26: A Little Existential Anguish Before Dinner?

Cyrano’s guide and démon or “familiar spirit” has ably served him as defense counsel. Cyrano has gotten off lightly with a public recantation of his claim that he comes from the moon, i.e. the Earth. Now Cyrano and his friend repair to the Sun-being’s dwelling for dinner. And no French dinner is complete without a good philosophical discussion. Only, the apéritif will prove to be very strong drink indeed...

Just as I was finishing my expressions of gratitude we entered the house where my guardian had his lodgings. While we waited for dinner, he told me of the stratagems he had used on my behalf: despite the specious scruples the priests had foisted on the public conscience he had maneuvered the clergy into letting the people hear my case.

The season was cold, and we were sitting in front of a fire. He was going to tell me, I think, what he had been doing when I was unable to see him, but then dinner was announced.

He continued, “I have invited two teachers from the local school to have dinner with us. I will trip them up on the philosophy they teach here; and, as you will see, I will do the same with the son of our host. He is as intelligent a young man as I have ever met. He would be another Socrates if he could only discipline his knowledge and not stifle with vice the advantages that God continually bestows on him. And if he ceased to affect an ostentatious impiety. I have taken up lodging here to seek out opportunities to educate him.”

He stopped talking as though to leave me free to speak. Then he gestured that I be disrobed of the shameful ornaments with which I was still brilliantly decorated.

The two teachers we were expecting entered almost immediately. The four of us were in a dining room, where we found the young man my guide had mentioned; he was already eating. They paid him great reverence and treated him with the respect a slave shows to a great lord. I asked my familiar spirit why they did that. He answered that it was due to his age: in that world, elders honor and defer to the young. Moreover, fathers obey their children as soon as the Senate of philosophers determines that the children have reached the age of reason.

“Are you astonished,” he asked, “at a custom so contrary to that of your country? And yet it does not fly in the face of sound logic. In good conscience, tell me: when a young and vigorous man has the capacity of imagination, judgment and action, is he not more capable of governing a family than an enfeebled sixty-year old? A weak-minded man whose imagination has been frozen by the snows of sixty winters? One whose mind is guided by the example of success when Fortune brought him that success against all the rules and economy of human prudence?

“As for sound judgment he has very little, even though popular wisdom makes it an attribute of old age. To know the truth he would have to realize that what is called prudence in an old man is only panicky apprehension, an obsessive fear of undertaking anything new. Thus, my son, when he has not risked a danger in which a young man has been lost, he has done so not because he foresaw the catastrophe but because he did not have enough strength to ignite the noble drive that makes us dare to act. The young man’s boldness was the price of success, because the enthusiasm that makes for quickness and ease of accomplishment was what incited him to action.

“As for putting plans into practice, I would do no justice to your intelligence by trying to convince you; you know that youth alone is fit for action. And if you are not completely convinced, please tell me: when you respect a courageous young man, do you not do so because he can take vengeance on your enemies or your oppressors? Why, then, do you still show him consideration unless it is out of habit, when a battalion of seventy Januaries has turned his blood to ice and frozen to death all the noble enthusiasm that warms young people to justice?

“When you defer to a strong man, do you not do so in order that he may owe you a victory you cannot contest? Why submit to one in whom disuse has softened the muscles, hardened the arteries, weakened the mind and sucked the marrow from his bones?! If you loved a woman, would you not do so because of her beauty? Why then continue to bend the knee to age after it has become a specter of death to frighten the living?

“When you honor an intelligent man, you do so because the quickness of his mind has enabled him to disentangle a complicated matter, to sway by his eloquence a group of people of the highest caliber, to assimilate knowledge in a single thought, and to provide a model that an intelligent person would most want to emulate. And yet you continue to pay him homage when his worn-out organs make his head imbecilic and heavy and when his company is so silent that he resembles the statue of a household god more than a man capable of reason.

“Therefore conclude, my son, that families are better governed by young people than by old men. It would be very weak of you indeed to think that Hercules, Achilles, Epaminondas, Alexander and Caesar, who all died before the age of forty, were men who deserved only common respect and that you owe high praise to a blithering old man because the sun has shone upon his harvest ninety times.

“But, do you say, all the laws of our world carefully extol the respect due to old men? That is true, but those who made those laws were all old men who feared that the young might justly dispossess them of the authority they had extorted. Like the legislators of false religions, they have made a mystery of something they could not prove.

“Yes, you may say, but that old man is my father, and Heaven promises me a long life if I honor him. I will grant you that, my son, if your father tells you to do nothing contrary to the inspirations of the Most High. Otherwise, trample with rage on the belly of the father who begat you and the breast of the mother who conceived you; do you imagine that the cowardly respect that vicious parents have ripped from your weakness is so pleasing to Heaven that it will thereby lengthen your years? I don’t think so.

Do you really think that doffing your hat to encourage the false pride of your father will pierce an abscess in your side, or will repair your blood, or will cure a sword wound to your stomach, or will break up a kidney stone in your bladder? If so, then doctors are sadly mistaken: instead of the infernal potions with which they plague the lives of men, they should prescribe for smallpox three reverences on an empty stomach, four ‘Many thanks’ after dinner, and twelve ‘Good night, father and mother’ before bed.

“You will answer me that without them you would not exist. That is true, but also your father would not have existed without your grandfather, nor your grandfather without your great-grandfather; and without you, your father would have no grandsons. When nature gave him birth, it did so on the condition that he repay the loan. Thus, when he fathered you, he gave you nothing; he was paying a debt!

And I would really like to know whether your parents were thinking of you when they conceived you. Alas, not at all! And yet you think you are indebted to them for a present they gave you without a thought. Come, now: your father was so horny he could not resist the beautiful eyes of some woman; he entered into the bargain to slake his passion; and you were the construction that resulted from their roll in the hay. And for that you will treat this voluptuary like one of the seven sages of Greece!

“Just because a miser bought the his wife’s wealth with a child, must the child speak to him only on his knees? Your father did well by getting a woman into bed, and another man did well by being stingy; otherwise neither you nor he would have ever existed. I have to wonder: if he had been sure he could shoot a rat with his pistol, would he not have done so? Good Lord, how people get led down the garden path in your world!

“You speak, my son, only of your mortal architecture. Your soul comes from Heaven, and it might have been sheathed in another scabbard. Your father might have been born your son just as you were born his. How do you know he didn’t prevent you from inheriting a crown? Your consciousness may have come from Heaven for the express purpose of animating the king of the Romans in the womb of the Empress. On the way, it encountered your embryo by chance, and it took up lodging there to shorten the trip.

“No, no, God would not have crossed you off his list if your father had died as a child. But who knows if you might not be the work of some valiant captain today, one who would have associated you with his glory as well as with his wealth. Thus, perhaps, you are no more indebted to your father for the life he gave you than you would have been to a pirate who would have put you in chains, because he, too, would feed you. Or he might have made you be born a king. A present loses its value when it is given without the choice of the person who receives it.

“Caesar was given death, and so was Cassius. However, Cassius was indebted to the slave who gave it to him, while Caesar owed nothing to his murderers, because they forced him to take it. Did your father consult you when he embraced your mother? Did he ask whether you would like to be born in this century or whether you would prefer to wait for another? Whether you would be satisfied with being the son of a fool or whether you would have the ambition to come from a good man? Alas, you alone were concerned, and you were the only one whose opinion was not considered!

“Perhaps, then, if you had been enclosed elsewhere than in the matrix of nature’s ideas, and if your birth had been at your option, you would have said to the Parca, ‘My dear young lady, take someone else’s thread. I have been here in nothingness for a long time, and I would prefer to remain here and not be for another hundred years rather than be today and repent of it tomorrow.’ However, you have had to take what you were given. It would have done you no good to clamor to return to the long, dark home from which you had been torn; people would have thought you were crying to suckle at your mother’s breast.

“Those, my son, are more or less the reasons for which fathers give respect to their children. I realize that I have dwelt on the children’s viewpoint more than justice requires, and I have spoken in their favor somewhat against my conscience. But I wanted to correct the insolent vanity with which fathers brave the weakness of their children, and I have been obliged to do like those who wish to straighten a bent tree: they bend it back the other way, so that it grows upright between the two contortions. That is why I have made fathers give back the tyrannical deference they had usurped and have taken from them a lot that belonged to them. In that way they may at last be content with what is theirs.

“I realize that my statements have shocked all old men. But they must remember that they were sons before they became fathers. I could not possibly have failed to speak strongly to their advantage, since they were not found under a head of cabbage. Anyway, whatever may happen, even if my enemies take up arms against my friends, I will not lose, because I have served all men and disserved only half of them.”

The Sun-being’s conclusion may seem like backtracking, but he has to add his disclaimer in order to make his thesis general rather than partial. Fairness requires him to admit that no one — neither parents nor children — is “consulted” about the accident of birth and existence.

And yet the Sun-being’s tirade is extraordinarily forceful and has disconcertingly personal overtones. Cyrano’s friend, Henry Le Bret, noted that Cyrano’s father, Abel de Cyrano, was an elderly nobleman and something of a tightwad who was “quite indifferent to his children’s education.” Cyrano was no model son: his family history and literary works show that he “never had any respect for paternal authority and treated his father rather shabbily.”1

Appeals to nobility occur frequently in this episode. A close reading will show that they concern nobility of character — especially the qualities of energy and initiative — rather than social class. Inadvertently or consciously, Cyrano is making a strong argument for égalité. A century and a half later, it will become one of the mottoes of the French Revolution, and Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité will be formally adopted as one of the “principles of the Republic” in the constitution of 1848.

Kierkegaard’s question “Why was I not consulted?” is justly famous, but he obviously did not originate it. Two and a half centuries earlier, Cyrano poses the same question, and very colorfully. And he was far from being alone:

Pourquoi ma connaissance est-elle bornée, ma taille, ma durée à 100 ans plutôt qu’à 1000 ? Quelle raison a eu la nature de me la donner telle et de choisir ce milieu plutôt qu’un autre dans l’infinité, desquels il n’y a pas plus de raison de choisir l’un que l’autre...? — Pascal, Pensées (1670)

Why is my knowledge limited, and my height, and my life to 100 years rather than 1000? What reason did nature have to make me thus and to choose this place rather than another in infinity, when there is no reason to choose one rather than another...?

Pascal is talking to his free-thinking friends, such as Cyrano de Bergerac. They will go their separate ways: Cyrano the way of reason; Pascal, the way of faith. But both remain with us: the modern philosophy of existentialism finds its roots securely in place in mid-17th century France.