The Wonders of the Saknussemm Ocean

I’ve always loved the 1959 film version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl, and Thayer David (and Gertrude the Duck). Among its many virtues are some truly gorgeous cinematography (most of the underground sequences were filmed at Carlsbad Caverns), excellently designed sets, a witty script, and a marvelous lead performance by Mason, playing the brilliant, but somewhat abstracted Prof. Lindenbrook. There’s also a really charming romance (original to the film) between Mason and Dahl, who have wonderful chemistry as two equally strong-willed and intelligent people traveling through a particularly trying situation together.

What I love most about the film, though, is that it captures the spirit of exploration and discovery as well as or better than any film I can think of. Watching it, I get the same feeling of wonder  as I get from reading about Earnest Shackleton or Captain Cook: that sense of traveling to a completely unknown place and being awash and almost overwhelmed by opportunities to learn. It’s that feeling of having no idea whatsoever what lies beyond the next bend: whether it’s just another empty cavern or some staggering wonder as yet unseen by human eyes. This is the kind of movie where the moments of the characters simply writing down their observations are riveting, because we can feel the overpowering thirst for knowledge that drives them on.

Partly this is due to the tremendous enthusiasm brought to the story by the actors, and in particular by James Mason. Five years previously he had helped bring another Jules Verne character to life with his fantastic portrayal of the obsessive Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but his performance here couldn’t be more different: here he’s a genial, eager soul who sometimes comes across almost like a child exploring a new playground: giddy with excitement, not knowing where to turn first. His eagerness for the expedition is infectious and we feel as if we would want to go on that long, perilous journey as well, just for the joy of doing something that no one else has.

But all the enthusiasm in the world would be merely ridiculous if the journey itself weren’t worth it. Here is a feast for the imagination: visuals and ideas that fire the brain and raise the heart. Some are mysterious and frightening, such as the high winds that appear and disappear without explanation while the expedition is traversing a narrow cliff face, or the labyrinthine salt beds like a multi-layered desert. Others are beautiful, but alien, such as the glittering quartz grotto, or a phosphorescent pool at the bottom of a deep ravine, which creates a kaleidoscope of colors every time a stone falls into it. At one point, Pat Boone is lost in a great cavern, the walls of which faintly glimmer in the background, causing him to look as if he were standing on a meteor in deep space, surrounded by stars.

The greatest visual of all, however, is the vast underground ocean, contained in a cavern of unfathomable size. Some great calamity in Earth’s history cracked the surface and poured an entire sea hundreds of miles underground. The sight of it calls to mind the most moving passage of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan:

Where Alph the sacred river ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.”

journey_to_the_center_of_the_earth

Whether Verne’s imagination was inspired to create the Lindenbrock Sea (or the Saknussemm Ocean, as it is called in the film, and which I think is a better name), I don’t know. But the invocation of the poem is too striking to avoid.

I’m currently reading the novel for the first time, and I was delighted to find that the sunless sea is just as striking in print as it is on film. That sense of mystery, calamity, and ageless power, that slightly frightening sense of standing on the brink of something vast and completely unknown, that eerie combination of being exposed, yet shut in is all present in the text and faithfully recreated on screen, and what Verne spent paragraphs describing is captured in one spectacular image.

Neither the film nor the book has any real ‘agenda’ to push: science here is not the guiding light of mankind, not the enemy of superstition and religion, but a great endeavor and source of wonder. Science does not explain away in the sense of an arrogant audience member who declares that of course he knows how the magician’s trick is done. Rather, it examines and explores in search of new wonders to exclaim over and new knowledge to treasure, like the honest student of magic who wants to know how the trick is done so that he may better appreciate its ingenuity and pay due homage to the craft that went into it.

Significantly, it was this spirit of humble delight in the wonders of nature that first gave birth to science as we think of it in the Middle Ages. It was monks and nuns and priest and bishops who first seriously and systematically began to study the natural world for its own sake, that they might better understand and appreciate the wonders of God’s creation.

Somehow along the way, however, many of the practitioners of science, looking at the wonderful things they had found out, began to fancy that these things elevated their calling above all others, and that they alone held ‘true’ knowledge (this did not, by the way, proceed from Galileo, who whatever his faults was never infected by ‘scientism.’ He was recruited to the cause long after his death and, I would imagine, very much against his will). The idea that knowledge that proceeded from observation and measurement was somehow ‘better’ and more ‘real’ than knowledge that proceeded from logical deductions seeped in, and now has pretty much become an unspoken assumption, to the point that people frequently confuse ‘science’ with ‘reason,’ as if the two were interchangeable.

The truth is that science involves reason, but only as reason applies to observation and measurement. All scientific inquiry ultimately comes down to ‘at such-and-such a time, and at such-and-such a place, I observed X’ or ‘when I did this to that it reacted in this way.’ It is basically the process of applying mathematics to observation.

Obviously, though, large portions of our experience, and especially the most important experiences, are completely opaque to this process. Science is, essentially, a purely quantitative process rather than a qualitative one. Oh, there are gray areas, like biology, but even then it typically comes back to numbers: how many beats per minute, how are the cells dividing, what proteins are being absorbed, and so on. The whole qualitative experience: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, love and hate, and so on is opaque to the scientific process.

To put it another way, you could measure the surface area, the volume, the depth, and the currents of the Saknussemm Ocean, but you could never quantify or measure the sensations that accompany the man who first sets eyes upon it and feels the force of its stygian majesty. But it is those sensations that would prompt a man to discover it in the first place. Science as a practice owes its existence to processes and desires that are forever hidden from its light. Oh, we can study the brain and discover which neurons fire upon the discovery of a new wonder of creation, but what of it? Can studying the brain ever reveal the delight of discovery, or the infectious joy of setting eyes upon something unseen since the beginning of time, or the insatiable urge for knowledge that drives men to plumb the depths of the earth simply to learn what lies beneath? No more can a chemical analysis of paint tell us the meaning of the Sistine Chapel. Such analysis may itself be edifying, but before a man could find wonder in the composition of the pain, he would have to be the kind to appreciate the art.

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