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Captain Nemo, The Ultimate Antihero

Jules Verne was an inveterate promoter of scientism and the fantasy that once a technocracy ushered in world government all strife and disharmony would cease. This idea was later championed by H.G. Wells. The monumental movie of his “Things to Come,” is a stunning example of the trope as fictional propaganda for the masses. However, in the character of Captain Nemo, Verne gave us an eloquent, fearsome and sympathetic villain as counterpoint to the usual scientistic drivel which was set in cement by Raymond Massey’s technocratic dictator in Wells’ big screen epic. As William Blake said of Milton regarding his presentation of an all too human Satan in “Paradise Lost,” Verne was of the devil’s party and didn’t know it.

In “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea*,” which was made into what may have been Disney’s best live action film, Captain Nemo conducts a personal war against the navies of the great nations, those being the 19th century’s foremost projection of imperial power for profit at the expense of the majority of people who have next to nothing. With a dedicated crew, he uses his own engineering brilliance and imagination to construct a submarine, which he named Nautilus, and uses it to sink warships. Also an amateur naturalist and polymath, he indulges his passions for cataloguing the natural wonders of the ocean while exploring its mysteries and amusing himself with music, reading and writing. However, much of what made Nemo interesting in Verne’s books is either glossed over or omitted from the Disney version. This includes what motivated the character and why his mission was a rational response to the world’s insanity.

The Nameless Avenger is a motif which was used by Homer. Odysseus refers to himself as Nobody when the Cyclops asks his name. John Nada was the Nemesis of the enterprising imperialist aliens in “They Live.” Clint Eastwood was The Man With No Name in spaghetti westerns. And Nemo was Verne’s Latin version of the name Odysseus offered Polyphemus, making Nemo a descendant of Homer’s voyager in multiple senses. In each case the character represents divine retribution against abuse of power, whether or not the authors even believe in such a thing as cosmic justice or karma.

In 20,000 Leagues, Verne deliberately withheld details about Nemo’s background. In the sequel, “Mysterious Island,” Nemo makes what amounts to a cameo appearance but adds, or alters, information about his backstory. He was either a Polish noble who got caught up in the fight between Russia and Prussia which spilled over into France, was an Indian or Parsi noble who opposed the British Raj in The Sepoy Rebellion, was radicalized in the revolutions of 1848 which also energized Karl Marx, was a Devil’s Island escapee, or was an amalgamation of all these examples of struggle against exploitation by the likes of the British East India Company, the military/commercial juggernaut and the bloated, vain governments which facilitate and punish on their behalf.

The reader must decide whether Nemo is crazy or even wrong and the butcher’s bill too high when it comes to his merciless slaughter of the crews of the gunboats he destroys. Does it matter whether the dead were conscripted poor kids, would have been shamed with the four feathers by their girlfriends had they not signed up, or believed the lies they were told about the need for them to die to end slavery, sacrifice for God & country, making the world safe for democracy, stopping the red menace, Saddam’s connection to 9/11 and WMD’S, or keeping us all free? Does war become more just because one is wearing a uniform and blindly following orders or is it the reverse?

Captain Nemo wants vengeance for the family and friends who were killed so that fat cats could get fatter. Is he more wrong than they are? Verne stops well short of pushing a partisan view but handles dark subject matter frankly. As with any decent story, the text speaks and not the man. But it is hard not to be moved by Nemo’s brilliance, culture, caring for his crew and his sense of justice. He may be a tragic figure but he is not insane, nor in a simplistic way is he evil. Whether Verne meant to do this or not, Nemo forces the thoughtful reader to consider whether the sociopathic concentration of power is so problematic that Nemesis is necessary. Power must be checked to restore balance while giving the poor schmucks a fighting chance to live decently and have hope for a better tomorrow.

*If you haven’t read it and want to, please find the unabridged version.

Disney’s Nautilus

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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