Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Cyrano de Bergerac: Grandfather of Voyages Extraordinaires

Though regarded as the father of Scientific Romances, and therefore the grandfather of Science Fiction, Jules Verne was not without his antecedents. Going far back, very far, into the earliest of literature that could be considered a forerunner of the genre, Verne looks to a fellow countryman. He is none other than the man most famous for his nose, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Published posthumously in 1657, de Bergerac was the first Frenchman to take a fantastic journey to the Moon. The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon is one of the first of the Enlightenment satires that would evolve, over the following centuries, into Voyages Extraordinaires.

The advent of the Enlightenment provided two of the most fundamental ingredients to speculative fiction. The first was a fresh breeze of scientific inquiry borne out of Galileo's celestial discoveries. Through the use of his telescope, Galileo was able to chart the motions of Jupiter's moons and Venus' phases, overturning the Aristotelian model of a geocentric cosmos. Johannes Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo, wrote up his scientific speculations in a novel entitled Somnium, published in 1634. In Somnium, an Icelandic sleeper is spirited away by lunar demons through magical processes during a solar eclipse. From his vantage point on the Moon, he is able to observe the phases of the Earth in a rousing defense of Copernican astronomy.

The second ingredient was a heady air of liberty that allowed social critics to write freely their observations on humanity. The new worlds opened up to the imagination by Galileo's telescope provided the perfect staging ground for commentary. Like much Science Fiction ever since, alien races become proxies for our own foibles and models for our own possibilities. De Bergerac's Other World is one such tale.

Cyrano de Bergerac lived fast and not for very long. He died at the age of 36 by a freak accident, after a falling beam in a friend's house crushed him and left him too sickly to survive an onslaught of disease. Before that, he was a renowned duellist and soldier during the Thirty Years War. He was a poet and possibly homosexual, which leaves open the question of the famous Roxane, for which was supposed to hold a torch. Like many details of de Bergerac's life, the love triangle between him, Roxane and Christian was fabricated by playwright Edmond Rostand. This includes his nose, which by accounts was large but not of the size suggested in later legend. Most likely, de Bergerac's great romance was with fellow libertin writer and poet Charles Coypeau d'Assoucy, after which the two viciously attcked each other with the quill. Besides writing public satirical tracts against each other, de Bergerac went so far as to send florid death threats.

De Bergerac, like so many "Freethinkers", was a better believer in Reason than a user of it. Nevertheless, he was a biting critic of his times. Making use of Galileo's new worlds, he took a fanciful visit to the Moon to observe the customs of its strange people. Like Kepler and author Bishop Francis Godwin before him, de Bergerac was less concerned with a credible means of getting to the orb. Kepler's man was kidnapped during an eclipse, and Godwin's arrived on an airship pulled by geese. De Bergerac had a slightly more difficult time of it. His first attempt was to use bottles of dew attached to his person. As the morning light rose, so too would the dew, carrying him along. This fails and lands him, thanks to the Earth's rotation, in New France, the colony of Quebec. In Quebec - which at the time of publication was on the eve of its 50th anniversary and is today the oldest continued permanent settlement in North America - de Bergerac fashioned an airship that also failed. Finally the airship was converted into a rocket, intended for the St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations, which conveys him to the stars.

Once on the lunar orb, Cyrano makes a series of startling discoveries: the Moon is, in fact, the Garden of Eden. After nourishing himself on the Tree of Life, he encounters Elijah and learns the history of Biblical spacefarers. Banished because of their culinary oversight Adam and Eve literally took flight to Earth. Enoch, on the other hand, was taken up to the Moon by bottling the smoke of a pious burnt sacrifice. Noah's daughter simply washed ashore after absconding with the Ark's lifeboat. Elijah used a golden chariot of his own construction, repeatedly tossing a magnetic ball into the air and letting the chariot soar upwards towards it, repeating the process until he arrived.

These are not the Moon's only inhabitants, however. After taking a bite from the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, with its ambiguous mix of omniscient fibre and ignorance-inducing peel, de Bergerac is introduced to spacefarers from the Sun who have set up their colony on La Lune. He is a bit more comfortable with these Rationalists than he is with the Biblical prophets. Godwin's astronautical pioneer also makes an appearance, when he is mistaken for a type of monkey and de Bergerac mistaken for a female of the species.

Several authors followed in the footsteps of de Bergerac. Voltaire elicited the help of aliens to satirize human self-importance in the face of a vast cosmos. Simon Tyssot de Patot critiqued religion and the arts via a lost world in 1710's Voyages et Aventures de Jacques Massé. Louis-Sébastien Mercier visited L'An 2440. Jonathan Swift took Gulliver around the planet to its many strange and varied societies. Baron Munchausen himself visited Diana several times. Washington Irving used The Conquest of the Moon as a parable of American expansionism. Fellow American George Tucker took the first steps in transforming these satires into Scientific Romances by taking a great deal more care in making plausible the means by which his persona took A Voyage to the Moon in 1827. Then there was Poe, and Verne.

De Bergerac was at work on a second story - The Societies and Governments of the Sun - when he passed away. What remains are muddled tales about his nose and his love life, and a classic ancestor to Scientific Romances. Disney recognized his contribution in the program Man in Space, where a history of rocketry includes an interlude from The Other World animated by Ward Kimball. Karel Zeman also paid respects to the poet by including him as one of the denizens of the moon, along with the explorers of Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and Baron Munchausen in the film Baron Munchausen (1961).

For us, the intrepid Donald Webb has provided an English translation and annotations to The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon.


Jack Horner said...

!!! I have been wanting to read Cyrano's moon treatise for years. Thanks for the link.

I do hope the reality of his writing equals my love of Rostand's play.

Cory Gross said...

No problem! I'm glad I can help and I hope it lives up to the hype!