Montesquieu

Rica to Usbek in ***


I will come to see you at the end of the week ; how agreea­bly the days will go by with you !

I was pre­sen­ted a few days ago to a lady of the court who had some desire to see my foreign coun­te­nance. I found her lovely, wor­thy to be seen by our monarch, and of an august rank in the sacred place where his heart rests.

She asked me a thou­sand ques­tions about the ways of Persian and of their man­ner of living. It see­med to me that the life of the sera­glio was not to her taste, and that she was put off by the idea of a man sha­red among ten or twelve women. She could not see without envy the hap­pi­ness of the one, and without pity the condi­tion of the others. As she likes to read, espe­cially that of poets and novels, she invi­ted me to tell her about ours. What I told her about them increa­sed her curio­sity ; she bade me have trans­la­ted for her a frag­ment of some of the ones I have brought. I did so, and sent her a few days later a Persian tale ; you might enjoy seeing how it is trans­po­sed.

IN THE TIME of Sheik Ali Can,1 there was in Persia a woman named Zulema. She knew the entire holy Qur’an by heart ; there was no der­vich with bet­ter know­ledge than her of the tra­di­tions of the holy pro­phets. The Arabic doc­tors had said nothing so mys­te­rious that she had not unders­tand all its mea­nings, and to such lear­ning she added a cer­tain cha­rac­ter of play­ful mind that scar­cely allo­wed one to guess whe­ther she was trying to enter­tain those to whom she was spea­king or to ins­truct them.

One day when she was with her com­pa­nions in one of the rooms of the sera­glio, one of them asked her what she thought of the after-life, and whe­ther she gave cre­dence to that ancient tra­di­tion of our doc­tors accor­ding to which para­dise is inten­ded for men only.2

That is the com­mon opi­nion, she told them : there is nothing that has not been done to degrade our sex ; there is even a nation spread throu­ghout Persia, which we call the Jewish nation, which main­tains by the autho­rity of its holy books that we have no soul.3

These inju­rious opi­nions ori­gi­nate enti­rely from the arro­gance of men, who want to extend their super­io­rity even beyond their life­ti­mes, and do not think that in the great day all crea­tu­res will appear before God as nothing, having among them no pre­ro­ga­ti­ves but those that vir­tue has put there. God will not limit him­self in his recom­pen­ses ; and as the men who have lived well and made good use of the domi­nion they have over us here below, will be in a para­dise full of celes­tial, ravi­shing beau­ties, such that if a mor­tal had seen them, he would imme­dia­tely have ended his life from his impa­tience to enjoy them, vir­tuous women too will go to a place of delights where they will be intoxi­ca­ted by a tor­rent of plea­su­res with divine men who will be sub­ju­ga­ted to them ; each of them will have a sera­glio in which the men will be locked, and eunuchs even more loyal than ours to guard them.

I have read, she added, in an Arabic book, that a man named Ibrahim was unbea­ra­bly jea­lous. He had twelve extre­mely beau­ti­ful wives whom he trea­ted in a very harsh man­ner : he no lon­ger trus­ted his eunuchs, nor the walls of his sera­glio ; he kept them almost always under lock and key in their rooms without being able either to see or speak to each other, for he was even jea­lous of inno­cent friend­ship. All his actions took on the colo­ra­tion of his natu­ral bru­ta­lity ; never did a kind word cross his lips, and never did he make a les­ser sign but that it added some­thing to the rigor of their ensla­ve­ment.

One day when he had assem­bled them all in a room in his sera­glio, one of them, bol­der than the others, reproa­ched him for his bad tem­pe­ra­ment. When one tries so hard to find means of being fea­red, she told him, one always first finds means of being hated. We are so unhappy that we can­not help but desire a change. Others in my place would wish your death, I wish only for mine ; and being una­ble to hope to be sepa­ra­ted from you in any other way, it will still be very plea­sant to me to be sepa­ra­ted. These words, which ought to have moved him, sent him into furious anger : he drew his dag­ger and plun­ged it into her breast. My dear com­pa­nions, she said in a fai­ling voice, if hea­ven takes pity on my vir­tue, you will be aven­ged. With those words she depar­ted this unfor­tu­nate life to go to the abode of delights where women who have lived a good life enjoy a hap­pi­ness that is fore­ver rene­wed.

First she saw a plea­sant prai­rie, its gree­nery heigh­te­ned by the colors of the brigh­test flo­wers ; a stream whose waters were purer than crys­tal mean­de­red through it. She then ente­red into char­ming woods whose silence was inter­rup­ted only by the sweet song of the birds. Magnificent gar­dens next appea­red ; nature had bede­cked them with its sim­pli­city and all its magni­fi­cence. Finally found a sump­tuous palace pre­pa­red for her, and filled with celes­tial men des­ti­ned for her plea­su­res.

Two of them came for­ward at once to dis­robe her ; others pla­ced her in the bath, and per­fu­med her with the most deli­cious essen­ces ; next they gave her rai­ment infi­ni­tely more rich than her own, after which they led her into a large room where she found a fire built from fra­grant woods and a table cove­red with the most exqui­site deli­ca­cies. Everything see­med to cons­pire to ravi­shing the sen­ses : on one hand she heard music all the more divine that it was the more ten­der ; on ano­ther she could see nothing but the dan­ces of those divine men exclu­si­vely occu­pied with plea­sing her. Yet all these plea­su­res were to serve only to draw her gra­dually into grea­ter plea­su­res. She was led to her room, and once she was again dis­ro­bed, she was car­ried to a sump­tuous bed, where two men of enchan­ting beauty took her into their arms. It was then she was intoxi­ca­ted and her ecs­tasy sur­pas­sed even her desi­res. I don’t know where I am, she told them, I would think I was dying if I were not assu­red of my immor­ta­lity. It is too much, leave me ; I am over­come by the vio­lence of plea­su­res. Yes, you res­tore some calm to my sen­ses ; I begin to brea­the, and feel like myself. Why have they taken away the tor­ches ? Why may I not now contem­plate your divine beauty ? Why can I not see… But why see ? You are taking me back to my first trans­ports. Ye gods, how lova­ble is this dark­ness ! You mean I shall be immor­tal, and immor­tal with you ? I shall be… No, please, have mercy, for I see that is some­thing you will never ask.

After seve­ral rei­te­ra­ted com­mands, she was obeyed, but not before she quite seriously wished to be ; she res­ted lan­guidly, and fell asleep in their arms. Two moments of sleep res­to­red her ener­gies ; she recei­ved two kis­ses that ins­tantly infla­med her and cau­sed her to open her eyes. I am uneasy, she said ; I am afraid you no lon­ger love me. That was a doubt in which she did not wish long to remain ; indeed she had with them all the cla­ri­fi­ca­tions she could desire. I am disa­bu­sed, she cried ; par­don, par­don, I am confi­dent in you ; you say nothing, but you prove bet­ter than any­thing you could say to me. Yes, yes, I confess it, never did anyone so love. But what is this ? You vie for the honor of per­sua­ding me ? Oh, if you quar­rel, if you add ambi­tion to the plea­sure of my capi­tu­la­tion, I am fini­shed ! You shall both be vic­tors ; I shall be the only one van­qui­shed, but I shall make the vic­tory cost you dearly.

All this was inter­rup­ted only by day­light. Her fai­th­ful and amia­ble ser­vants ente­red her room and got the two young men up, who were led by two old men to the quar­ters where they were kept for her plea­su­res. She then arose, and first appea­red at that court of ido­la­try in the charms of a sim­ple desha­bille, and after­ward cove­red with the most sump­tuous orna­ments. The night had enhan­ced her beauty ; it had given life to her color and expres­sion to her gra­ces. All day long it was nothing but dan­ces, concerts, feasts, games, strolls ; and it was noted that Anais slip­ped away from time to time and flew to her two young heroes ; after some pre­cious moments of inter­view she would return to the group she had left, each time with more sere­nity in her coun­te­nance. Finally, toward eve­ning, they lost her com­ple­tely ; she went to close her­self up in the sera­glio, where she wan­ted, she said, to get to know these immor­tal cap­ti­ves who were fore­ver to live with her. She the­re­fore visi­ted the apart­ments of those most remote and most char­ming quar­ters where she coun­ted fifty sla­ves of mira­cu­lous beauty ; she roa­med all night from room to room, recei­ving in each one homa­ges ever dif­fe­rent and ever the same.

This is how the immor­tal Anais spent her life, now in spec­ta­cu­lar plea­su­res, now in soli­tary plea­su­res ; admi­red by a brilliant troop, or loved by an ecs­ta­tic lover ; often she left an enchan­ted palace to go to a coun­try grotto ; flo­wers see­med to sprout under her feet, and games arose in dro­ves to meet her.

In over a week in this happy abode, still deli­rious, she had not made a sin­gle reflec­tion ; she had enjoyed her hap­pi­ness without unders­tan­ding it, and without a sin­gle one of those moments when the soul makes an account, so to speak, to itself and lis­tens to itself in the silence of the pas­sions.

The bles­sed have plea­su­res so intense that they can rarely enjoy such free­dom of spi­rit ; that is why, invin­ci­bly atta­ched to pre­sent objects, they enti­rely lose their memory of things past, and have no more care at all for what they have known or loved in their for­mer life.

But Anais, whose mind was truly phi­lo­so­phi­cal, had spent almost all her life medi­ta­tion ; she had taken her reflec­tions much far­ther than should have been expec­ted of a woman left to her­self. The aus­tere retreat in which her hus­band had kept her had left her this sin­gle advan­tage. It was this force of spi­rit that had led her to brave the fear that struck her com­pa­nions, and death, which was to be the end of her suf­fe­rings and the begin­ning of her bliss.

Thus she slowly emer­ged from the ine­bria­tion of plea­su­res, and enclose her­self alone in an apart­ment of her palace. She let her­self go to most agreea­ble reflec­tions on her past condi­tion and her pre­sent bliss : she could not help fee­ling com­pas­sion for the unhap­pi­ness of her com­pa­nions ; one is sen­si­tive to tor­ments one has sha­red. Anais did not limit her­self to the mere bounds of com­pas­sion : more ten­der towards those unfor­tu­na­tes, she felt an urge to help them.

She orde­red one of those young men who was with her to assume the face of her hus­band, go into his sera­glio, take control of it, drive him out, and stay there in his place until she recal­led him.

The exe­cu­tion was prompt : he sped through space and came to the door of the sera­glio of Ibrahim, who was not there. He knocks : eve­ry­thing opens wide, the eunuchs fall at his feet ; he flies towards the apart­ments where Ibrahim’s wives are locked up. On the way he had taken the keys from the pocket of the jea­lous hus­band to whom he had made him­self invi­si­ble. He enters, and imme­dia­tely sur­pri­ses them by his gentle, affa­ble air, and soon after he sur­pri­ses them even more by his eager­ness and the rapi­dity of his ini­tia­ti­ves. They all had a share in the asto­nish­ment, and they would have thought he was a dream had there been less rea­lity.

While these new sce­nes were playing out in the sera­glio, Ibrahim knocks, sta­tes his name, rages and shouts. After pas­sing through many dif­fi­culties, he enters and cases the eunuchs into an extreme disor­der ; he stri­des for­ward, but recoils and falls as if thun­ders­truck when he sees the false Ibrahim, his true image, in all the liber­ties of a mas­ter. He cries for help ; he wants the eunuchs to help him kill this impos­ter ; but he is not obeyed. He has but one very fee­ble recourse remai­ning, which is to rely on the judg­ment of his wives. In an hour the false Ibrahim had sedu­ced all his jud­ges : he is dri­ven and drag­ged igno­bly out of the sera­glio, and would have a thou­sand times been put to death had his rival not orde­red that his life be spa­red. Finally the new Ibrahim, alone mas­ter of the bat­tle­field, pro­ved him­self more and more wor­thy of such a choice, and dis­tin­gui­shed him­self by mira­cles here­to­fore unseen. You are not like Ibrahim, these wives would say. Say rather that that impos­ter is not like me, said the trium­phant Ibrahim ; what does it take to be your hus­band, if what I am doing does not suf­fice ?

Oh, we are not about to doubt, said the wives. If you are not Ibrahim, it is enough for us that you have so well deser­ved to be ; you are more Ibrahim in a day than he was in the course of ten years. You pro­mise me then, he replied, that you will declare your­sel­ves in my favor against that impos­ter ? Have no doubt, they said in a sin­gle voice ; we swear to you ever­las­ting fide­lity. We have only too long been abu­sed ; the bas­tard did not sus­pect our vir­tue, he only sus­pec­ted his weak­ness ; we see clearly that men are not made like him ; it is no doubt you they are like ; if you knew how much you make us hate him. Oh, I will often give you new rea­sons for hatred, replied the false Ibrahim ; you do not yet know all the harm he has done you. We judge his injus­tice by the great­ness of our ven­geance, they replied. Aye, you are right, said the divine man, I have mea­su­red the expia­tion to the crime ; I am very plea­sed that you are satis­fied with my way of puni­shing. But, said these women, if that impos­ter returns, what shall we do ? It would be dif­fi­cult, I think, for him to fool you, he ans­we­red, in the place I occupy with you, it can hardly be main­tai­ned by ruse ; and moreo­ver I shall send him so far away that you will never hear of him again. Then I shall assume res­pon­si­bi­lity for your hap­pi­ness. I shall not be jea­lous, I shall be able to keep you true without res­trai­ning you ; I have good enough opi­nion of my merit to believe you will be fai­th­ful to me. If you were not vir­tuous with me, with whom would you be ? This conver­sa­tion went on for a long time bet­ween him and these women, who, more struck by the dif­fe­rence bet­ween the two Ibrahims than by their resem­blance, never had even a thought of inqui­ring about so many mar­vels. Ultimately the des­pe­rate hus­band retur­ned again to trou­ble them : he found his whole house in joy, and the women more incre­du­lous than ever. The posi­tion was not tena­ble for a jea­lous man ; he left, furious, and an ins­tant later the false Ibrahim fol­lo­wed him, took hold of him, and trans­por­ted him through space, and left him four hun­dred lea­gues away.

O gods, in what deso­la­tion did these women find them­sel­ves in the absence of their dear Ibrahim ! Already their eunuchs had resu­med their natu­ral seve­rity ; the whole house was in tears ; they would ima­gine some­ti­mes that eve­ry­thing that had hap­pe­ned to them was only a dream. They all would look at each other and remem­ber the sligh­test cir­cum­stan­ces of those strange adven­tu­res. Finally Ibrahim retur­ned ever more lova­ble ; it see­med to them that his jour­ney had not been dif­fi­cult ; the new mas­ter adop­ted a beha­vior so oppo­site the other’s that it sur­pri­sed all the neigh­bors. He fired all the eunuchs, made his house acces­si­ble to eve­ryone ; he was even unwilling to allow his wives to be vei­led. It was a rather sin­gu­lar thing to see them at fes­ti­vals among the men as free as they. Ibrahim rightly belie­ved that the cus­toms of the land were not made for citi­zens like him­self. Meanwhile he spa­red no expense ; he dis­si­pa­ted with immense pro­fu­sion the wealth of the jea­lous man, who, back three years later from the dis­tant lands where he had been trans­por­ted, found nothing left but his wives and thirty-six chil­dren.

Paris this 26th day of the moon of Gemmadi I, 1720

He was named grand vizier of shah Soliman III in 1668.

This question had been treated by Pierre Bayle in the article “Muhammad” of his Dictionnaire historique et critique.

Though there is no obvious Jewish source for this proposition, it is probably a deduction based on Genesis 2:18 : woman having been created as a “helpmeet” to man – which he will no longer need in the next life – she requires no immortal soul. The question of woman’s soul, traditional since Aristotle, was an object of debate at the Council of Mâcon in 585.