Stephen Speicher

Cyrano, and Sense of Life

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In another thread, Rose Lake asked, and commented:

I was wondering if there was one objective answer to the question: Is there a malevolent universe premise for a particular work of art? [...]

There are differing elements of this story [Cyrano de Bergerac], to which I have to give different evaluations on the question of a malevolent universe premise, i.e. the spiritual and the material. I would say that, materially, there is mostly a malevolent universe premise, but not spiritually.

Cyrano gets virtually nothing material that he desired. He never gets to marry his one true love, he is broke, and at the end his body is broken and he dies (murdered by his enemies) -- so that materially, he has nothing, not even his life. However, by the end he has achieved his primary spiritual values.

This raises a question in my mind as to what is a sense of life and how is it conveyed? In literature, I think a sense of life reveals in emotional terms mainly how a man's consciousness relates to reality, how he regards existence as such. That a man be a profound valuer is expressive of sense of life; the existential circumstances surrounding his values, by which that sense of life is dramatized, is not itself a sense of life.

The sense of life dramatized in Cyrano de Bergerac is that of a valuer who chooses to hold onto his great integrity regardless of the grave circumstances he faces in life, regardless of the values he failed to achieve. This sense of life transcends even the concrete philosophy in the story -- it is because of altruism that Cyrano fails to achieve -- and is summed up in Cyrano's final words.

Struck from behind, and by a lackey's hand!

'Tis very well. I am foiled, foiled in all,

Even in my death....

I know that you will lay me low at last;

Let be! Yet I fall fighting, fighting still!

You strip from me the laurel and the rose!

Take all! Despite you there is yet one thing

I hold against you all, and when, to-night,

I enter Christ's fair courts, and, lowly bowed,

Sweep with doffed casque the heavens' threshold blue,

One thing is left, that, void of stain or smutch,

I bear away despite you....

MY PANACHE.

I cannot help but revere the man even as I copy over these words. Cyrano's PANACHE, his style, his integrity, is the sense of life with which this great play is imbued, and the existential circumstances surrounding its dramatization matter little beyond serving the purpose of foil to bring out the theme and sense of life.

More generally, I think here is another key to understanding the vastly differing judgments Objectivists make about movies. I suspect that, in many cases, the sense of life of a film may not be experienced or identified due to focusing too narrowly on existential circumstances.

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More generally, I think here is another key to understanding the vastly differing judgments Objectivists make about movies. I suspect that, in many cases, the sense of life of a film may not be experienced or identified due to focusing too narrowly on existential circumstances.

For me, the circumstances encountered, or whether triumph or defeat take place, is not the criteria for sense of life evaluations. The important thing is the attitude of the individual. The attitude toward values is the crux of the matter. Those movies which show that someone thinks values are important but fails to achieve them, indicates a greater sense of life than those which indicate the opposite.

I cannot abide stories which mock an earnestness toward value. Examples, such as those which centre themselves in cultures of drugs, crime and violence; having these as an end in themselves.

("Dirty Harry" movies are an antidote to this mentality, because they blow the low life away, and freshen the place up.)

Sense of life, is sense of values.

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This raises a question in my mind as to what is a sense of life and how is it conveyed? In literature, I think a sense of life reveals in emotional terms mainly how a man's consciousness relates to reality, how he regards existence as such. That a man be a profound valuer is expressive of sense of life; the existential circumstances surrounding his values, by which that sense of life is dramatized, is not itself a sense of life.

The sense of life dramatized in Cyrano de Bergerac is that of a valuer who chooses to hold onto his great integrity regardless of the grave circumstances he faces in life, regardless of the values he failed to achieve. This sense of life transcends even the concrete philosophy in the story -- it is because of altruism that Cyrano fails to achieve -- and is summed up in Cyrano's final words.

[...]

I cannot help but revere the man even as I copy over these words. Cyrano's PANACHE, his style, his integrity, is the sense of life with which this great play is imbued, and the existential circumstances surrounding its dramatization matter little beyond serving the purpose of foil to bring out the theme and sense of life.

The existential circumstances are chosen by the author who has his own sense of life that can differ from the senses of life of his characters. But what is the sense of life of a work of art? Is it the artist's sense of life reflected by the artist's choices (existential circumstances and characters) or is it the sense of life of his characters (and if so which ones) or is it something else?

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The existential circumstances are chosen by the author who has his own sense of life that can differ from the senses of life of his characters. But what is the sense of life of a work of art? Is it the artist's sense of life reflected by the artist's choices (existential circumstances and characters) or is it the sense of life of his characters (and if so which ones) or is it something else?

To the degree that any work of art is an integrated whole, to that degree it has a main theme that expresses a sense of life. With the complex art form that is literature there is opportunity to create many sub-themes and express varied senses of life through the characters and their actions, but if the work is good art then there is an overarching theme which these sub-levels serve to enhance. In Cyrano de Bergerac I see the main theme as being the meaning and value of integrity in man's life, with a corresponding sense of life of man as an heroic being, as the owner and maker of his own soul no matter what obstacles life may provide.

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Stephen,

Can you let me know the translator and edition of "Cyrano de Bergerac" that you have quoted from?

I have the complete and unabridged translation by Brian Hooker (Batnam books, Dec 1966), and though Cyrano's last words have the same meaning, the actual wording is quite different. I am surprised that translations could differ so widely, so I'd like to know if there is a 'best' translation available. I prefer to read Edmond Rostand's words not the translators interpretation. Thanks!

Here are Cyrano's last words from my book:

Yes, all my laurels have you riven away

And all my roses; yet in spite of you,

There is one crown I bear away with me,

And to-night, when I enter before God,

My salute shall sweep all the stars away

From the blue threshold! One thing without stain,

Unspotted from the world, in spite of doom

Mine own!--

My white plume....

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I have the complete and unabridged translation by Brian Hooker (Batnam books, Dec 1966), and though Cyrano's last words have the same meaning ...

I stepped past this in my earlier reply: I don't think the last words in the two translations capture the same meaning. Something Ayn Rand said a long time ago, several decades ago, stuck with me over the years. She once pointed out that the ending words in French, "Mon panache," do not really translate well into English, and "My white plume" just does not capture the depth of Cyrano's meaning. I take "MY PANACHE" to mean more than just a white plume, but a plume of honor, a symbol of his style, a symbol of Cyrano's great integrity. In fact, the OED lists the 1898 Thomas and Guillemard translation that I gave as the introduction of the expanded meaning of "panache" (beyond "plume") into the English language.

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I stepped past this in my earlier reply: I don't think the last words in the two translations capture the same meaning. Something Ayn Rand said a long time ago, several decades ago, stuck with me over the years. She once pointed out that the ending words in French, "Mon panache," do not really translate well into English, and "My white plume" just does not capture the depth of Cyrano's meaning. I take "MY PANACHE" to mean more than just a white plume, but a plume of honor, a symbol of his style, a symbol of Cyrano's great integrity. In fact, the OED lists the 1898 Thomas and Guillemard translation that I gave as the introduction of the expanded meaning of "panache" (beyond "plume") into the English language.

I really enjoyed both versions of the film that I've seen (the José Ferrer one, and the Gérard Depardieu version in French with English subtitles). One of the best things about the newer one was hearing the French 'panache,' and reading it too. It really struck me, in a good way. I began to understand the intention of the ending for the first time when I saw this version.

I'd seen the other version and had not understood what was intended by 'my white plume,' plus the walkways where Cyrano dies intersect and visually form a cross -- an obvious symbolic visual touch by that director which I found repulsive. So the ending of the earlier version was muted for me by those two apects, and I had to see it a second time to really appreciate that version.

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