Today I went to the Jules Verne museum. Nantes being his home town, the local government has established a museum in his honour. There is also an enormous mechanical elephant, in Verne-ian style. Since the temperature here has finally climbed back above freezing, the elephant was out on the streets today, about 50 people on board, spraying random passers-by with water. This seems like it would be more fun if it were actually hot; apparently, although above zero now does actually feel kind of warm to me, I haven’t quite acclimatised sufficiently.
Verne’s fiction today seems childish, sometimes racist, Orientalist, sometimes nakedly imperialist. Apparently his work has suffered from poor English translations. They are Boy’s Own tales of an era long gone, pioneering antiques of science fiction. But there is still something delightful about it, some untainted childlike optimism about progress, technology, the world, discovery, science, adventure, and the universe.
As he says:
Il y a là une poésie grandiose, uné poesie qui n’est plus humaine seulement, mais planétaire, interplanétaire, si j’ose ainsi parler
(There is there a grandiose poetry, a poetry no longer only human, but planetary, interplanetary, if I dare say it.)
We no longer have literature to provide us with such dreams. Post-modern art in general abhors progress and optimism. Science has become too hard. Physics is buried under tomes of string theory machinations that may well turn out to become nonsense. It takes near a lifetime to reach the frontiers of mathematical understanding. Politically we have all the theory we need to liberate ourselves, and a century of history to ruin our dreams. Economically we are richer than ever, but stressed and unhappy as never before. Technologically we could create a paradise but instead we have killer robot drones, militarization of everything, total state surveillance, and criminalization of sharing information. Ecologically we know how to save ourselves but plough relentlessly toward distruction, like “yeast in a barrel, feeding and farting until they are poisoned by their own waste”. It is an absurdity, a disaster. Maybe less so in France! But the point remains. The power of literature is awesome. It is not being used to its social potential. Where is a Jules Verne of today?