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Savien Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655)


French soldier, satirist, and dramatist, whose life has been the basis of many romantic but unhistorical legends. The best-known of them is Edmond Rostand's verse drama Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). Bergerac's major works were two posthumously published accounts of fantastic voyages,  Voyage dans la Lune (1657) and L'Histoire comique des États et Empires du Soleil (1662). According to Arhur C. Clarke, Cyrano must be credited both for first applying the rocket to space travel and, for inventing the ramjet. Cyrano wrote:

"I foresaw very well, that the vacuity that would happen in the icosahedron, by reason of the sunbeams, united by the concave glasses, would, to fill up the space, attract a great abundance of air, whereby my box would be carried up; and that proportionable as I mounted, the rushing wind that should force it through the hole, could not rise to the roof, but that furiously penetrating the machine, it must needs force it upon high." (from Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds by Arhur C. Clarke, 2000)

The real Cyrano de Bergerac had very little in common with the hero of the Rostand play. He was born in Sens, south-east of Paris, the son of Abel de Cyrano, a lawyer, and Esperance Bellenger. The name "de Bergerac" derived from a place attached to one of his family's estates. In 1622 Abel de Cyrano moved with his family to Mauvières. His early education Cyrano received from a priest, whom he disliked and repeatedly complained of his situation to his father. He was then sent to the Collège de Beauvais. Its head-master, Jean Grangier, became the model of Cyrano's play The Pedant Outwitted (1654).

In 1637, Cyrano left Beauvais, and turned to a life of drinking, gambling, and duelling. At nineteen he he entered the army, M. de Carbon de Casteljaloux's company, which consisted almost entirely of Gascons. Cyrano's friend Henry Le Bret later wrote that "duels, which at that time seemed the unique and most rapid means of becoming known, in a few days rendered him so famous that the Gascons, who composed nearly whole company, considered him the demon of courage and credited him with as many duels as he had ben with them days." However, he was an individualist and had problems adjusting to discipline – Cyrano was an opponent of the war and death penalty. His humanitarian way of thinking was acknowledged by his contemporaries and the next generations. Le Doyen's portrait of him, made after Heince, shows a sceptically smiling man, with thin moustaches and a large nose. Although he flirted with his cousin Madeleine, he was probably a homosexual.

Cyrano was severely wounded twice, he was shot through the body, and at the siege of Arras in 1640 he was hit in the neck with a sword. Cyrano never fully recovered from this wound. During his convalescence in Paris Cyrano was helped financially by his cousin, Madeleine Robineau, the Baroness de Neuvillette, whom he used as a model for the beautiful Roxane. In the following year Cyrano gave up his military career and started to study under the philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi. Influenced by Gassendi's theories and libertine philosophy, he wrote stories of imaginary journeys to the Moon and Sun, and satirized views, which saw humanity and the Earth as the center of creation. He also mocked Descartes' idea that animals are soulless machines. In his trip to the Moon the narratot takes off from the Earth in an apparatus festooned with firecrackers, and lands on the Tree of Life. The first person he meets is Elias, whom he upsets with his mocking comments about the soul. At the end he is thrown into the sky with an atheist, and lands safely in Italy.

Beginning from Le Ministre d'Etat flambé (1649), signed by D.B., Bergerac wrote several political propaganda pamphlets, which were dicected against Cardinal Jules Mazarin, but he then changed his opinion and defended Mazarin in La Lettre contre Les Frondeurs (1651). Some biographers have claimed that Bergerac was bribed by the Cardinal.

In the 1650s Cyrano de Bergerac published two plays. The subject of La Mort d'Agrippine (1654, The Death of Agrippine) was drawn from the Annals of Tacitus and told of an abortive revolt against the tyrant Tibère, pursud by Agrippine, the widow of Germanicus, and members of the tyrant's own family. The work was suspected of blasphemy for playing on the double meaning of the word l'hostie (a hostage, or victim). According to an anecdote, when one of the characters says, "Frappons, voilà l'hostie," the audiece shouted: "Ah! the rascal! Ah! The atheist! Hear how he speaks of the holy sacrament." From Le Pédant joué (1654) Molière borrowed heavily for his play The Cheats of Chapin.

Cyrano de Bergerac died in Paris on July 28, 1655. The cause of Cyrano's death was banal – according to some sources a piece of plank dropped on his head, but it did not kill him immediately. Most likely he died as a result of a street fight. Cyrano's "secret illness" may have been syphilis. His brother had him confined in a lunatic asylum.

Parts of his major work, L’Autre monde ou les états et empires de la Lune, were published in posthumous versions. Other Worlds continued the Rabelaisian tradition of satire and was based on Lucian's A True Story. Henri Le Bret, the author's friend who was a Jesuit priest, censored its heretical elements. In 1676 Cyrano's collected works appeared, which included a biting poem of Mazarin (1602-61), the famous French cardinal and statesman. Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac describes the adventures of the 17th century nobleman, famous for his large nose and swordsmanship. "'Tis well known, a big nose is indicative / Of a soul affable, and kind, and courteous, / Liberal, brave, just like myself, and such / As you can never dare to dream yourself..." Cyrano desperately loves the beautiful Roxane, but agrees to help his rival, Christian, win her heart. The historians have pointed out that Rostand's portrayal of the hero was not truthful – Cyrano was a serious writer of philosophical romances and a virile lover.

It is assumed, that the third volume in Cyrano Bergerac's series Histoire comique is lost or has been destroyed. The first two parts were Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon and Comical History of the States and Empires of the Sun. Together known as L'autre monde, the books belong in the genre 'fantastic voyages', of which the oldest examples are the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, from the third millenium BC, and Homer's Odyssey, from the first. Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1643), Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), and Tommasso Campanella's City of the Sun were written in the 17th century. Bergerac introduced seven ways to leave the Earth. One uses a sealed unit that draws in air, which is heated by mirrors and then expelled at the base; this was perhaps the first depiction of the ramjet principle, which was invented by René Lorin in 1913.

Cyrano's imaginary visits to the moon and sun satirized the people and politics of his own day. Cyrano is escorted on the Moon by the Demon of Socrates, who says: "If there is something you men cannot understand, you either imagine that it is spiritual or that it does not exists. Both conclusions are quite false. The proof of this is the fact that there are perhaps a million things in the universe which you would need a million quite different organs to know. Myself, for example, I know from my senses what attracts the lodestone to the pole, how the tides pull the sea, what becomes of an animal after its death." (from Trillion Years Spree by Brian Aldiss & David Wingrove, 2001)

In the second book he lands on the Sun, managing to invent an explanation why the heat doesn't burn. He meets Campanella, author of Civitas Solis, to whom a woman tells that her husband has killed her child twice. He has not fulfilled his conjugal duty, because by refusing to make the child "come into existence, he caused him not to be, which was the first murder, but subsequently he caused him never to be able to be, which was the second. A Common murderer knows that the man whose days he cuts short is no more, but none of them could cause a man never to have been." Cyrano's works influenced several later writers, among them Jonathan Swift and Voltaire, whose fantastical Micromégas: Histoire philosophique (1752) satirized our world from the viewpoint of giant visitors from space.

For further reading: Cyrano: The Life and Legend of Cyrano de Bergerac by Ishbel Addyman (2008); The Lost Sonnets of Cyrano de Bergerac: A Poetic Fiction by James L. Carcioppolo (1998); The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nichols (1993); Cyrano relu et corrigé: lettres, "Estats du soleil", "Fragment de physique" by Madeleine Alcover (1990); Cyrano de Bergerac: historiens, legendens og Rostands Cyrano de Bergerac: en biografi by Peter Jerndorff-Jessen (1984); Cyrano de Bergerac: un model al barocului by Dolores Toma (1982); Cyrano de Bergerac and the polemics of modernity by Erica Harth (1970); Le patrimoine de Cyrano de Bergerac by J. Lemoine (1911); La vie et les oeuvres de Cyrano de Bergerac by P. Brun (1909); Cyrano de Bergerac: Sein Leben und seine Werke by H. Dübi (1906), Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand (performed in 1897, pub. 1898, translated by Brian Hooker in 1923 in blank verse and Anthony Burgess in 1985); Iter Lunare: Or A Voyage to the Moon by David Russen (1703). Note: ""What the deuce did he want on board a Turk's galley. A Turk!" from Le Pédant Joué by Cyrano de Bergerac (1645); "What the devil was he doing in that galley? from Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière (1671): "The saying on Molière came into his head: "But what the devil was he doing in that galley?" and he laughed at himself." from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoi (1865-1872); "What the devil do you do in that gallert there!" from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

Selected works:

  • Le Ministre d'Etat flambé, 1649
  • Remonstrances des Trois Estats à la Reine Régente, 1649
  • La Lettre contre Les Frondeurs, 1651
  • La Mort d'Agrippine, 1654
  • Le Pédant joué, 1654 (Molieré  based two scenes of Les Fourberies de Scapin on this play)
  • L'autre monde ou Les états et empires de la lune, 1657
    - Selenarchia: The Government of the World in the Moon (tr. Tho. St. Serf, 1659) / The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (tr. A. Lovell, 1687) / A Voyage to the Moon (tr. 1899) / Voyages to the Moon and the Sun (tr. Richard Aldington, 1923)
  • L'Histoire comique des États et Empires du Soleil, 1662
    - The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (tr. A. Lovell, 1687) / Voyages to the Moon and the Sun (tr. Richard Aldington, 1923) / Other Worlds: The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Sun (tr. Geoffrey Strachan, 1965)
  • Les Œuvres de monsieur de Cyrano Bergerac, 1709 (2 vols.)
  • Œuvres comiques, galantes et littéraires, 1858 (edited by P. L. Jacob)
  • Satyrical Characters and Handsome Descriptions in Letters, 1914 (tr. from the French, with an introduction by Benjamin Parsons Bourland)
  • Les Œuvres libertines de Cyrano de Bergerac, 1921 (2 vols.)
  • Lettres d'amour et Lettres satiriques, 1932 (precafe by Henry Frichet)
  • Œuvres diverses, 1933 (edited by Frédéric Lachèvre)
  • Œuvres, 1957
  • L'autre monde. Les états et empires de la lune, 1967 (illustrated by  Edmond Corcos)
  • Voyages fantastiques, 1967 (illustrated by  Bernard Buffet)
  • Voyage dans la Lune, 1970 (introduction by Maurice Laugaa)
    - Matka kuuhun (suom. Aarno Saleva, 2008)
  • Cyrano de Bergerac, 1972 (edited by Suzanne Rossat-Mignod)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1977 (edited by acques Prévot) 
  • La mort d’Agrippine, 1982  (edited by C.J. Gossip)
  • Lettres satiriques et amoureuses; précédées de Lettres diverses, 1999 (edited by Jean-Charles Darmon and Alain Mothu)
  • Œuvres complètes, 2001 (3 vols., edited by  Madeleine Alcover, Luciano Erba, André Blanc)

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