Erica Harth, in Cyrano de Bergerac and the Polemics of Modernity (1970), claims Cyrano de Bergerac to have been “the first of the Moderns,” forerunner of a position more clearly formulated later in the seventeenth century in the great Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns. Cyrano went beyond his contemporaries the libertins, Harth argues, by refusing to settle for a critique of received wisdom; the “destructive spirit” in which he attacks tradition and Church authority “is accompanied by a positive acceptance and propagation of the same scientific and philosophical ideas which, although not directly transmitted by Cyrano, were to have a profound impact on the minds of the eighteenth century philosophes.”
Cyrano, however, was also undeniably a man of his own time, attracted to as well as repulsed by the excesses of préciosité, charmed as well as amused by the arcane theories of thinkers such as Tommaso Campanella, in which allegory and myth are still intertwined with rationalistic investigation. If we can trust the priest’s report, Cyrano even returned to the faith in time to die “a good Christian death,” and as one critic has shown, it is impossible to deduce a consistent atheistic view even from the unexpurgated manuscripts of Other Worlds. However one looks at Cyrano’s masterpiece, contradictions emerge. Before examining these contradictions in detail, a brief description of the work is in order.
Although Comical History of the States and Empires of the Sun was first published separately from Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, it seems clear that this division does not reflect any intention of the author; the two works relate voyages of similar scope by a single narrator, and the second of these voyages is said to be motivated by persecution arising from a published account of the first. Combined, the voyages form a continuous narrative—as do, for example, the two parts of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615)—and may be referred to without distortion by the collective title Other Worlds. (The French title, literally translated, is “the other world,” a phrase that in French as well as English usually refers to the abode of souls after death; Cyrano probably meant it to be taken ironically, for his aim is to suggest that there are “other worlds” in the here and now as well.) This was Cyrano’s only work of prose fiction, but it proved to be the most effective vehicle for his fractious talents and libertine perspective. Because of its subject, it has often been classified as a work of utopian fiction, but the genre to which it really belongs is that of the conte philosophique, or philosophical tale, as practiced preeminently by Voltaire one hundred years later.
A philosophical tale
The essence of the conte philosophique is its unique combination of satiric, even farcical, elements with serious philosophical or ideological ones. Consistency or fullness of characterization and cogency of plot tend to be sacrificed to the primary goals of ridiculing an opposing (usually dogmatic) intellectual position and of suggesting more enlightened alternatives. Because of the variety of scientific and philosophical positions, many of them incompatible, that are detailed by different characters of Other Worlds, it has been maintained that Cyrano—admittedly a dilettante rather than a true scholar—was himself confused about the ideas he wished to advance. While the confusion may be real, Prévot, in Cyrano de Bergerac, romancier (1977), has argued for a subtler reading that qualifies the didactic intent of the work. Insofar as Cyrano has a “message,” Prévot suggests, it is one of radical skepticism; Cyrano considers all doctrines, however scientific, inherently suspect, and having rid himself of one set is not at all eager to embrace another.
In addition to fitting Le Bret’s description of his old friend’s beliefs, this analysis would tally with Cyrano’s own warnings, in the second chapter of his fragmentary treatise on physics (never completed but published in Prévot’s edition of uvres complètes, 1977) against taking one’s hypotheses for realities. There is, moreover, an anarchic streak in Other Worlds, corresponding to its satiric intent; in that respect, Cyrano is a worthy heir of Aristophanes, Lucian, and François Rabelais, from whom he may have borrowed specific motifs but whose satiric vein he made his own.
The narrator of Other Worlds, who speaks in the first person, is not named until the opening pages of the second volume; he is there called Drycona, an obvious anagram of Cyrano. On the strength of his anagrammatic name, many critics have assumed that the narrator speaks for the author. While at times it is hard to deny that he does, his own position fluctuates from scene to scene, enabling him to serve as a foil for a variety of interlocutors. Thus, in conversation with an avowed atheist he defends the faith, whereas in conversation with an Old Testament prophet he blasphemes. Nor is he always in opposition: He listens deferentially to speakers of the most disparate opinions. It seems best to admit, with Prévot, that Drycona is primarily a fictional creation—as are the other “real” characters who appear, such as Campanella and René Descartes.
The narrator’s first voyage is inspired by a moonlit walk with friends, who try to outdo one another in précieux descriptions of the full moon (an attic window on heaven, the sign outside Bacchus’s tavern). His friends ridicule the narrator for suggesting that the moon may be “a world like this one, for which our world serves as a moon.” On reaching home, however, the narrator finds that a book has mysteriously appeared on his desk and is lying open at the page where the author (Jerome Cardan, a sixteenth century mathematician and astrologer) describes a visit from two men who said they lived on the moon. The narrator, determined to verify his hunch, contrives a first mode of space travel: He covers himself with small flasks of dew, which the sun draws upward. He rises so quickly toward the sun, however, that he is obliged to break most of the flasks, and falls back to the earth—in Canada, at that time New France. There he is entertained by the viceroy, with whom he discusses his belief that the earth travels around the sun (still a heretical proposition in 1648); his own displacement from France to Canada is of course evidence that the earth rotates.
In a second attempt to reach the moon, he builds a flying machine, which at first crashes; while he is tending his bruises, the colonial troops outfit the machine with fireworks, transforming it into a multistage rocket. The narrator manages to jump in before it takes off and, when the last stage falls to earth, finds himself still being drawn to the moon by the beef marrow he had rubbed on his bruises. (It was a popular superstition that the waning moon “sucked up” animal marrow.) As luck would have it, he falls in the Earthly Paradise and strikes against an apple from the Tree of Life, whose juice revivifies and rejuvenates him. The prophet Elias, one of two inhabitants of the Earthly Paradise (the other is Enoch), tells him its history, but the narrator cannot resist the impulse to tell a blasphemous joke, and he is cast out of Paradise.
The rest of the moon is inhabited by a race of giants who resemble human beings but move about on all fours; indeed, they take the narrator for an animal because he walks on two feet, and they exhibit him as a kind of sideshow (an idea borrowed by Swift). He is befriended by a spirit whose native land is the sun but who has visited the earth in various ages and was once the Genius or monitory Voice of Socrates; the spirit speaks Greek with the narrator and arranges to have him brought to the royal court. There he is taken for a female of the same species as a Spaniard who has arrived before him (the Spaniard, Gonsales, was the hero of Francis Godwin’s 1638 book The Man in the Moone: Or, A Discourse of a Voyage Thither).
In the hope of producing more “animals” of their species, the moon people have them share a bed, where they have long talks on various scientific problems. As the narrator learns the moon language (which is of two kinds, musical notes for the upper classes and physical gestures for the lower), a controversy arises over his status: Is he a man or an animal? The moon priests consider it “a shocking impiety” to call such a “monster” a man, so he is interrogated before the Estates General. He tries to defend the principles of Aristotle’s philosophy but is unanimously declared an animal when he refuses—as he was taught in school—to debate the principles themselves. A second trial, occasioned by his claim that “the moon”—that is, our earth—“is a world,” leads to acknowledgment of his human status, but he is forced to recant the “heresy” of the claim itself. For the remainder of his stay, he is the guest of a moon family in which—according to custom—the son has authority over the father. In a series of...
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