14: A Monkey and a Grey Eminence

Cyrano incurred the wrath of Elijah and was being expelled from the Garden of Eden just as he managed to take a bite of an apple of knowledge. Or ignorance. Or, as he says, more likely both at once. Paradise suddenly disappears along with its rather odd Biblical characters. Now Cyrano meets some real space aliens, only, they seem strangely familiar...

One of the beast-men picked me up by the neck, just as wolves carry their pups. He tossed me onto his back and took me to their city. I was very surprised, once I realized that they were really men, that all of them walked on all fours.

When the people saw me go by and saw how small I was — most of them were 12 cubits in height — and that I stood on only two legs, they couldn’t believe I was a man. They held, among other things, that nature had given man two legs and two arms and that man ought to use them in the same way as animals. Thinking about it afterwards, I’ve found their conception of the body not too outlandish, especially considering that our children walk on all fours when they have as yet no learning but that of nature. They rise up on two legs only when their governesses put them in baby walkers and attach leashes to them to prevent them from reverting to four limbs, which is the most restful position for our body.

As I was later able to determine, they said I must surely be the female of the Queen’s pet animal. In that or some other capacity I was led to the city hall. I saw by the noises and postures of both the people and the magistrates that they were debating among themselves what I might be. After they had conferred for a long time, a citizen in charge of guarding rare animals asked the aldermen to lend me to him until the Queen sent me to live with my male counterpart.

That was no problem. The animal-tamer took me home with him. He taught me how to act like an organ-grinder’s monkey, do tumbling tricks and make faces. He collected money at the door when I provided after-dinner entertainment. Finally, heaven yielded to my misfortune and was angry to see its master’s temple profaned. It willed one day, when I was jumping at the end of a busker’s rope to entertain gawkers, that an onlooker gazed at me very attentively and then asked me who I was — in Greek. I was very surprised to hear someone speaking as people do in our world. He asked me questions for a while. I answered and told him generally about my undertaking and what had happened during my journey.

He consoled me, and I remember what he said: “Well, my son, you are now bearing the punishment for the shortcomings of your world. Here, as in your world, there are benighted people who cannot tolerate thinking about things they are not accustomed to. But you realize that you are being treated here the same as there. If someone from this world came to yours with the audacity to call himself a man, your learned men would stifle him for being a monster or a monkey possessed by the Devil.”

He promised me he would tell the court about my disaster. He added that as soon as he had seen me, he had realized I was a man, because he had once travelled to the world I came from. He said my country was the moon; I was from Gaul; he had once stayed in Greece; he was known as the spirit of Socrates; after that philosopher’s death he had been the tutor of Epaminondas, in Thebes; he had then gone to Rome, where justice had aligned him with the party of Cato the Younger and, after his death, with Brutus. All these great personalities had left nothing of themselves to the world but the image of their virtues. With his companions, he retired into the temples or, at times, into the wilderness.

Cyrano’s allusion to children and nature is a minor but almost uncanny foreshadowing of Rousseau’s epoch-making treatise on early childhood education, Emile (1762). However, Cyrano is bringing up a philosophical issue that was of great moment from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment: what is natural to man? More than three centuries later, in our age of genetic engineering, the question seems to have returned with a vengeance.

Cyrano has a knack for meeting influential people: first, Monsieur de Montmagny, governor of New France; then Elijah; and now someone who had visited Earth in ancient times. Both Elijah and Enoch, whom he met in the Garden of Eden — as well as the people Elijah told him about — were all seeking refuge in one way or another. Cyrano’s latest aquaintance seems quite different: he has evidently worked behind the scenes in politics and holds strong democratic and republican sympathies.

Needless to say, science fiction has found a gold mine in the topic of space aliens’ covertly or overtly influencing Earth’s history. As in the case of Cyrano’s latest friend, the results are always somewhat mixed. To take only one example: in the classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) — a Biblical allegory, as it happens — the visitor from space first appears officially but then works in secret after his initial attempt at first contact proves unsuccessful.