27: Birds and Bees; Mushrooms and Crocodiles

What are the three things our grandmothers told us are not polite to discuss at the dinner table? Religion, politics, and... something else. I think we are about to find out what it is. Anyway, that advice applies only to English-speaking people; in France, those topics are the appetizers.

With those words he fell silent, and our host began to speak: “Since you have taken care to inform me of the origin, history, customs and philosophy of the world this little man comes from, permit me to add something to what you have said. I will show that children are not obligated to their fathers for being born, because their fathers were obliged in good conscience to beget them.

“The strictest philosophy in their world holds that it is more desirable to die than not to exist, because one must live in order to be able to die. If I do not create being out of nothingness, I put that being in a position worse than death. I am guiltier if I do not reproduce than if I kill. You would think, little man, that you would commit an unforgivable crime if you murdered your son. Indeed, it would be an enormity. However, it is far more execrable not to give being to whoever can receive it. The child you have slain would at least have had the satisfaction of living for a while. Also, we know that he is deprived of life for only a few centuries. But what of the forty poor little nothingnesses that might have made forty good soldiers for your king? You evilly prevent them from seeing the light of day and leave them to rot in your loins until you are felled by a stroke.

“Let no one extol virginity; that honor is so much smoke. Even in your world, all the respect with which virginity is idolized is nothing but advice; but not to kill, and not to refrain from having a son — which, if you did, would leave him worse than dead — is a commandment.

“In the world you come from, continence is considered so preferable to procreation that I am very surprised that God does not have you born with the morning dew of May, like mushrooms, or at the very least like crocodiles in mud warmed by the sun. And yet He sends eunuchs into your world only by accident; He does not remove the genitals from your monks, priests and cardinals. You will tell me that nature provided them. True, but God is the master of nature, and if He had admitted that those parts were harmful to salvation, He would have recommended that they be cut off, like the foreskin according to the Jews’ ancient law.

“But those ideas are quite ridiculous. According to your religion, is any part of the body more sacred or unholy than another? Why will I commit a sin if I touch myself on the part in the middle and not when I touch my ear or heel? Because it tickles? Then I should not defecate into a pot, because that can’t be done without some sort of sensual pleasure. Nor should mystics elevate themselves to the contemplation of God, because they enjoy a great pleasure of imagination. I am indeed astounded at how much the religion of your country is against nature and is jealous of all the pleasures of men. I am surprised that your priests haven’t made it a crime to scratch oneself, because one feels a pleasurable pain.

“And yet I have noticed that far-seeing Nature has made all great, brave and intelligent people favor the delicacies of love: witness Samson, David, Hercules, Caesar, Hannibal and Charlemagne. Did Nature do so in order that they might harvest the organ of that pleasure with a sickle? Alas, Nature even went under a washtub to debauch Diogenes, who was thin, ugly and flea-bitten, and make him compose sighs to Lais with the breath he blew upon carrots. No doubt Nature did so because it was concerned lest there be a shortage of honorable people in the world. We may thus conclude that your father was obliged in good conscience to release you to life. And even if he thought he was doing you a great favor by pleasuring himself, he was basically doing you the only favor that a common bull gives to calves when he has his fun ten times a day.”

My familiar spirit interrupted: “You are wrong to try to dictate the wisdom of God. He has truly forbidden us excess in this pleasure, but how do you know He hasn’t done so in order that the difficulties we experience in struggling with this passion will earn us the glory He prepares for us? How do you know the prohibition is not intended to sharpen the appetite? How do you know He did not foresee that abandoning young people to carnal impulses and making intercourse too frequent would weaken their sexuality and bring about the end of mankind with the grandnephews of the first man? How do you know He did not want to prevent the fertility of the earth from failing to meet the need of so many hungry mouths? And how do you know He did not wish to make it, against all appearance of reason, a just reward for those who, against all appearance of reason, have trusted in His word?”

I don’t think this answer satisfied our host’s son, because he shook his head two or three times. But our mutual instructor fell silent because dinner was impatient to take to the air.

Between being and nothingness, not to mention unbridled procreation and castration, who’s in any mood for dinner? The religious issues of chastity and clerical celibacy, as well as the consequences of procreation and the avoidance of contraception, are well known and are debated even today more than three and half centuries after Cyrano raised them so forcefully. The interest of this episode is primarily in Cyrano’s depicting a verbal duel worthy of his reputation as a swordsman.

The reader will have noticed that the discussion is singularly one-sided. Only one woman — Lais — figures in it, and then only indirectly. As in her own day, her opinion counts only because she was so exceptional.

If Cyrano and Jean-Paul Sartre could have met at the Café de Flore, what would they have talked about? No doubt about it: the purpose of philosophy. Like the Renaissance Humanists and philosophers before them since time immemorial, Cyrano appeals to Nature and implicitly asks What is natural to man? What is human nature? Sartre would tell him that there is none. His motto for man is Faire, et en faisant se faire, et n’être rien que ce qu’il s’est fait — Act, and in acting, create yourself, and be nothing but what you have made of yourself.1 Cyrano’s imagination would leap across the years: he would want to know how Sartre came to that conclusion, and he would be intrigued by the logic.