Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Jules Verne: A Literary Pilgrimage - Part 3

As age and infirmity set in, Verne's family left their mansion of 18 years to return again to the townhouse at No. 44 Boulevard Longueville. The last five years of Jules Verne's life, from 1900 to 1905, were spent in this modest dwelling. At 3:10pm on March 24, 1905, Jules Verne passed away from complications due to diabetes. Behind him were left his wife Honorine, son Michel, and some eight to fifteen novels in various states of composition. Verne prided himself on being years ahead of his twice-annual publication schedule.

Towards the end of his life, Verne resumed some of his youthful cynicism and his latest novels betrayed an ever more pessimistic view of the effects of technology and industry on human life. His last years were also beset with tragedy. Honorine became an invalid in 1879, Michel took off to sow his wild oats, he was shot in the leg by a mentally deranged cousin in 1886 and crippled for the rest of his life, both Hetzel and his mother died in 1887, he suffered a facial neuralgia in 1890, and he developed cataracts in 1900 that severely impaired his vision. He also died regretting that he had never curried the favour of the French literary elite. As Sherard reports once again:
It was like the confession of a wasted life, the sigh of an old man of what can never be recalled. It was to me a poignant sorrow to hear him speak thus, and all that I could do was to say, with no unfeigned enthusiasm, that he was to me and millions like me, a great master, the subject of our unqualified admiration and respect, the novelist who delights many of us more than all the novelists that have ever taken pen in hand. But he only shook his gray head and said: "I do not count in French literature."

He also had a touchy relationship with the Roman Catholicism of his father and his youth. The Catholic Encyclopedia insists that he lived and died a Catholic (however libidinous he may have been during his heady days in Paris), and his Catholic concern for people and Providence infused his work even as he drifted in and out of regular church attendance. Verne was perhaps best served by being a Catholic, as it allowed him to balance his Romantic sensibilities with an appreciation for science and technological development. Rather than a conflict between science and religion, it was religion that brokered the marriage between reason and romance.

Romanticism, which was already of global scope by the time Verne put pen to paper, was largely a reaction against the Rationalism of the Enlightenment and its unfortunate outcomes. The moral, economic, social and spiritual destitution caused by technological progress twinged with the Industrial Revolution, scientific discovery twinged with colonialism, and failed political revolts over the known world left the Romantics palpably disappointed. Verne lived to see the factory slums of Paris, the stunning defeat of France by Prussia's modern army, and the collapse of the Second French Republic and rise of Emperor Napoleon III. Romanticism - which emphasized the individual, the emotional, intuitive, imaginative, irrational, visionary, spiritual, subjective, humane, the sublime and the beautiful - looked to the European Middle Ages as a spiritual, intellectual, nationalistic, and aesthetic model, and nothing spoke so powerfully of it as the Church, with its strong traditions of mysticism and scholasticism. All evidence pointed to Verne's trajectory as a Romantic in the best tradition of Longfellow, Cooper, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, or Shelly, or even his friends Hugo and Dumas. Verne, however, made a startling realization: the solitary creative genius of Romanticism could be a man of science, and that technology could be the vehicle to a transcendental appreciation of nature. Reason, rather than being the enemy of the spirit, could be a tool to reach the spirit's fullest potential. In the words of Verne,
It struck me one day that perhaps I might utilize my scientific education to blend together science and romance into a work... that might appeal to the public taste.
Thus was born Scientific Romanticism, as his work and the work of his derivatives was called, and that which distinguishes the work of Verne from the Science Fiction and Scientism that would follow. Nurtured on Catholicism's rigorous balancing of reason, experience, spiritual discipline, Divine revelation, and moral concerns for humanity, Verne was able to admit and to love the exact degree of reason and empiricism required of methodological naturalism in understanding the laws that govern the tangible. He was not, however, limited to it. A dogma of philosophical naturalism could not permit his Romantic, transcendental appreciations of nature and humanity, and so philosophical naturalism had to go. Where a radical atheist like H.G. Wells was content to destroy humanity over and over again in his novels, even Verne at his most cynical could not countenance the moral degradation of such wholesale slaughter. When he did allow the destruction of modern civilization in his final novella, The Eternal Adam, it was only to ruminate on the cyclical nature of progress and decline. The presence of God suffuses Verne's work, in its various guises of Providential events and odes to the Creator's beneficence.

We may never know the full details of Verne's spiritual state, unfortunately. He shut the window of his private life to posterity when he burned all of his personal papers in 1898; a very French act of resignation to fate likewise perpetrated by painter Claude Monet, composer Paul Dukas, and filmmaker Georges Méliès. Four days after his death, his funeral was held around the corner and down the street at the church of Saint-Martin.

No. 44 Boulevard Longueville
St. Martin Church
The funeral procession brought out the entire city of Amiens, which Verne served as councilor and beloved adopted son as well as members of the French government, scientific and literary establishments. Verne's politics leaned to the left, as Romanticism tends to, but his positions on specific issues were a typically Catholic melange of liberal and conservative stands that do not fit easily into the left-right political spectrum. He warned against excesses of either extreme, either too much capitalism or too little, too much government or too little. He was on the side of revolutionaries - as in 1878 - until they went too far into violence and bloodshed, and then he was on the side of law. Above all he carried a respect for the person and their healthy emotional, spiritual, artistic, and economic development. "In social matters my taste is order;" he said, "in politics my hope is to create within the present government a reasonable party that balances respect for justice and religious belief with consideration for people, the arts, and life itself." This is not very different from the "blend[ing] together science and romance" and the mission "to outline all the... knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe" His drive to merge disparate elements into a comprehensive, coherent whole affected every area of his life, making him universally loved and mourned.

The great chain of mourners went from the church, past the Cirque, to the Cimetière de la Madeleine. Verne delivered the speech on the Cirque's opening day, and in 2003 it was renamed in his honour. It sits mightily just down the street from Verne's two homes, and the Boulevard Longueville has since been renamed Boulevard Jules Verne.

Cirque Jules Verne

Covering 18 hectares, the Catholic Cimetière de la Madeleine lies outside the city and reflects the affluence of the citizens during the Nineteenth Century. Today, vines and trees have overgrown many of the Gothic Revival crypts, rust and decay claiming tombs and iron details. Though listed on tourist brochures, the cemetery is silent, solemn and empty, but for the odd raven disturbed at the invasion of its aerie. Deep within lies the final resting place of the great author. Sculpted by Albert-Dominique Roze and entitled "Towards Immortaility and Eternal Youth," Verne's grave depicts him rising from the ground, overturning the stone holding down his spirit, soul and imagination. Though gone to this world, Jules Verne has achieved immortality both through his works and a Divine hope.

Not far from Amiens' railway station, there is another monument to the author decorating a lovely little green space. Once again carved by Albert-Dominique Roze, the monument was erected in 1909, four years after Verne's passing, funded by subscription from the children of the world. It alone would be a fitting monument to an author who inspired so many, had he not become a global icon honoured over and over again in works like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Many great authors come to be better known as icons for what they represent, or are perceived to represent, than by who they were as people or what they actually wrote. It has happened to Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and Mark Twain, who wryly observed that "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." Though one may write article after article clarifying the truth of a writer and their work, in reality this iconic status is a testament to these authors' endurance. They been immortalized beyond their words, having come to represent something about their genre, their time, and their nation. Verne can mean many things to many people, whether optimistic futurism or the quaintness of Victorian Scientific Romances, the greatness of French literature or the literary precursor to the Discovery Chanel. Even the man who helped refashion Verne into a myth was not immune from myth-making: within his own lifetime, Walt Disney observed that what his "brand" had taken on a life of its own, removed from who he was a man. Verne's imagination took him around the world and to this day he is beloved around the world, whether as the historic man and author or as the icon of optimistic futurism largely created and promoted by Walt Disney.

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