The Barthesian Spaceship

I was having tea with a friend on campus on Thursday, and in the course of a long and very enjoyable discussion of science fiction, he mentioned a short piece by Roland Barthes, in Mythologies, ‘The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat’, which I’d not read before.

I can’t quite remember the context for this but I think we were probably talking the way in which so much science fiction, despite being presented as outgoing, exploratory, looking to the future, and all that, is very enclosed, conservative, reinforcing or imposing conventional values, and there was also an excursion into discussing issues of taxonomy again. Paul March-Russell commented on the situation of the spaceship heading out to the frontiers of space, both exploring the universe but also containing within itself the status quo, and mentioned this piece by Barthes.

So, in ‘The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat’, Barthes considers the work of Jules Verne, suggesting that Verne ‘has built a kind of self-sufficient cosmogony, which has its own categories, its own time, space, fulfilment and even existential principle’. This ‘existential principle’ is ‘the ceaseless action of secluding oneself’. Barthes’ example here is Verne’s The Mysterious Island:<blockquote class="tr_bq"in which the man-child re-invents the world, fills it, closes it, shuts himself up in it and crowns this encyclopaedic effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe and fireside, while outside the story that is the infinite, rages in vain. (65)

Certainly, this gives us the ‘world within the world’ of the spaceship, taking the values of the explorer/coloniser with him wherever he goes, indeed like the nautilus or the snail, but I was also struck by how this image appears in stories such as, for example, The Wind in the Willows; it would describe Mole’s home and Rattie’s, both of them close and snug, with bunk beds, and drawers, and everything neatly to hand. Or, to take another example, the portrayal of Cavor’s spaceship in the film of The First Men in the Moon, with all that wood panelling and little drawers and cupboards. I can only immediately think of one example in ‘girls’ fiction’, oddly enough, and that is Maria’s little bedroom in The Little White Horse, which is not to say this is a specifically masculine thing, but I can’t help feeling Barthes had a point when he talked about the ‘man-child’.

And, oddly enough, I also find myself thinking of Charles Darwin, and all his gear, squeezed into the confines of Fitzroy’s cabin on HMS Beagle, and the way he functions as both explorer and social normaliser, his primary reason for being on the ship to act as gentleman-companion to Fitzroy, who feared the effects of too much mental solitude

A little later, Barthes makes another telling comment:
<blockquote class="tr_bq"Verne in no way sought to enlarge the world by romantic ways of escape or mystical plans to reach the infinite: he constantly sought to shrink it, to populate it, to reduce it to a known and enclosed space, where man could subsequently live in comfort: the world can draw everything from itself; it needs, in order to exist, no one else but man. (66)

As Barthes suggests, in Verne’s work, and we can extend this to other writers quite easily, I think, the ship is the symbol of departure, of appropriation through that departure, but also emblematic of closure and enclosure. Verne’s ships are, according to Barthes, ‘perfect cubby-holes’ (66), and while this perception may change with more modern ideas of what ships might be, the cubby-hole still persists, the small womb-like space of safety. And what else is a space ship if not an ‘egg-like fullness’ (65)? Yet, for Verne, and this picks up the point about spaceships, ‘the vastness of [the ships’] circumnvigation further increases the bliss of their closure, the perfection of their inner humanity’ (66). <

The Nautilus, in this regard, is the most desirable of all caves: the enjoyment of being closed reaches its paroxysm when, from the bosom of this unbroken inwardness, it is possible to watch, through a large window-pane, the outside vagueness of the waters, and thus define, in a single act, the inside by means of its opposite. (67)

In other words, the spaceship can sail on forever, with its occupants safely enclosed in their own time and space, constantly othering the outside, never engaging with it, instead enjoying a ‘smooth, round universe’ (68) inside the ship.

‘The Nautilusand the Drunken Boat’
Roland Barthes Mythologies (Selected and translated from the French by Annette Lavers)
London: Vintage (1993)