II. CYRANO DE BERGERAC: 1619–55

For most of us he is the lover travestied by Rostand, and losing every race to Venus by a nose. The real Cyrano was not quite frustrated; he played vivaciously with life and love, and frittered away his time to the top of his bent. To the usual education of a wellborn lad he added (with Molière) eager attendance on the lectures of Pierre Gassendi, the amiable priest who liked Epicurus the materialist and Lucretius the atheist. Cyrano became an esprit especially fort, a libertin in both senses, as freethinker and loose liver. He joined in Paris a company of sacrilegious roisterers, earned repute as a duelist, served in the army, was for a while incapacitated by his wounds, and retired from active venery to philosophy. He wrote the first French philosophical play, and opened the road to Swift by making fun of mankind via travels to unfrequented parts of the cosmos. He laughed at the venerable St. Augustine, “that grand personage who assures us, though his mind was illuminated by the Holy Ghost, that in his time the earth was as flat as an oven, and that it floated on the water like half an orange.” 6

Cyrano tried his pen in almost every literary form, seldom seriously, but usually finding the nerve. His comedy, Le Pédant joué, seemed to Molière good enough for poaching a scene or two. His tragedy, La Mort d’Agrippine, was acted once in 1640, was immediately proscribed by the authorities, and had to wait till 1960 to reach the boards again. But it was published in 1654, and soon the wild young men of Paris were shouting the atheistic lines of its Séjan:

Que sont-ils donc ces dieux? Des enfants de l’effroi;

Des beaux riens qu’on adore et sans savoir pourquoi. . .;

Des dieux que Vhomme fait, et qui n’ont pas fait l’homrne

—“What, then, are these gods? The offspring of our fears; pretty nothings that we adore without knowing why. . .; Gods whom man has made, and who never made man.” And on immortality:

Une heure après la mort notre âme évanouie

Sera ce qu’elle était une heure avant la vie

—“One hour after death our vanished soul will be that which it was an hour before life.”

Soon after this play was printed, Cyrano was struck on the head by a falling beam, and died of the blow, aged thirty-six. He left a manuscript which was published in two parts: Histoire comique des états et empires de la lune, (1657), and Histoire comique des états et empires du soleil (1662). They were a comic kind of science fiction, based upon the Cartesian cosmology, and deriving the planets from vortices formed by the revolutionary agitation of primeval matter. Cyrano suggested that the planets had once blazed like the sun, but,

in the compass of time, suffered so great a loss of light and heat by the continual emission of the corpuscles causing such phenomena, that they have become cold, dark, and almost powerless pulps. We find even that sun spots . . . increase in size from day to day. Now who knows if these are not a crust forming on the sun’s surface from its mass that cools in proportion as light is lost, and if the sun will not become . . . an opaque globe like the earth? 7

Propelled by rockets, Cyrano leaves the earth, and swiftly reaches the moon. He notes that through three quarters of the way he feels the earth drawing him backward, then, through the final quarter, he feels the attraction of the moon. “This, I told myself, was because the mass of the moon was less than that of the earth; hence the sphere of its action was correspondingly less in space.” 8 Landing dazed, he finds himself in a Garden of Eden. He falls into an argument with Elijah about original sin, and is expelled from the garden into the primitive wastelands of the satellite. There he encounters a tribe of animals twelve cubits long, fashioned like men but walking on all fours. One of these, having served in Athens as the daemon of Socrates, speaks philosophic Greek. He informs Cyrano that walking on all fours is the natural and healthy way; that these lunar gentlemen have a hundred senses, not five or six, and perceive countless realities hidden from mankind. (Fontenelle, Voltaire, and Diderot will play with this speculation.) Cyrano’s fancy runs wild: the lunars feed only on vapors pressed from foods, not on foods themselves; hence they are saved the nuisance and noises of digestion, the indignities and anachronisms of elimination. The lunar laws are made by the young, who are revered by the old; celibacy and chastity are condemned; suicide, cremation, and large noses are praised. The aforesaid daemon of Socrates explains that the world was not created, but is eternal; that creation out of nothing (taught by the Scholastics) is inconceivable; that the eternity of the universe is no more difficult to accept than the eternity of God; indeed, the hypothesis of a God is quite unnecessary, since the world is a self-propelled and self-perpetuating machine. Cyrano argues that there must be a God, for he has with his own eyes seen miraculous cures; the daemon laughs these away as due to suggestion or imagination. Orthodoxy is revenged by a powerful Ethiopian, who grasps Cyrano in one arm, the daemon in the other, carries the daemon to hell, and, en route, deposits Cyrano in Italy, where all the neighborhood dogs howl at him because he smells of the moon. Jonathan Swift was attracted, too.

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