Diving with Captain Nemo

Jules Verne’s legacy lives on in the work and vision of writers, artists, engineers, futurists and explorers to this day. In the words of Ray Bradbury (1920–2012): “We are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne.”   

PLASMA 5 online article
by Matt Ventimiglia, Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California

Mobilis in Mobile (“Free in a Free World”). Thus reads the Latin motto emblazoned on the china and flatware in the Grand Saloon of the Nautilus ― awesome submarine craft built by the mysterious Captain Nemo in the most memorable scientific romance of Jules Verne (1828 – 1905): Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (properly translated as plural). Nemo (Latin for “no man”) was conceived as one who had cut himself off from the ‘civilized world’ of boundary-circumscribing and warring colonial nations to seek the self-reliant freedom of subsistence on the boundless resources found in the ocean’s depths. It would be tempting to classify Verne’s book as ‘steampunk’, but this would be erroneous. The term ‘steampunk’ did not enter the lexicon until the late 1980’s, coined by American sci-fi writer K. W. Jeter as a variant of ‘cyberpunk’ ― combining life in the lowest social stratum with high technology in a post-apocalyptic world of the future. ‘Steampunk’ however presumes an alternate history in a Victorian past with anachronistic technologies oddly ahead of their time. 

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas _ behind the scenes

Of course, Verne was not writing alternative history. Instead he described contemporary ideas about technology that might not be that far in the future of his audience. Much has been written about the putative ‘futuristic’ and ‘prophetic’ nature of his writings. He seemed to predict the use of diving planes that allowed submarines to ascend and descend in level orientation while cruising placidly below storms raging above the surface, SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), electric ‘stun guns’, and the general harnessing of electric power on an industrial scale. But to what degree these ideas should be viewed as truly ‘futuristic’ for Verne’s time is debatable. Verne took inspiration from antecedents in marine technology such as Robert Fulton’s 1800 Nautilus (the first practical submarine) and the French Plongeur (1863), designed and built by Siméon Bourgeois and Charles Brun, a model of which was studied by Verne when it was displayed at the 1867 Exposition Universelle. He also picked the brain of his technically-minded father, Pierre, younger brother and naval officer, Paul, and balloonist and adventurer Gaspard Felix Tournachon (pseudonym ‘Nadar’) to imbue his technological fiction with verisimilitude. 

Matt Ventimiglia, pic Clemens Fantur

Verne’s literary idols included Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe, 1719) and Johann David Wyss (Der Schweizerische Robinson, 1812, known in the English-speaking world as The Swiss Family Robinson) whose stories of resourceful and independent shipwrecked protagonists inspired his own sense of adventure, independence and geographical wanderlust. Verne even feared his ideas were so derivative, he might be sued for plagiarism. But whatever misgivings he might have had about diving into the ocean abyss quickly evaporated after the friendly prodding of his fellow novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (nom de plume: George Sand): “I hope you’ll soon take us into the depths of the sea, making your characters travel in underwater equipment perfected by our science and our imagination.” With these encouraging words Verne ― ever the hopeless romantic ― surrendered himself completely to his submarine project.  

Nautilus, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas

The novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas was first published in serial form by Pierre-Jules Hetzel in his Magazine of Education and Recreation between March 1869 and June 1870. Verne was livid with Hetzel over alterations from the original manuscript and modern scholars continue to debate whether or not proper corrections were made in subsequent editions. Verne’s rocky relationship with Hetzel resulted in a continually devolving work that finally became an awkward compromise between the author’s artistic intentions and his publisher’s commercial demands. The first two-volume soft-bound edition appeared in 1869-70, followed by a single handsome hardbound edition in 1871. Later publications included a volume in Extraordinary Voyages, a lavishly illustrated anthology of 54 of Verne’s novels compiled between 1863 and 1905. Hetzel described this voluminous library as their attempt “to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format … the history of the universe.” (Ambitious, to say the least…!)

Editorial disagreements with his publisher, not to mention redactions and abridgments in the early French and poor translations in subsequent English editions, led to confusion over what sort of character Verne’s Captain Nemo was intended to be. Was he a villain, tragic hero, anti-hero, anarchist, or freedom-fighting revolutionary? It seems that Verne held a mostly sympathetic view of Nemo’s libertarian ideals exemplified by the ‘mad’ captain’s antipathy towards some unnamed European colonial nation. (We don’t fully learn until the novel’s 1874 sequel, The Mysterious Island, that Nemo is actually Prince Dakkar, a descendant of the Muslim Sultan Fateh Ali Khan Tipu of the Kingdom of Mysore, whose army famously used iron-cased rockets against imperialist forces of the British East India Company during the Anglo-Mysore Wars of the late 18th century.) Nemo is never the aggressor, always defending himself against ships that have attacked him first. He is sympathetic to others who struggle under the yoke of imperialism, offering financial assistance to an exploited Ceylonese pearl diver and Greek revolutionaries on the island of Crete fighting overlords from the Ottoman Empire of Turkey. Nemo is fiercely loyal to his crew, who return their devotion unflinchingly. When Nemo plants a black flag at the South Pole (following an unlikely passage under the southern ice sheet) he claims an uninhabited territory that does not require the suppression of any natives.  

Matt Ventimiglia, pic Clemens Fantur

Originally, Verne wanted Nemo to be a Polish nationalist exiled after fighting a lost cause against the expansionist Russian Empire. But Hetzel insisted that such characterizations should be avoided. (The government of France was at the time seeking stronger political ties to Russia.) The ‘unreliable narration’ of Professor Aronnax and laundry list musings of his assistant Conseil (who memorizes Latin marine taxonomies without knowing what these animals actually look like) occasionally satirize Verne’s publisher whom Verne viewed as an insufferable and pretentious know-it-all. Aronnax, Conseil, Ned Land (the rapacious, bloodthirsty Canadian harpooneer) and publisher Hetzel never come to understand the depth of Nemo’s moral integrity, but only suspect him of being troubled by some self-serving obsession. They fail to see their own faults and imagine Nemo to be more like the Promethean Byronic figure Herman Melville (1819–1891) had conjured up with his moody Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. (For an interesting comparison between Nemo and Ahab, see Ray Bradbury’s intro to the 1962 Bantam Books paperback edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas titled: The Ardent Blasphemers.) Verne’s novel presages the environmentalist’s concern for the wasteful overharvesting of the world’s animal resources. Ned Land personifies the reckless mindset of the unbridled hunter whom both Aronnax and Nemo decry.  


Most modern readers have come to think of Jules Verne as a founding father of futuristic science fiction, a reputation built largely on a handful of works in Verne’s canon. But he was mostly interested in geographical exploration rather than speculation about the potentially progressive influence of nascent technologies. Verne’s conservative streak limited his vision to the fundamentals of science understood during his lifetime, yet even within this realm his scientific ‘facts’ were not always accurately catalogued. For example, sperm whales do not feed on baleen whales. (Verne was probably confusing the sperm whale with the orca, some populations of which are indeed wolf-like pack hunters that attack larger baleen whales.) Even so, Verne considered the scientific romances of his younger contemporary H.G. Wells (1866–1946) to be too speculative and absurdly imbued with impossible technologies (e.g., the ‘time machine’). Although they never met, this lead to occasional snarky exchanges between the two. In Verne’s sci-tech romances, the machineries built by men of genius are destroyed in the end. His characters, who undergo no significant change, return to the status quo of bourgeois normalcy. No ‘technological progress’ is really made. In the stories of Wells, technology represents a source of radical change ― potentially destructive, but also potentially transformative.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas

Verne viewed advances in technology almost entirely with suspicion, yet none of his modern fans remember this in quite the same way. His stories inspired the careers of many celebrated and progressive writers, engineers and explorers. Fridtjof Nansen, Ernest Shackleton, William Beebe, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Ballard all derived inspiration from Verne’s novel. Jacques Cousteau (1910–1997), who introduced a later generation to the natural wonders of the ocean realm in his splendid television documentary series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, called Verne’s novel his “shipboard bible”. In 1898 marine architect Simon Lake (1866–1945), designer of Argonaut No 1 ― the first submarine to operate successfully in open sea ― wrote to inform Verne (still alive and writing at 70) that the vessel had safely sailed below the surface to avoid a storm, just like Nemo’s Nautilus. Another of Lake’s submarine designs, originally launched in 1917, was rechristened Nautilus in 1931 to honor the memory of Jules Verne before being assigned to arctic exploration under the command of Sir George Hubert Wilkins ― the first to pilot a submarine under sea ice. Verne’s grandson was present at the rechristening. Other submarine vessels have been dubbed “Nautilus” including USS Nautilus (SS-168), serving with distinction in the Pacific Theater of WWII and USS Nautilus (SSN-571), named after its predecessor. The latter, designed by the irascible Hyman Rickover (1900–1986), became the first nuclear powered submarine and the first of any kind to cruise to the North Pole under sea ice. She was launched in 1954, the same year that Walt Disney (1901–1966) released his memorable film adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. 


When Disney’s screenwriter Earl Felton (1909–1972) and director Richard Fleischer (1916–2006) seemed to lament the fact that the Verne novel “had no story,” they set about refashioning the tale as an action oriented “jailbreak” thriller. (This was already implied in the novel, since Aronnax, Conseil and Land were indeed trapped aboard the Nautilus and all schemed opportunities for escape ― although none actually materialized.) Nemo’s loss of family under the persecution of some unnamed imperialist nation that imprisoned him on the fictional island penal colony of Rura Penthe is revealed to be the motive behind his terrorist hatred of all military sea-going vessels, anticipating the anti-war sentiments of the decade that would follow the film’s release. Disney’s Nemo is, surprisingly, a far darker figure than Verne’s and admirably portrayed by James Mason (1909–1984) as a complex and ambivalent madman genius. (Nemo has also been played by Allan Holubar, Robert Ryan, Jose Ferrer, Herbert Lom, Omar Sharif, Michael Caine, Ben Cross, and Naseeruddin Shah in adaptations of the novel, its sequel, and modern spin-offs, yet none of their performances hold a candle to Mason’s.)   

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas

But the real star of the film is the iconic Nautilus herself. Disney, in anticipation of the daring accomplishment of Rickover’s SSN-571, reimagined Verne’s vessel in true ‘steampunk’ fashion ― powered by anachronistic nuclear energy developed far ahead of its time. (In the novel the Nautilus is powered simply by electricity ― a mysterious enough phenomenon to most people in the mid-late 19th century ― supplied by sodium/mercury batteries.) Design of Disney’s Nautilus (both exterior appearance and all interior sets) was provided by Harper Goff (1911 –1993) who was denied the Oscar for art direction at the 27th Academy Awards ceremony because he did not then hold a union card. (The award went to his card-holding assistant, John Meehan.) Goff later designed the Proteus submarine for the film Fantastic Voyage (1966). While working at Walt Disney Imagineering, I had the great pleasure of meeting Mr. Goff and complimenting him on his fine design work. He was a living legend and always surrounded by adoring fans and artisans in the entertainment design industries. In the late 1990’s director Richard Fleischer and matte artist Peter Ellenshaw (1913–2007) were invited to the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood California for a retrospective screening of their film. I then had the great pleasure of sitting with these two fine gentlemen to watch the film in the front row of the balcony. It was a matinee to remember, rivaling my first screening as a child.  

Jules Verne’s legacy lives on in the work and vision of writers, artists, engineers, futurists and explorers to this day. In the words of Ray Bradbury (1920–2012): “We are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne.”     

Matt Ventimiglia, pic Clemens Fantur


DIVING WITH CAPTAIN NEMO article _ in PLASMA 5 / repro Nora Heinisch


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