Friday, July 1, 2011
July Cooling (Theophile Gautier on Captain Hatteras, 1866)
Men of the Belgica wintering in Antarctica, 1898
When the alcohol in the thermometer . . . . pushes its red thread [to the maximum] . . . . it is best . . . . to read in the half-darkness . . . . some pleasant and refreshing book, for example the imaginary journeys of M. Jules Verne . . . . The British at the North Pole and The Desert of Ice . . . . especially, are excellent today. . . . . These Arctic books come at the right time. When you hold them, they almost give you frostbite: you can see your breath stretching out as fog while an invisible snow falls on your shoulders. Like doctors, M. Jules Verne knows how to make ice at the heart of a white-hot tomb. There exists an extensive collection of imaginary journeys, ancient and modern: from Lucian's True History to Gulliver's Travels, the human imagination has revelled in wild fantasies where, on the pretext of excursions to unknown lands, authors with more or less talent develop their utopias or exercise their satirical verve. The journeys of M. Jules Verne belong to neither of these categories. If they have not really been carried out -- even if they could not yet be done -- they present the most rigorous scientific possibilities, and the most daring are only the paradox or exaggeration of a truth soon to come. Here the chimera is written and guided by a mathematical spirit. It is the application to an invention of all those true, real, and precise details that produce the most complete illusion. There is more Edgar Allen Poe and Daniel Defoe than Swift in M. Jules Verne -- or rather he has found his method on his own and at the first attempt taken it to the highest degree of perfection . . . .
. . . . When Hatteras shoots the sun, no naval captain could find the least error, and the same applies to the tiniest details. Only Robinson Crusoe's diary by Defoe reaches this degree of verisimilitude. But in addition, M. Jules Verne, who does not neglect the human and cordial side, ensures his characters are liked, and, above all on days as hot as when this article is written, he creates the desire to go and spend a few hours with those good companions in the snow-house in the desert of ice!
--- Theophile Gautier, Les Voyages Imaginaires de M. Jules Verne (16 July 1866), published in Le Moniteur universel, p. 197
Theophile Gautier photographed by Nadar, 1856
Note: Reading Theophile Gautier's contemporary review of Jules Verne's The Adventures of Captain Hatteras yesterday evening struck a chord because I also had been reading the novel partly to moderate my internal thermostat as Pennsylvania's summer swelters mounted their cruel annual assault. I mentioned this to a friend, a psychotherapist much concerned with behavioral cues and tics the other day (under a high, beating sun; over cooling mango drinks), and it provoked a lively conversation.
The weather here has already become much too "close", as it was during Gautier's July 150 years ago. "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose", as the man said.
The Belgica in port of Antwerp, 1897, prior to voyaging