Montesquieu

Rica to Usbek in ***


This mor­ning I was in my room, which, as you know, is sepa­ra­ted from the others only by a very thin par­ti­tion, with seve­ral ope­nings in it so that one hears eve­ry­thing that hap­pens in the next room. A man who was pacing with great stri­des was saying to ano­ther : I don’t know what it is, but eve­ry­thing is tur­ning against me ; it ha’s been three days since I said any­thing that did me any cre­dit, and I have found myself inter­min­gled indis­cri­mi­na­tely in every conver­sa­tion without anyone paying me any atten­tion or addres­sing me even twice. I had pre­pa­red a few set pie­ces to spice up my speech, but they have never allo­wed them me to bring them up ; I had a nice story to tell, but as I tried to work up to it they dod­ged I had done it on pur­pose ; I have some cle­ver remarks that for four days have been aging in my head without my being able to make the least use of them. If this keeps up, I think I will end up a moron : it seems that is my des­tiny, and that I can­not avoid it. Yesterday I had hoped to shine with three or four old ladies who cer­tainly do not inti­mi­date me, and I would have said the most delight­ful ; it took me more than a quar­ter-hour to steer my conver­sa­tion, but they never fol­lo­wed a cohe­rent line, and like the Parcae cut the thread of eve­ry­thing I said. Do you want to know what I think ? A repu­ta­tion for cle­ver­ness is very hard to sus­tain, and I don’t know how you have mana­ged to suc­ceed at it. I have an idea, replied the other ; let us work toge­ther to make our­sel­ves look cle­ver. Let us col­la­bo­rate on that : each of us will tell the other every day what we are to talk about, and we will shoul­der each other so well that if someone should inter­rupt in the middle of our train of thought, we will draw him in our­sel­ves, and if he does not come willin­gly we will force him. We will agree on the pla­ces when we should approve, when we should smile, others when we should laugh out loud and uproa­riously. You will see that we will set the tone in every conver­sa­tion, and peo­ple will admire the live­li­ness of our wit and the cle­ver­ness of our rejoin­ders. We will pro­tect each other with reci­pro­cal nods. You will shine today ; tomor­row you will be my second. I shall go into a house with you and exclaim, poin­ting at you : I must tell you a most amu­sing reply which mon­sieur just made to a man we encoun­te­red in the street – and I will turn towards you – he did not expect it, and was quite taken aback. I will recite some of my ver­ses, and you will say : I was there when he wrote them ; it was during a sup­per, and he took not even a moment to think about them. Often we will even tease each other, and they will say : Look how they attack each other and how they defend them­sel­ves ; they don’t spare each other ; let’s see how he will get out of that one : beau­ti­ful, what pre­sence of mind ! It is a real bat­tle, but they will not say that we had spar­red the day before. We’ll have to buy cer­tain books, which are col­lec­tions of jokes inten­ded for those who have no wit, and want to fake it ; it all hin­ges on having some models. I think before six months are up we will be able to main­tain an hour’s conver­sa­tion chock full of jokes. But we must take care to sus­tain their for­tune ; it is not enough to tell a joke ; it must be publi­shed, it must be spread abroad and sown eve­ryw­here ; other­wise it is for naught ; and I confess that there is nothing so dis­maying as to see a lovely thing you have said die in the ear of the idiot who hears it. It is true that often there is a com­pen­sa­tion, and that we also make many foo­lish remarks that pass inco­gnito ; and that is the only thing that can console us in that ins­tance. This, my friend, is what we should decide upon. Do what I tell you, and I pro­mise you within six months a seat in the Académie. That is just to say that it will not be a long labor, for then you will be able to relin­quish your art : you will be willy-nilly a man of wit. They remark in France that once a man enters a society, he imme­dia­tely assu­mes what is cal­led the esprit du corps : you will do the same, and the only thing I fear for you is an embar­rass­ment of applause.

Paris this 6th day of the moon of Zilcadé 1714