Journey to the Moon: Poetry Analysis

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 This article analyzes Journey to the Moon, from Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, covering the circumstances of its publishing, the relationships of the work with other works of the period. The analysis proceeds to understand Journey to the Moon as a work of Science Fiction, as defined by Suvin’s essay, and to perceive the inversion of roles and habits in Cyrano’s moon as means to provide cognitive estrangement, and use that estrangement to shed light on the nature of authoritative relationships in XVII century France.

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Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, better know by Edmond de Rostand’s play at the end of the XIX century and its screen reproduction by Gérard Dépardieu, was one of the most prominent embracers of the growing libertinism present on French literature of the XVII century.

In the preface of Histoire Comique des États et Empires de la Lune, the title under which Journey to the Moon was originally published, Henry Le Bretlebret, who posthumously published Cyrano’s work, presents a short biography of the author, his friend. In it, Le Bret simultaneously idealizes the author as un homme d’esprit très-rare and criticizes his behavior at a young age when he says Cet âge où la nature de corrompt plus aisément, et la grande liberté qu’il avoit de ne faire que ce bon luy sembloit, le proterent sun un dangereux penchant.

Other than that initial and brief biography by Le Bret, Jean Lemoinelemoine and Madeleine Alcoveralcover1970 alcover1990 helped separate Cyrano the character and the real Cyrano. It becomes clear that Cyrano was born in a bourgeois family in Paris, with relatives coming from the Company of the Blessed Sacrament. Cyrano, however, did not cast his path under the noble traditions. Being a duelist, and called by Le Bret ‘Le démon da la Bravour’, Cyrano served the military and fought the Spaniards on the Thirty Years’ War and was blessed several times. His death, however is still an unclear matter. Several hypothesis exist, such as a fever caused by a blow in the head, a fire in a jesuit residence, an attack to the stagecoach he traveled, or even syphilis.

His first published work, a tragedy entitled The Death of Agrippinaaggripine, Cyrano turns his criticism against catholicism. The text questions the existence of miracles, saints and the divinity itself.Cyrano’s works explore the idea of a a single substance that constitutes all matter, the relation between atoms, the movements between astral bodies, heliocentrism, the infinity of the universe, the mortality of the soul, and the idea that human lives are free and should not fear divinity. Cyrano claims libertinism by emphasizing human’s natural freedom.

Cyrano’s libertine works insert themselves in a period of social censorship. Authors at the time dissimulated the then indecent content of their texts by writing them as satires. Even when such censorship was not as strong, creative works approaching matters such as social criticism or sexuality were confined to burlesque realms. Around the half of the century, libertine poetry is slowly replaced by rationalist texts, seeking to understand the inner mechanics of the universe. In that context, Cyrano refuses to accept the status quo.

The plethora of possible interpretations built into reviews of Cyrano’s work develop to accentuate the impact of libertinism among young writers. Cyrano’s libertinism is not concealed to the content of his texts, as much as the broad range of genres with which the author expressed his thoughtsdarmon.Three manuscript editions of Voyage to the Moon where found at this date, none of which thought to be written by Cyrano himself. The three manuscripts, known as Munich, Paris and Sydney, raise several questions as to what Cyrano originally intended to be on the textchartier2008inscription, and what was censored either by Le Bret himself, or before publishing. The Sydney version, containing watermarks that date it from 1646 to 1652, is apparently a copy intended for clandestine circulation among libertine scholars. The Munich version was apparently intended for personal use, given how many errors of transcription there are. Finally, the Paris version seems to have been transcribed for commercial use, given the professional and mechanical fashion with which the text was built. 

The limited number of manuscripts available is a matter of controversy regarding the original circulation of the work, Chartier adviseschartier2008inscription, with some authors concluding that Cyrano’s work was not widely circulated at the time, and others arguing that it is possible that more manuscripts existed and that those were destroyed.

The differences in objective and style of the manuscripts, however, reveal certain demographics of the readers. The Sydney manuscript, for instance, reveals the existence of a group open to Cyrano’s ideas.Besides, the dates on that same manuscript raises the question of why, having published several other works, Cyrano decided not to take Journey to the Moon in the nine years before his death.

Another important aspect about the original publication of Journey to the Moon is the process of its authorship, and the different influences and manipulations the work went through before getting to the press. Le Bret mentions in the prefacelebret that he was given responsibility, by Cyrano, of caring for his work after his death, and therefore Le Bret publishes a posthumous edition in honor of its original author. Le Bret is therefore usually charged with the alterations performed in the text. This process is an example of what was pointed out by Chartierchartier2008inscription, of texts in that period were often distant reproductions of the content originally intended by their authors, and underwent a complex collective editing process, which often involved several players.

In regards to this editorial process, Alcover’s researchalcover1990 shows that the 1657 original edition was probably composed using two manuscripts, namely Paris and Sydney. When compared to those texts, the version that saw the press was suppressed of more than 500 lines – which are attributed to either Le Bret himself or to the publisher, Charles de Sercy, in an effort to make the book more likely to be published uncensored. Such an effort is understandable, given the restrictions imposed in the period, and the fact that the lines that are present in the manuscripts but not in the text are argumentative lines discussing the existence of god, the creation of the universe, the immortality of the soul and other subjects considered immoral.

Besides all the changes, additions and oppressions, Journey to the Moon, in the several different forms it apparently reach the public, is a very unorthodox work. Besides, by recurring to an imagined distant world, Cyrano uses of irony, paradoxes and other figures to explore different ways of bringing his libertine views to the mind of the reader, constantly playing with fiction and reality, imagined and real.

Cyrano’s work in Journey to the Moon is inserted in a specific historic and literary context. In a time between Renaissance and Neoclassicism, the work explores several different aspects that relate to other movements on that time. Cyrano, however, often takes a novel and interesting angle on those trends, which is a matter of fruitful analysis. Specifically, this section focuses on the relationships between Journey to the Moon and the relationship between other travel narratives, the satirical literature of that time, and finally the use of the moon as an object of exploration.

Journey to the Moon, presents several traits similar to other travel narratives arising after the efforts of exploration, the time of Conquistadores and the Age of Discovery, with its voyages across the oceans to lands previously unknown. Similarly to Gabriel Foigny’s La Terre Australe Connuefoigny and Denis Vairasse’s Histoire des Sevarambesvairasse, that hypothesize over the Aristotelian thesis that land should exist in the southern hemisphere to balance the one existing the the northern hemisphere, or Montaigne’s Des Canibalesmontaigne, that uses Brazilian cannibal tribes to relate to European barbarianism, the narrator of Cyrano’s Journey to the Moon describes his contemplations for the desired destination, his attempts to reach it, the obstacles placed before his success, the places and peoples encountered on the way there.

More than a travel narrative, Cyrano constructs, with his imagined moon destination, a utopic travel narrative. Similar to the aforementioned works of Foignyfoigny and Vairassevairasse, and to the concept of novum described by Suvinsuvin, Cyrano’s moon contains several traits of an imagined world and environment, which is different than the reader’s. However, differently than other utopic travel narratives of its time, Journey to the Moon does not attempt to construct a perfect or idealized society.

Cyrano’s moon is not immune from diseases, but the focus of healthcare on the utopic land is on its youth, and on prevention rather than on treatment. Each house on Cyrano’s moon has a person with similar attributions as the ones of an earthly doctor, but his focus is on making sure the hosts eat correctly and sleep well.

The inhabitants of that moon are also not free from death. Its character, however, is perceived very differently there than it is on the author’s environment, creating a clear contrast with the beliefs of French society. Death in Cyrano’s moon is faced naturally and is planned by the citizens considered to have lived a fruitful and honored life. Those citizens are cremated in a ritual that celebrates their lives and intellects, which makes a burial equivalent to the worse punishment imaginable, since the buried body would rot and decompose. For those of notary knowledge or wisdom, a special ritual is planned, where the day and place of death are planned and announce, and the subject’s best friend stabs them in the hearth, and afterwards shares their flesh and blood and sleep with young females, so that the subject’s sprit, with all its wisdom, can remain alive and be reproduced.

Regarding the relationship of Cyrano’s work with satire, and other satirical works of the time, its tile ‘Histoire Comique’, places it in the same realm – even if the title might have been altered by Le Bret or the publishers. Differently than other titles of the genre, such as Théophile de Viau’s Première journée, fragments d’une histoire comiqueviau, Charles Sorel’s La Vraie histoire comique de Francionsorel and Paul Scarron’s Le Roman Comiquescarron, Journey to the Moon develops its narrative with characters situated outside the reader’s usual environment and are not easily accessible in the common mind. As well, it is hard to argue that the narrator description of the events he observes on the moon are typical and familiar to the reader’s daily life. Those aspects being core characteristics of other Histoire Comiques, Cyrano’s work differs fundamentally on it, however maintaining its satirical element.

In what concerns other publications including the moon as its focus and narrative object, it is important to remember that during Cyrano’s life several important pieces about the moon were published, in a movement that created a significant interest around the satellite. 

Similarly as explored by Hendersonhenderson concerning the relation of Wilkins’s works with other titles in the period, and on how they were interpreted differently concerning their approach to science and cognition, Cyrano’s Journey to the Moon is inserted in a specific context regarding how the moon was approached and described, and similarly Cyrano relied on other writers of the time for his own version of the moon.

During Cyrano’s lifetime and around the time Journey to the Moon was published, across the XVII century, the possibility of presence of intelligent life on other planets and astronomical bodies was explored by other authors. For instance, Kepler’s Somnium seu opus posthumum de Astronomia Lunarikepler and Godwin’s The Man in the Moonegodwin were published containing similar themes on their texts, which can be accounted as inspirations and influences on Cyrano’s work.

After Cyrano’s death, the theme continued to be explored in other works, and Cyrano’s own Journey to the Moon was translated to English only two years after its original publication. Other works exploring life in other astronomical bodies include Gassendi’s Syntagma philosophicumgassendi, that explores the likelihood of life in the moon and Fontelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondesfontenelle placing a serious criticism on what is called the anthropocentric madness.

By choosing the moon as destination of the narrator’s utopian travel Cyrano, therefore, inserts Journey to the Moon in an environment of discussion that was relevant and the source of admiration at the time. Even if it is hard to classify Journey to the Moon simply as a utopic travel narrative, given that the work includes several different facets that either confirm or contradict that label, Cyrano’s book impacted the way further discussions about the topic were carried out, specially in what concerns questions about the very essence of human dilemmas.

In order to analyze the specific way Cyrano questioned those human realities and the society they lived in during XVII century France, it is important to introduce the concept of cognitive estrangement, as defined by Suvin. In his essay, Suvinsuvin articulated Science Fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement. He defines a novum, the diametrically opposite construct of an author’s empirical and real environment, constituting a strange and imagined new environment.He then refers the work of Bertolt Brecht to define the concept of estrangement, as an attitude of factually reporting the fiction, as a confronting and new set of rules and norms:

…in the work of Bertolt Brecht, who wanted to write ‘plays for a scientific age.’ While working on a play about the prototypical scientist, Galileo, he defined this attitude (‘Verfremdungseffekt’) in his Short Organon for the Theatre: ‘A representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.’ And further: for somebody to see all normal happenings in a dubious light, ‘he would need to develop that detached eye with which the great Galileo observed a swinging chandelier. He was amazed by that pendulum motion as if he had not expected it and could not understand its occurring, and this enabled him to come at the rules by which it was governed.’ Thus, the look of estrangement is both cognitive and creative; and as Brecht goes on to say, ‘one cannot simply exclaim that such an attitude pertains to science, but not to art. Why should not art, in its own way, try to serve the great social task of mastering Life?’ (Later, Brecht would note that it might be time to stop speaking in terms of masters and servants altogether.)

Then, the author differentiates Science Fiction from other literary genres. The first differentiation is in regards to the use of estrangement. While myths rely on estrangement to convey their arguments and ideas, by portraying its environment in imagined fashion, with traits and characteristics foreign to the reader’s and author’s physical and empirical worlds, they appropriate estrangement in a way that does not rely on the cognitive approach. Myths relay the nature of human relationships and interactions is immobile and well defined, limiting the range of speculation and questioning around those themes. Science Fiction, according to Suvin, relies on the cognitive opposite of that approach, focusing on moving and future possibilities of society, with propositions that would have been structured in myths as simple realities regarded as questionable and as a source of problems and reflection on possible solutions.

Another literary genre relying on estrangement are fantasies, also using imagined and hypothesized worlds as a narrative thread. Fantasies, differently than Science Fiction and myths, cast the reader into a parallel world that lacks the possibility for cognitive exploration of the real one. In Suvin’s own words:The stock folktale accessory, such as the flying carpet, evades the empirical law of physical gravity—as the hero evades social gravity—by imagining its opposite. This wish-fulfilling element is its strength and its weakness, for it never pretends that a carpet could be expected to fly—that a humble third son could be expected to become king—while there is gravity. It simply posits another world beside yours where some carpets do, magically, fly, and some paupers do, magically, become princes, and into which you cross purely by an act of faith and fancy. Anything is possible in a folktale, because a folktale is manifestly impossible.

Given that context, it becomes clear how Cyrano intended to use a novel containing imagined worlds and utopic travels to raise awareness and often criticize themes dear to other readers and philosophers. By contrasting the empirical and imagined versions of different individuals, traditions, objects and the space in which Journey of the Moon takes place, the narrator is allowed to question all that is held as mundane, usual, immutable and normal by creating a new standard for evaluation, a novum, placed in the dynamics of that imagined society. That inversion and the intents of the author by using of such device in order to raise to surface philosophical questions about his real society are in fact mentionedlebret by Le Bret in its preface:

Ne trouve donc point étrange qu’il en use de la sorte; il était trop bon physicien pour ignorer que la joie est presque toujours bonne; et, si tu ne peux souffrir qu’il ne traite pas sérieusement des choses qui semblent sérieuses d’elles mêmes, il y a beaucoup de gens qui n aiment pas ces grandes applications d’esprit, desquels il espère la faveur. Cependant, pour te rendre tout à fait raison de son procédé, je puis encore te dire qu’il a peut être cru qu’un roman serait une façon nouvelle de traiter les grandes choses qui pourrait toucher le goût des esprits du siècle, et qu’il a écrit dans le même sentiment qui fit dire à Lucrèce, pour se défendre d’avoir fait parler la Sagesse en vers que:

Pour ceux qui sont nouveaux dans les doctes matières

Les hauts raisonnements les traités sérieux 

Paraissent bien souvent des discours ennuyeux 

Qui font que le commun fuit ces tristes lumières

Dont l’abord ne produit que de vaines sueurs 

Mais le style enjoué la grâce des neuf Sœurs 

Epand un air divin qui rend tout agréable 

Et rendra mon sujet plus doux et plus traitable…

Journey to the Moon constructs an atmosphere of cognitive estrangement by using a a construct frequently used in Europe during the middle ages, an inverted or upside-down world that inverted the natural order of things, animals, people and society: sky below earth and children spanking their parents. Other writers used of the upside-down world as a feature of style, including Erasmus and Rabelais. However, Cyrano’s version of an upside-down adds depth to the allegory, using it fully as means for cognitive estrangement, and allowing a juxtaposition of social criticism and ludic passages.

Cyrano’s moon is, from its conception, an upside-down world. By creating a place where Moon is Earth and Earth is Moon, Cyrano not only inverses the physical dimensions but more importantly the perceptions in force by society, that at the time assumed humanity to be the center of the universe. The narrator, putting forward a clear taste for reasoning and the use of cognition, criticizes the arrogance prevalent in European society when discussing with the Vice-Roy of New France, questioning the way astronomical bodies move:

‘For my part, I am so far from complying with their Insolence, that I believe the Planets are Worlds about the Sun, and that the fixed Stars are also Suns which have Planets about them, that’s to say, Worlds, which because of their smallness, and that their borrowed light cannot reach us, are not discernable by Men in this World: For in good earnest, how can it be imagined that such spacious Globes are no more but vast Desarts; and that ours, because we live in it, hath been framed for the habitation of a dozen of proud Dandyprats? How, must it be said, because the Sun measures our Days and Years, that it hath only been made to keep us from running our Heads against the Walls? No, no, if that visible Deity shine upon Man, it’s by accident, as the King’s Flamboy by accident lightens a Porter that walks along the Street.’

Cyrano’s moon, however, is not only inhabited but is the host land to Heaven, from where humanity would have come from after Adam and Eve were expelled, forced to live on Earth where they took refuge from the divine ire. Those facts highlight the importance of authority over the inhabitants of the moon, which plays a double role. From one side, the relevance of authority and its presence on the world imagined by Cyrano reinforced the cognitive estrangement line by distancing the work from a fantasy tale and portraying the novum as inverted but still similar to the reader’s own reality. From another side, that passage allows Cyrano to focus his criticism on arrogance an authority.

Following that criticism, the narrator, when talking to the Demon of Socrates following his trial, learns that in Cyrano’s moon the young have authority in their families, as opposed to the elder. With that inversion, Cyrano allows shock to be established in the minds of older readers who benefit from the respect imbued by society to their age:

The Two Professors, whom we expected, entered just as I was undrest, and we went to sit down to Table, where the Cloth was laid, and where we found the Youth he had mentioned to me, fallen to already. They made him a low Reverence, and treated him with as much respect as a Slave does his Lord. I asked my Spirit the reason of that, who made me answer, that it was because of his Age; seeing in that World, the Aged rendered all kind of Respect and Difference to the Young; and which is far more, that the Parents obeyed their Children, so soon as by the Judgment of the Senate of Philosophers they had attained to the Years of Discretion.

The argument, and the shock, are exacerbated by a scene of clear authoritarianism and violence:At these words, the Landlord’s Son called his Father, to know what it was a Clock? who having answered him, that it was past Eight, he asked him in a great Rage, Why he did not give him notice at Seven, according as he had commanded him; that he knew well enough the Houses were to be gone to Morrow; and that the City Walls were already upon their Journey? ‘Son,’ replyed the good Man, ‘since you sate down to Table, there is an Order published, That no House shall budg before next day:’ ‘That’s all one,’ answered the young Man; ‘you ought blindly to obey, not to examine my Orders, and only remember what I commanded you. Quick, go fetch me your Effigies:’ So soon as it was brought, he took hold on’t by the Arm, and Whipt it a whole quarter of an Hour: ‘Away you ne’er be good,’ continued he; ‘as a Punishment for your disobedience, it’s my Will and Pleasure, that this day you serve for a Laughing-stock to all People; and therefore I command you, not to walk but upon two Legs, till Night.’ The Poor Man went out in a very mournful Condition, and the Young man excused to us his Passion.

By deconstructing the authoritative relationship between father and son, Cyrano employs cognitive estrangement to question the arbitrary power given to parents in the real society. By creating a feeling of shock on the reader, Cyrano allows them to think about that relationship from different lenses, not to argue that the power belonged to the father, but to question the very authoritative nature of that relationship. 

Cyrano’s inversions often show that, besides changes in the natural order, the results do not imply necessarily a better society, since the inversion of roles of who possesses the power still requires thee strong presence of authority in daily relations. Behind the inversion of social roles, the constant presence of authority and subordination brings Cyrano’s moon closer to the reader, and allows for a broader questioning of such practices in their empirical society. 

In other passage, the narrator also uses cognitive estrangement to put the habit of authority forefront. When the narrator arrives on the moon, the local inhabitants believe he is some sort of animal. Furthermore, given his resemblance with another human who reached the moon, the narrator is believed to be the female of such animal. Being exposed daily to curious lunar people, who would observe them and throw objects at them for fun, similarly with what would happen in some animal exhibitions in the author and reader’s society.

That inversions provides background so that the work could expose a critic towards priests and the clergy, as is exposed in several passages that follow. Initially, it is brought up that, since the narrator and the spaniard both walked on two feet, instead as in four as the lunar inhabitants, they show inferiority for they are constantly looking to their creator with fear. The clergy then, convinced the narrator was from a bird species, given his walking stance, throw him in a cage. After a long defense by Socrates Demon, the clergy decides to pardon the narrator on the condition he publicly redacts his comments about the nature of the moon and earth. By doing so, Cyrano is using of his inversion to highlight the ignorance and arrogance of the clergy, who not only refuses to live under new assumptions, but also uses of its authority to oppress does who say otherwise. The Spaniard also alludes to that reality when explaining to the narrator why he decided to leave earth.

One Day my Male (for I was taken for the Female) told me, That the true reason which had obliged him to travel all over the Earth, and at length to abandon it for the Moon, was that he could not find so much as one Country where even Imagination was at liberty. ‘Look ye,’ said he, ‘how the Wittiest thing you can say, unless you wear a Cornered Cap, if it thwart the Principles of the Doctors of the Robe, you are an Ideot, a Fool, and something worse perhaps

It rests clear that, by reading Cyrano through the lenses of Science Fiction and by perceiving his inversion between earth and moon as an artifact of cognitive estrangement, one can perceive the contents of the text as important criticisms to several aspects of the social order of the time, but above all as criticisms to the intolerant authorities ruling the lives on XVII century France.Cyrano’s Moon, being imperfect and abundant on those intolerances provides an environment that is familiar enough to the reader so that they can relate to the issues being brought up, which fulfills the cognitive aspect of Suvin’s analysis of the genre. That moon, being inverted and strange to the reader’s surrounding, with the relationships of power and identity reversed, brings shock and pulls the attention of the reader towards issues they live with daily, which fulfills the estrangement aspect of that essay.

Journey to the Moon, therefore, is an effective means of analyzing and critiquing human relations on the environment the author and the readers were used to.      

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