Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord?
Supposedly when his now-iconic novel Les Misérables first went on sale, author Victor Hugo had gone on vacation (which I assume meant he went from one corner of his island to the other, since he was exiled at the time—more on that later). Trying to relax, but unable to take his mind off the question of how the book was selling, he sent his publisher a cheap telegram consisting of a single character: “?” His publisher, to signify that the book was blowing up the proverbial charts, responded equally frugally: “!”
That story is almost definitely apocryphal (not that that stopped the Guinness Book of Records from once including it as the record for “shortest correspondence,” because, well, Guinness gonna Guinness), but it illustrates something we too often forget about the authors of “classic” books: Most of them weren’t tormented geniuses languishing in obscurity to create “great art”; they were just normal people working hard and trying to make bank. Sure, in the pantheon of literature, you’ll find a few weirdo recluses like Kafka, but for the most part, classic authors were the Michael Bays (Michaels Bay?) of their time, obsessively watching the proverbial box office numbers and high-fiving themselves when they topped a billion or whatever.
Hugo was, of course, no exception. He had bills to pay, which was why, in his younger years, he had pre-sold The Hunchback of Notre Dame to his publisher, forgotten to write the book, and then pre-sold the opera rights to a production company. (His publisher was not happy.) Fortunately for Hugo, by the time he decided to buckle down and write Les Misérables, he was thirty years older and wiser and had become convinced he was working on, in his words, “one of the peaks, if not the crowning point of my work.” It also helped that, prior to writing it, he had been exiled to the island of Guernsey for his political views. Still, even with the total lack of distraction, it took him seventeen years to finish the thing. Granted, the book is half a million words long (on par with the complete Lord of the Rings)—but still. How hard is it to fart out a few hundred thousand words about a convict finding redemption?
In any case, as I previously mentioned, Les Misérables actually proved to be the smash hit that Hugo had anticipated, which I’m sure made him all the more insufferable in person, but we all got to listen to a dehydrated Hugh Jackman squawk a century later, so there’s that. In any case, the good news for Hugo was that when you write a huge bestseller, publishers give you free rein to do basically whatever you want for your next project, which rarely works out for them, but there it is. Hugo responded the way you’d expect from a novelist known for his politically-themed, character-driven epics: with some crowd-pleasing nonsense about sea monsters.
The Toilers of the Sea, at a much more reasonable 120,000 words, was based heavily on the maritime civilization Hugo experienced firsthand during his exile, and told the story of a poor fisherman who had to save a ship that had run aground in order to win the hand of the woman he loved (or…something). While rarely read today, Toilers was, in its day, as much of a smash hit as Les Misérables had been, though its characters were somewhat less memorable than Hugo’s completely insane description of…an octopus:
To believe in the octopus, one must have seen it. Compared with it, the hydras of old are laughable.…It has no bones, it has no blood, it has no flesh. It is flabby. There is nothing in it. It is a skin. One can turn the eight tentacles wrong side out, like the fingers of a glove.…The creature superimposes itself upon you by a thousand mouths; the hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man amalgamates himself with the hydra. You form but one. This dream is upon you. It draws you to it, and into it, and bound, ensnared, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself. Beyond the terrible, being eaten alive, is the inexpressible, being drunk alive.
If you know anything about octopuses, you’ll notice that a lot of that is…not true (octopuses don’t generally attack people at all, let alone drink their blood, but wouldn’t it be cool if they did?)…but that didn’t stop Toilers from tipping off one of the most ridiculous crazes of all time, which, in the Victorian era, was saying something. So-called cephalomania first took off in France, where it suddenly became fashionable to host octopus- and squid-themed parties (including, of course, octopus- and squid-based hors d’oeuvres), and for a few years, squid-shaped hats were considered to be the height of fashion among French women. Octopus and squid exhibitions drew crowds all over Europe, as people demanded to gaze upon the visage of Hugo’s bloodsucking beast. Science fiction writers rushed to cash in—Jules Verne with his giant squid–themed 20,000 Leagues under the Sea; H. G. Wells with his tentacled aliens in War of the Worlds—and for a solid decade, you couldn’t sell anything in Europe unless it was covered in tentacles.
If there’s a moral to any of that, beyond “Don’t give Victor Hugo a big book advance because he’ll just use it for absinthe money,” it’s probably that the human mind is inevitably fascinated by the mysterious—and even today, the depths of the sea are famously so. As a kid, I remember hearing certain fundamentalists opine that the Leviathan of the Old Testament was actually some sort of prehistoric reptile, like a plesiosaur, thus proving the old creationist talking point that humans and dinosaurs once coexisted. Such an assertion excited my imagination as a child, but as an adult I find it strangely impotent. True or not, it robs the passages in Job of their raw power—robs the Leviathan of its sublimity as a symbol of the ultimate unknowability of and uncontrollability of nature’s mysteries. No matter how thoroughly we map out the depths of the ocean (or space, or the human mind, or…), nature will always be infinitely stronger than us, capable of snuffing our lives out in a breath. Which is why it’s so important that we reassert our dominance by turning it into silly hats.