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Paris in the Twentieth Century, Page 2

Jules Verne

  After the triumph of Five Weeks, Hetzel offered Jules Verne a contract for three books a year, paid roughly at the same rate that he paid George Sand, and also hired him as a regular contributor to a young people's magazine, the Review of Education and Recreation, where many of Verne's novels would be published in serial form. The theatrical experience was not wasted either, for the storyteller adapted many of his novels for the stage, notably Around the World in Eighty Days (1874), The Children of Captain Grant (1878), Michel Strogoff (1880), and a number of others. Since théâtre was the cinema of those days, the success of his plays increased both fame and revenues; whilst, unsurprisingly, one of the first French films made, in 1902, took as its subject an 1865 adventure, From the Earth to the Moon, whose original subtitle read: "A direct crossing in 97 hours and 20 minutes. "

  With a steady income assured, the family moved to Madame Verne's home town, Amiens in Picardy, to the northwest of Paris, where Jules Verne could pursue his research in comfort (by 1895 he had accumulated 20, 000 filing cards), attend the Literary Academy, stroll, and sail. Work never ceased. Like Georges Simenon, another tireless artisan of letters, the successful author used his successive boats as floating studies where much of his writing was done. He traveled. He had always dreamed of discovering faraway lands. Now he could afford even a voyage to America. But most of his traveling, as before, was done on the printed page.

  In the generation before Verne's birth a great Revolution, or rather a string of revolutions going off like firecrackers, had introduced the politics of the impossible. In his own lifetime, a similar string of technological and scientific revolutions introduced the impossible into everyday life. Mankind's experience of space, time, speed, mass, movement, was radically altered. It fell to Jules Verne to bring this home to millions of readers, explain it, illustrate it, and suggest what it might mean for generations to come. Fascinated by the new world transformed by railroads and great steamers, Verne stood at the crossroads of present and future, a poet of technology, of science, of the power and the menace that they hold. In 1869, he imagined a mission to the moon that prefigured the flight of Apollo 9 one century later. "Our space vehicle," Frank Borman, the astronaut, wrote to Verne's grandson, "was launched from Florida, like [Verne's]; it had the same weight and the same height, and it splashed down in the Pacific a mere two and a half miles from the point mentioned in the novel. " In 1879 he evoked the first artificial satellite; in 1882 he wrote about the sort of cosmic rays that physicists pursued between the two world wars.

  The visionary writes about balloons, helicopters, heavier-than-air machines of every sort, about the earth (1864) and its geology, about lunar travel (1865, 1870), about polar exploration (1866), about underwater travel (1869), about electricity which powers the submarine Nautilus or produces a telephote enabling people to see each other at a distance; and, of course, he writes about travel and exploration. All his stories are full of wonders, all a bit ominous, and few are more curious than the unpublished manuscript that Verne's great-grandson discovered in 1989, when the sale of a family home forced him to dispense with a great bronze safe long believed to be empty. The keys to the safe had been lost; it had to be opened with a blowtorch.

  Temporarily tucked under a pile of linen, the pages discovered in 1989 were examined later, authenticated, and identified as a text that Hetzel had rejected late in 1863: "It's a hundred feet below Five Weeks in a Balloon... Your Michel is a real goose with his verses. Can't he carry parcels and remain a poet?" And the clincher: "No one today will believe your prophecy. " Verne appears to have accepted Hetzel's verdict. Not so our generation. Published in 1994, Paris in the Twentieth Century proved an unexpected success, with two hundred thousand copies sold in its first year and thirty translations under way, including this one.

  From the perspective of our century's end the future that Hetzel found unconvincing appears more plausible. The young stockbroker who hated the Stock Exchange warns against capitalism running riot, the young playwright whose plays had not quite made it warns against a society where culture is at low ebb. Michel is harnessed to his bank's Great Ledger as Orwell's Winston Smith is to the Disinformation Office; Michel's bookish uncle sounds like one of the Book People barely surviving in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 45L And yet this arch-critic (and Radical city councillor of Amiens) is also an arch-conservative, especially in artistic tastes. To Berlioz, Verdi, Wagner, he prefers Gounod and Offenbach. Contemporary painting, for him, is nonexistent, Courbet is a gross peasant, painting lost its soul when it abandoned form (also the literary, poetic, thematic subjects of Romanticism). Let's not forget that 1863 was the year of the Salon des refusés, where Édouard Manet showed his Déjeuner sur I'herbe: bad vintage for a Romantic palate.

  As for poetry, if T. S. Eliot could work in a bank, one doesn't see why poor Michel can't manage. His taste in poetry, at any rate, is odd even for mid- nineteenth century. When his friend admonishes "Your verses must celebrate the wonders of industry, " Michel is firm: "Never. " Yet industry's wonders and its commonplaces inspired Walt Whitman to sing snow shoes, rainproof coats, and the Brooklyn Bridge, "the latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new... " Before too long, Carl Sandburg praised (ah, woe!) Chicago: "grocer of the world, maker of tools, champion of railroads, carrier of the nation's freight. " What can one expect of Americans when even Parisiennes, Verne ruefully admits, are becoming Americanized? Yet everything can fuel the inspiration of an artist. The writings of Jules Verne are proof of this. Michel seems to ignore it.

  Perhaps Verne's fascination with science was only secondhand. We know that at Amiens, where the university today bears his name, one of his own prize- giving speeches was devoted to a ringing denunciation of the bicycle; and that when, in 1894, Hetzel telephoned him at his club (his Amiens home lacked the newfangled contraption), Jules Verne, by now an elderly gentleman, took some time before he found which end of the receiver to put to his ear. He would be shocked to learn that in Chiapas, Mexico, the rebel Zapatista leader, Sub-Commandant Marcos, whom many French intellectuals admire, behaves like a high tech Robin Hood connected to the Internet and accessible by dialing 3615 Zapata (Le Monde, June 29, 1996). Captain Nemo, take note.

  Paris, 1996

  Paris in the Twentieth Century

  Chapter I: The Academic Credit Union

  On August 13, 1960, a portion of the Parisian populace headed for the many Metro stations from which various local trains would take them to what had once been the Champ-de-Mars. It was Prize Day at the Academic Credit Union, the vast institution of public education, and over this solemn ceremony His Excellency the Minister of Improvements of the City of Paris was to preside.

  The Academic Credit Union and the age's industrial aims were in perfect harmony: what the previous century called Progress had undergone enormous developments. Monopoly, that ne plus ultra of perfection, held the entire country within its talons; unions were founded, organized, the unexpected results of their proliferation would certainly have amazed our fathers.

  Money had never been in short supply, though it was briefly frozen when the State nationalized the railroads; indeed there was an abundance of capital, and of capitalists as well, all seeking financial enterprises or industrial deals.

  Hence, we shall not be surprised by what would have astonished a nineteenth-century Parisian and, among other wonders, by the creation of the Academic Credit Union, which had functioned successfully for over thirty years, under the financial leadership of Baron de Vercampin.

  By dint of multiplying university branches, lycées, primary and secondary schools, Christian seminaries, cramming establishments, as well as the various asylums and orphanages, some sort of instruction had filtered down to the lowest layers of the social order. If no one read any longer, at least everyone could read, could even write. There was no ambitious artisan's son, no alienated farm boy, who failed to lay claim to an administrative position; the civil service developed in every possible way, shape, an
d form; we shall see, later on, what legions of employees the government controlled, and with what military precision.

  For now, we need merely report how the means of education necessarily increased with the number of those to be educated. During the nineteenth century, had not construction firms, investment companies, and government-controlled corporations been devised when it became desirable to remake a new France, and a new Paris?

  Now, construction and instruction are one and the same for businessmen, education being merely a somewhat less solid form of edification.

  Such was the scheme, in 1937, of Baron de Vercampin, notorious for his far-flung financial dealings: it was his notion to establish a single vast institution, in which every branch of the tree of knowledge might flourish, it being the State's responsibility, moreover, to pollard, prune, and patrol such growth to the best of its ability.

  The Baron merged the lycées of Paris and of the provinces, Sainte-Barbe and Rollin, as well as the various private institutions, into a single establishment, thereby centralizing the education of all France; investors responded to his appeal, for he presented the enterprise as an industrial operation. The Baron's skill was a guarantee in financial matters. Money flowed in. The Union was founded.

  It was in 1937, during the reign of Napoleon V, that he had launched the enterprise; forty million copies of its prospectus were printed, on stationery that read:


  Incorporated by law and testified to by Maître Mocquart and Colleague, Notaries in Paris, on April 6, 1937, and approved by the Imperial Decree of May 19, 1937. Capitalized at one hundred million francs divided into one hundred thousand shares of one thousand francs each

  Board of Directors:

  Baron de Vercampin, C., President

  De Montaut, O., Manager of the Orleans Railroad

  Vice Presidents

  Garassu, Banker

  Marquis d'Amphisbon, G. O., Senator

  Roquamon, Colonel, Police Corps, G. C.

  Dermangent, Deputy

  Frappeloup, General Manager of the Academic Credit Union

  The Union statutes followed, carefully expressed in financial terms. As is apparent, no scholar's or professor's name appeared on the Board of Directors, a matter of some reassurance with regard to the commercial prospects of the enterprise.

  A Government Inspector supervised the Union's operations and reported on them to the Minister of Improvements of the City of Paris.

  The Baron's notion was a good one, and singularly practical, hence it succeeded above and beyond all expectations. In 1960, the Academic Union included no fewer than 157, 342 students, to whom knowledge was imparted by mechanical means.

  It must be confessed that the study of belles lettres and of ancient languages (including French) was at this time virtually obsolete; Latin and Greek were not only dead languages but buried as well; for form's sake, some classes in literature were still taught, though these were sparsely attended and inappreciable—indeed anything but appreciated. Dictionaries, manuals, grammars, study guides and topic notes, classical authors and the entire book trade in de Viris, Quintus-Curtius, Sallust, and Livy peacefully crumbled to dust on the shelves of the old Hachette publishing house; but introductions to mathematics, textbooks on civil engineering, mechanics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, courses in commerce, finance, industrial arts—whatever concerned the market tendencies of the day—sold by the millions of copies.

  In short, shares in the Union, which had multiplied tenfold in twenty-two years, were now worth ten thousand francs apiece.

  We shall insist no further upon the flourishing condition of the Academic Union; the figures, as an old banking proverb has it, say it all.

  Toward the end of the last century, the École Normale was in evident decline; few among those young people whose vocation inclined them toward a literary career sought instruction here; the best among these had already discarded their academic gowns and flung themselves into the free-for-all of authorship and journalism; but even this distressing spectacle was no longer in evidence, for in the last ten years only scientific studies had posted candidates for the entrance examinations.

  Yet if the last pedagogues of Greek and Latin were vanishing from their deserted classrooms, what splendid kudos, on the contrary, were awarded the science professors—and what eminence was theirs when it came to drawing a salary!

  The sciences were now divided into six branches: under the main Division of Mathematics were ranged subdivisions of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra; there followed the main Divisions of Astronomy, Mechanics, Chemistry, and, most important of all, the Applied Sciences, with subdivisions of metallurgy, factory construction, mechanics, and chemistry adapted to the arts.

  The living languages, except French, were in high favor; they were granted special consideration; in these disciplines an enthusiastic philologist might learn the two thousand languages and four thousand dialects spoken the world over. The Department of Chinese, for example, had included a great number of students ever since the colonization of Cochin China.

  The Academic Credit Union possessed enormous buildings, constructed on the former Champs-de-Mars, now useless since there was no budgetary appropriation for martial undertakings. The site was a city in itself, a veritable metropolis with its different neighborhoods, its squares, streets, palaces, churches, and barracks, something like Nantes or Bordeaux, capable of accommodating one hundred and eighty thousand souls, including those of the professors and instructors.

  A monumental arch opened onto the enormous main courtyard, known as the Study Field and surrounded by the Science Docks. Refectories, dormitories, the general study halls, where three thousand students could be accommodated, were well worth visiting, though they no longer astonished people accustomed, in the last fifty years, to similar wonders.

  Hence the crowd eagerly made its way to this prize-giving ceremony, an invariably interesting observance which managed to attract, whether as friends, relatives, or merely observers, some five hundred thousand persons. The bulk of the crowd flowed in through the Grenelle station, then located at the end of the Rue de l'Université.

  Yet despite the influx of this enormous public, everything proceeded in an orderly fashion; government employees, less zealous and consequently less intolerable than the agents of the old companies, deliberately left all the gates open; it had taken a hundred and fifty years to acknowledge this truth, that in dealing with crowds, it is wiser to multiply exits than to limit them.

  The Study Field was sumptuously prepared for the Ceremony; but there is no space so great that it cannot eventually be filled, and the main courtyard soon reached its capacity.

  At three o'clock the Minister of Improvements of the City of Paris made his formal entrance, accompanied by Baron de Vercampin and the members of the Board of Directors, the baron at His Excellency's right, Monsieur Frappeloup at his left; from the dais, a sea of heads as far as the eye could see. Then the various Establishment bands began playing their many selections, their tones and rhythms frequently unreconcilable. This obligatory cacophony seemed to have no ill effect upon the half million pairs of ears which absorbed it.

  The Ceremony began. A murmurous silence fell— this was the moment of the speeches.

  In the preceding century, a certain humorist by the name of Karr[2] treated these prize-giving orations, more official jargon than actual Latin, as they deserved; at

  present, such subjects of derision would not have been available to him, for the old Latin bombast had fallen into desuetude. Who would have understood it? Not even the Deputy Director of Rhetoric!

  A Chinese speech replaced it to great advantage; several passages provoked murmurs of approval; a bravura flourish on the comparative civilizations of the Sunda Islands was actually greeted with cries of Bis! This word was still understood.

  Finally the Director of Applied Sciences stood up— a solemn moment: this was the principal item on the program.

  His furi
ous oration was remarkably similar to the whistles, groans, jangles, squeals, the thousand unpleasant noises which escape an active steam engine; the speaker's rapid delivery suggested a projectile hurtling at top speed; it would have been impossible to stem this high-pressure eloquence, and the grating phrases locked into one another like cogwheels.

  To complete the illusion, the Director was sweating profusely, so that he was enveloped in a cloud of steam from head to foot.

  "The Devil!" giggled his neighbor, an old man whose chiseled features expressed an immense disdain of such oratorical fatuity. "What do you make of that, Richelot?"

  Monsieur Richelot was content to answer with a shrug.

  "He's getting overheated, " the old man went on, extending our metaphor. "Next you'll be telling me he has safety valves, but an exploding Director of Applied Sciences would set a nasty precedent!"

  "Well put, Huguenin, " replied Monsieur Richelot.

  Vigorous cries for silence interrupted the two speakers, who exchanged a smile. Meanwhile the orator continued fast and furious, composing a veritable eulogy of the present, to the detriment of the past; he recited the litany of modern discoveries; he even let it be understood that in this regard the future would have little to contribute; he spoke with a benevolent scorn of the tiny Paris of 1860 and of the pygmy France of the nineteenth century; he enumerated with a copious supply of epithets such blessings of his age as the rapid communication between various points of the Capital, locomotives furrowing the asphalt of the boulevards, electric power in every home, carbonic acid now dethroning steam, and last of all the Ocean, the Ocean itself, whose waves now bathed the shores of Grenelle. He was sublime, lyrical, dithyrambic, in short quite intolerable and unjust, forgetting that the wonders of his century were already germinating in the projects of its predecessor.