34: Talking Books and Dying

The young Moon-being has finished his symposium on atomic theory and sensation, and the company has trundled off to bed. One nice thing about the Moon: the accommodations are first-class, and Cyrano has a good night’s sleep. What will the morning bring? Futuristic gifts. And funerals of a kind to puzzle, charm and shock unsuspecting Earthlings...

This time, the physiognomist put me in a bedroom with violets and lilies and had me given the usual massage to put me to sleep. The next morning at about 9 o’clock I saw my familiar spirit come in. He told me he had come from the palace, where , one of the Queen’s daughters, had sent for him. She had asked about me and said she was still trying to keep her promise, namely that she would willingly follow me if I wanted to take her with me to the other world.

“What really pleased me,” he continued, “was learning that the main purpose of her trip is to become a Christian. I therefore promised I would help her in her plans as much as I could and that I would invent a machine for that purpose, one that would hold three or four people; the two of you could get into it together. I will start to work seriously on that project today. For your enjoyment during my absence I’ll leave you a book. I brought it with me from my native country. It is titled The Society and Government of the Sun.

“I’ll give you another I like much better: Le Grand Œuvre des philosophes, written by one of the foremost scholars of the Sun. In it he proves that all things are true and tells how to unite physically the truths of every contradiction; for example, that white is black and black is white; how one can be and not be at the same time; how there can be a mountain without a valley; that nothingness is something; and that all things that are, are not. But notice that he proves these astonishing paradoxes with no captious reasoning or sophistry.

“When you tire of reading, you can take a walk, or you can converse with our young host, your companion. His mind is quite charming. What I don’t like about him is that he is impious. But if he happens to scandalize you or shake your faith by his arguments, come and tell me right away; I’ll solve the problems for you. Somebody else might tell you to stop talking to him when he wants to philosophize on such matters; but he’s extremely vain, and I’m sure he would take any withdrawal as an admission of defeat and assume that your belief is contrary to reason if you refuse to listen to him. Give thought to life and liberty.”

With that word he made his departure. That is the expression used in that country when one takes leave of someone, as the greeting Bonjour or Monsieur, votre serviteur is expressed by this compliment: “Be my beloved friend, wise one, for I am yours.”

Hardly had he left than I began to look closely at my books. The boxes — that is, their covers — seemed admirably rich. One was cut from a single diamond, incomparably more brilliant than ours. The other looked like a huge pearl cut in two. My familiar spirit had translated the books into the language of that country. Since I haven’t yet talked about the written language, I’ll tell how these two books were made.

When I opened a box, I found inside something made of metal, somewhat like our clocks, full of an endless number of little springs and tiny machines. It was indeed a book, but it was a miraculous one that had no pages or printed letters. It was a book to be read not with eyes but with ears. When anyone wants to read, he winds up the machine with a large number of keys of all kinds. Then he turns the indicator to the chapter he wants to listen to. As though from the mouth of a person or a musical instrument come all the distinct and different sounds that the upper-class Moon-beings use in their language.

When I thought about this marvelous way of making books, I was no longer surprised that the young people of that country know more at the age of sixteen or eighteen than the greybeards of our world. They can read as soon as they can talk and are never at a loss for reading material. In their rooms, on walks, in town, during voyages, on foot or on horseback, they can have thirty books in their pockets or hanging on the pommels of their saddles. They need only wind a spring to hear one or more chapters or a whole book, if they wish. Thus you always have with you all the great men, both living and dead, who speak to you in their own voices.

The gifts occupied me for more than an hour. Finally I attached the books to my ears as pendants and went for a walk in town. I had not walked the length of the street that ended opposite our house when I saw at the other end of it a rather large crowd of sad-looking people.

Four of them were carrying on their shoulders a kind of coffin draped in black. I asked an onlooker the meaning of this cortege, so like a funeral procession in my country. He told me that it was the evil , whom the people named by a flick of the finger on the right knee. He had been convicted of envy and ingratitude and had died yesterday. More than twenty years ago, the parliament had sentenced him to die a natural death in bed and then to be buried. I laughed at his answer, and he asked me why.

“You amaze me,” I said. “A long life, a peaceful death and a stately burial are a mark of benediction in my world, but here they serve as an exemplary punishment.”

“What?” he exclaimed. “You take this coffin for a mark of benediction!? By whatever you believe in, can you conceive of anything more awful than a cadaver crawling with worms or at the mercy of toads chewing on its face; in a word, a plague dressed in human form? Good God, I have trouble breathing at the thought — even if I were dead — of having my face covered with a cloth and a shovelful of dirt thrown over my mouth.

“The miserable person you see being carried away suffers the indignity of being tossed into a grave. Further, he is sentenced to be accompanied by a cortege of a hundred and fifty of his friends. As punishment for having been the friend of an envious and ungrateful person, they are ordered to appear at his funeral with a sad face. And unless the judges have extended mercy for the crimes on grounds of mental deficiency, they are ordered to weep.

“Except for criminals, everyone is cremated. This is a very decent and reasonable custom, because we believe that fire separates the pure from the impure by its transforming heat. The soul's natural heat is given the force to rise to a heavenly body where the people are less material and more intellectual than we. Their temperament must correspond to and participate in the purity of the world they inhabit. Their radical flame is adjusted by the effect of the elements of that world and becomes one of the citizens of that country of flame.

“And yet even that is not our finest means of burial. When one of our philosophers reaches an age when he feels his mind weakening and the ice of years stiffening the movements of his soul, he summons his friends to a sumptuous banquet. He tells them why he has decided to take leave of nature and how little hope he has of adding anything to his accomplishments. He is either given grace — that is, he is ordered to die — or he is given a stern command to live. If a majority votes to let him take his life into his own hands, he notifies his closest friends of the day and time.

“His friends purify themselves and abstain from eating for twenty-four hours. When they arrive at the lodgings of the wise one, they make a sacrifice to the Sun and enter the room where this noble man awaits them on a ceremonial bed. His friends embrace him by turns and in order of rank. When he comes to the one he loves best, he kisses him tenderly; his friend lies on his stomach and they join mouths. With his right hand, which he keeps free, he plunges a dagger into his own heart.

“The friend does not detach his lips from those of his beloved until he feels them expire. Then he withdraws the dagger from his friend’s breast and covers the wound with his mouth. He drinks his friend’s blood and sucks until he can drink no more. Someone else immediately succeeds him and is taken to the bed. When the second has drunk his fill, he is led away to lie down and a third takes his place.

“Finally, the whole assembly is satiated. Four or five hours later, each of them is provided with a girl sixteen or seventeen years old. For three or four days they taste the delights of love. During that time, they are nourished only by the flesh of the deceased, which they eat raw. Thus, if something is born of these embraces, they have a kind of assurance that their friend lives again.”

I did not waste any more patience in listening further to this man. I turned away and continued my outing, and left him standing there.

Cyrano doesn’t explain how the talking books are recorded, but that’s relatively unimportant; the idea itself is a radical innovation: he invents not only the concept of the phonograph but the equivalent of the portable cassette player. The jump from ear pendants to earphones is a short one. And the fact that the devices might operate more efficiently by electricity than mechanically, by springs, is a detail that Cyrano can safely leave to us.

The description of funeral customs is by turns perplexing, pretty and repugnant.

  • It is odd that the “evil” deceased is a pariah and yet seems to have a lot of friends. And offenses that Earthlings would consider unfortunate but relatively minor — envy and ingratitude — are major crimes on the Moon.
  • The fire of cremation, which wafts souls to a world populated by energy-beings could serve as an inspiration for painting, poetry and music. The idea has to be classified as semi-mystical, because Heaven is apparently on another planet or, possibly, a star rather than in a supernatural realm.
  • A ritual suicide followed by a kind of necrophilic cannibalism and an orgy is a particularly gross form of materialism. It doesn’t take a very close reading to see it as a savage parody of the Eucharist: the body and blood of the deceased are literally consumed by his friends. They then attempt to have their friend live again by engaging in a spree of procreation, an echo of an ancient canard accusing early Christians of sexual license.

All three funeral rites have two main things in common:

  1. The form of death is determined not personally but socially, by a legal decision or by friends’ taking a vote. In some cases, the mourners’ demeanor may even be regulated by court order; in others, the mourners observe a strict protocol of behavior.
  2. Death is not a thing in itself; the Moon-beings think of it invariably in terms of life and the material world. In the case of inhumation, the corpse is depicted as though it were being buried alive. In cremation, the soul is conceived of as a state of matter transformed by heat. After a ritual suicide, the corpse is treated as food.

After the description of cremation, his character turns away in impatience from the description of ritual cannibalism. Cyrano the author does not tell us directly what his preference is; he leaves it up to the reader to choose for himself. However, the discussion will be continued in a comic vein in episode 36.