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by Bamber Gascoigne

Savien Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655)


French soldier, satirist, and dramatist, whose life has been the basis of many romantic but unhistorical legends. The best-known of them is Edmond Rostand's verse drama Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). Bergerac's major works were two posthumously published accounts of fantastic voyages,  L'autre Monde ou L'Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Lune (1657) and L'Histoire comique des États et Empires du Soleil (1662). According to Arthur C. Clarke, Cyrano must be credited both for first applying the rocket to space travel and, for inventing the ramjet. Cyrano wrote:

"I foresaw very well, that the vacuity that would happen in the icosahedron, by reason of the sunbeams, united by the concave glasses, would, to fill up the space, attract a great abundance of air, whereby my box would be carried up; and that proportionable as I mounted, the rushing wind that should force it through the hole, could not rise to the roof, but that furiously penetrating the machine, it must needs force it upon high." (from Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds by Arhur C. Clarke, 2000)

The real Cyrano de Bergerac had very little in common with the hero of the Rostand play. He was born in Sens, south-east of Paris, the son of Abel de Cyrano, a lawyer, and Esperance Bellenger. The name "de Bergerac" derived from a place attached to one of his family's estates. In 1622 Abel de Cyrano moved with his family to Mauvières. His early education Cyrano received from a priest, whom he disliked and repeatedly complained of his situation to his father. He was then sent to the Collège de Beauvais. Its head-master, Jean Grangier, became the model of Cyrano's play The Pedant Outwitted (1654).

In 1637, Cyrano left Beauvais, and turned to a life of drinking, gambling, and duelling. At nineteen he he entered the army, M. de Carbon de Casteljaloux's company, which consisted almost entirely of Gascons. Cyrano's friend Henry Le Bret later wrote that "duels, which at that time seemed the unique and most rapid means of becoming known, in a few days rendered him so famous that the Gascons, who composed nearly whole company, considered him the demon of courage and credited him with as many duels as he had ben with them days." However, he was an individualist and had problems adjusting to discipline – Cyrano was an opponent of the war and death penalty. His humanitarian way of thinking was acknowledged by his contemporaries and the next generations. Le Doyen's portrait of him, made after Heince, shows a sceptically smiling man, with thin moustaches and a large nose. Although he flirted with his cousin Madeleine, he was probably a homosexual.

Cyrano was severely wounded twice, he was shot through the body, and at the siege of Arras in 1640 he was hit in the neck with a sword. Cyrano never fully recovered from this wound. During his convalescence in Paris Cyrano was helped financially by his cousin, Madeleine Robineau, the Baroness de Neuvillette, whom he used as a model for the beautiful Roxane. In the following year Cyrano gave up his military career and started to study under the philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), an Epicurean materialist. He said that Aristotelians are "like children at the beach, building sand castles only to pull them down again." (The Style of Paris: Renaissance Origins of the French Enlightenment by George Huppert, 1999, pp. 102-103) Like Gassendi, Cyrano did not believe in the reality of witchcraft. "Reason in my queen," he declared. (ibid., p. 103)

Influenced by Gassendi's theories and libertine philosophy, he wrote stories of imaginary journeys to the Moon and Sun, and satirized views, which saw humanity and the Earth as the center of creation. He also mocked Descartes' idea that animals are soulless machines. In his trip to the Moon the narrator takes off from the Earth in an apparatus festooned with firecrackers, and lands on the Tree of Life. The first person he meets is Elias, whom he upsets with his mocking comments about the soul. At the end he is thrown into the sky with an atheist, and lands safely in Italy.

In 1645 or 1646 Cyrano wrote a satire entitle Le Pédant joué, on which Molière based two scenes of Les Fourberies de Scapin. Beginning from Le Ministre d'Etat flambé (1649), signed by D.B., Bergerac wrote several political propaganda pamphlets; at first they were directed against Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the chief minister of Louis XIV, but he then changed his opinion and defended Mazarin in La Lettre contre Les Frondeurs (1651). It has been claimed that Bergerac was bribed by the Cardinal. Some of his pamphlets were composed for the Fonde (1648-1653), a revolt against the royal government. In La Sybille moderne (1649) Cyrano de Bergerac maintained that Mazarin was "a man soiled by murders, poisonings and sacrileges". ('Venemous Words and Political Poisons: Language(s) of Exclusion in Early Modern France' by Silje Normand, in Exploring Cultural History: Essays in Honour of Peter Burke, edited by Melissa Calaresu, Filippo de Vivo and Joan-Pau Rubiés, 2010, p. 128) 

In the 1650s Cyrano de Bergerac published two plays. The subject of La Mort d'Agrippine (1654, The Death of Agrippine) was drawn from the Annals of Tacitus. It told of an abortive revolt against the tyrant Tibère, pursud by Agrippine, the widow of Germanicus, and members of the tyrant's own family. This was the only serious work of Cyrano. It was suspected of blasphemy for playing on the double meaning of the word l'hostie (a hostage, or victim). According to an anecdote, when one of the characters says, "Frappons, voilà l'hostie," the audiece shouted: "Ah! the rascal! Ah! The atheist! Hear how he speaks of the holy sacrament." From Le Pédant joué (1654) Molière borrowed heavily for his play The Cheats of Chapin.

Until 1652, when Cyrano entered the service of the Duc d'Arpajon, he had no patrons. Cyrano de Bergerac died on July 28, 1655, at the house of his cousin. He was buried in Sannois. The cause of Cyrano's death was banal – according to some sources a piece of plank dropped on his head as he entered Arpajon's house, but it did not kill him immediately. While in a helpless condition, a chest full of manuscripts was stolen from him. Moreover, it has been suggested that he died as a result of a street fight. Cyrano's "secret illness" may have been syphilis. His brother had him confined in a lunatic asylum.

Cyrano's childhood friend Henri Le Bret claimed that after the accident he underwent a total change: "that at last the libertinage of which most young people are suspected came to seem monstrous to him, and I can attest that from then on he felt all the aversion toward it that anyone who wishes to lead a Christian life should have." (Inscription and Erasure: Literature and Written Culture from the Eleventh to the Eighteenth Century by Roger Chartier, 2007, p. 78)

Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac describes the adventures of the 17th century nobleman, famous for his large nose and swordsmanship. "'Tis well known, a big nose is indicative / Of a soul affable, and kind, and courteous, / Liberal, brave, just like myself, and such / As you can never dare to dream yourself..." Cyrano desperately loves the beautiful Roxane, but agrees to help his rival, Christian, win her heart. The historians have pointed out that Rostand's portrayal of the hero was not truthful – Cyrano was a serious writer of philosophical romances and a virile lover.

L'autre Monde

Parts of Cyrano's L'autre Monde ou Les Estats et Empires de la Lune (The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon) and L'Histoire comique des États et Empires du Soleil (Other Worlds: The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Sun) were published in posthumous versions. The imaginary visits to the moon and sun, carrying on the tradition of Rabelais, satirized the people and politics of his own day. The 1657 edition of The States and Empires of the Moon was based on text that had circulated in a manuscript form. Henri Le Bret, the author's friend who was a Jesuit priest, censored elements which he regarded as heretical.

It is assumed, that the third volume of Histoire comique is lost or has been destroyed. The books belong in the genre "fantastic voyages," of which the oldest examples are the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer's Odyssey. Tommasso Campanella's La città del sole (1602, City of the Sun), Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), and Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1643), all written in the 17th century, shared Cyrano's rejection of the traditional religious scientific beliefs. Noteworthy, in L'autre Monde he abandoned Geocentrism, supported by the Catholic Church – Cyrano's satirical hypothesis was that the Earth is the satellite of the Moon: "I believe, that the Moon is a World like ours, to which this of ours serves likewise for a Moon." (The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Worlds of the Moon and Sun, translated by A. Lovell, 1687)

Cyrano introduced seven ways to leave the Earth. In one of them a sealed unit sucks from outside air, which is heated by mirrors, and then expelled at the base; this was perhaps the first depiction of the ramjet principle, which was invented by René Lorin in 1913. Cyrano is escorted on the Moon by the Demon of Socrates, who says: "You men imagine that what you cannot understand is either spiritual or else does not exist, but this conclusion is quite false. The proof of this is the fact that there are perhaps a million things in the universe which you would need a million quite different organs to know." (Other Worlds: The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Sun and the Moon, 1965, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, p. 36)

In the second book Cyrano lands on the Sun, managing to invent an explanation why the heat doesn't burn. The earthling meets Campanella, author of Civitas Solis, to whom a woman tells that her husband has killed her child twice. He has not fulfilled his conjugal duty, because by refusing to make the child "come into existence, he caused him not to be, which was the first murder, but subsequently he caused him never to be able to be, which was the second. A Common murderer knows that the man whose days he cuts short is no more, but none of them could cause a man never to have been." (Trillion Years Spree by Brian Aldiss & David Wingrove, 2001, p. 63)

Cyrano's collected works, which came out in 1676, included a biting poem of Mazarin (1602-61), the famous French cardinal and statesman. His ideas inspired many later writers, among them Jonathan Swift and Voltaire, whose fantastical Micromégas: Histoire philosophique (1752) satirized our world from the viewpoint of giant visitors from space.

For further reading: Cyrano de Bergerac: la véritable histoire by Georges Bringuier (2021); Cyrano de Bergerac d'Edmond Rostand by Jeanyves Guérin (2018); Rediscovering French Science-Fiction in Literature, Film and Comics: From Cyrano to Barbarella, edited by Philippe Mather and Sylvain Rheault (2015); 'Cyrano de Bergerac's Epistemological Bodies' by Sylvie Romanowski, in Vintage Visions: Essays on Early Science Fiction, edited by Arthur B. Evans (2014); Cyrano: The Life and Legend of Cyrano de Bergerac by Ishbel Addyman (2008); The Lost Sonnets of Cyrano de Bergerac: A Poetic Fiction by James L. Carcioppolo (1998); 'Cyrano de Bergerac,' in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nichols (1993); Cyrano relu et corrigé: lettres, "Estats du soleil", "Fragment de physique" by Madeleine Alcover (1990); Cyrano de Bergerac: historiens, legendens og Rostands Cyrano de Bergerac: en biografi by Peter Jerndorff-Jessen (1984); Cyrano de Bergerac: un model al barocului by Dolores Toma (1982); Cyrano de Bergerac and the Polemics of Modernity by Erica Harth (1970); Le patrimoine de Cyrano de Bergerac by J. Lemoine (1911); La vie et les oeuvres de Cyrano de Bergerac by P. Brun (1909); Cyrano de Bergerac: Sein Leben und seine Werke by H. Dübi (1906), Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand (performed in 1897, pub. 1898, translated by Brian Hooker in 1923 in blank verse and Anthony Burgess in 1985); Iter Lunare: Or A Voyage to the Moon by David Russen (1703). Note: ""What the deuce did he want on board a Turk's galley. A Turk!" from Le Pédant Joué by Cyrano de Bergerac (1645); "What the devil was he doing in that galley? from Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière (1671): "The saying on Molière came into his head: "But what the devil was he doing in that galley?" and he laughed at himself." from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoi (1865-1872); "What the devil do you do in that gallert there!" from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

Selected works:

  • Le Pédant joué, 1645-1646
  • Le Ministre d'Etat flambé, 1649
  • La Sybille moderne, 1649
  • Remonstrances des Trois Estats à la Reine Régente, 1649
  • La Lettre contre Les Frondeurs, 1651
  • La Mort d'Agrippine, 1654
  • Le Pédant joué, 1654 (Molieré  based two scenes of Les Fourberies de Scapin on this play)
  • L'autre monde ou L'Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Lune, 1657
    - Selenarchia: The Government of the World in the Moon (tr. Tho. St. Serf, 1659) / The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (tr. A. Lovell, 1687) / A Voyage to the Moon (tr. 1899) / Voyages to the Moon and the Sun (tr. Richard Aldington, 1923)
  • L'Histoire comique des États et Empires du Soleil, 1662
    - The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (tr. A. Lovell, 1687) / Voyages to the Moon and the Sun (tr. Richard Aldington, 1923) / Other Worlds: The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Sun (tr. Geoffrey Strachan, 1965)
  • Les Œuvres de monsieur de Cyrano Bergerac, 1709 (2 vols.)
  • Œuvres comiques, galantes et littéraires, 1858 (edited by P. L. Jacob)
  • Satyrical Characters and Handsome Descriptions in Letters, 1914 (tr. from the French, with an introduction by Benjamin Parsons Bourland)
  • Les Œuvres libertines de Cyrano de Bergerac, 1921 (2 vols.)
  • Lettres d'amour et Lettres satiriques, 1932 (precafe by Henry Frichet)
  • Œuvres diverses, 1933 (edited by Frédéric Lachèvre)
  • Œuvres, 1957
  • L'autre monde. Les états et empires de la lune, 1967 (illustrated by  Edmond Corcos)
  • Voyages fantastiques, 1967 (illustrated by  Bernard Buffet)
  • Voyage dans la Lune, 1970 (introduction by Maurice Laugaa)
    - Matka kuuhun (suom. Aarno Saleva, 2008)
  • Cyrano de Bergerac, 1972 (edited by Suzanne Rossat-Mignod)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1977 (edited by acques Prévot) 
  • La mort d’Agrippine, 1982  (edited by C.J. Gossip)
  • Lettres satiriques et amoureuses; précédées de Lettres diverses, 1999 (edited by Jean-Charles Darmon and Alain Mothu)
  • Œuvres complètes, 2001 (3 vols., edited by  Madeleine Alcover, Luciano Erba, André Blanc)
  • The Other World: The Comical History of the States and Empires of the World of the Moon, 2016 (translated by Archibald Lovell; publisher‏: ‎ CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)

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