Rosalind Williams: The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris and Stevenson at the End of the World (2013)

Mapping was a driving force for knowledge seeking from the beginning of the Enlightenment. When the mapping was completed, an era was closed. The end of the geographically unknown occurred alongside the realization of the extent and significance of human domination of the planet. Thus, the world’s frontiers closed. There were no more open spots on the maps. No more land to conquer nor markets to develop. Man had already developed it all. Thus, decline had to follow.

Previously, ‘The Last Days’ used to be a religious term connected with time. From the 1890s a similar but secular impression was connected to space. “Is it necessary to recall that the earth is not infinite, and that our civilization is close to having invaded it all?” Gabriel Tarde is quoted to have said (p. 9). This decisive turning point in the human consciousness is the event Rosalind Williams studies in The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris and Stevenson at the End of the World (2013). The outcome would be a deeply felt ambivalence towards the human empire, the so-called Anthropocene, which began with white man’s world power, and was not built on natural sustainability, but on power and arms. However, Williams’ focus is 1890, the moment of the event of consciousness before the anguish was formalized and put into discourse. Therefore, she turns to three artists using their supposed insight into the unexpressed consciousness of their time as her source of knowledge.

Jules Verne (1828 – 1905), William Morris (1834 – 1896) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894) all had a distinctive awareness of the ongoing historical change, Williams argues. They were especially worried about the outcome of the expansion of the human empire, the displacement and decline of people and animals who used to preserve a certain stable balance between them. Thus, independently, all three authors turned towards romance in spite of its bad reputation.

According to Williams, romance is a mode rather than a genre. She describes three modes of fiction. The ‘mythical hero’ has supernatural and divine powers. The ‘mimetic hero’ is limited by the ordinary powers of man, conditioned by nature and society. Only the ‘hero’ of romance is something in-between, neither ordinary nor supernatural. He succeeds where everybody fails because he is forced to obey natural forces. The essence of romance is its instinct to show how individual characters are related to larger forces, Stevenson is quoted to have told Victor Hugo (p. 21). Therefore, romance is well suited to express the worry that Homo sapiens does not use his knowledge to the best of the globe.

When Verne, Morris and Stevenson were born, steam was the power of engine. During their life span electricity came to revolutionize all kinds of human activity. They, thus, were inclined to regard probable events as slightly marvelous. At least according to Williams who argues that they did not only restore romance but reinvented it to express new historical conditions. The fact that they all turned to water as a symbol of freedom is explained by the complete maps of their time. Land was no longer a mystery. Air had not yet been traveled through. But the ocean still signified travels of uncertain outcome. Waves and storms were still highly efficient tools to produce literary thrills.

The relevance of Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris and Stevenson at the End of the World to the NaChiLit research project is the reminder that an ecocritical consciousness is not a completely new consideration. Perhaps even more importantly is the insight that literary modes may reveal a world view.

Kristin Ørjasæter, February 1 2017