Montesquieu

Zelis1 to Usbek in Paris


Never was a pas­sion more power­ful or more lively than that of Cosrou, a white eunuch,2 for my slave Zelide3 : he is asking for her in mar­riage with such fury that I can­not refuse her to him. And why should I oppose it, when her mother does not, and Zelide her­self seems satis­fied with the thought of this false mar­riage, and the vain sha­dow she is being offe­red ?4

What use can she make of that unfor­tu­nate, who will be a hus­band only in his jea­lousy, who will cease to be indif­fe­rent only to enter into futile des­pair, will always recall the memory of what he once was to make her remem­ber what he no lon­ger is, who ever willing to give of him­self, and never giving, will cons­tantly deceive him­self and her, and make him­self feel at every moment all the mise­ries of his condi­tion ?

What would it be to be fore­ver in ima­ges and phan­toms ? To live only in order to ima­gine ? To find one­self always sur­roun­ded by plea­su­res and never among them ? Languishing in the arms of an unfor­tu­nate not to res­pond to his sighs, but only to his regrets ?

What contempt must one not have for a man of this kind, whose pur­pose is only to guard, and never to pos­sess ? I look for love, and do not see it.

I speak freely to you because you like my can­dor, and pre­fer my open­ness and my sen­si­ti­vity to plea­su­res to the fei­gned modesty of my peers.

I have heard you say a thou­sand times that eunuchs enjoy with women a kind of sen­sual plea­sure that is unk­nown to us ; that nature com­pen­sa­tes itself for its los­ses ; that it has resour­ces for repai­ring the han­di­cap of their condi­tion ; that one can indeed cease to be a man without cea­sing to be sen­si­tive ; and that in that state one is in some­thing like a third sense, where all you do, so to speak, is to change plea­su­res.

If that were so I would find Zelide less pitia­ble ; it is some­thing to live with peo­ple less unhappy.

Give me your orders on this mat­ter, and let me know whe­ther you wish the mar­riage to take place in the sera­glio. Adieu.

From the Isfahan sera­glio this 5th day of the moon of Chalval 1713

Zelis will be mentioned (letter 144) with Roxane as one of Usbek’s wives, making five in all (cf. letter 19, note 1), although the Qur’an – as Usbek explicitly recognizes in letter 110 – limits their number to four. Usbek also possesses concubines (see letter 45). Zelis will later play an important role, reappearing in letters 60 and 68 as writer, and in letter 69 as addressee ; and as subject in letters 139, 140, 144, et 148.

Sole mention of this character, whose name is to be found in Chardin (X, 103).

In letter 4, Zelide was the slave of Zephis ; the the principal eunuch had expressed the intention of taking her from her : see letter 19, note 1.

The subtitle of Charles Ancillon’s Traité des eunuques specified : où on examine principalement s’ils sont propres au mariage, et s’il leur doit être permis de se marier (‘Treatise on eunuchs, in which it is examined whether they are suited to marriage and whether they should be allowed to marry’). His thesis is clear : “Eunuchs who unite with a woman are deceiving her ; they do not contract marriage with her because they are not capable of contributing on their part as they should to the substance of marriage. Thus we can say that it is no more than a vain phantom, it is merely a feigned and simulated marriage, and not a real and genuine marriage at all” (p. 115-116).