11: “Have You Heard the One About...?”

Cyrano’s Elijah has shown himself to be an imaginative engineer and a skilled space pilot. A word of advice, though: never let him get started on the subject of anatomy or dentistry!

Elijah and Cyrano’s conversation seems to take a turn for the strange; it is Gallic humour at its most elegant. It becomes a mutual leg-pulling contest in which Cyrano seems to win a round on points.

“I won’t tell you how astonished I was to find all the marvels there are here; I see you feel much the same as I did. Let me just say that the next day I came across the Tree of Life, and it prevented me from growing old. The fruit was soon consumed, and it exhaled the serpent in a cloud of smoke.”

“Venerable and holy patriarch,” I said, “I would really like to know what you mean by this serpent that was consumed.”

He laughed and answered, “My son, I've forgotten to tell you a secret you could not know. It is this: after Eve and her husband had eaten the forbidden apple, God punished the serpent that had tempted them with it; he put the serpent into the body of man. As a punishment for the crime of the first forefather, every human being that has been born feeds a serpent in his belly, one that is descended from the original.

“You call them the bowels and consider them necessary for the functions of life, but they are really serpents doubled over on themselves several times. When you hear your intestines making a noise, it’s the serpent whistling. Its gluttonous nature incited the first man to eat too much, and it asks to be fed, too. To punish you, God wanted to make you mortal like the other animals, and he afflicted you with this insatiable one. If you give it too much to eat, you will gorge yourself. If it gnaws at your stomach with its invisible teeth and you refuse it a pittance, it will groan, make a racket and disgorge the venom your doctors call bile. It will make you so hot by the poison it releases into your arteries that you will soon be consumed by it.

“As evidence that your bowels are a serpent that you have in your body, remember that some were found in the tombs of Asclepius, Scipio, Alexander, Charles Martel and Edward of England, and they were still feeding on the corpses of their hosts.”

“As a matter of fact,” I said by way of interruption, “I have noticed that this serpent is always trying to escape from man’s body. You can see its head and neck coming out at the bottom of the abdomen. But God did not permit man alone to be tormented by it. He arranged for man to have an erection for his wife, insert his venom into her, and cause a swelling that lasts for nine months after he has pricked her. And to show that I am speaking according to the word of the Lord, he told the serpent when he cursed it that it might cause woman to stumble when it stiffened against her but that she would finally cause it to bow its head.”

I was going to tell some more funny stories, but Elijah stopped me: “Remember,” he said, “this is a holy place.” He fell silent for a while, as though he had lost his train of thought, and then he continued speaking: “I eat of the fruit of Life only every hundred years. Its juice tastes something like wine. I think it was this apple that Adam ate, and it caused our ancestors to live as long as they did; some of its energy flowed into their semen but was extinguished in the waters of the Flood.

“The Tree of Knowledge is planted opposite the Tree of Life, and its fruit is covered with a skin that produces ignorance in whoever tastes it. Under the skin of the fruit are preserved the intellectual virtues of this victual of learning. After expelling Adam from this blessed land, God was afraid Adam might find his way back to it, and so he rubbed Adam’s gums with the skin of the fruit. For fifteen years afterwards Adam talked nonsense and forgot everything, so that his descendants down to Moses did not even remember the Creation. But the remaining effects of this weighty apple peel were finally dissipated by the energy and intelligence of the great prophet.

“Fortunately I took one of the apples that had lost its skin in ripening. Hardly had my saliva moistened it than I was absorbed in universal knowledge. An infinite number of little eyes seemed to dive into my head, and I knew how to talk to the Lord.

“Whenever I have thought about this miraculous transformation since then, it has seemed most likely to me that a simple natural object would have no hidden powers that could have enabled me to overcome the vigilance of the seraphim that God had ordered to guard this paradise. But since God likes to work by indirection, I thought he had used the apple to let me know how to enter Paradise. He did much the same in using Adam’s ribs to make him a wife, although he could just as well have made her out of dirt, too.”

SETI has succeeded! After years spent learning the space aliens’ language, you lead a diplomatic mission to their planet to make first contact. The aliens turn out to be surprisingly like humans, and they seem to enjoy volunteering information.

However, you soon realize that the aliens also like nothing better than putting you on. Do you call their bluff? No, you call for Cyrano. He goes with the flow and a good time is had by all. Just one word of caution, though: remember that you, not Cyrano, are in charge of the delegation. Keep an eye on him. If he begins to enjoy himself too much, things will quickly get out of hand.

So far, Cyrano has been the epitome of politeness: if Elijah wants to tell tall tales, Cyrano is only too happy to oblige, even if it means mischievously disconcerting a gentleman isolated for centuries without female company. Be that as it may, Elijah, ever the methodical engineer, seems to share Cyrano’s analytical bent; he has his own ideas as well as some questions about the magical fruit, the creation of Eve, and the role played by chance in his arrival in Paradise.

Gallic humour is exemplified in the medieval fabliaux, which are mostly elaborate off-color jokes. Boccaccio adapts a number of them in his Decameron, but they are seldom included on university reading lists, out of consideration for young ladies in the class. Rabelais, who compiled a virtual encyclopedia of popular lore from the late Middle Ages, depicts young Gargantua as wallowing in medieval crass and ignorance until he is given a Humanist for a tutor. Gargantua promptly cleans up his act and becomes a proper Renaissance nobleman. Cyrano is living in a post-Renaissance era.