A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Jules Verne’s Scientific [Lack of] Imagination

Interestingly, some of the most famous terra cava novels did not emerge from the country which spawned the idea, but from Europe, further emphasising the influence that European literature had on the new United States. Subsequent novels about journeys to the interior of the world would not be compared to Symzonia, but to these imported novels. Verne’s application of hard science, technology, the first-person narrative and the exploring spirit would all be seen in many subsequent hollow earth novels in one fashion or another.

Symmes, though Poe, would also go on to influence Jules Verne, who arguably penned the most well-known of all terra cava novels, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). Ironically, though, Journey never references Symmes and does not make use of his geography, and it is in The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1866) that a – dismissive – comment about Symmes finally appears:

“Finally, it has been asserted in our own time that there was an immense opening at the poles, from which came the Northern Lights, and through which one could reach the inside of the earth; since in the hollow sphere two planets, Pluto and Proserpine, were said to move, and the air was luminous in consequence of the strong pressure it felt.”
“That has been maintained?” asked Altamont.
“Yes, it has been written about seriously. Captain Symmes, a countryman of ours, proposed to Sir Humphry Davy, Humboldt, and Arago, to undertake the voyage! But they declined.”
“And they did well.”
“I think so. Whatever it may be, you see, my friends, that the imagination has busied itself about the Pole, and that sooner or later we must come to the reality.”

From this exchange, we see that Verne was familiar with at least Symmes’s ‘Circular No. 1’ and its invocation of Davy and Humboldt. (Verne is mistaken, however, in having a British character refer to Symmes as ‘a countryman of ours’.) He is chastising those who have allowed ‘imagination’ to control their views of the Polar regions, and suggesting that ‘reality’ – i.e. reason – must be asserted. Verne does not give his own reasons for doubting the theory, though, and does make any attempt to explain to readers why they should not follow Symmes into a Polar opening. But part of Verne’s firm reliance on demonstrable science meant avoiding speculation; because he was not any more familiar with the geography of the Poles, he could not allow imagination to take him very far.

This Realist inclination on Verne’s part influenced his approach to Edgar Allen Poe, one of his great influences. In 1897 Verne tried to finish Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, penning a sequel called The Sphinx of the Ice Fields. But where Poe had cast his character into the current of a waiting maelstrom of a Symmes Hole in the Antarctic, Verne, ever true to his desire of conveying knowable science, merely has Pym’s body found on a loadstone mountain. Standish accuses Verne’s effort of being ‘far from the spooky subterranean cosmos inhabited by Poe.’[1] As a terra cava novel and as a sequel to Poe, The Sphinx is a failure. Verne was not capable of allowing his imagination move beyond known sciences and into the speculative realms imagined by Symmes and Poe.

 

[1] Standish, Hollow Earth, p. 113.

 

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