Montesquieu

Zelis to Usbek in Paris


Your daugh­ter having rea­ched her seventh year, I thought it was time to trans­fer her to the inner apart­ments of the sera­glio, and not to wait until she was ten to put her into the hands of the black eunuchs. It is never too early to deprive a young per­son of the free­doms of child­hood and give her a holy edu­ca­tion in the sacred walls where modesty dwells.

For I can­not share the opi­nion of those mothers who enclose their daugh­ters only when they are about to give them a hus­band ; who sen­tence them to the sera­glio rather than conse­cra­ting them to it, make them embrace for­ci­bly a man­ner of life they should have ins­pi­red in them. Must one expect eve­ry­thing from the force of rea­son, and nothing from the gent­le­ness of habit ?1

It is in vain to talk to us about the subor­di­na­tion in which nature has pla­ced us ; it is not enough to make us aware of it, we must be made to prac­tice it, so it will sus­tain us at that cru­cial time when the pas­sions begin to arise and urge us toward inde­pen­dence.

If we were atta­ched to you only by duty, we might some­ti­mes for­get it ; if were swept in only by incli­na­tion, a stron­ger incli­na­tion might wea­ken it. But when the laws give us to a man, they hide us from all others, and place us as far from them as if were a thou­sand lea­gues away.

Nature, avid in favor of men, did not limi­ted her­self to giving them desi­res ; she wan­ted us to have some our­sel­ves, to be active ins­tru­ments of their feli­city ; she put us in the fire of pas­sions so they could live there tran­quilly. If they make excep­tion to their insen­si­ti­vity, she has des­ti­ned us to force them back in, without ever our­sel­ves enjoying that happy state2 in which we put them.

Nevertheless, Usbek, do not ima­gine that your situa­tion is hap­pier than mine. I have tas­ted here a thou­sand plea­su­res that you know not ; my ima­gi­na­tion has labo­red cea­se­lessly to make me aware of their value ; I have lived, and you have merely lan­gui­shed.

Even in the pri­son where you keep me, I am freer than you3 ; you could not redou­ble your atten­tions to have me guar­ded with my enjoying your anxie­ties, and your sus­pi­cions, your jea­lousy, and your wor­ries are so many signs of your depen­dency.

Continue, dear Usbek ; have me over­seen night and day ; do not even rely on the ordi­nary pre­cau­tions ; aug­ment my hap­pi­ness by insu­ring yours, and know that the only thing I fear is your indif­fe­rence.

The Isfahan sera­glio this 2nd day of the moon of Rhebiab II, 1714

An implicit critique less of forced vocations than of violence and constraint.

Thus, according to Zelis, who occupies a particular situation in the seraglio, pleasure is reserved to men – which opposes her to Fatmé or Zachi, rivals in “sensitivity” (letters 3 and 7).

A covert allusion to the licence to which one of the wives secretly abandons herself ? This idea will appear more clearly some days later, in letter 62.