bird. But no: even the sky has been weaponized, as the government has floated there armored balloons designed to protect the city from lightning storms. There is no escape by land, water, or air. Trapped, Michel wishes that he could cut the ropes of the balloons to clear the sky so Paris can be destroyed in a rain of fire. Instead, he swoons on the snow. The reader has no reason to think he will ever regain consciousness.
ART AS CONSTRUCTION OF A SECONDARY WORLD
Verne, who scarcely mentions Paris, and Baudelaire, the city’s poet laureate, share significant affinities in artistic goals and practices. In their goals, the are seeking language adequate for new experiences found not just in Paris of the Second Empire but more generally in a world being transformed, with unprecedented scope, scale, and pace, into second nature. The world for which they seek adequate language is not just a new urban environment: it is the new environment for human life (Marx 2008: ; Williams 2008: ) In their artistic practices, Verne and Baudelaire redefine the very role of literature. For them its traditional purposes–to entertain, soothe, create beauty, give pleasure, impart experience and even wisdom—are inadequate. At a time when the creation of second nature is so dramatic and far-reaching, they assert that the mission of art is nothing less than the construction of a “secondary world” equal in ambition and audacity to the creation of second nature (Clute and Grant 1997: 847).
Baudelaire’s great literary invention is symbolism in poetry; that of Verne is the scientific (or, to use the term that Verne preferred, the geographic) romance in prose. Symbolism and romance are confined to separate chapters of literary history, but they share this crucial affinity: the work of art transports writer and reader from the familiar world to an unfamiliar one. Their aesthetic goal is more than evasion, escape, transport, voyage, however. Baudelaire in symbolism, and Verne in romance, create a destination, a derivative but independent world, a secondary world built of images or texts.
Baudelaire constructs poetic worlds from sensory images extracted from the visible world and rearranged to make an aesthetic system, a web of universal analogy woven by the creative imagination. The poet establishes connections among the sensuous data of the visible world—whether natural in the usual sense, or “transformed, fabricated, unrecognizable nature” of the cityscape– and the supra-sensible world behind them, as connected through signs, symbols, and images. Everywhere the poet finds stores of analogies and images to build systems of connections between the soul and world (Raymond 1970: 13). The symbol makes a transfer, a connection, in a technical senses. The poem is an intricately designed system of switches (just as “Correspondences” are points on the metro system where one changes trains).
Verne sifts through research reports, journalism, myths, and “factual” texts, to assemble these fragmentary signs of the contemporary world to build a comprehensive and coherent realm of art. Verne’s library was full of practical works of information about geography, history, and languages of faraway places, gleaned from newspapers and magazines. He accumulated this information with the help of notecards (20,000 of which reportedly still exist in the archives in Amiens) (Butcher 2006: 328).
As Timothy Unwin (and Daniel Compère before him) have shown, Verne writes through grafting, collage, assembly, “in which the author’s readings are exploited and recycled.” Unwin calls these practices “reflexive realism,” a highly self-conscious form of realism in which the author creates his fictional world not out of direct experience but out of symbolic representations. Verne said in a newspaper interview shortly before his death, “I think that an attentive reading of the most documented works on any new subject is worth more that concrete experience, at least when it comes to writing novels” (Unwin 2000a: 58) Like his instrument-wielding explorer-heroes—and later symbolists–Verne leaves actual life to servants (Wilson 2004: esp. 211-13).
Verne organizes these realistic points into a narrative arc that transport readers to worlds known and unknown. He combines dogged research with theatrical dialogue to create adventurous stories about exploring the universe. His extraordinary voyages merge the traditions of heroic romance with the emerging information age, demonstrating that hyperrealistic attention to information is compatible with an obsessive desire to escape from reality, or, to put it a little differently, with world alienation (Arendt 1998: esp. pp. 6, 248-257).
In both Verne’s romances and Baudelaire’s poems, the careful identification and assemblage of images or texts is undertaken to convey writer and reader “Anywhere so long as it is out of this world!” (as Baudelaire’s soul cries in the famous poem by that title). One one level they seek to escape or evade the comprehensive oppression of bourgeois French society at the time. But their aesthetic ideal expresses a culture of nature integral to the social and material changes going on all around them. The drive to create a secondary world of art is similar to the drive to create second nature: both assume non-human nature is there to be exploited for human purposes.
In his famous essay on “the question concerning technology,” Martin Heidegger describes the essence of “ technology” as nothing material but rather as a human attitude towards the non-human world: that non-human nature is a “standing reserve” available for exploitation. The essence of technology is a culture of nature in which nature is not regarded as something living of its own accord, not as something to be nurtured, not as something fragile, but as a resource for humanity.
Baudelaire and Verne share this cultural attitude. Baudelaire repeatedly describes given nature is a storehouse of images. In an article on Victor Hugo, he writes that for “the best poets…comparisons, metaphors, and epithets are drawn from the inexhaustible store of universal analogy….”(Raymond 1970: 11n). Critic Marcel Raymond comments:
…Baudelaire assumes an extremely significant attitude toward outward nature. He regards it not as a reality existing in itself and for itself, but as an immense reservoir of analogies and as a kind of stimulant for the imagination. “The whole visible universe,” he writes, “is only a store of images and signs to which the imagination accords a relative place and value; it is a kind of fodder that the imagination must digest and transform.”
(Raymond 1970: 11)
Nowhere is this attitude expressed more famously than in Baudelaire’s iconic poem “Correspondences”:
The “forest of symbols” is a standing reserve from which the poet extracts material, poetic material in form of “comparisons, metaphors, and epithets” that allow the poet to decipher the meaning of the visible universe and to make create his own aesthetic one. In this forest, in Raymond’s words, the poet “proceeds to cut himself a path in the world of analogies and to arrange and order the material supplied by nature” (Raymond 1970: 11).
Verne shares the assumption that non-human nature is a “standing reserve” for human exploitation. In particular, he expresses the Saint-Simonian belief that the exploitation of non-human nature can remain separate from the exploitation of humankind (Chesneaux 1972: esp. 82-82). This belief is evident in Paris in the Twentieth Century. The novel fiercely attacks the exploitations of white-collar office slavery, along with all the inner and outer mechanizations associated with the profit system of capitalism, while also celebrating the conquest of non-human nature through systems that, for example, turn Paris into a port, and through fantasy vehicles such as Leviathan IV that provide a human-built, quasi-autonomous world within the much larger and messier real world.
As daily experience became increasingly that of human-built world, literary experience became more and more conscious of its self-construction. If the realist metaphor for art is the mirror (reflecting the world), and the romantic metaphor is the lamp (illuminating the world), for Verne and Baudelaire literature is a construction site: a vast project built by the writer from the raw materials of images and texts (Abrams, 1953).
Building a secondary world is a grandly ambitious enterprise. Baudelaire constantly expanded and refined Fleurs du mal, with careful attention to the sequence and juxtaposition of this ever-expanding set of poetry. Verne was constantly writing more voyages extraordinaires, keeping track of geographical regions he still needed to cover in order to create a prose map of the entire world: “a mad, colossal, monstrous literary ambition” (Unwin 2006: 26). These aesthetic empire-builders proposed a new and encyclopedic mission for writing, one “that draws attention to itself as substituting art and its creations for the once-possible synthesis of the world empires” (Said 1994: 189).
This literary mission is congruent with the size and swagger of the creation of second nature in mid-nineteenth-century Europe. The rebuilding of Paris is only part of the colossal system-building and landscape transformations in France at this time:
Everyone knows that the nineteenth century was an age of change, but for many people of the time, roads, railways, education and sanitation were trivial innovations compared to the complete and irreversible transformation of their physical world….
….By the mid-nineteenth-century, huge tracts of land were being reclaimed at a rate of several thousand acres a day. Half the moorland in Brittany disappeared in half a century….
The material events that reshaped the lands and waters of France depended upon the “idea of management (amengement) of territories and cities on the scale of the entire earth…the progressive shrinking of the planet which primes itself [qui s’amorce]” to become “the dwelling place of man.” This goal, based on an ideology of circulation, was expressed in a fractal-like pattern of technological systems lacing cities, regions, continents, and eventually the whole globe. It is certainly “the triumph of the networks,” (Picon and Robert 1999: 192-94) but the qualitatively unique component of all the networks is the motivating idea, springing from the consciousness of individuals who begin the whole process of network-creation by imagining global management. In the famous words of Karl Marx, among all the animals, only the human species consciously designs: only the human architect “raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality” (Marx: xxx).
The material events commonly known as the rebuilding of Paris, the “complete and irreversible transformation” of France, and the networking of the planet (Mattelart 2000) both depend upon and stimulate an event of consciousness: the conviction that humanity can and should recreate the world in this way. To be sure, as long as human beings have been on earth, we have been actively creating second nature. What is new in the mid-nineteenth century is a self-conscious project of doing this in such a comprehensive and totalizing manner. In Paris of the Second Empire, in France and Europe and the overseas holdings, the critical event of consciousness is the conviction of humans that we should ransack and rework the standing reserves of the planet to create a comprehensive second nature organized around ourselves.
All the material evidence in the nineteenth century world—bridges built, sewers and canals dug, balloons flown, railroads built—cannot demonstrate when and how human beings came to think about their relationship to their earthly home in this way. Imaginative writers like Verne and Baudelaire–acutely attuned to the new culture of nature, and unusually skilled at expressing and probing human motivations with the most flexible tool of all, that of language–provide archives of consciousness that help write the history of this event of consciousness New ambitions for building second nature were not just reflected but were expressed and probed by these writers as they proposed new ambitions for building secondary worlds in art. In Paris of the Second Empire, as in the larger human empire rising to dominance at that time, the creation of artifice was defined as the supreme human achievement.