Cyrano on the Moon

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Cyrano on the Moon

La Repubblica, December 24, 1982.

At the time when Galileo was clashing with the Holy Office, a Parisian supporter of his proposed an interesting heliocentric model of the universe: it was made like an onion that, “protected by a hundred thin layers that surround it, preserves the precious germ from which ten million other onions will have to derive their essence… . The embryo, in the onion, is the little sun of this little world, which warms and nourishes the vegetative salt of the entire mass.”

With those millions of onions we pass from the solar system to the system of infinite worlds propounded by Giordano Bruno. All these celestial bodies, in fact, “which one sees or does not see, suspended in the blue of the universe, are only the foam of suns that are being cleansed. For how could these great fires subsist if they were not fed by some other matter that nourishes them?”

This foaming process is not so very diffèrent from the way we now explain the condensation of the planets out of the primordial nebulus, and the stellar masses that contract and expand: “every day the sun discharges and purges itself of the leftovers of the matter that fuels its fire. But when it has totally consumed all the matter that it is composed of, it will expand on every side to seek new nourishment, and will spread to all the worlds it has already created, and especially to those nearest to it. Then that great fire, recasting all these bodies, will launch them, as before, in all directions, and, having been purified little by little, will begin to act as a sun to these other planets which it will generate by hurling them out of its own sphere.”

As for the motion of the earth, it is the rays of the sun that, “striking it with their rotation, make it spin as we make a globe spin by striking it with a hand”; or else it is the vapors of the earth itself that, “struck by the cold of the polar regions, fall upon it, and not being able to strike it other than sideways, make it turn around in this manner.”

This imaginative cosmographer was Savinien de Cyrano (1619—55), better known as Cyrano de Bergerac, and the work I have quoted from is The Other World, or States and Empires of the Moon. A forerunner of the science-fiction writer, Cyrano nourished his fantasies on the scientific knowledge of his time and the traditions of magic during the Renaissance, and in so doing he hit on things that we are only able to appreciate three centuries later for what they were: for example, the movements of astronauts without gravity (accomplished by means of little bottles of dew that is then attracted by the sun), multistage rockets, and “sounding books” (one winds up the mechanism, places a needle on the chapter one wants, and listens to the sounds emitted by a kind of mouth).

His poetic imagination derives from cosmic feelings that lead him to evoke the sentiments of Lucretian atomism. Thus he extols the unity of all things, living or inanimate, and even Empedocles’s four elements are reduced to one only, with the atoms sometimes more rarefied, sometimes less so. “You marvel at how this matter, mixed together at random, at the mercy of chance, could have created a man, seeing that so many things were needed for the construction of his being, but you do not know that this matter, while it was on the way to forming a man, has a hundred million times stopped to form now a stone, now lead metal, now some coral, now a flower, now a comet, on account of the too many or too few figures needed to plan a man.” This combination of elemental figures determing the variety of living forms connects Epicurean science with the genetics of DNA.

Ways of going to the moon provide a sample of Cyrano’s inventiveness. The patriarch Enoch binds two vases under his armpits, filled with the smoke from a sacrifice that must ascend to heaven; the prophet Elijah makes the same journey by getting into an iron ship and hurling a magnetic ball into the air. As for Cyrano himself, having rubbed an ointment made of ox marrow on the bruises sustained in previous attempts, he feels himself rising toward the satellite because the moon tends to suck up the marrow of animals.

Among other things, the moon contains paradise, which is improperly called “earthly,” and Cyrano lands right on the Tree of Life, getting his face smeared with one of the famous apples. As for the serpent, after original sin God relegated it to within the body of man: it is the intestine, a serpent coiled upon itself, an insatiable animal that dominates man, causes him to obey its wishes, and rends him with its invisible teeth.

This explanation is given by the prophet Elijah to Cyrano, who is unable to resist a salacious variation on the theme. The serpent is also the thing that emerges from the loins of man and stretches toward woman, there to spurt out its poison and cause a swelling which lasts nine months. But these jokes of Cyrano’s are not in the least pleasing to Elijah, and after one impertinence even greater than the rest, he chases him out of Eden. Which shows that in this entirely jocular book, some jokes are supposed to be taken as the truth and others are said only in fun, even if it is not easy to tell them apart.

After his expulsion from Eden, Cyrano visits the cities of the moon. Some are mobile, with houses on wheels that can change their site according to the season of the year, whereas others are sedentary, screwed to the ground into which they can sink in winter to escape inclement weather. As a guide he has a character who has been on earth a number of times in various centuries: the “demon of Socrates” of whom Plutarch wrote. This knowledgeable spirit explains why the moon men not only abstain from eating meat, but have particular regard for vegetables as well. They only eat cabbages that have died a natural death, because to decapitate a cabbage is to murder it. There is nothing to tell us, in fact, that since the Fall men have been any dearer to God than cabbages are, or that the latter are not endowed with sensitivity and beauty and are made more in the image of God. “If, therefore, our souls are no longer portraits of him, we no more resemble him in our hands, feet, mouths, foreheads, and ears than cabbages do in their leaves, flowerets, stalks, cores, and heads.” As for intelligence, although he admits that cabbages do not have an immortal soul, he suggests they may have a share in a universal intellect, and if nothing of their hidden knowledge has come through to us, maybe it is only because we are not up to the task of receiving the messages they send us.

Intellectual and poetical qualities are combined in Cyrano in a way that makes him literally an extraordinary writer, whether in seventeenth-century France or in absolute terms. Intellectually he is a “libertine,” a polemicist involved in a brawl that was at that time sending the old world-view up in smoke. He took sides with Gassendi’s “sensism” and the astronomy of Copernicus, but he was nourished above all by the “natural philosophy” of sixteenth-century Italy: Cardano, Bruno, and Campanella. (As for Descartes, in the Journey to the States of the Sun, which forms a sequel to the journey to the moon, Cyrano made contact with him in an Empyrean reminiscence of Tommaso Campanella, and went to him with a fraternal embrace.)

From a literary point of view he is a Baroque writer. His “letter” contain tours de force, such as his “Description of a Cypress,” of which one could well say that the style and the object described become one and the same thing. Above all he is a writer through and through, less interested in expounding a theory or defending a thesis than in setting in motion a merry-go-round of inventions equivalent on the level of imagination and language to what the “new philosophy” and the new science were doing on the level of thought. In his Other World it is not the coherence of ideas that matters, but the delight and the freedom with which he makes use of all the intellectual stimuli that please him. This is the beginning of the conte philosophique—not a “story” with a thesis to demonstrate, but one in which ideas appear and disappear and tease one another in turn, for the pleasure of one who has enough familiarity with them to be able to be playful with them even when he takes them seriously.

Cyrano’s journey to the moon could in some ways be said to herald Gulliver’s Travels. On the Moon, as in Brobdingnag, the visitor finds himself among beings far larger than he is, who put him on show as a strange little animal. In the same way, the series of misadventures and meetings with characters of paradoxical wisdom are a foretaste of the wanderings of Voltaire’s Candide. But Cyrano’s literary fame came late. This book was published posthumously, mutilated by the censorship of timorous friends, and only saw the light in its entirety in our own century. Meanwhile, he had already been rediscovered in the Romantic age. First Charles Nodier, then (and above all) Théophile Gautier, on the basis of a widespread tradition, drew the outlines of the poet-swordsman and joker, which the excellent Rostand then transformed into his highly successful verse drama.

But in fact Savinien de Cyrano was neither a nobleman nor a Gascon, but a middle-class Parisian. The title “de Bergerac” he added himself, from the name of a property belonging to his lawyer father. As for his famous nose, it is likely that he really had it, for in this book we find a eulogy of noses worthy of consideration; though such a eulogy belongs to a genre common enough in the Baroque period, it is unlikely to have been written by someone with a tiny snub nose. (The inhabitants of the moon tell the time by using a natural sundial composed of their long noses, which project their shadows onto the “dial” of their teeth.)

But it is not only noses that are flaunted. Though an aristocratic moon man goes about naked, he wears a belt with a phallus-shaped bronze object hanging from it.

“This custom seems to me very extraordinary,” I said to my young host, “because as a sign of nobility in our world it is customary to wear a sword.” But he, without getting ruffled, exclaimed: “My little man, what fanatics the great men of your world are, to make a show of an instrument that indicates an executioner, made solely to destroy us, the sworn enemy of all that live, and on the other hand to hide a member without which we would be in the situation of that which is not, the Prometheus of every animal, and the tireless redresser of the shortcomings of nature! Luckless is that country in which the symbols of procreation are the objects of shame, while the agents of destruction are honored! And yet you call that member your pudendum, or shameful part, as if there were anything more glorious than creating life, or anything more atrocious than taking it away.”

This shows that Rostand’s bellicose swordsman was in fact an adept at “making love, not war,” although still sharing a procreative urge that in our contraceptive age we cannot avoid thinking of as obsolete.