Some reflections on the Persian Letters

Nothing1 found more favor in the Persian Letters than to dis­co­ver in them, unex­pec­tedly, a sort of novel. One sees the begin­ning, the deve­lop­ment, and the end ; the various cha­rac­ters are pla­ced in a chain that connects them. As their stay in Europe leng­thens, the ways of this part of the world assume in their minds a less won­drous and less bizarre appea­rance, and they are more or less struck by that bizar­re­ness and that won­der in func­tion of the dif­fe­rence of their cha­rac­ters. Elsewhere, disor­der mounts in the sera­glio in Asia in pro­por­tion to the length of Usbek’s absence, in other words as the ire increa­ses and love dimi­ni­shes.

Moreover, these sorts of novels suc­ceed ordi­na­rily because one gives his own account of his pre­sent situa­tion, which makes the rea­der feel the pas­sions bet­ter than all the rela­tions that one could make about them.2 And that is one of the rea­sons for the suc­cess of a num­ber of char­ming works which have appea­red since the Persian Letters.3

Finally, in ordi­nary novels, digres­sions can be per­mit­ted only when they them­sel­ves cons­ti­tute a new novel. Reflections can­not be wor­ked in, because none of the cha­rac­ters having been assem­bled for reflec­tion, it would clash with the design and the nature of the work. But in the form of let­ters, where the actors are not cho­sen, and the sub­jects trea­ted are depen­dent on no set design or preës­ta­bli­shed plan, the author has given him­self the advan­tage of being able to incor­po­rate phi­lo­so­phy, poli­tics and mora­lity into a novel, and to connect it all by a silent and, in a sense, unk­nown chain.

The Persian Letters had at once such pro­di­gious sales that book­sel­lers tried eve­ry­thing to pro­cure sequels4 : they would go grab eve­ryone they met by the sleeve : Monsieur, they would say, write me some Persian let­ters.

But what I have just said suf­fi­ces to show that they do not lend them­sel­ves to any sequel, even less to any admix­ture with let­ters writ­ten by ano­ther hand, howe­ver inge­nious they may be.5

There are some barbs that nume­rous peo­ple have found too auda­cious.6 But they are invi­ted to take into account the nature of this work. The Persians who were to play such a great role in it were sud­denly trans­plan­ted to Europe, which is to say into ano­ther uni­verse. There was a time when they had neces­sa­rily to be repre­sen­ted as filled with igno­rance and pre­ju­dice. The only concern was to make visi­ble the gene­ra­tion and pro­gres­sion of their thoughts. Their first notions had to be sin­gu­lar : it see­med the only thing to do was to lend to them the sort of sin­gu­la­rity that was com­pa­ti­ble with cle­ver­ness. It was enough to depict the impres­sion they had of each thing that appea­red extra­or­di­nary to them. Far from thin­king of impli­ca­ting any prin­ci­ple of our reli­gion, there was not even any ink­ling of impru­dence. These barbs are always lin­ked to the fee­ling of sur­prise and asto­nish­ment, and not at all with the idea of scru­tiny, and even less with that of cri­ti­cism. When spea­king of our reli­gion, these Persians could not appear bet­ter infor­med than when they spoke of our cus­toms and man­ners. And if they some­ti­mes found our doc­tri­nes sin­gu­lar, that sin­gu­la­rity always tes­ti­fies to their utter igno­rance of the connec­tions that exist bet­ween those doc­tri­nes and our other truths.

We make this jus­ti­fi­ca­tion out of love for those great truths, inde­pen­dently of the res­pect for the human race which it was cer­tainly not our inten­tion to strike in its most sen­si­tive spot. We the­re­fore ask the rea­der not to cease for a minute to look on the barbs of which I speak as effects of the sur­prise of men who had to feel some, or as para­doxes for­med by men who were not even capa­ble of making them. He is asked to reco­gnize that all the plea­sure lay in the ever­las­ting contrast bet­ween real things and the sin­gu­lar, naive, or bizarre man­ner in which they are per­cei­ved. Certainly the nature and design of the Persian Letters are so patent that they will never fool any who do not wish to fool them­sel­ves.

This text appeared for the first time in edition D (1758), where it was placed before the body of the novel.

Montesquieu underscores both the advantage of the epistolary form, which eliminates the mediating narrator between the character’s subjectivity and the readers empathy, and passion as the underlying force of the novel, a thought to which he gives vivid expression in his Spicilège (no. 578) : “I am not surprised that [Manon Lescaut], of which the hero is a rogue and the heroine a whore who is taken to the Salpétrière [prison] pleases, because all the misdeeds of the hero the Chevalier des Grieux are motivated by love, which is always a noble motive even though the conduct is abject.”

The text of Montesquieu’s draft for these Reflections is more explicit : “[…] that is one of the reasons for the success of Pamela and the Lettres péruviennes (charming works that have since appeared)” (My Thoughts, no. 2033). Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or virtue rewarded had appeared in 1740 (French translation in 1741), Françoise de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne in 1747.

No doubt many tried their hand at “Persian letters,” but we only know of two real sequels : (1) Lettres d’une Turque à Paris, écrites à sa sœur, au sérail, pour servir de supplément aux “Lettres persanes” (1730), by Poullain de Saint-Foix, published also under the title Lettres de Nedim Coggia, secrétaire de l’ambassade de Méhémed Effendi à la Cour de France, et autres lettres turques (1732) ; (2) Letters from a Persian in England to his friend at Isfahan (1735) by Sir George Lyttelton, published that same year in a French translation entitled Nouvelles Lettres persanes.

There were imitations, but Montesquieu, who is nearly sixty in writing this, probably is concerned about any posthumous denaturing of his text, or of apocryphal sequels, by disavowing any possible prolongation in advance. Usbek remains in Paris, but has nothing more to say.

Such was indeed the reaction, for example, of Camusat and Marivaux in their reviews ; the author may also be thinking of abbé Gaultier’s recent work, Les “Lettres persannes” convaincues d’impiété (1751), wishing especially to deflect any criticism of that sort.