35: Dinnertime, on the Nose

Cyrano has been given some portable “talking books,” and he has found out more about the Moon-beings’ funeral customs than he really wanted to know. Now he learns how they can do without clocks; it’s not just a matter of convenience, it’s vital...

Although I made my outing rather short, the time I spent sightseeing and visiting some places in town caused me to return two hours late for dinner. I was asked why I came back so late.

“It’s not my fault,” I told the cook, when he complained. “Several times I asked people on the street what time it was, but they answered me only by opening their mouths, gritting their teeth and twisting their faces all askew.”

“What?” everybody exclaimed. “You didn’t know they were telling you the time?”

“I must admit,” I answered, “they had to show their big noses to the sun a lot before I found out.”

“It’s a convenience that allows them do without a clock,” they told me. “Their teeth make a sundial so accurately that when they want to tell anyone the time, they spread their lips; the shadow of their nose falls on their teeth and tells you what you want to know.

“Now, as for why everyone in this country has a big nose: as soon as a woman gives birth, the midwife takes the baby to the prior of the seminary. When it is a year old, the appraisers meet; if his nose is found to be shorter than a certain prescribed length, he is declared pug-nosed. He is then given over to the priests, who castrate him.

“You may ask the reason for this barbarity; why do we, for whom virginity is a crime, impose it by force? The reason is that we have observed for thirty centuries that a large nose is a sign on the door of our face that says ‘Herein dwells a man who is intelligent, prudent, courteous, affable, noble-minded and generous’. A small nose is a cork on the bottle of the opposite vices. That is why the pug-nosed are made eunuchs; the Republic prefers that they have no children than have any that resemble them.”

As he was speaking I saw a man come in who was completely naked. I sat down and put on my hat immediately to do him honor. Such are the signs of the greatest respect one can show a person in that country.

“The kingdom,” he said, “wants you to notify the magistrates before you depart for your country. A mathematician has just made a proposal to the Council. If you would make a certain machine when you return to your world, one that he will show you how to construct and that corresponds to another that he has completed here, he will draw it to him and bring it to our world.”

After he had gone out, I spoke to my young host: “If you would, tell me the meaning of the bronze figure in the shape of shameful parts hanging from the man’s belt.”

I had seen a number of them at court when I was living in a cage, but as I was almost always in the company of the Queen’s daughters, I was afraid I might show disrespect to the women and their social status if I brought up such a gross subject of conversation in their presence.

“Here, neither females nor males are so ungrateful as to blush at the sight of what has given them being; and virgins are not ashamed to like to see us wear the only thing that goes by that name, as a token of mother nature.

“The sash that honors that man carries a medallion in the form of a virile member. It is the sign of a nobleman and distinguishes the noble from the commoner.”

I admit that this paradox seemed so outlandish that I could not keep from laughing at it. “This custom seems quite extraordinary to me,” I said to my young host, “because in our world the mark of nobility is to wear a sword.”

He replied calmly, “O little man, how insane the nobles of your world must be if they pride themselves on a tool used by executioners, one that is made only to destroy and that is, in the end, the sworn enemy of all that lives. And they hide, on the contrary, a part of the body without which we would not exist, one that is the Prometheus of every animal and tirelessly repairs the weaknesses of nature! How unfortunate a country is where the marks of generation are ignominious and those of annihilation are honorable! And you call that member one of the ‘shameful parts’, as though anything were more glorious than to give life and anything more infamous than to take it away.”

The Moon-beings’ customs notwithstanding, virginity has had its uses on Earth:

  • By attributing virgin birth to their leader, a Galilean carpenter, the early Christians effectively usurped the authority of the Roman emperors, who were making exactly the same claims. It is one of the most radical assertions in history of human equality.
  • On the other hand, the cult of the Virgin seems to have had its origin in Muslim Spain: it was a religious reflection of the idealization of Woman — or noblewomen, to be precise — in the courtly ethos of medieval society.
  • The people of the Moon enjoy the opposite of the sexual repression that some of Earth’s societies have inherited from antiquity. Yet the concluding words of Cyrano’s young host seem to be contradicted by the priests’ systematic practice of eugenics, which imposes a singularly drastic form of “virginity.”

One has to wonder how the Moon-beings can tell what time it is when no one else is around to show them. Do they look in a mirror? Somehow it seems much more important to ask: Did Cyrano deliberately imagine the Moon-beings’ physical form as he did in order to emphasize his physical and, implicitly, his intellectual resemblance to them? Or is the battle-hardened swordsman delivering a sharp and thinly veiled warning that he’s heard his face compared to a sundial once too often? Very likely both. Point taken, Cyrano.