Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Mysteries Decoded (part 1; revised)

This is a revised, nearly-complete version of the essay I posted last month. If you read the last one, just skip down to the second paragraph. I eliminated all quotations and expanded a couple of ideas into distinct sections. It may not sound original, but it is my own labored attempt at re-stating and re-interpreting Barthes' early structuralist thought.

Syntax and clarity... Again, my writing still needs work. Enjoy.


Roland Barthes’ essay “The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat” is a wonderful short, critical essay on the work of Jules Verne. The essay is a structuralist analysis of The Mysterious Island, the second and final installment of Captain Nemo’s adventures aboard the Nautilus. With a bit of sarcasm, Barthes calls it an “almost perfect novel,” submitting it as the epitome of a type of childlike delight. Like much of Barthes’ early critical work in the Mythologies, however, the subject of analysis becomes a springing board for a greater critique of modernity. Rather than merely cast judgment on Verne’s credibility as an author, Barthes resuscitates Verne as a symptom of larger cultural epoch.

The Mysterious Island. The promise of a mystery is communicated to us upfront. We have no choice in the matter, nor any doubt. Jules Verne will render a mystery, and his heroes, our Enlightened avatars, will solve it for us. There is never any serious danger in this type of story. The Nautilus is the ultimate exploration vessel. Verne describes it as the most perfect and private utopia. Onboard there is no special need for food, air, or fresh water. Camouflaged as a creature of the ocean, the Nautilus is effectively safe both above and below water. There is even a private library and music hall provided for the occasional escape from the vicissitudes of nautical adventure. It is an inconceivable invention, this scientific, luxury vehicle of privileged exploration.

The Nautilus comes to signify an infantile desire for the finite. From this mobile, invincible shell, the reader becomes an accomplice in the imagined project of discovery. Verne proposes to nullify one nature’s most alienating of objects, the ocean. We revel in the disarmament of chaos: the quieting of torrential water, the illumination of impenetrable darkness, the classification of thousands of tons of aquatic vertebrae and flora of every color. The vastness of the ocean becomes increasingly finite. Transmuted into this gem, a map of the Pacific or even a paperback novel, the terror of the deep becomes quaint and deceptively familiar. Like a child playing with blocks, the reader recognizes the ocean as yet another toy for manipulation and exchange. The threat of the unknown is neutralized via cartography, the determined appropriation of each and every hidden crevasse of the earth.

The myth of discovery promises a utopia; it promises a deliverance from chaos. The Nautilus represents the technological impalement of nature. We deliberately emphasize the dual idea of penetration and enclosure. To truly penetrate the mystery of the world, to quell nature with finality, equates to the end of human struggle. It is an impossible task, a completely apocalyptic impulse. In the Nautilus the reader discovers a second womb, a place of complete safety from which we can observe and contemplate the external world.

More specific than any thesis of human nature, the Nautilus characterizes a lingering, yet transformed, Enlightment ideology that quite possibly continues to this day. The mold should be quite familiar still: an insatiable thirst for quick answers, for mysteries solved with theatrical flair and conclusiveness, all wrapped up into a rapidly consumable package. The Nautilus becomes a metonymy for the myth of discovery.


David said...

I'd change that last sentence.

And are you suer Barthes was being sarcastic.

And what are you writing this for?

Jeremy said...

Yes, I think it's something like sarcasm. Most all of those pieces have an ironic tone to them.

I'm writing just for me, basically.

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