Today, Cyrano's dream is more solid than we
thought. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Rostand wrote Cyrano de
Bergerac in 1897. We've laughed ever since at
Cyrano's nose speech. We've wept as he dies
reciting his love of Roxanne in another man's name.
But did you know that Cyrano was a real
17th-century writer? He wasn't born in Bergerac,
but in Paris -- in 1619. He began as a soldier but
had to quit after he was wounded twice. From then
'til his death at only 36, he wrote.
That doesn't explain the play -- swordsman, wit,
tragic figure! Cyrano in the play wasn't the
historic Cyrano. Rather, he was built on the
revolutionary spirit of the real person.
Cyrano was 23 when Galileo died. He knew Galileo's
intellectual inheritor, Pierre Gassendi. Gassendi
helped end the old Aristotelian science. He was one
of the new atomic theorists.
Cyrano, too, worked to change his world. The
writers around him hated his daring theatrical
stuff. It was, they said, wild and far-fetched.
Galileo and Gassendi had built a new science of
bold extremes. Now Cyrano built baroque prose to
Galileo's telescope had changed the moon from
perfect Aristotelian essence to a real place with a
craggy surface. Toward the end of his short life,
Cyrano turned the telescope of his imagination on
that real moon.
Cyrano joined a handful of people who used science
fiction to deal with the new cosmos. Kepler had
already used science fiction to tell about his
sun-centered universe. That way, he kept out of
trouble with the Church.
But Cyrano wrote for a larger audience. He wrote
much flashier stuff. It took the hero of his book,
Voyage to the Moon, several attempts
to get there. And what means he used!
He surrounded his body with glasses of morning dew.
When the sun drew the water up, it drew him with
it. A group of soldiers tied their ordnance to his
flying machine and, like a modern rocket, it rose
into the sky.
So science fiction was one way pioneers in a new
world of discovery came to grips with that world.
You couldn't very well fantasize about going to a
moon of pure empyrean essence. But a tangible moon
-- that touched our dreams in a new way.
Cyrano's contemporary, John Donne, also reacted to
the new vision of space. "Goe and catch a falling
Starre," he said. And that's what Cyrano did.
External reality fueled the baroque mind.
The real Cyrano didn't dream of some mythic
Roxanne. He dreamt instead of a world being
changed, from the stuff of dreams into solid flesh
and solid rock.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Von Braun, W., and Ordway, F.I., III, History
of Rocketry & Space Travel.(revised ed.)
New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., 1969.
For a translation of Cyrano's science fiction and
some bibliographic history of it, see: Cyrano
de Bergerac, Voyages to the Moon and the
Sun. (tr. Richard Aldington) New York: The
Orion Press, 1962.
And to read a translation of some of Cyrano's Book
about visiting the moon, The Other World or the
States and Empires of the Moon, see:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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