A Story of the Present
Journey to the Center of the Earth at 150.
“If you cannot bear the silence and the darkness,” Loren Eiseley warned, “do not go there; if you dislike black night and yawning chasms, never make them your profession. If you fear the sound of water hurrying through crevices toward unknown and mysterious destinations, do not consider it. Seek out the sunshine. It is a simple prescription. Avoid the darkness.”
“It is a simple prescription,” Eiseley said to us, “but you will not follow it. You will turn immediately to the darkness. You will be drawn to it by cords of fear and longing. You will imagine that you are tired of the sunlight; the waters that unnerve you will tug in the ancient recesses of your mind; the midnight will seem restful – you will end by going down.”
“Lost! LOST! LOST!” screamed Axel to himself as he sat in a vast labyrinth alone – without company, clue or compass — someplace near the core of Earth. But Axel knew this was coming. From the moment his uncle, the imminent geologist Professor Liedenbrock, found the Runic note penned by the mysterious Icelandic alchemist Arne Saknussemm reporting that he had discovered a passage that led to the very center of the Earth, from the moment Professor Liedenbrock had decided the Professor and Axel himself would go to Iceland and follow Saknussemm’s path to the center of the Earth with the aid of all sorts of wonderful technologies (a night glass, two compasses, a chronometer, an aneroid barometer, an Eigel's centigrade thermometer), and then return to enlighten the world with their discovery, Axel had known he would find himself in a state of total despair and imminent doom.
Axel would have been perfectly happy to avoid the dark and silent places. He was content helping his uncle in the laboratory. Axel loved mineralogy, geology, loves rocks, pebbles, earth. What a nice life he could have been having – in the leaning house in the old quarter of Hamburg, Axel could play with his rocks and one day marry his uncle’s pretty ward Gräuben. It would all have been fine were it not for the restless discontent of his uncle. No matter his comfortable life in Hamburg – Professor Liedenbrock was drawn to the darkness. “The man had no notion how to wait; nature herself was too slow for him,” Axel tells us. “In April, after he had planted in the terra-cotta pots outside his window seedling plants of mignonette and convolvulus, he would go and give them a little pull by their leaves to make them grow faster.” From the moment Professor Liedenbrock found Saknussemm’s message, he became a man obsessed. The Professor – and thus Axel – would find no peace until he had seen the center of the Earth for himself.
Now Axel was lost. Lost from his uncle, lost from his purpose, lost at an immeasurable depth, buried alive, crushed under the literal weight of the world. The last glow of his Ruhmkorff’s apparatus – his only means of light – was fading. The darkness was closing in. He was hungry. Axel was becoming shadow.
“Help!” he wailed. “I am dying!”
What happens to a man when he lets himself get pulled into the darkness? This is the question Jules Verne posed when he wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth 150 years ago. It is a clever conceit. What could be darker than the inside of a volcano in Iceland, on a confused path that supposedly led to the heart of Earth?
“In the heavy gloom of deep, thick, unfathomable darkness,” Axel let loose an anguished cry. He was completely blind. But even in the middle of the darkest night, light is always there. “It is still subtle and diffusive, but whatever little there may be, the eye still catches that little.” At this hopeful point in the story, Axel goes bananas. He flies about the volcano in a deranged frenzy, trying to run up but going down, down, down. He screams wretchedly, charging with his arms outstretched, “through the substance of the earth’s thick crust, a struggling denizen of geological ‘faults,’ crying, shouting, yelling, soon bruised by contact with the jagged rock, falling and rising again bleeding, trying to drink the blood which covered my face, and even waiting for some rock to shatter my skull against.” Hours pass this way in madness until Axel falls like a lifeless lump at the foot of a wall. And then, finally, loses consciousness.
As a child, Loren Eiseley kept Jules Verne close by. He spent half his Nebraska childhood reading and the other half digging in his yard or lurking in forbidden sewer tunnels beneath the city. Looking into the darkness became Loren Eiseley’s profession. More specifically, Loren Eiseley’s quest as an anthropologist was to investigate the borders of man, to find out — as he wrote — when man became man, to trace the journey that man took to become what he is today. Where were the turning points, the gateways? Eiseley wanted to know. What messages were inside the earth and the rocks? What could the skull of primitive man tell us about ourselves?
Over the years, the scientists created epochs and the epochs became the Story. It was a progressive story, sometimes visualized in a chart that started with a fish that became a Neanderthal that became the upstanding homo sapiens. It’s no accident that the chart moved in an upward direction.
But Loren Eiseley didn’t see the evolution of man as progressive. He didn’t see the story of people as a gradual rise from the dark depths to the light. Look at the skull of Early man and you can see the future written in its jaw. Likewise, there is living prehistory in our own tiny incisors. If we want to know the future, Eiseley told us, we had to look backward, back into the earth, into the darkness. Eiseley liked to tell a terrible story about the time he found footprints of primitive man in the recesses of a tropical jungle – some transitional man with upright posture and long second toes – only to discover that the footprints were still fresh, and were his own. He recalled being at a swimming party once, at the house of a noted comparative anatomist who spent the party looking uncomfortably at Eiseley’s feet. Or so Eiseley thought. A man who spends his life in the darkness is bound to get a little paranoid.
Just before Axel and Professor Liedenbrock finally find the gateway leading to the center of the Earth (after they find each other again), they come upon a vast field of bones. It is a great cemetery of fossils, the remains of twenty ages of prehistoric animals. They wander over these bones in amazement, almost forgetting their objective. Even the Professor is astonished. “Here he stood facing an immense collection of scattered leptotheria, mericotheria, lophiodia, anoplotheria, megatheria, mastodons, protopithecæ, pterodactyles, and all sorts of extinct monsters here assembled together for his special satisfaction.” And then, in the shadows, Axel and the Professor see an even more unbelievable thing. A creature that looked like a man, only bigger than a man, and much hairier. It cannot be. But it is. A man, just like them. Axel and his uncle stand stupefied, and then do what any good scientists would. They flee. “We kept running on for fear the horrible monster might be on our track. It was a flight, a fall, like that fearful pulling and dragging which is peculiar to nightmare.” They run and run in terror of the sight, until they accidentally come to their final passage, and are distracted again by their adventure.
The journey to center of man was Jules Verne’s interest, just like it was Eiseley’s. He was constantly poking a finger into man’s boundaries, pushing at the limits to see what made man man, to discover where man of the past ended and where 19th century man was going. We think that Verne’s fantastic tales are futuristic because of his fascination with modern technologies. But there is no future in Journey to the Center of the Earth. There is only a labyrinth that leads to a cemetery, a path that gets barer and more essential and more desperate with the increasing darkness. A flight, a fall, a fearful pulling and dragging.
“It’s commonplace of all religious thought,” wrote Loren Eiseley in The Immense Journey, “…that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and live for a time in the wilderness. If he is of the proper sort, he will return with a message. It may not be a message from the god he set out to seek, but even if he has failed in that particular, he will have had a vision or seen a marvel, and these are always worth listening to and thinking about.” That Jules Verne liked to send his characters apart from other men and out into the wilderness we know. But what, if any, was their message? As for Loren Eiseley, his life was a perpetual journey through past, present and future. He would go off to some far-flung archeological site, and then sit in the dark at three in the morning in a Philadelphia suburb with a skull on his desk, wondering. Like Jules Verne, Loren Eiseley spent his life asking, “What does one know when the journey is done?”
Axel and Professor Liedenbrock do find the center of the Earth. They pass through it oblivious and at top-speed, carried on a river of hot water and magma that spits them back on to the Earth’s surface, somewhere in Stromboli. The journey to the center of the Earth turns out to be a circle. In the end, the adventurers return to Hamburg, where Professor Liedenbrock is hailed as a hero of science and Axel marries the pretty Gräuben. It is, at first glance, a pretty flimsy ending. Are we to believe that the culmination of Axel’s harrowing and otherworldly adventure is a stockpile of endless cocktail party stories? That Axel would not find himself broken by what he had experienced in the dark?
But we must remember that Axel never wanted more than a comfortable scholar’s life. Axel’s fate was to marry, settle back down with his rocks, and be content. The journey to the center of the Earth was a circle. It seems to have taken Axel right back to his old self.
Jules Verne’s stories are not about endings. They aren’t about the past and they aren’t about projections into the future either. The stories are about journeys. Jules Verne wanted to get his characters lost — Lost! LOST! LOST! — lost in the ocean, on uncharted islands, at the very center of Creation. He wanted to pluck his characters out of the light and plunge them into the darkness. Jules Verne sent his characters into mazes that cycled them through future and past — lost in time and place — knowing that they would always return to the present. In the one novel Jules Verne wrote that was explicitly about the future, Paris in the Twentieth Century, the main character heads straight into the darkness and never returns. He is 16-year-old Michel Dufrénoy, a student of classics and literature, born into a century that has no interest in either. Paris 1960 is a time and place without war but also without poetry, where only technology and business are valued. Michel cannot work, he cannot love, and he eats synthetic food. Michel spends the novel journeying through the city of Paris like a refugee, aimless and unloved, until he becomes delirious. He moves in circles around the city, hunted by the Demon of Electricity. The novel ends abruptly with the poet circling Père-Lachaise cemetery weeping, where he at last collapses unconscious in the snow.
If Verne’s protagonists often seem to stop short of revelation, it’s because the revelation is not meant to be known. Revelation has a way of putting man back at the front of the evolution chart, moving neatly toward a happily progressing future, out of the darkness and into the light. The characters who embark upon the Voyages Extraordinares move backward and forward and all about, spun around like blindfolded children trying to pin the tail on the donkey. The point of the adventure, after all, is not to have a conclusion; it is to get knocked off your feet.
Two years after he died, a sculpture was erected on the grave of Jules Verne. Using the actual death mask of the writer, the sculpture depicts Verne busting out of his tomb. His nude and powerful torso breaks free from his suffocating shroud. The old writer looks like Poseidon exploding from the sea. Verne gazes into the sky with a mighty arm and reaches toward the heavens. The name given to this sculpture is ‘Vers l’Immortalité et l’Eternelle Jeunesse (‘Towards Immortality and Eternal Youth’).
Frankly, I don’t think Verne would have appreciated this sculpture. The title is OK. Only, the figure ought to be reaching up in the air while looking back down to the earth, and he should be standing on his head. • 24 February 2014
Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the arts collective Flux Factory. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photograph by lepoSs/CC BY-SA 2.0