31 July 2007

Cyrano de Bergerac - Journey to the Moon

In common with most people, I only know of Cyrano de Bergerac through Rostand's play, dimly aware that he was a real 17th century writer and playwright. Rostand in fact took some elements of Cyrano - his appearance, legendary swordsmanship and fondness of duels, and great wit - and elaborated a romance around it to create a new hero.

It's a little disappointing to find that Cyrano didn't live to old age, but died at the age of 36, leaving a couple of plays, and some heretical works published after his death. Journey to the Moon is the most famous of them, a satire in which the narrator travels to the moon by ingenious means, and discovers a population there that lives in ways contrary to those on earth.

De Bergerac prefigures Swift in imagining travel to a distant land, and discovery of a race of people similar to man, but superior in reasoning, to comment on and satirise his own society. Much of the narrative is taken up with discussion of scientific speculations, which may seem a bit bewildering now, but it must be remembered that the mid 17th century was a time when strict Aristotelian natural philosophy was being countered by empiricism and observation, and attempts to synthesise theories of 'humours' and 'elements' and alchemical beliefs with new discoveries.

De Bergerac shows some familiarity with scientific learning of the time, and his speculations, about the existence of vacuums, or the nature of atoms, are entertaining if wide of the mark.

He's more daring when discussing religion, being openly transgressive by disrespecting prophets in his imagined Garden of Eden, having his narrator profess atheism, and discussing the existence of the soul. As the introduction suggests, he was a true libertine, in terms of free thought as well as free living, and one wonders what else he might have produced had he lived.


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