Bewildering Stories

A Modern Cyrano?

by Adam Browne and Don Webb

Adam Browne has been reading The Other World and has an idea: what if Cyrano went rocketing in space in this day and age and met some space aliens. What might he discover? Adam has a point in mind: suppose the space aliens were pretty boneheaded about certain things...

[Adam B.] Let’s say Cyrano has met an alien species whose skulls are of incredible thickness and impermeability in order to prevent outside thoughts from disturbing their delicate and unlikely system of religious beliefs. I was wondering if you could suggest some comparisons to similar beliefs Cyrano would have held disdain for in his life — preferably Christian and anti-libertarian.

[Don W.] That’s a remarkable concept: literally thick-headed people. But I think you have hit on a significant difference between The Other World and some other utopian or imaginary travel literature. In The Voyage to the Moon, Cyrano never meets anyone whom he considers an inferior being. All are capable of rational thought and understanding.

I think Cyrano the author would have problems with the concept of people who possessed natural filters against unorthodox ideas and could not examine them in the light of their own experience, however strange or limited that experience might be. To him, such people would probably be like the dogs that greet Cyrano the character on his return to Earth. And I think his reaction would be the same: What’s the point in talking to them? Just avoid them.

What might such people filter out? Primarily science, but also, paradoxically, anything that contradicted a rationalistic fixation on literalism and challenged preconceived doctrinal and cultural notions. Cyrano was the epitome of the libertin — free-thinker — and was generally indifferent to religion.

The religious authorities of his day had reason to distrust and even fear him and those like him. The libertins were more radical than any heretic or schismatic: they proclaimed the prototype of modern secular humanism, which has been called with some justification a non-theistic religion.

[Adam B.] Thanks for your excellent email. I agree with you about the nature of Cyrano’s writing. In fact, as you suggest, most of the beings he meets are not less but more enlightened than he. I enjoy the wry moments when an alien makes a rationalist, libertarian statement that Cyrano, the character, is shocked by — the impiety! — but as a reader you strongly suspect that Cyrano, the author, shares the alien’s views.

It was only after reading your email that I realised I’m kind of referring to the second book — his trip to the sun — where, outside Colignac’s property, he’s set upon and imprisoned by ‘rustics’ and a priest who devoutly garottes our hero with his stole. It’s interesting. Does this suggest a fundemental difference between the books? (I realise, though, that as soon as Cyrano leaves Earth, everyone he meets is enlightened, if sometimes misguided).

As you suggest, it would be science they filter out - what I’m interested in is what they’re trying to preserve, what religious, delicately teetering stacks of sophistries would tumble if notions from the real, empirical world got in through their thick skulls?

[Don W.] Maybe we have to think of Cyrano as being contemporary with us rather than with himself. As I say at many points, Cyrano seems to be, for all practical purposes, a kind of time traveler from his own future. There are any number of blatant political, social and religious mistakes that people subscribe to today.

[Adam B.] I imagine all religious thought back then was pretty fundamentalist?

[Don W.] Yes, and Cyrano enjoys poking fun at superstition. Cyrano and the libertins were the first who might be called true atheists: those who really don’t care whether God exists or not. I suppose Montaigne could be put into the same group: he never talks about God or religion from his own viewpoint. But who knows, maybe he was just playing it safe in the time of the Wars of Religion.

They would not have called themselves atheists, of course. It wouldn’t have made any sense, because people generally used the word to insult anyone they didn’t happen to like. Life was dangerous enough: freethinkers feared assassination. That’s why suspicion has lingered that the accident leading to Cyrano’s demise was actually a trap set by enemies, perhaps even a “hit” arranged by Jesuits.

Just belonging to the wrong sect was worse than a North American’s being a “godless communist”: differences of opinion were morally unacceptable. Only the separation of religion and morality — which grew out of the 18th century — enabled people to live in peace with each other regardless of their religion. Economic sectarianism has largely replaced religion as the main source of political strife today, but some people seem to yearn for the 16th century... or the 14th.

Aside from intolerance, the main flaws of fundamentalism are now what they were then: circular reasoning and the misuse of science as a substitute for faith.

I might someday like to start on translating Voyage to the Sun. It’s mostly a rebuttal of Cartesian physics, which denied the existence of a vacuum and seems to have viewed motion as bending space, much as molecules shift in a metal when it’s twisted.

Copyright © 2004 by Adam Browne and Don Webb

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