8: Parachuting into Paradise

Exploring the idyllic forests and meadows of the Moon, Cyrano meets Elijah, who seems to be starved for conversation. Cyrano’s host is nonetheless an intriguing storyteller, and he describes even more inventions for flight and space travel. One passage is not exactly modern, especially for female readers.

I had walked half a league through a forest of jasmine and myrtle when I saw something lying in the shade. When it moved I saw it was a young teen-age boy. His majestic beauty almost sent me to my knees in adoration. He got up and stopped me, exclaiming loudly: “It’s not I but God who is owed this obeisance!”

“You see before you,” I said, “someone who is overcome by so many miracles that I don’t know which to marvel at first. To start with, I come from a world that you, here, no doubt consider a moon. My plan was to come to this other world, which the people of my country also call the Moon. Now here I am in paradise at the feet of a god who does not want to be worshipped and a foreigner who speaks my language.”

“Aside from the status of god,” he answered, “what you say is true. This earth is the moon you see from your globe, and this place where you are walking is paradise. But it is the earthly paradise into which only six people have ever entered: Adam, Eve, Enoch, myself — I am the Elijah of old — and St. John the Evangelist and, now, you.

“You are aware how the first two were banished, but you do not know how they came to your world. Adam feared that God, who was irritated by his presence, might make his punishment worse. He considered the moon — that is, your world — as the only place where he could take refuge from the chastisement of his Creator.

“Now, in those days, men’s imagination was very strong, because it had not yet been corrupted by debauchery, bad food or illnesses. Adam was moved by an ardent desire to reach that place of asylum, and his mass had been lessened by the fire of his enthusiasm. He was carried there like those philosophers whose imagination is so strongly concentrated on something that they are lifted into the air in what you would call an ecstatic trance.

“Eve, who was weaker and less enthusiastic because of the natural infirmity of her sex, no doubt lacked an imagination strong enough to overcome the weight of matter by force of will. But as she had taken very little from her husband’s body, the affection that still linked the half to its whole drew her after him as he rose. She was like amber, which is followed by a straw; or a magnet, which turns to the north from which it has been taken. Adam attracted the product of his rib as the sea draws back to itself the rivers whose waters have come out of it.

“When they arrived in your world, they settled down between Mesopotamia and Arabia. The Hebrews knew the man by the name of Adam; the idolaters called him Prometheus. Their poets claimed he had stolen fire from the sky, because he had descendants filled with a soul as perfect as the one that God had given him.

“When the first man went to your world, he left this one empty. But the All-Wise did not want such a lovely place to remain uninhabited. A few centuries later, Enoch, disillusioned by the company of men whose innocence was becoming corrupted, was allowed to leave them. But this saintly personage thought he could find no safe refuge from his kinfolk, who were already killing each other over the division of your world. Unless, that is, it was in the blessed land that his forefather Adam had told him so much about.

“But how could he go there? Jacob’s ladder had not been invented yet. The grace of the Most High made up for it by having Enoch notice that the fire of Heaven descended upon the sacrifices of the just and those who were acceptable in the sight of the Lord according to the word of his mouth: ‘The odor of the sacrifices of the just has risen to me.’

“One day, as the divine flame was busily consuming a victim that Enoch was offering to the Eternal One, Enoch captured some of the smoke arising from it, sealed it into two airtight vases, and put them under his armpits. The smoke tended to rise toward God and could penetrate metal only by a miracle. It immediately pushed the vases upwards and carried the saintly man with them.

“When he had risen as far as the Moon and caught sight of this beautiful garden, he realized with an almost supernatural outpouring of joy that it was the earthly paradise where his grandfather had once lived. He promptly untied the vases he had fastened like wings around his shoulders. He was so careful about it that he was scarcely four heights of a man above the Moon when he released his buoys. He was still high enough off the ground to be seriously hurt by a fall, but the broad folds of his robe billowed up in the wind. His ardent charity also supported him, of course.

“The vases kept rising until God enshrined them in Heaven. They are what you now call the constellation of Libra. Every day they show us that they are still full of the odors of a just man’s sacrifice because they have favorably influenced the horoscope of Louis the Just, who had Libra in ascendancy.”

Many of today’s readers will reel with culture shock in this episode. Some of that is to be expected. However, we must know how to listen to Cyrano: since he is at home in both his own time and ours, we can understand his sometimes comical, sometimes disturbing clash of the ancient and the modern.

I. We are forcefully reminded that the novel is now more than 350 years old: the quaint courtesy to Louis XIII — which seems like a backhanded compliment — is of antiquarian interest. But don’t similar cultural references abound in our literature today?

We may also bridle at what he has “Elijah” say about the “weaker sex.” The customs and preconceptions of Cyrano’s time are not ours. And yet we might remember that the debate on the status of women in society is far older than 20th-century feminism and older still than its spiritual founder Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote in the 1790’s. Suffice it to say at this point that Cyrano has some big surprises in store for us.

II. We know now that the Moon is no paradise, but that is entirely irrelevant. If science fiction has one indispensable topos, it is that of transforming Earth itself and sending space travelers to imaginary worlds where they discover something about themselves and the earthly society in which they live. C. S. Lewis’s classic novel Out of the Silent Planet and its sequel Perelandra are none the less important because his Mars and Venus do not resemble those of astronomers and interplanetary probes.

III. Many of today’s readers will recoil from references to the Bible — let alone its use in literature — and see them as an ipso facto statement of fundamentalist theology or even politics. Others will say that’s exactly what they’re supposed to be. Both are mistaken. In the first place, the Bible has been a central element of Western culture for millennia. In the second place, religious understanding has always escaped, sooner rather than later, from the bonds of sectarian restrictions.

What 21st-century author would dare use religious mythology with Cyrano’s casual and creative familiarity? Cyrano seems to feel more intellectually secure with it than even Voltaire. He does not use Voltaire’s obliterating sarcasm; rather he transforms mythology by offering the reader a loaded choice: reason or misapplied belief.

IV. Cyrano demonstrates what some popular philosophers of today have misunderstood. There is no “clash of civilizations,” as a currently popular phrase would have it. Rather, there is something far more profound at work: a conflict between the values of tradition and progress, i.e. mythos and logos, to borrow the terms of religious historian Karen Armstrong. The 17th century’s Querelle des anciens et des modernes — the debate of the ancients and moderns — is emblematic of it, and Cyrano, in his day, was considered the first of the modernes.

In a more general sense, Cyrano was far from being the first. The last five centuries have given us some monumental examples. Rabelais — born in the 15th century — proposes a humanistic form of religion in his Gargantua. Montaigne studiously ignores religion and gives us a model of the intellectually independent Humanist in his Essais. Cyrano is neither a cleric nor a Renaissance Humanist; he is a libertin in what has been called with both justification and hyperbole the Age of Reason. He meets his culture head on and transforms it with an engagingly sly wit and uncompromising sense of realism. Cyrano time-travels again, into our future.

V. We can see Cyrano himself in his literary style:

L’élévation cependant était assez grande pour le beaucoup blesser, sans le grand tour de sa robe, où le vent s’engouffra, et l’ardeur du feu de la charité qui le soutint aussi.

He was still high enough off the ground to be seriously hurt by a fall, but the broad folds of his robe billowed up in the wind. His ardent charity also supported him, of course.

The tension between the physical and mental is the basis of all humor. Cyrano engages his readers by first giving us the twin ingredients of reality and irrelevant preconceptions and then letting us see the joke for ourselves. Basically he asks: “If you’re going to fall from a great height, you may escape injury because you think you deserve to. But can I interest you in my latest invention?” We smile and gratefully accept his parachute.