The editor was nervous.
The novel had to be more vague to avoid a ban.
The author protested.
Monsieur Hetzel insisted.
Monsieur Verne submitted.
Neither editor nor author realized that ambiguity would prove the element of infinite appeal in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Pierre-Jules Hetzel was Jules Verne’s editor and publisher, and responsible for altering many aspects of Verne’s many books. In the case of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne originally wove a sensitive political situation around the 1870 novel’s central character that Hetzel demanded be obscured. The process of obscurity was brilliant, however, for it concealed the controversy but not the clues that suggested it. What resulted was the irresistible secret of Captain Nemo, allowing him to remain true to his name—an anonymous anomaly, undefiled even by the voyeurism of civilized readers.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is an epic that is not so much about the innumerable mysteries of the sea as it is about the individual mystery of a man. The unveiling of the enigmatic depths, in fact, accentuates the deeper enigma of the man whose veil remains un-rent as he treads where men have not trod. It is part of the mystery of mankind to desire to exist where he cannot easily live. Though this suicidal tendency has fathered heroes, there are places on this man-inherited planet where no man may trespass. The kingdom of Nemo is preeminently one of those sanctuaries. Nemo is at once—like his forbear Odysseus—Nemo, Nobody, and νέμω, the man who doles out what is due.
Captain Nemo is the quintessential tortured genius, whose madness is the source of both miracles and mayhem. He is arguably the greatest in the catalogue of the literary sea captains, with actions that trump the swashbuckling paragons of the genre. When hunted by oppressors, Captain Billy Bones hid in an uninhabited inlet; Captain Nemo hid in an uninhabited element. When exasperated with the quandaries of existence, Captain Ahab was bent on destroying its monstrous symbol; Captain Nemo created the monstrous symbol as his refuge. Captain Hook would have revenge on a pack of boys; Captain Nemo would have revenge on a nation of men. Nemo is a technological prophet who takes up quarters like a Jonah in the belly of a whale, scorning the face of God and his fellow men.
Agony and horror lurk behind this character, driving him like furnace fires to the extremity of forsaking dry land and the inhabitants of the earth. Nemo’s extremism is an element that muddies the waters of his past because it frames him in endless paradoxes. Nemo is a man who would be a fish. He flees domination only to become a despot, imprisoning in the name of liberty. He gives up everything to inherit riches untold. He doles out death to spread the sea’s peace. Nemo is a mad mastermind, an ethical criminal, a villainous hero. Whoever Nemo is, he really is something if not somebody.
The riddle of Nemo and his nemesis overwhelms even the sensations of science and technology that punctuate the narrative—which is significant. His mystique is somehow more compelling than marvels of machine and monster. These phenomena only serve to illuminate the point of true interest—the marvel of the man. Readers enjoy learning about The Nautilus’ electronic pressure gauge only because Nemo is the teacher. The twenty-five foot shark enthralls readers only because Nemo is battling it with a dagger in a diving suit. Sunken ships. The North Pole. Leviathans. Atlantis. Wonders every one, yet eclipsed by the mystery of the man who is their monarch. Wonders reduced to windows by an overpowering curiosity to gain further clarity into a withheld identity.
The questions concerning Captain Nemo are very deep waters, much like the kingdom where this brilliant lunatic dwells, plots, and fumes; commanding the secrets of a secret world to survive. The deep calleth unto the deep, and readers suddenly comprehend the deep as a primary reality because the ocean suddenly becomes so real. This undiscovered realm invites exploration, promises adventure, and provides intrigue. And the experience is moving, for who has never been moved by the living beauty of the waters, or terrified by the livid brutality of the waves? The seduction of the sea woos the wildest men, and the lore of the waters pulses beyond the unfathomable depths to flood hearts with a longing for the unknown. The charisma of the sea spreads before those who undertake the journey of 20,000 leagues submerged beneath its surface aboard The Nautilus—and, of course, Captain Nemo does not disappoint.
With Nemo, we too may flee from repression to find the good that hides in things. With Nemo, we too may break free from the injustices that hedge and harm, seeking a higher reality than the one we know. And that search may involve a descent. Men yearn to share Wordsworth’s vision of Proteus rising from that sea and to hear old Triton blow his wreathéd horn. Poe’s weary, way-worn wanderer can always embrace the eternal in his loneliness, for the sea—as Nemo reminds us—is the living infinite. Through water, man breaks the bounds of the finite and steps into the boundless by the illimitable analogy that the sea is, with that famous depth of majesty and mystery that has beckoned land-dwellers to live out their lives as tossing toys upon her heaving back—or beneath it, as the case may be.
The sea brings the insignificant dead back to significant life.
The same may be said of literature.
Thus is the literature of the sea particularly vivifying and liberating.
And the volume that voyages beyond the courses of the Sea-Wolf and Horatio Hornblower is Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.