Savinien Cyrano became famous as Cyrano de Bergerac, an appellation he took from the name of an estate near Paris. When Cyrano was born in Paris in 1619, France was entering a turbulent but exciting period. Young Louis XIII was on the throne, and cardinal de Richelieu (Armand-Jean du Plessis) was consolidating his power behind that throne. The great philosophers René Descartes (1596-1650) and Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) flourished during this period. Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) became the era’s great tragic dramatist, abandoning the comic stage to Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by the pseudonym Molière (1622-1673). Corneille’s even greater successor, Jean Racine, was born in 1639. The French Academy had been established only four years earlier.
The first half of the seventeenth century was a time of revivification in France, and Paris was the scene of furious activity when, as legend has it, a brilliant, impudent nineteen- year-old Gascon, Cyrano de Bergerac, arrived in the capital. Although Cyrano certainly fit the Gascon stereotype of a swaggering boaster, most sources list Paris as his birthplace, which means that the appealing story of a young fire-breather from the provinces who takes the capital by storm is probably fiction. However, Cyrano could outswagger and outboast anyone in France, and his fearsome sword arm supported his bravest words. In Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), the author presents a hero whose swordplay is a match for that of a hundred men. Although this characterization suits Rostand’s romantic purposes, it also is historically accurate. Cyrano’s capacity for dazzling violence was larger than life, even in a violent age. His personality utterly charmed his friends, embittered his enemies, and assured him of having plenty of both.
Cyrano’s most prominent physical feature was his long nose—so long, indeed, that it was thought to be disfiguring. A modern historian might be tempted to attribute Cyrano’s disdain for the nobility, the clergy, artistic dilettantes, and the reigning beauties of the day to a neurotic compensation for his facial disfigurement. Regardless of the source of his motivation, he was a force with which to be reckoned during the stormy seventeenth century.
As a very young man, Cyrano had joined a company of guards, and he was a soldier up to the age of twenty-three. During his distinguished military career, he was twice wounded, suffering one of these injuries while serving gallantly at the Siege of Arras.
In 1642, Cyrano left military life to study science and literature. His teacher was the philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi. Cyrano was strongly influenced by his tutor’s scientific theories and libertine philosophy and, as a result, had become a skeptic and a materialist by the time he began his writing career.
He published works in several genres. He wrote for the stage: a comedy Le Pédant joué (1653; The Ridiculous Pedant or The Pedant Imitated) and a tragedy La Mort d’Agrippine (1654; The Death of Agrippina). His best-known works, however, were collected and published after his death by his friend Le Bret. These two science-fiction books are L’histoire comique des états et empires de la lune (1657; The Other World, or the States and Empires of the Moon)—the complete text of which appeared for the first time in 1921 as L’Autre Monde—and L’histoire comique des états et empires du soleil (1662; The States and Empires of the Sun). His other writings, the Lettres and Le ministre d’état flambé, are difficult, if not impossible, to find in English translations.
Cyrano was a free thinker who questioned traditional religious beliefs and challenged the authority of the church. He was ahead of his time in arguing that animals possess intelligence and in stating that matter is made up of atoms. His science fiction is sometimes prescient; for example, it predicts the invention of the phonograph and Esperanto, an artificial language that was not created until 1887. His writings in this genre satirize seventeenth century religious and astronomical beliefs, which placed man and his world at the center of the universe. Cyrano was not, however, a rigorous, systematic thinker. Rather, his mind was that of a brilliant poet, capable of achieving inspired insights.
His earlier dramatic work Le Pédant joué was ebullient but was considered too frivolous for the established taste of classicism. The value of its liveliness and high spirits was recognized first by Molière, who based two scenes in one of his plays on it, and later by modern readers. La Mort d’Agrippine is a fine, intellectually impressive play that advances daring ideas through impassioned tragic dialogue. Among Cyrano’s political writings—he was a fearless political satirist—was a violent pamphlet against the men of the Fronde (“opposition”)—a series of political disturbances during the minority of Louis XIV, 1648-1653. In this pamphlet, he defends Jules, Cardinal Mazarin, prime minister to Louis XIV, as a political realist in the tradition of Niccolò Machiavelli. Cyrano’s Lettres, filled with bold and original metaphors, are among the finest examples of baroque prose, an elaborate and ornate style. His works inspired a number of later writers.
Despite the quality of these works, Cyrano’s colorful life consistently evokes more interest than does his work, largely because of the continuing popularity of Rostand’s...