19: Brother, Can You Spare an Eclogue?

The Moon-beings seem to be compulsive specialists, especially in the use of the senses:

  • Hearing: One social class uses music as its language.
  • Sight: The other social class uses a “gestural” whole-body language. In this episode we see that it is accompanied by a written language, as well.
  • Smell and taste: The Moon-beings “eat” through their sense of smell, although they seem to make exceptions at times.
  • Touch: Odors also seem to have a tactile quality; the Moon-beings expose as much skin as possible in order to absorb the nourishing vapors.
And one can only envy the Moon-beings their taste in money, although some seem to take “taste” a bit too literally...

After lunch we prepared to depart. With the many facial expressions that these people use when they wish to show affection, our host received a piece of paper from my familiar spirit. I asked if he were giving him a check or note to pay the bill. He answered no, that he had settled the account with a poem.

“What? A poem?” I asked. “Are innkeepers curious about rhymes?”

“It’s the local currency,” he answered. “The sextain I’ve just given him will cover our expenses. I wasn’t afraid of coming up short. Even if we’d spent a week in luxury, it wouldn’t have cost a sonnet, and I have four on me. Along with two epigrams, two odes and an eclogue.”

“Aha, so that’s it,” I said to myself. “That’s precisely the money that Sorel gave Hortensius in Francion, if I remember rightly. And here’s where he must have gotten the idea. But who the heck could have told him about it? It must have been his mother, because I’ve heard she was a lunatic.”

I asked my familiar spirit whether the poem he had used as money could be copied and used again. He said no, and continued, “When a poem is complete, the author takes it to the central issuing bank, where the poetic jury resides. The official versifiers assay the works. If the writing is judged to be of good quality, it’s evaluated not by its weight but by its cleverness. Thus, anyone who dies of hunger must be dumb as an ox, and smart people always eat well.”

I was ecstatic in my admiration of the country’s judicious policy. He continued, “There are those who do their accounting quite differently. When you take your leave, you pay for services rendered by a cheque drawn on the next world. They record it in a large register they call God’s accounts, something like: ‘Received, the value of so many verses delivered on such and such a date by so and so. God shall reimburse me for value received out of the first available funds.’ When they are sick and liable to die, they chop up the registers and swallow the pieces, because they think God couldn’t read them unless they were properly digested.”

Cyrano has made this episode one of the shorter ones. After the lesson in money and banking, the scene is about to change dramatically.

A modern English-speaking reader will find the idea of using poetry as money absurd; a French reader will think it’s merely grotesque. The elite of Cyrano’s time would have considered it a slight exaggeration. Molière gives us glimpses of the prevalence of amateur poets and their attempts at flowery language in some famous comic scenes, such as in Le Misanthrope (1666) and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670, The Would-Be Nobleman).

Modern readers will probably pass over Cyrano’s offhand allusions. That’s quite justified, but Cyrano’s obvious in-joke about a then-famous novel, Francion, casts a shadow over the otherwise amiable proceedings.

The “true comic story” (i.e. realistic novel), inspired by Rabelais and Cervantes, was a genre coming into its own in the first half of the 17th century. Cyrano’s L’Autre Monde belongs to that genre and probably accounts for Henry Le Bret’s choice of title.

Sorel’s picaresque novel, like others of its kind, broke sharply with the literary conventions — i.e. the boredom — of Préciosité. He was often funny and even inventive; he had South Sea islanders speaking into sponges, which acted as recording devices, and then mailing the sponges to each other, as it were. Among other things, Sorel depicted the often unhappy plight of penniless students and modern writers. Maybe those sponges were inspired by impoverished writers whose manuscripts had been soaked under leaky roofs...

It would be a bit much to see the account-eaters as buying the Papal indulgences that Martin Luther condemned. Rather, the passage seems to contain a double pointe : people can gain status by collecting literature without bothering to read it, and eating a bibliography is no substitute for food.