Friday, March 7, 2008

Science fiction or lost Knowledge? Cyrano, the "radio" and the art of foreshadowing Science.

Dyrcona's ascension using flasks of morning dew. 17th century engraving.
If Hector Savinien de Cyrano (1619-1655), more commonly known as Cyrano de Bergerac, is often cited as a precursor of modern science fiction, it is mostly due to his curious and burlesque work in two parts, Histoire comique des Estats et Empires de la Lune and Histoire comique des Estats et Empires du Soleil. While these two works (which were later joined under the title L’Autre Monde) were published posthumously respectively in 1657 and 1662, it has been suggested that at least the first opus already circulated clandestinely in uncensored manuscript form as early as 1650 (Sankey 2001, p. 42).

In these two novels, Cyrano, impersonated under the anagram Dyrcona, describes his travel to the moon and the sun and portrays the idealistic societies of these two inhabited worlds. These two societies, the lunar and the solar one, are not only philosophically advanced, but also technologically. Cyrano transposes his views of an ideal society in anamorphotic way, taking advantage of the emerging debates of his time about the existence of another world on the moon to enforce his controversial views about 17th century philosophy and society.

Thomas Kuhn considered the 17th century as marking the “beginning of both popular science and science fiction” (Kuhn 1957, p. 225) and as a starting point of this new literature, the invention of the telescope and the new discoveries it allowed, played an important role.

Thus, a few decades earlier when Galileo, confirmed in this view by his precise observations with his telescope, announced in the Sidereus nuncius (1610) that the moon had mountains, seas and craters, he paved the way to posterior speculations about lunar inhabitants which he himself rejected.
Apart from philosophical discussions, these speculations quickly found their way into literary works. Early in 1621, a humorous Masque by Ben Jonson was played before King James I of England entitled News from the new world discovered in the Moon. In 1634, Kepler’s rewritten student dissertation, the Somnium, was published posthumously, which, influenced by Lucian of Samosata and Plutarch, described an imaginary travel on the moon and the meeting with its inhabitants. In 1638, Francis Godwin published The Man in the Moon, and on the same year, John Wilkins published his Discovery of a new world in the Moone to which he added a Discourse on a new planet two years later in 1640.

These works were not unknown to Cyrano who, as an erudite, was receptive to these new ideas. He had been a pupil of Gassendi and seemed to entertain a certain admiration for Descartes even though he pilloried some of his views. His frequentations had led him in the company of notorious “libertins érudits” such as La Mothe Le Vayer with whom he shared parts of his pyrrhonic skepticism.
Cyrano’s philosophical views, while sometimes hard to define precisely, are mostly a blend of the main anti-scholastic philosophical currents of his time. He is typically referred to as a “libertin” and some scholars even view him as the archetypal figure of this current, being truly a “free-thinker”.

As such, Cyrano was introduced and knowledgeable of the philosophical and scientific debates of his time, of the “new Philosophy” and the “new Science”. His two-pieces work, L’Autre Monde is a synthesis of these debates where scientific innovations rub elbows with philosophical considerations.

Cyrano, “initiate” or “contactee”

Science et Vie, no. 526 (July 1961)In July 1961, in an article entitled “Avec trois siècles d’avance, Cyrano décrivait votre poste de radio” published in the French magazine Science et Vie, Aimé Michel sought to uncover underneath some of Cyrano’s descriptions, the depiction of modern inventions, namely atomic theory, electricity, light bulbs, rockets, television and the radio.
Behind Aimé Michel’s suggestion was the idea that Cyrano could not have foreseen with such precision some of our modern machines and theories without being in contact with more knowledgeable beings, namely, in Aimé Michel’s article, extraterrestrial beings.

Coincidentally, a few months later in early 1962, Claude Mettra and Jean Suyeux published a new edition of Cyrano’s L’Autre Monde, which they inscribed in a hermetical interpretation, and a related article by Claude Mettra appeared in the French magazine Planète in September of the same year.
Mettra and Suyeux’s reading of Cyrano was in the straight line of what had already been suggested by Eugène Canseliet who already hinted to the idea that Cyrano’s text contained bribes of hidden or lost knowledge as early as 1947 in the Cahiers d’Hermès. The idea that Cyrano could have been an “initiate” (or even an “adept”, to use the precise wording of alchemical terminology) was therefore not a new idea at the time of Aimé Michel’s article. The latter however being only more precise as to the (extraterrestrial) origin of this knowledge.

From “initiate” to “contactee”, the step was short and this suggestion almost naturally found its way to ufological literature. Paul Misraki for example in Les Extraterrestres (1962) and again in Des Signes dans le Ciel (1968) follows up on Aimé Michel’s idea while incorporating ideas from E. Canseliet and C. Mettra, and suggests that Cyrano had been initiated to these secrets through connections with Rosicrucians who themselves had been initiated by “extraterrestrial messengers”.

Even more suggestive is chapter VI of Christiane Piens’ Les OVNI du passé (Verviers: Marabout, 1977, pp. 70-75) entitled “Cyrano de Bergerac fut-il contacté?” and bringing forth a possible contact between Cyrano and more advanced extra-terrestrial beings. Piens goes one step further in establishing a link between Cardan’s visitors and Cyrano’s daemon, encompassing the more general idea that Cyrano, as other great figures in history, had received knowledge from other beings, which knowledge only emerges in cryptic form in these person’s works. The idea parallels of course the hermetical interpretation.

The ideas of Paul Misraki and Aimé Michel were re-evaluated in an article published in Inforespace in May 1977 and written by Jacques Scornaux who undertook to re-examine the same passage from Cyrano’s work in which Aimé Michel had seen the description of a modern radio [documents no. 1 and no. 2].

In an earlier article, written along with Christiane Piens (“Fusées gigognes au XVIIe siècle: est-ce un mystère?” in Inforespace no. 32 (march 1977)), Scornaux had already established that the rockets described in Cyrano had a forerunner in the multi-stage rockets designed by Conrad Haas in the middle of the 16th century.

This time however, while still being mildly critical of Aimé Michel’s hypothesis (Scornaux 1977, p. 32: “Ce récit a été abondamment commenté par Aimé Michel, qui nous semble parfois y voir des choses qui n’y sont pas…”) and refusing to endorse unequivocally the latter’s view, Scornaux offers four propositions to understand how Cyrano could have known in his time about such technological wonders.
The first two propositions (knowledge acquired through Secret Societies or through extraterrestrial contacts) had already been proposed as we have seen earlier, and are quickly discarded by Scornaux as lacking material proofs.
The last two propositions (precognition or coincidence), which Scornaux seems to favor even though he does not bring much material to enforce his arguments, are on the other hand entirely new and let us, readers, the choice to consider Cyrano either as gifted with precognitive talents or as a coincidental precursor of today’s technology.

What Scornaux had not considered however is that there had already been precedents to Cyrano’s inventions and comparisons which lead us to think that this was not as coincidental as it seems.

A radio, a phonograph, a talking walnut, or...?

And indeed, Aimé Michel was the not the first to have suggested such comparisons between Cyrano’s machines and modern ones as Belgian researcher Marc Hallet has noted in his critical work entitled Critique historique et scientifique du phénomène ovni, published in 1989.

In 1877, controversies emerged on a nationalistic background to determine who, between the American Thomas Edison and the French Charles Cros, had invented the phonograph. When it became evident that Charles Cros could not be credited with a working machine, Cyrano’s “talking book” was brandished by his defenders. Thus, the text of Cyrano offered a convenient way to save face, suggesting a French spiritual inventor for an American invention, the phonograph.

Interestingly enough in regard to Aimé Michel’ suggestion, Louis Pauliat in 1890 (document no. 3) was already suggesting that Cyrano had been in contact with some kind of parallel and advanced knowledge which had been since lost:

“(…) on est comme porté à supposer qu'à côté de la science officielle pouvant exister au temps de Cyrano, c'est-à-dire de 1620 à 1655, il y en avait une autre dont plusieurs des données, totalement perdues depuis longtemps, ont été seulement retrouvées de nos jours. » (Pauliat 1890, p. 352)

Aimé Michel’s idea was indeed nothing new, if only a bit more precise as to the origin of this “lost knowledge”.

As modern readers considering these comparisons between Cyrano’s talking books, the phonograph and then the radio, we can legitimately ask ourselves how we would interpret them today, in a time where phonographs and radios with needles have become obsolete. Should we interpret Cyrano’s invention as a precursor of our portable mp3 players?

Recent researches made by Madeleine Alcover on the edition and correction of Cyrano’s L’Autre Monde have uncovered an important correction to Cyrano’s original text in regard to our matter and which earlier authors were unaware of. In the following passage,

« Quand quelqu’un donc souhaite lire, il bande, avec une grande quantité de sortes de clefs, cette machine, puis il tourne l’aiguille sur le chapitre qu’il désire écouter, et au même temps il sort de cette noix comme de la bouche d’un homme, ou d’un instrument de musique, tous les sons distincts et différents qui servent, entre les Grands lunaires, à l’expression du langage. » (Alcover 2004, pp. 136-137)

the reading “noix” (walnut) is preferred over “machine” as is suggested by the Paris manuscript. While this correction could seem insignificant, it has its importance when compared to a mention by Pliny of a specimen of the Iliad of Homer which had the size of a walnut (Pliny, Hist. Nat., VII, 21). It also helps to precise the size of these talking books and to understand how Cyrano could later attach them to his ears as pendants.

In fact, one has to consider contemporaneous documents to see that the restitution of voice through a mechanical or natural device was already discussed in Cyrano’s time as can be seen from stories such as the one reported by Charles Sorel in the Courrier Véritable of April 30, 1632, where strange bluish and greenish inhabitants of the austral lands were able to restitute sounds, music and voice through the means of sponges [document no. 4a].
Almost a century earlier, in 1552, François Rabelais had already suggested, with a tidbit of humor, a sort of natural restitution of sounds in the Quart Livre (chapters 55-56) where sounds trapped in ice due to extreme cold could be restituted by warmth [document no. 4b].

The idea of the imprisonment of sounds, to be restored at a given time, was pretty much in the air, so to speak, in Rabelais’ time. Giambattista della Porta (ca. 1535-1615) had already discussed this idea in his Magiae Naturalis (1558). Building on the example of ancient speaking statues, he deduced that cunningly engineered pipe works might be able to trap sounds, not just convey them through space:

“(…) wherefore if that voice goes with time, & hold entire, if a man as the words are spoken shall stop the end of the pipe, and he that is at the other end shall do the like, the voice may be intercepted in the middle, and be shut up as in a prison; and when the mouth is opened, the voice will come forth, as out of his mouth that spoke it; but because such long pipes cannot be made without trouble, they may be bent up and down like a trumpet, that a long pipe may be kept in a small place; and when the mouth is open, the words may be understood. I am now upon trial of it.” (Porta, English edition of 1658, p. 386)

While Porta suggested a system where sounds could be naturally “trapped” and released whenever needed, Cyrano’s “talking books” however go a step further, proposing a restitution of voice through mechanical means: “(…) il bande, avec une grande quantité de sortes de clefs, cette machine, puis il tourne l’aiguille sur le chapitre qu’il désire écouter (…)”.

Among contemporaneous experimentations and ideas on the mechanical restitution of sounds, it might be worth to consider the musical automata which were just beginning to be manufactured, particularly in the southern provinces of the Holy Roman Empire. These automata however were produced on a very small scale and destined mostly to the nobility (see Morsman 2006). This doesn’t exclude the possibility that Cyrano had heard of these.
While these automata were mostly based on the organ pipe system, it would not be surprising that Cyrano could have imagined their uses as “talking books” if they were to restitute voice instead of music.
Their mechanisms, as clockworks, could indeed have been a source of inspiration for his description.

Kircher, Athanasius. Musurgia Universalis (1650).Printed in Rome in 1650, Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia universalis contains a variety of theories along with illustrations depicting existing and imaginary mechanical musical instruments as well as expanding on the idea of speaking statues already brought up by Giambattista della Porta (see attached plates). Recently, Madeleine Alcover suggested that Kircher’s works could have been an important source for Cyrano (Alcover 2004, p. 136, note l.2777-2788: “Le jésuite Kircher était connu pour l’intérêt qu’il portait aux machines ingénieuses; il se pourrait que son œuvre immense contienne la source des livres de la Lune »).

Would it then be so unconceivable that Cyrano could have imagined a mechanical device capable of restituting sound and voice, only by exploiting data and knowledge from his time?

Moreover, is it really necessary to invoke a lost or hidden knowledge or even an extra-terrestrial revelation to understand Cyrano’s vision of a futuristic technology?
Probably not, unless we are prepared to dismiss earlier discussions or documents which could have inspired Cyrano’s visionary inventions.

According to Madeleine Alcover (Alcover 2004, introduction), such interpretations not only dismiss and ignore all non-literary works of Cyrano but also limit themselves to a restrained choice of passages which are lighted by a re-contextualization in a specific tradition (be it hermetical or ufological) leading to a pure tautology.
In other words, by extracting specific passages from their context and by considering only a small part of an author’s works, one can easily make his point seem true.

« Rêveries scientifiques » as a mean of foreshadowing Science.

In L’Extériorisation de la sensibilité (1895), Albert de Rochas d’Aiglun who had conducted extensive studies of antique machinery and automats (among them the famous perpetual lamps) in the French periodical La Nature, includes Cyrano’s machines in a category which he calls romantically the “Rêveries scientifiques” (scientific dreams).

Even though he let the title of his Somnium (“the dream”) suggest so, Kepler was certainly not dreaming when he described in this same work the physical difficulties of a travel to the moon. While he obviously did not experiment them personally, we are nevertheless struck by the correctness of some of his descriptions of the effects of a travel through space on the human body.

In every instance the take-off hits him as a severe shock, for he is hurled just as though he had been shot aloft by gunpowder to sail over mountains and seas. For this reason at the outset he must he lulled to sleep immediately with narcotics and opiates. His limbs must be arranged in such a way that his torso will not be torn away from his buttocks nor his head from his body, but the shock will be distributed among his individual limbs. Then a new difficulty follows: extreme cold and impeded breathing. (…) When the humans wake up, they usually complain about an indescribable weariness of all their limbs, from which they later recover well enough to walk.”
(Kepler’s Somnium, translated by E. Rosen, Dover 2003, p. 16)

Kepler applied his own knowledge and theories on inertia onto an abstract case, following the principles and method of what can be qualified as a “thought experiment”, i.e. an à priori process, as opposed to an empirical one, conducted within imagination. Through this purely cognitive construction, Kepler was able to imagine the effects of inertia on a body which in turn led him to propose solutions to counter its effects.

Interesting parallels between scientific thought experiments and fictional narratives have been drawn by David Davies (see Davies 2007). Among fictional narratives, Science fiction can probably be considered as the most convenient laboratory for the most extreme of these thought experiments, comprising those hypothesis that are too speculative to be incorporated into current knowledge.

In this regard, Cyrano’s imaginary inventions could well be considered as mental constructions based on scientific and philosophical facts of his time, not unlike Jules Verne’s extraordinary machines two centuries later or today’s anticipation novels extrapolating on scientifically established facts.
Of all these inventions and theories which have been conceived, measured and constructed in these imaginary laboratories, quite a few have undoubtedly polarized the thinking of later inventors and given birth to very real creations when reason found a way to realize them.

Going back to Cyrano’s vision of lunar technology, French philosopher Michel Onfray asks the question which has been tormenting us all this long and offers this answer:

"Quelles leçons tirer de cet inventaire génial ? Que l'utopie n'est pas le lieu d'un réel impossible, mais le laboratoire de la réalité de demain; que rien n'est chimérique de ce qui relève du pensable; que l'imagination ne fonctionne pas à vide, pour rien, car elle fournit le carburant du futur; que le roman philosophique prépare parfois plus et mieux l'avenir qu'une officine de futurition autoproclamée... Et que, parfois, l'avenir se plie dans l'anamorphose." (Onfray 2007, p. 221)

A possible key to better understand Cyrano’s extraordinary machines without falling into the “pêchés des pêchés, l’anachronisme” as Lucien Febvre would say, would then be to establish the nuance between the conceivable and the feasible at a given time, the limits of the former extending much beyond the latter and driven by men’s desire, need and imagination, always a step ahead.

When in turn the conceivable, passing through the filter of reason, knowledge and technology, becomes the feasible, only then do these “scientific dreams” can become Science.

Yannis Deliyannis


• Alcover, Madeleine. 1970. La Pensée philosophique et scientifique de Cyrano de Bergerac. Histoire des Idées et Critique Littéraire, no. 109. Paris-Geneva : Droz.
• Alcover, Madeleine (ed.). 2004. Les états et empires de la lune et du soleil : avec le Fragment de physique. Champion classiques, 1. Paris : H. Champion.
• Davies, David. 2007. « Thought Experiments and Fictional Narratives ». Croatian Journal of Philosophy, no. 19 (2007), pp. 29-45.
• De Rochas d’Aiglun, Albert. 1895. L’extériorisation de la sensibilité. Etude expérimentale et historique. Paris : Chamuel (2nd ed.).
* Hallet, Marc. 1989. Critique historique et scientifique du phénomène ovni.
• Kuhn, Thomas. 1957. The Copernican Revolution: planetary astronomy in the development of western thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
• Lambert, Ladina Bezzola. 2002. Imagining the unimaginable : the poetics of early modern astronomy. Internationale Forschungen zur allgemeinen und vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft, 58. Amsterdam : Rodopi.
• Mettra, Claude. 1962. « L’Autre monde de Cyrano de Bergerac ». Planète, no. 6 (sep.-oct. 1962), pp. 121-129.
• Michel, Aimé. 1961. « Avec trois siècles d’avance, Cyrano décrivait votre poste de radio ». Science et Vie, no. 526 (juillet 1961), pp. 90-94.
• Misraki, Paul. 1968. Des Signes dans le Ciel. Paris : Labergerie.
• Morsman, Marieke. 2006. Quicquid rarum, occultum et subtile : Augsburg musical automata around 1600. Research Master Music Studies: University of Utrecht (unpublished).
• Nédélec, Claudine. 2005. « Cyrano de Bergerac, entre Science et Fiction ». L’Information littéraire, vol. 57, no. 1 (2005), pp. 20-27.
• Onfray, Michel. 2007. Contre-histoire de la Philosophie : Les Libertins baroques. Paris : Grasset.
• Porta, Giambattista della. 1658. Natural magick. London: Printed for Thomas Young and Samuel Speed [English edition of Latin original, Magiae Naturalis, Naples, 1558].
• Sankey, Margaret. 2001. « The Paradoxes of Modernity : Rational Religion and Mythical Science in the Novels of Cyrano de Bergerac » in Crocker, R. (ed). Religion, reason and nature in early modern Europe, International archives of the history of ideas, no. 180 (2001), pp. 41-59.
• Scornaux, Jacques. 1977. « L’œuvre étrange de Cyrano de Bergerac ». Inforespace, no. 33 (mai 1977), pp. 27-35.



Alcover, Madeleine (ed.). 2004. Les états et empires de la lune et du soleil : avec le Fragment de physique. Champion classiques, 1. Paris : H. Champion.

A peine fut-il hors de présence que je me mis à considérer attentivement mes livres. Les boîtes, c'est-à-dire leurs couvertures, me semblèrent admirables pour leur richesse; l'une était taillée d'un seul diamant, plus brillant sans comparaison que les nôtres; la seconde ne paraissait qu'une monstrueuse perle fendue en deux. Mon démon avait traduit ces livres en langage de ce monde-là, mais parce que je n'ai point encore parlé de leur imprimerie, je m'en vais expliquer la façon de ces deux volumes.
A l'ouverture de la boîte, je trouvai dedans un je ne sais quoi de métal quasi tout semblable à nos horloges, plein d'un nombre infini de petits ressorts et machines imperceptibles. C'est un livre à la vérité, mais c'est un livre miraculeux qui n'a ni feuillets ni caractères; enfin c'est un livre où, pour apprendre, les yeux sont inutiles; on n'a besoin que d'oreilles. Quand quelqu'un donc souhaite lire, il bande, avec une grande quantité de sortes de clefs, cette machine, puis il tourne l'aiguille sur le chapitre qu'il désire écouter, et au même temps il sort de cette noix comme de la bouche d'un homme, ou d'un instrument de musique, tous les sons distincts et différents qui servent, entre les Grands lunaires, à l'expression du langage.
Lorsque j'eus réfléchi sur cette miraculeuse invention de faire des livres, je ne m'étonnai plus de voir que les jeunes hommes de ce pays-là possédaient davantage de connaissances à seize et à dix-huit ans que les barbes grises du nôtre. Car sachant lire aussitôt que parler, ils ne sont jamais sans lecture; dans la chambre, à la promenade, en ville, en voyage, à pied, à cheval, ils peuvent avoir dans la poche, ou pendus à l'arçon de leurs selles, une trentaine de ces livres dont ils n'ont qu'à bander un ressort pour en ouïr un chapitre seulement, ou bien plusieurs, s'ils sont en humeur d'écouter tout un livre. Ainsi vous avez éternellement autour de vous tous les grands hommes et morts et vivants qui vous entretiennent de vive voix.
Ce présent m'occupa plus d'une heure, et enfin, me les étant attachés en forme de pendants d'oreille, je sortis en ville pour me promener. Je n'eus pas achevé d'arpenter la rue qui tombe vis-à-vis de notre maison, que je rencontrai à l'autre bout une troupe assez nombreuse de personnes tristes.


Source :

Scornaux, Jacques. "L'œuvre étrange de Cyrano de Bergerac". Inforespace, no. 33 (mai 1977), p. 30.

Il faut maintenant évoquer l'incident qui avec celui des fusées, a fait couler le plus d'encre en ufologie : le Solaire fait don à Cyrano de deux livres provenant de son pays natal. Citons à nouveau le texte littéral :
Cette fois nous nous trouvons inéluctablement face à l'étrange, et le contexte ne permet aucune échappatoire : les paragraphes qui précèdent et qui suivent partant de tout autre chose, Cyrano enchainant abruptement sur le récit d un enterrement sur la Lune ! Plusieurs éléments de la description des « livres » sont troublants : la « couverture » qui est en fait une boite, la nature métallique de l'ensemble, les « machines imperceptibles », mais il y a surtout un détail particulièrement extraordinaire : l'aiguille que l’on tourne pour choisir un « chapitre ». Ceci ne laisse plus aucune place au doute : c'est bien un récepteur de radio qui nous est présenté. Comme le fait judicieusement remarquer Aimé Michel on pourrait encore admettre qu'un esprit imaginatif ait conçu au 17me Siècle l'idée qu'un jour la voix et la musique pourraient être conservées et reproduites artificiellement, mais, ce que Cyrano nous livre, ce n'est pas le principe de la radio, c'est bel et bien une description d'un appareil en état de marche, comme s'il l'avait eu sous les yeux. Il avoue d'ailleurs ne pas en comprendre le fonctionnement (« je n’en ai point de leur imprimerie ») et la seule grave discordance avec la réalité a justement trait a la source d'énergie : celle-ci apparaît être non l'électrivité mais un processus de détente mécanique (« je ne sais quels petits ressorts il bande, avec une grande quantité de petits nerfs, cette machine »). Sans doute Cyrano s’est-il là laissé entraîner par sa comparaison avec une horloge.
Toujours est-il que le problème est posé : personne, pas même un génie, ne pouvait prévoir il y a 300 ans l'apparence matérielle que présenterait un poste de radio... Comme l'écrit encore Aimé Michel, pour les lecteurs du 17me siècle et même encore du début du 20me, ce passage ne pouvait rien évoquer et devait apparaître comme une pure fantaisie imaginative. Et puis, soudain, le texte prend un sens précis. Cela pourrait-il être un hasard ? Nous laisserons pour l'instant la question en suspens. Notons encore que Cyrano ne donne aucun détail sur le second livre, celui qui ressemble à « une monstrueuse perle fendue en deux » : aurait-il pu s'agir là, comme le suggère Paul Misraki, d'un écran de télévision?


Source :

L’intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux, no. 530 (10 juin 1890), pp. 351-352.

Cyrano de Bergerac, inventeur du phonographe en 1650.

Il ne se passe pas d'année, depuis la découverte du téléphone, où il ne soit question, dans une Académie quelconque de France ou de l'étranger, de la priorité de cette invention.
Tantôt elle doit être attribuée - c'est ce qui arrive le plus souvent - à tel ou tel Français, tantôt à un Belge, tantôt à un Anglais; aussi, pour la transmission du son à distance, n'accorde-t-on à M. Edison que le mérite du merveilleux instrument créé par lui. Pour l'idée première, elle lui est refusée.
En ce qui concerne le phonographe, cependant, tout le monde est porté à s'incliner tout le monde jusqu'ici semble convenir qu'il en est absolument l'auteur; et j'entends par absolument qu'il a eu à la fois l'idée de l'invention et le mérite de la mise en œuvre et de l'exécution des instruments appropriés.
Loin de moi, certes, l'intention de prétendre porter la moindre atteinte à la gloire du grand génie dont l'humanité est redevable à l'Amérique. Je dois dire toutefois que, en ce qui regarde le phonographe, j'ai des scrupules pour en accorder exclusivement la paternité à Edison.
Parcourant, en manière de distraction, le volume de Cyrano de Bergerac publié, il y a une trentaine d'années, par le bibliophile Jacob à la librairie Garnier, j'ai été frappé par un passage étrange sur lequel j'appelle l'attention de tous les savants et notamment celle de M. Edison lui-même. Le voici, au reste, afin que nos testeurs puissent se faire une opinion à ce sujet.
Ce passage est à la page 178, dans la partie du volume qui comprend le Voyage dans la lune, dont la première édition remonte à 165o.
Cyrano de Bergerac est dans la lune. Le génie qui lui tient lieu de cicerone, devant le quitter pendant quelques instants, lui prête deux livres pour lui permettre de patienter. Ces livres ont des couvertures qui leur servent de boîtes. Bergerac en prit un. Ici commence la citation :
N'y a-t-il pas là la description sommaire d'un phonographe dont les résultats étaient les mêmes que ceux du phonographe que M. Edison a inventé?
Je sais que, depuis Boileau, Cyrano de Bergerac n'a plus été pris au sérieux et qu'il est considéré, bien à tort, comme une sorte de fier-à-bras uniquement remarquable par son style empanaché et burlesque; mais si l'on rapproche cette idée du phonographe de celles des ballons et du parachute dont il est question dans ses livres (1650 à 1656) et que la science, au moins pour les ballons, n’a admises qu’en 1788, après les expériences de Montgolfier; si l'on tient compte, en outre, que Cyrano, dans un endroit de ses ouvrages explique que Mars a quatre satellites, ce qui n'est constaté scientifiquement que depuis une quinzaine d'années, - on est comme porté à supposer qu'à côté de la science officielle pouvant exister au temps de Cyrano, c'est-à-dire de 1620 à 1655, il y en avait une autre dont plusieurs des données, totalement perdues depuis longtemps, ont été seulement retrouvées de nos jours.




Le Courrier véritable, du Bureau des postes estably pour les nouvelles hétérogenées, s.l. 1632. [Bibliothèque Nationale de France, BN 4-LC2-11]
Note: Republished and postdated April 23, 1643 in Charles Sorel’s Recueil du Sercy, 1644.

D’Amsterdam le 23. Avril 1632.

Le Capitaine Vosterloch est de retour de son voyage des terres Australes, qu’il avoit entre-pris par le commandement des Estats, il y a deux ans & demy. Il nous rapporte entre autres choses qu’ayant passé par un destroict au dessoubs de celuy de Magellan & de celuy du Maire, il a pris terre en un pays où les hommes sont de couleur bluastre, & les femmes de verd de mer, les cheveux des uns & des autres de Nacarat & ventre de Nonnain. Mais ce qui nous estonne d’avantage & qui nous fait admirer la nature : c’est de voir qu’au deffaut des arts liberaux & des sciences qui nous donnent le moyen de communiquer ensemble, & de descouvrir par escrit nos pensees à ceux qui sont absens, elle leur a fourni de certaines esponges qui retiennent le son & la voix articulee, comme les nostres font les liqueurs : De sorte que quand ils se veulent mander quelque choses, ou conferer deloin, ils parlent seulement de pres à quelqu’une de ces esponges, puis les envoyent à leurs amis, qui les ayant receuës, en les pressant tout doucement en font sortir ce qu’il y avoit dedans de paroles, & sçavent par cet admirable moyen tout ce que leurs amis desirent. Et pour se resjouyr quelques fois ils envoyent querir dans l’Isle Cromatique des concerts de Musique de voix, & d’instruments dans les plus fines de leurs esponges, qui leur rendent estant pressées les accords les plus delicats en leur perfection.



Jacob, P. L. (ed.) 1854. Œuvres de François Rabelais. Paris : Bry Ainé, p. 256. [Quart livre, chap. LVI]

Comment, entre les paroles gelées, Pantagruel trouva des mots de gueule.

Le pilot feit response : « Seigneur, de rien ne vous effrayez. Ici est le confin de la mer glaciale, sus laquelle fut au commencement de l'hyver dernier passé grosse et félonne bataille, entre les Arimaspiens et les Nephelibales, lors gelarent en l'aer les paroles et cris des hommes et femmes, les chaplis des masses, les hurtis des harnois, des hardes, les hannissements des chevaulx et tout aultre effroi de combat. A ceste heure, la rigueur de l'hyver passée, advenente la sérénité et temperie du bon temps, elles fondent et sont ouïes-. — Par Dieu, dist Panurge, je l'en croi. Mais en pourrions- nous voir quelqu'une. Me soubvient avoir leu que l'orée de la montagne en laquelle Moses receut la loi des Juifs, le peuple voyoit les voix sensiblement. — Tenez, tenez, dist Pantagruel, voyez en ci qui encores ne sont desgelées. »

Lors nous jecta sus le tillac pleines mains de paroles gelées, et sembloient dragée perlée de diverses couleurs. Nous y vismes des mots de gueule, des mois de sinople, des mots d'azur, des mots de sable, des mots dores. Lesquels estre quelque peu eschauffés entre nos mains fondoient comme neiges, el les oyons réalement ; mais ne les entendions. Car c'estoit langage barbare. Excepté un assez grosset, lequel ayant frère Jean eschauffé entre ses mains, feit un son tel que font les chastaignes jectées en la braze sans estre entommées lors que s’esclatent, el nous feit touts de paour tressaillir. […]

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1 comment:

Gruffling said...

Surely the works of Cyrano are no more science fiction than any other utopian or distopian account, whether Plato's Res publica or HG Wells Shapes of Things to Come?

Whether the aim of such writing is to portray a utopia or a distopia, the world portrayed must be fantastical, so advances in science are almost always a feature. Wells is often given visionary status for his works because he was said to foresee things such as the 2nd world war, lasers, nuclear warfare and a host of other things. I'm sure that his success rate was no more than 50/50. In Shape of Things to Come, first published in 1933, he writes off the future of the tank in warfare, saying that expensive tanks in Britain lay useless as they could not provide a defence against new chemical and biological weapons. Only ten years later the Battle of Kursk proved him very wrong.

To look at something described in a work such as L'Autre Monde as a prediction of either a radio or an MP3 player is to make the same mistake as those who decipher Nostradamus after the event as having proved something.

Hindsight has twenty-twenty vision they say. When interpreting past works of fiction is it not more that hindsight wears rose-tinted glasses?

A tongue-in-cheek look at the way that Star Trek has changed the world is perhaps illuminating. The makers, writers, prop designers freely admit that they thought of things because they made the plot easier - expensive sets and effects meant that instead of a shuttle craft they used a transporter. To communicate with the ship, the away team had instantaneous hand-held communicators instead of bulky radios with time delays.

The popularity of the series has meant that we now have clamshell mobile phones, not because Gene Roddenbury was instructed by illuminati or discussing scripts with alien advisors, but because the designers at Motorola were Star Trek fans. They are still working on the theoretical teleportation of a single photon, so perhaps we may have to wait a century or two for that one.