Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
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Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
 
Letter CXLI
Rica to the Same, at ——
 
I WILL visit you at the end of the week. How pleasantly the time will pass in your company!  1
  Some days ago, I was presented to a lady of the court who had taken a fancy to see my foreign figure. I found her beautiful, deserving the affection of our monarch, and a high rank in the sacred place where his heart reposes.  2
  She asked me a thousand questions about the customs of the Persians, and the style of life led by the Persian women. The life of the seraglio did not appear to her taste, and she displayed repugnance at the idea of one man being shared among ten or a dozen women. She could not think of the man’s happiness without envy, nor of the condition of the women without compassion. As she loved reading, above all the works of the poets and romance writers, she desired me to talk to her of ours. What I told her redoubled her curiosity; she begged me to translate for her a portion of one of those which I have with me. I did so, and sent to her, some days after, a Persian tale. Perhaps you will be amused to see it in my translation.  3
 
  In the time of Sheik Ali-Khan, there lived in Persia a woman called Zulema; she knew the whole of the sacred Koran by heart; not a dervish among them understood better than she the traditions of the holy prophets; the Arab scholars never said anything so mysterious that she could not comprehend all its meaning; and she united to all this learning a cast of mind so sprightly, that those who heard her talk could hardly make out whether she meant to amuse or to instruct them.  4
  Once, while she was with her companions in a room of the seraglio, one of them asked her what she thought of the next life; and if she held to that ancient tradition of our doctors which declares that Paradise was made for men alone.  5
  “It is the general opinion,” she said; “nothing has been left undone to degrade our sex. There is even a race scattered throughout Persia, called the Jews, who maintain, by the authority of their sacred writings, that we have no souls.  6
  “These most insulting opinions have no other origin than the vanity of men, who wish to carry their superiority even beyond this life, forgetting that at the last day all creatures will appear before God as nothing, and that no one will have any advantage over another except that which virtue gives.  7
  “God will be impartial in His rewards: and as those men who have led a good life, and have made a good use of the power which they have over us here below, will be sent to a paradise full of beauties so celestial and ravishing, that were a mortal to see them, he would at once kill himself in his impatience to enjoy them; so virtuous women will enter into a delightful abode, where they will be surfeited with a torrent of pleasure in the arms of godlike men who will be at their beck: each of them will have a seraglio in which these men will be sequestrated, with eunuchs, even more faithful than ours, to guard them.  8
  “I have read,” she continued, “in an Arab book, of a man called Ibrahim, who was insufferably jealous. He had twelve exceedingly beautiful wives, to whom he behaved in a most barbarous fashion; he had no faith in his eunuchs, nor in the walls of his seraglio; he kept them almost always under lock and key, shut up in their rooms, and unable to see, or speak to, each other; for he was jealous even of an innocent friendship: all his actions were colored by his brutal nature: a soft word was never heard to issue from his mouth; and he never gave them the slightest attention, except to add something to the severity of their slavery.  9
  “One day when he had them all gathered together in an apartment of his seraglio, one, bolder than the rest, reproached him with his morose disposition. ‘When one takes such strong measures to make himself feared,’ she said, ‘he always finds that he makes himself hated instead. We are so miserable that we cannot help wishing a change: others, in my place, would desire your death; I only desire my own; and as I can only hope to be separated from you by death, it will be all the sweeter on that account.’ This speech, which should have softened him, sent him off into a paroxysm of anger; he drew his dagger and plunged it into her breast. ‘My dear companions,’ said she, with her dying breath, ‘if Heaven has compassion on my virtue, you will be avenged.’ With these words, she quitted this miserable life, and entered into the abode of bliss, where women who have followed virtue, enjoy a happiness which never palls.  10
  “At first she saw a pleasant meadow whose greenery was relieved with enamel of the brightest flowers: a river, the waters of which were purer than crystal, rolled through it in a labyrinth of meanders. Then she entered a delightful wood, where the silence was broken only by the sweet song of birds. Splendid gardens next opened on her view; on these nature had bestowed her simple charm as well as her magnificence. At last she came to a glorious palace prepared for her, and filled with heavenly men destined for her delight.  11
  “Two of them advanced to her at once and undressed her: others led her to the bath, and perfumed her with the sweetest essences: then they gave her garments infinitely richer than her old ones: after which they led her into a spacious apartment, where was a fire made of odorous woods, and a table spread with a most exquisite repast. All things seemed to unite to ravish every sense: she heard on one side a strain of lofty music, all the more so as it throbbed with passion; on the other, she beheld the dances of these godlike men, exclusively devoted to her pleasure. Yet all these pleasures were only intended to lead her by degrees to pleasures yet more entrancing. They conducted her to her chamber; and, having been again undressed, she was laid in a sumptuous bed, where two men of exquisite beauty received her in their arms. Then was she in an ecstasy of delight; her raptures exceeded even her desires. ‘I am transported,’ she said; ‘I should think myself dying, were I not certain that I am immortal. It is too much; release me; I am overcome by excess of pleasure. Ah! you restore a little tranquillity to my senses; I breathe again; I return to myself. Why have the lights been taken away? Why can I not still contemplate your godlike beauty? Why can I not see … But, what do I talk of seeing? You make me glide once more into my former transports. Sweet heavens! how soothing is this darkness! What! I shall be immortal; and immortal with you! I shall be … No; respite a moment; for I see that you are not likely to ask it.’  12
  “After reiterated commands she was obeyed: but not until she seemed to wish it in good earnest. Drooping, she gave herself to repose, and slumbered in their arms. Two moments of sleep restored her strength, and she received two kisses which not only wakened her, but reawakened her passions. ‘I am uneasy,’ she said; ‘I doubt you love me no longer.’ It was a doubt in which she had no desire to remain long, and she soon had from them explanations as complete as she could desire. ‘I see my mistake,’ she cried; ‘pardon me, pardon me, I will never doubt you again. You say nothing; but your actions prove it better than anything you could say; yes, yes, I own it; no one was ever loved so much. But, what is this! you contest which shall have the honor of convincing me! Ah! if you vie with each other, if you join ambition to the pleasure of defeating me, I am lost; you will both be conquerors, and I, only, vanquished; but I will make you pay for your victory.’  13
  “Day alone put an end to these delights. Her faithful and attached servants entered her chamber and caused the two young men to rise; they were reconducted by two old men to the rooms where they were kept for her pleasure. She then rose, and appeared before her devoted court, first in the charms of a simple undress, and afterward appareled in the most costly attire. The past night had increased her beauty; it had given greater brilliance to her complexion, and a new attraction to her charms. The entire day was spent in dances, concerts, feats, games, and promenades; and it was noticed that Anais withdrew from time to time, and fled to her two young heroes: after some precious moments with them, she returned to the company which she had left, the expression of her face growing more and more serene. At last, toward evening, they lost sight of her altogether: she had gone to shut herself up in her seraglio, where she wished, she said, to make the acquaintance of those immortal captives who were to live with her forever. She therefore visited those apartments, the most retired and the most delightful, where she counted fifty slaves, miracles of manly beauty; all night she went from room to room, receiving everywhere homage ever new, ever the same.  14
  “Thus the immortal Anais passed her life, now in the midst of glittering throngs, now in solitary delight; admired by a brilliant company, or adored by a single ardent lover: often she would quit an enchanted palace, to pass into a rural grotto: flowers seemed to spring up at her tread, and pleasures crowded round her.  15
  “During more than eight days she spent her time in that happy mansion, always transported, and without ever passing a thought: she had enjoyed her happiness without knowing it, and without having had a single moment of that mental repose, in which the soul, if I may say so, takes account of itself, and listens to its own discourse in the silence of the passions.  16
  “The pleasures of the blessed are so engrossing, that they seldom enjoy this freedom of spirit: therefore it is that, being invincibly attached to present objects, they lose altogether the memory of things past, and have no longer any thought for that which they had known or loved in the other life.  17
  “But Anais, whose spirit was truly philosophical, had passed almost all her life in meditation: she had pushed her thought much further than one would have expected from a woman left to herself. The severe seclusion in which her husband had kept her, had left her no other enjoyment.  18
  “It was this strength of mind which had enabled her to despise the terror that had paralyzed her companions, and death, which was to be the end of her troubles and the beginning of her felicity.  19
  “And so she recovered by degrees from the intoxication of pleasure, and shut herself up alone in a room of her palace. She gave the rein to pleasing reflection on her past condition and her present happiness; she could not help pitying the wretched lot of her companions: one can always sympathize with the miseries which one has shared. Anais did not confine herself, however, to compassion: so kindly disposed was she toward these unfortunate women, that she was constrained to aid them.  20
  “She ordered one of the young men who were with her to assume the figure of her husband, go to his seraglio, master it, drive him out, and occupy his place until she recalled him.  21
  “The execution was prompt: he cut through the air, and arrived at the door of the seraglio of Ibrahim, who happened to be away. He knocked; every door flew open; the eunuchs fell at his feet. He flew toward the apartments where the wives of Ibrahim were shut up. He had in passing snatched the keys from the pocket of that jealous monster, to whom he had made himself invisible. He entered, and surprised the women first by his gentle and agreeable manner; and much more shortly after by the assiduity and the alacrity with which he embraced them. All were given cause to be astonished; and they would have taken it for a dream had there been less of reality about it.  22
  “While these novel incidents were passing in the seraglio, Ibrahim thundered at the door, announced himself, and stormed and shouted. After having overcome many obstacles, he entered, to the great consternation of the eunuchs. He strode on, but recoiled like one dropped from the clouds when he saw the false Ibrahim, his perfect image, exercising all the liberties of a master. He called for help, and bade the eunuchs aid him to kill this impostor: but he was not obeyed. Only one weak resource remained to him; and that was, to refer the matter to the judgment of his wives. In a single hour the false Ibrahim had corrupted all his judges. He was driven away, and dragged ignominiously out of the seraglio; and he would have been killed a thousand times, if his rival had not ordered that his life should be spared. Lastly, the new Ibrahim, remaining master of the field, proved himself more and more a worthy choice, and distinguished himself by feats before unknown. ‘You are not like Ibrahim,’ said the women. ‘Say rather that that impostor is not like me,’ replied the triumphant Ibrahim. ‘How could anyone deserve to be your husband, if what I do is insufficient.’  23
  “‘Ah! we shall be careful how we doubt,’ said the women: ‘if you are not Ibrahim, it is enough for us that you have so well deserved to be him: you are more Ibrahim, in one day, than he was in the course of ten years.’ ‘You promise me, then,’ replied he, ‘that you will declare in my favor against this impostor?’ ‘Never doubt it,’ cried they with one voice: ‘we swear to be forever faithful to you: we have been deceived quite long enough: the coward did not suspect our virtue, he suspected only his own impotence: we see clearly that men are not all made like him; it is you without doubt whom they resemble: if you only knew how much you make us hate him!’ ‘Ah! I will often give you new occasions for hatred,’ replied the false Ibrahim; ‘you do not yet know how great a wrong he has done you.’ ‘We judge of his iniquity by the greatness of your revenge,’ they replied. ‘Yes, you are right,’ said the godlike man; ‘I have proportioned the punishment to the crime; and I am very glad that you are satisfied with my method of punishment.’ ‘But,’ said these women, ‘should this impostor return, what shall we do?’ ‘It would be, I believe, difficult for him to deceive you,’ replied he: ‘in the relation in which I stand to you, one could hardly maintain himself by trickery: and besides, I will send him so far away that you will hear no more of him. Thereafter I shall take upon myself the care of your happiness. I will not be jealous; I know how to bind you to me without restraining you; I have a sufficiently good opinion of my own deserts to believe that you will be faithful to me; if not with me, with whom would you be virtuous?’ This conversation lasted a long time between him and these women; the latter, more struck by the difference between the two Ibrahims than by their resemblance, were not specially desirous to have the mystery cleared up. At last, the desperate husband returned again to annoy them: he found his whole household rejoicing, and his wives more incredulous than ever. It was no place for a jealous man; he went away mad with rage: and the moment after, the false Ibrahim followed him, seized him, carried him through the air to a distance of two thousand leagues, and there dropped him.  24
  “Ye gods, in what a wretched plight did these women find themselves during the absence of their dear Ibrahim! Already their eunuchs had resumed their accustomed severity; the whole household was in tears; sometimes they imagined that all that had happened was no more than a dream; they looked wistfully on each other, and recalled the slightest circumstances of these wonderful adventures. At last the heavenly Ibrahim returned more amiable than ever; it was evident to them that his journey had not put him about. The new master took a course so opposite to that of the other, that all his neighbors were amazed. He dismissed all the eunuchs, and opened his house to everybody: he would not even allow his wives to wear their veils. It was a most extraordinary thing to see them, feasting along with the men, and as free as they. Ibrahim believed, and rightly, that the customs of the country were not made for such citizens as he. Nevertheless, he spared no expense: he squandered with a lavish hand the possessions of the jealous husband, who, on his return three years after from the distant land to which he had been transported, found nothing left but his wives and thirty-six children.”

  PARIS, the 26th of the first moon of Gemmadi, 1720.
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