Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Some Reflections on the Persian Letters
NOTHING in the “Persian Letters” 1 has been found more attractive than the unexpected discovery of a sort of story, which can be followed easily from beginning to end. A chain of circumstance connects the various characters. In proportion as their stay in Europe is extended, the morals and manners of that part of the world appear to them less wonderful and odd; and the degree in which they are affected by the marvelous and the eccentric depends upon the difference in their dispositions. On the other hand, the Asiatic seraglio 2 becomes more disorderly the longer Usbek remains away—that is to say, in proportion as frenzy increases and love abates.  1
  Another cause of the success of romances of this kind lies in the fact that events are described by the characters themselves as actually happening. This produces a sensational effect unattainable in the narrative of an outsider; and it is to this that the popularity of certain works which have appeared since the publication of the “Persian Letters” is mainly due.  2
  Although in the regular novel, digressions are inadmissible unless they themselves constitute a fresh romance, and argumentative discussion is altogether beside the mark, since the characters are not brought together for the purpose of chopping logic; yet, in the epistolary form, where accident selects the characters, and the subjects dealt with are independent of any design or preconceived plan, the author is enabled to mingle philosophy, politics, and morality with a romance, and to connect the whole by a hidden and somewhat novel, bond.  3
  So great was the sale of the “Persian Letters” when they came out that publishers did their utmost to obtain sequels. They buttonholed every author they met, and entreated him to write “Persian Letters.”  4
  What I have just stated, however, should convince the reader that they do not admit of a sequel, 3 still less of any admixture with even the cleverest “letters” from the hand of another. 4  5
  Some remarks have been found by many people sufficiently audacious; but I beg them to consider the nature of the work. The Persians, who were to play so important a part in it, found themselves suddenly in Europe, transplanted to all intents and purposes, into another world. It was therefore necessary for some time to represent them as ignorant and full of prejudices: 5 attention was bestowed exclusively on the formation and development of their ideas. Their first thoughts must have been exceptional. It seemed to the author that all he had to do was to endow them with singularity in as spirited a manner as he could; and to this end what more was necessary than to depict their state of mind in presence of whatever appeared to them extraordinary? Nothing was further from his thoughts than the idea of compromising any principle of our religion—he did not even suspect himself of the simplest indiscretion. What questionable remarks there are on religion will always be found united with feelings of surprise and astonishment, and not with any critical intention, still less with that of censure. Why should these Persians appear better informed when speaking of our religion, than when they discuss our manners and customs? And if they do sometimes find our dogmas singular, it is always a proof of their entire ignorance of the connection between those dogmas and other religious truths.  6
  The author advances this justification out of his love for these great truths, independently of his respect for the human race, whose tenderest feelings he certainly did not intend to wound. The reader is, therefore, requested not for one moment to regard the remarks referred to as other than the result of amazement in people who could not fail to be amazed, or as the paradoxes of men who were in no condition to be paradoxical. The reader should also observe that the whole charm of the work lies in the continuous contrast between the existing state of things and the remarkable, artless, or odd manner in which they are regarded. Beyond a doubt, the nature and design of the “Persian Letters” are so obvious that they can only deceive those who are inclined to deceive themselves.  7
Note 1. These reflections first appeared as an introduction to the quarto edition of the “Persian Letters” (1754), and have always been ascribed to Montesquieu himself. [back]
Note 2. A seraglio is a royal dwelling. Montesquieu uses the word as if it were synonymous with harem, the name of that portion of an oriental mansion in which the women are sequestrated. [back]
Note 3. Probably an allusion to Lord Lyttleton’s “Letters of Selim,” published in English in 1735, and shortly afterward translated into French. [back]
Note 4. A reference to the Lettres Turques of Sainte-Foix, which in the edition of 1740 appeared collectively with the “Persian Letters.” [back]
Note 5. At one time Montesquieu intended to remove what he called “certain juvenilia” from the “Persian Letters”; but the intention was never carried out. [back]
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