Cyrano de Bergerac, Savinien
Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac 1619-1655
French satirist and dramatist.
Cyrano de Bergerac was an imaginative and evocative writer, a freethinker, and a pioneer in the science fiction genre. He is best known for his two-part satirical novel L'Autre Monde (c. 1648-50), which chronicles imaginary voyages to the sun and the moon, where the hero finds numerous wonders and encounters societies manifestly superior to those on earth.
Cyrano was born Savinien de Cyrano in Paris, the son of a successful and socially mobile lawyer. The elder Cyrano was, for a time, the owner of an estate at Bergerac, near Paris, from which the author derived his name. Cyrano was educated at the Collège de Beauvais before entering Carbon de Casteljoux's Company of Guards at age nineteen. He served in a unit of gentlemen during the Thirty Years war, earning a reputation as a skilled duelist. Twice wounded, Cyrano retired from the service. Although there is some debate over the matter, some scholars believe that he continued his education at the Collège de Lisieux in Paris and studied under the Epicurean philosopher Pierre Gassendi, who had an important influence on a number of freethinkers of the period, including Cyrano. During this time Cyrano led a wild life and embarked upon a writing career, at which he was somewhat successful. His plays and essays, containing provocative and controversial material, earned him a reputation as an atheist and a libertine. In 1654 Cyrano was seriously injured in an accident; he died the following year. Two years later Les Etats et empires de la lune, the first volume of L'Autre Monde, was published; the unfinished second volume, Les Etats et empires du soleil was printed in 1662.
Cyrano's collection of writing is small but varied: he is known to have written two plays, a collection of essays, and a two-part novel. His body of work reflects an interest in philosophy and radical ideas, a highly developed sense of satire, and a bold imagination. His first play, Le Pédant Joué, was written 1645 but probably never performed. A prose satire, the play lampoons the colleges and educational system. His second play, the verse tragedy La Mort d'Agrippine (written in 1646) caused a sensation when it was staged in 1654; theater patrons were scandalized by the atheistic views it purportedly espoused. His volume of Lettres, which was published in 1654, does not comprise a series of reprinted letters as much as a collection of essays, composed between 1648 and 1654, treating various philosophical matters. Each epistle is only nominally addressed to a person; some even contain fictional events and characters. Cyrano's most famous work, L'Autre Monde, relating imaginary voyages to the moon and the sun, is variously seen as two separate novels or as a single novel in two parts. In Les Etats et empires de la lune Cyrano, who is the main character, travels to the moon, succeeding mainly through chance. On the moon he finds a sophisticated society which is in many ways the reverse of the one he left on earth. For instance, fathers must obey their sons, poems act as currency, and no one believes in God. Cyrano presents the culture in great detail, providing descriptions of moving cities, talking books, and electric lights. In Les Etats et empires du soleil the character Cyrano escapes from prison on earth to seek sanctuary on the sun. Again he finds a land utterly different from anything on earth, encountering talking trees, a society of birds, and a utopia of philosophers where Cyrano encounters René Descartes. More than just an inventive adventure story, L'Autre Monde offers complex social commentaries on science, religion, cosmology, and philosophy. Variously described as satire or utopian writing in the tradition of Thomas More or Tommaso Campanella, L'Autre Monde is also recognized as one of the first examples of science fiction writing.
Critics are united in their praise of Cyrano's evocative imagination and skillful use of humor. They view Cyrano's rich and detailed descriptions of alternative societies and his transformation of scientific ideas into imaginative details in L'Autre Monde as laying the groundwork of science fiction writing. Critics note that the philosophies of many eminent scholars and scientists shaped Cyrano's thinking, including those of Galileo, Descartes, Gassendi, and Campanella. Some observe that he presents several schools of thought at one time, often without combining or reconciling them. Critics also point to the ironic and satirical aspects of Cyrano's writing, discussing the author's interest in exploring ideas at odds with mainstream thought and in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Combining penetrating critiques of accepted values and beliefs with exuberant flights of the imagination, Cyrano's works are hailed as bold fusions of reason and fantasy.
Le Pédant joué (play) 1645
La Mort d'Agrippine (play) 1646
*Lettres (essays) 1648-54
†L'Autre Monde ou les Etats et empires de la lune (novel) c. 1648-50
†Les Etats et empires du soleil (novel) c. 1650
Les Œuvres libertines de Cyrano de Bergerac parisien. 2 vols. (collected works) 1921
*Two manuscripts of letters by Cyrano survive, one from 1648, the other from 1654. Scholars often divide the letters into three groups: Lettres diverses, Lettres satiriques and Lettres amoureuses.
†Modern editions typically present these two works as parts of a single novel, which is called L'Autre Monde. The most common English translation, by Richard Aldington (1923; revised 1962), is entitled Voyages to the Moon and the Sun. The first part, which may have been written as early as 1648, was first published posthumously in 1657 as L'Histoire comique par Monsieur de Cyrano Bergerac. Contenant Les Estats et Empires de la Lune. The second part, which Cyrano himself referred to as L'Histoire de la République du Soleil, may have been started as early as 1650 but remained unfinished; it was not published until 1662.
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SOURCE: Introduction to Cyrano de Bergerac: Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, translated by Richard Aldington, George Routledge & Sons, 1923, pp. 1-46.
[In the following essay, Aldington attempts to distinguish between myth and fact in regard to Cyrano's life and career.]
I. THE LEGEND OF CYRANO
The legend of Cyrano de Bergerac began, one might say, during his life; but it was strongly founded by his friend Henry Le Bret who edited The Voyage to the Moon with an introduction, in 1657, two years after Cyrano's death. The ‘Préface’ of Le Bret is one of the chief sources of information about Cyrano. It is no discredit to Le Bret that he drew as favourable a portrait of his friend as he could, but we cannot accept literally everything he says and we are forced to read between the lines of his panegyric. Le Bret is largely responsible for the moral legend of Cyrano. He says:
In fine, Reader, he always passed for a man of singular rare wit; to which he added such good fortune on the side of the senses that he always controlled them as he willed; in so much that he rarely drank wine because (said he) excess of drink brutalizes, and as much care is needed with it as with arsenic (with this he was wont to compare it) for everything is to be feared from this poison, whatever care is used; even if nothing were to be dreaded but what the...
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SOURCE: “The Ideas of Cyrano de Bergerac,” in French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire, The Athlone Press, 1960, pp. 48-66.
[In the excerpt which follows, Spink examines the philosophical underpinnings of Cyrano's works.]
Savinien de Cyrano, known as Cyrano de Bergerac, was one of the most daring speculative thinkers of his generation. It used to be thought that he was born at Bergerac in the South of France, but he was born in Paris in 1619, Bergerac being, in this case, not the town in the South of France, but a small family property near Paris. He was educated in Paris, possibly at the Collège de Beauvais. If so, he is not likely to have come in contact with many new ideas there, seeing that Grangier (a doughty champion of the University's rights but notorious as a narrow pedant) was at the head of it. The ferocity with which Cyrano berated him in his satirical comedy Le Pedant joué (1645) excludes any possibility of influence from that direction. Gassendi was teaching astronomy at the Royal College from 1645 to 1655 and it is possible, to say the least of it, that Cyrano was introduced to Gassendi by his friend and Gassendi's pupil Chapelle, although, as in the case of Molière and Dehénault, there is nothing to support the story that he joined Chapelle at private lessons.1 In his imaginary travel story, the Empires de la lune, one of the philosophers whom his...
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SOURCE: “Les Lettres: Imagination as Kaleidoscope,” in Cyrano de Bergerac and the Universe of the Imagination, Librairie Droz, 1967, pp. 80-97.
[In the following excerpt, Lanius examines the fantastic images found in Cyrano's letters.]
The most familiar arrangement of Cyrano's letters is Paul Lacroix' three-part division in his edition of 1858, entitled Œuvres Comiques. The three parts are: Lettres diverses, Lettres satiriques and Lettres amoureuses. Lacroix' edition is based on two mss, one of 1648 and the other of 1654. Frédéric Lachèvre followed Lacroix' division in his edition of the letters of 1933, entitled Œuvres Diverses.1 Lacroix' arrangement is generally satisfactory, and although I shall compare individual letters from the three groups for their fantastic nature, there is no advantage in establishing a new arrangement. The Lettres diverses and Lettres satiriques cover a variety of subjects—Nature, death, dreams, contemporary figures, literature, whereas the Lettres amoureuses have but one subject, love.
Cyrano's letters were only nominally addressed to individuals, and then primarily by way of dedication. The greatest number were dedicated to the Duc d'Arpajon, Cyrano's patron from 1653 to 1655. The feelings and impressions represent Cyrano's reaction to Nature, love, institutions, friends...
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SOURCE: “Miracle: The Attack,” in Cyrano de Bergerac and the Polemics of Modernity, Columbia University Press, 1970, pp. 9-54.
[In the excerpt below, Harth examines Cyrano's treatment of miracles in his works, noting the author's consistently skeptical view of religion.]
The consistent denunciation of miracles by Cyrano is one of the most original aspects of his work. A close examination of his method of assault will provide an understanding of his thinking on such basic issues as religion, sorcery, and superstition. Textual analysis of his treatment of miracles and a discussion of his contemporaries' ideas on them will reveal that Cyrano's position was distinctive.
Cyrano's attack on miracles, whether in his Autre Monde, his letters, or his two plays, is presented in a satirical or ironic fashion. This does not mean that his works are in themselves satires, but merely that the genre of each permits a satirical or, as in the case of La Mort d'Agrippine, an ironic treatment of the subject. The two voyages of the Autre Monde are a good example. Classified by William Eddy as extraterrestrial fantastic voyages (subdivisions of what he terms the “Philosophic voyage”),1 their form is fluid enough to include many satirical passages.2
Because the voyages are not strict formal satires, it is difficult to establish a consistent...
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SOURCE: “Method and Madness in Cyrano de Bergerac's Voyage dans la lune,” in French Forum, Vol. 2, No. 3, September 1977, pp. 224-37.
[In the essay below, DeJean explores the dialogic narrative structure of Les Etats et empires de la lune, which leaves unresolved the contradictions between the different philosophies the work examines.]
Few works of French literature have known fates as curious as that suffered by Cyrano de Bergerac's Voyage dans la lune. The original edition of 1657 was mutilated by the efforts of Cyrano's friend Le Bret to exempt the work from censure. As a result of his solicitous cutting, the unexpurgated text was lost for over 250 years. Even after the publication by Frédéric Lachèvre in 1921 of the first edition of the integral text from the Paris manuscript, recognition of the extent of Cyrano's intellectual daring was slow to come1. Those critics who do examine the philosophical and scientific originality of the Voyage generally fail to take into consideration the problems posed by the form chosen by Cyrano to display new ideas. Rarely do studies attempt to link the work's narrative and philosophical complexity. Jacqueline Van Baelen studies the circular structure of the Voyage. René Démoris and Maurice Laugaa contribute the most thought-provoking treatments to date of the form of Cyrano's novel, especially of such questions...
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SOURCE: “Ideas,” in Cyrano de Bergerac: L'Autre Monde, Grant & Cutler, 1984, pp. 22-47.
[In the following excerpt, Mason outlines the materialist philosophy Cyrano promotes in his stories of space travel.]
To most people, Cyrano's work is best known for its science-fiction qualities. Here is an imagination to foresee possibilities such as interplanetary space travel, or modern discs and tapes. The moon is also the land of mobile houses—a veritable caravan park!—and houses that can spend the winter underground. The ‘boule de feu’ which Socrates' demon brings as illumination, sun's rays purged of their heat, anticipates a sense of electric light and energy. But all such wonderful inventions are not merely paraded for their own virtuosity. Above all they are useful to mankind in giving him a control over his environment and thereby improving the quality of his existence. The auditory book, for instance, opens up possibilities of learning incomprehensible to most in the seventeenth century. Cyrano's joy in acquiring knowledge comes out in this portrait of an infinitely richer world:
… je ne m'étonnai plus de voir que les jeunes hommes de ce pays-là possédaient davantage de connaissance à seize et à dix-huit ans que les barbes grises du nôtre, car sachant lire aussitôt que parler, ils ne sont jamais sans lecture; dans la chambre, à la promenade,...
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SOURCE: “Language, Money, Father, Phallus in Cyrano de Bergerac's Utopia,” in Representations, Vol. 23, Summer 1988, pp. 105-17.
[In the following essay, Goux explores the reversal of earthly values in the utopian society on the moon depicted in L'Autre Monde.]
The belligerent narrator of Cyrano de Bergerac's L'Autre Monde, ou voyage sur la lune, describing a voyage to an “Other World” made possible by the invention of a fantastic machine of springs and rockets, reports to us in minute detail the customs and institutions of language, money, paternity, and the phallus in lunar society.1 At first glance, these institutions and customs seem as strange and absurd as this impossible country where men walk on all fours, build moveable homes, deny the existence of God, believe that matter is made of atoms and that cabbages are intelligent. Even the wildest fantasies, however, have their coherence; there is no fiction, just as there is no delirium, that does not have in a certain sense its own formality. Cyrano's utopian writing, set in a remote Elsewhere that is, he says, “this world upside down” (125), betrays a desire for reversal too unrealistic to be hoped for in the here and now, but one that possesses its own logic. Between theology, which places the sovereign good in heaven, and revolution, which brings it by force to earth, lies utopia, neither vertical nor...
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SOURCE: “Cyrano's Machines: The Marvelous and the Mundane in L'Autre Monde,” in French Forum, Vol. 18, No. 1, January 1993, pp. 37-46.
[In the essay below, MacPhail analyzes Cyrano's rejection of “the marvellous and the verisimilar” in L'Autre Monde, arguing that the author saw them as literary conventions that restrict the imagination.]
In the conclusion to his Essay on epick poetry composed in English in 1727, Voltaire attributed the lack of an epic tradition in France to the skepticism of his countrymen toward mythical or supernatural elements in fiction. “It is almost impossible for us to venture on any Machinery,” he observed. “The ancient Gods are exploded out of the World. The present Religion cannot succeed them among us.”1 One work which anticipates and encourages this sort of incredulity at the same time as it literally mass produces “machinery” is the novel L'Autre Monde ou Les Estats et Empires de la Lune (1657) by Cyrano de Bergerac. Through the motif of machinery, both literal and figurative, Cyrano's lunatic novel explodes all divinities out of all worlds while simultaneously contesting both the supernatural embellishments disdained by Voltaire and the vaunted “vraisemblance” that French Classical taste preferred to the “merveilleux.” The various contrivances by which Cyrano's characters travel to and from the moon are...
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SOURCE: “Cyrano de Bergerac's Epistemological Bodies: ‘Pregnant with a Thousand Definitions’,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3, November 1998, pp. 413-32.
[In the following essay, Romanowski argues that Cyrano joined together elements of both materialist and hermetic philosophy in L'Autre Monde.]
1. CYRANO'S FICTION IN CONTEXT: COMPETING SCIENCES AT THE DAWN OF THE MODERN SCIENTIFIC AGE.
Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) wrote two highly imaginative texts of cosmic exploration and travel which defy all attempts at classification. Sometimes collectively entitled L'Autre Monde [The Other World], L'Autre Monde ou Les Estats et Empires de la Lune [The Other World, or the States and Empires of the Moon] and Les Estats et Empires du Soleil [The States and Empires of the Sun],1 they have been the object of debate and widely differing interpretations. They have been considered as critical and satirical (Mason), libertine (Chambers, DeJean, Spink), materialist and epicurian (Alcover, Laugaa), and hermetist (Gossiaux, Hutin, Van Vledder). Cyrano has been considered both as an epigone of Campanella and late Renaissance magical thought (Erba, Lerner) and as sceptical and “modern,” anticipating the eighteenth-century philosophers (Harth, Prévot, Spink, Weber).2 Yet Cyrano's texts transcend all these labels....
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Freeman, Edward. “Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655).” In Edmond Rostand: Cyrano de Bergerac, pp. 16-20. Glasgow: University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1995.
Provides a brief biographical overview.
Knight, Joseph. “The Real Cyrano de Bergerac.” Fortnightly Review 70 (1898): 205-15.
Links the events of Cyrano's life with the development of his writings.
Harvey, Howard G. “Cyrano de Bergerac and the Question of Human Liberties.” Symposium 4, No. 1 (May-November 1950): 120-30.
Explores the influence of the teachings of Pierre Gassendi and René Descartes on Cyrano's conception of liberty.
Laugaa, Maurice. “Cyrano: Sound and Language.” Yale French Studies 49 (1973): 199-211.
Discusses Cyrano's use of different languages and sounds to create meaning in Les Etats et empires du soleil.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Voyages to the Moon. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948, 297 p.
Investigation of fiction on space travel that contains numerous references to Cyrano and his work.
Normano, J. F. “A Neglected Utopian: Cyrano de Bergerac, 1619-55.” American Journal of Sociology 37, No. 3 (November 1931):...
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