Verniana — Jules Verne Studies / Etudes Jules Verne — Volume 2 (2009–2010) — 89–124

The Creation of Scientific Wonder: Jules Verne's Dialogue with Claude Bernard

Danièle Chatelain & George Slusser


This essay reconstructs a speculative but inevitable dialogue between writer Jules Verne and French scientist Claude Bernard. This dialogue results, in Verne's seminal novel Voyage au centre de la terre (1864-1867), in the creation of a genuinely scientific adventure whose essential quality is what later SF calls sense of wonder. In contrast to the classifying sciences of his time, Claude Bernard, in his writings and courses at the Collège de France, defined experimental science as itself an adventure, a passionately conducted scientific voyage through the physical unknown, a voyage of wonder. Claude Bernard's ideas were widely circulated and published in the 1850s and Verne must have known them. They were codified in Caude Bernard's Introduction à l'étude de la médecine exprimentale (1865). This work was a literary event, and there is evidence Verne read it between revisions of his novel.

Verne was mandated by his editor Hetzel to create a narrative that was both an extraordinary adventure and a vehicle to give young readers the desire to pursue scientific careers. Claude Bernard appears to provide Verne with the means of recasting the extraordinary voyage narrative as the adventure of science. For Claude Bernard, scientific discovery is only a flash that briefly illuminates other horizons, toward which our ever-unsatisfied curiosity drives us on with passion. This is why in science... the known loses its attraction, while the unknown is always full of wonder. For Verne, this sense of wonder provides the key to a genuinely scientific adventure.

But how does Verne adapt Claude Bernard's vision to the adventure novel? For the sake of adventure, he could not make his protagonist a real scientist. Instead he seizes on Claude Bernard's flawed scientists. Lidenbrock is Claude Bernard's theorizer; center of the earth is already known to him. His apprentice Axel is over-emotional, yet still open to contact with the unknown. His a Verne makes Axel his narrator; sense of wonder is generated by his encounters with the physical unknown. But Verne not only creates wonder, he uses it for rhetorical effect. Out of the interaction between the raw facts of an unhuman landscape, and Axel's inadequate but all too human reactions, Verne develops a rhetoric of wonder, whose effects are directed at the reader. Axel's encounters with the unknown leave the reader alternately charmed, awed, or terrified. At the same time, the incomplete nature of Axel's engagement with the physical unknown incites the reader to further curiosity and awe, to re-imagine the scientific adventure. Verne's dialogue with Claude Bernard did more than fulfill Hetzels need for adventure that inspired young readers to take up scientific careers. His scientific wonder and its literary uses will become an essential element in twentieth century SF.

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