Montesquieu

Usbek to his wife Zachi1 in the Isfahan sera­glio


You have offen­ded me, Zachi, and I feel in my heart urges that you ought to fear if my depar­ture did not leave you the time to change your beha­vior and calm the vio­lent jea­lousy tor­men­ting me.

I hear that you have been found alone with the white eunuch Nadir,2 who will pay for his infi­de­lity and betrayal with his head. How have you have so for­got­ten your­self as not to rea­lize that you are not per­mit­ted to receive a white eunuch in your room, while you have black ones whose duty is it to serve you ?3 There is no point in your tel­ling me that eunuchs are not men, and that your vir­tue sets you above thoughts that an imper­fect resem­blance could sug­gest to you. That will not do either for you or for me. For you, because you are doing some­thing that the laws of the sera­glio for­bid you to do ; for me, because you vio­late my honor by expo­sing your­self to the gaze – nay, merely the gaze ? per­haps to the enter­pri­ses4 – of a trai­tor who might have soi­led you with his cri­mes, and even more by his regrets and the des­pair of his impo­tence.

Maybe you will tell me that you have always been fai­th­ful to me. But what choice did you have ? How could you have eva­ded the vigi­lance of those black eunuchs who are so taken aback by the life you lead ? How could you have bro­ken those bolts and those doors that keep you locked in ? You vaunt a vir­tue that is not free ; and your impure desi­res have per­haps a thou­sand times denied you the merit and the reward for that fide­lity you so vaunt.

Supposing you have not done all that I have rea­son to sus­pect ; that the trai­tor did not put his sacri­le­gious hands on you ; that you refu­sed to feast his eyes on his mas­ter’s delights ; that, with your clo­thes on, you kept that frail bar­rier bet­ween him and your­self ; that, him­self struck by a holy res­pect, he lowe­red his eyes ; that, his bold­ness fai­ling, he trem­bled at the punish­ments he is set­ting in store for him­self : were all that true, it is no less true that you have done some­thing coun­ter to your duty ; and if you have vio­la­ted it for nothing, without gra­ti­fying your res­tive incli­na­tions, what would have done to satisfy them ? What would you yet do if you could escape that sacred place, which to you is a harsh pri­son, as it is for your com­pa­nions a favo­ra­ble haven from the attacks of vice, a holy tem­ple where your sex loses its hel­pless­ness and beco­mes invin­ci­ble, des­pite all the disad­van­ta­ges of nature ? What would you do if, left to your­self, you had nothing to defend you but your love for me, which is so grie­vously offen­ded, and your duty, which you have so unwor­thily betrayed ? Sacred are the ways of the coun­try where you live, which pre­serve you from attack by the vilest sla­ves ? You must thank me for the cons­traint under which I keep you, since it is only because of it that you still deserve to live.

You can­not suf­fer the chief of the eunuchs, because he always has his eyes on your beha­vior, and gives you wise advice. His face is so hor­ri­ble, you say, that you can­not look at him without crin­ging, as if we pla­ced more beau­ti­ful objects in that sort of posi­tion. What you regret is not having in his place the white eunuch who disho­nors you.

But what did your first slave do to you ? She told you that the liber­ties you were taking with the young Zelide5 were inde­cent : that is the rea­son for your ire.

I ought to be a severe judge, Zachi ; I am but a hus­band, who is trying to find you inno­cent. My love for Roxane,6 my new wife, has left to me all the affec­tion I should have for you, who are not less fair. I share my love bet­ween you, and Roxane’s only advan­tage is that which vir­tue can add to beauty.

Smyrna this 12th day of the moon of Zilcade 17127

This letter is in part a response to letter 3 of 21 March 1711, but it is provoked above all by information received in the interim from Isfahan (but not part of the collection) : see note following.

Sole mention, here and in the following letter, of this person. As this letter is dated 12 January 1712, the information received by Usbek in Smyrna must have left Isfahan, at the latest, three or four months earlier : Zachi has taken not more than six months to be betray the “passion” she had expressed so emphatically in letter 3. Cf also Supplementary letter 9.

“There are two sorts of eunuchs to guard the sultan’s wives and those of the great lords. Some are white, and these rarely approach the women, but are charged with guarding the gates of the harem ; the others are black, their faces hideous, and are completely cut off, as are also the former, and it is these who guard the interior of the harem.” (Tavernier, book V, ch. xiv ; vol. I, p. 705.) On white eunuchs, see letter 20, note 1.

The allusion to the eunuch’s “enterprises” recognizes that castration did not necessarily deprive them of all sexual motivation : “they say that eunuchs, although they are totally amputated, are nevertheless able to give and receive pleasure in intercourse with women” (Chardin, VI, 231).

The same slave of Zephis with whom she was caught in a compromising situation earlier (letter 4) ; cf. letter 51, note 3.

First mention of Roxane, fourth wife of Usbek, who will be the recipient of letter 24 and the author of letters 148 and 150. Roxane is an authentic Persian name, that of one sister of king Cambyses II (cf. letter 65, note 4) ; but the echo of Racine’s Roxane in Bazajet serves to reinforce the tragic overtones which will be reinforced in letter 150.

“Zilcadé” corresponds to January ; the year is necessarily 1712, as in the following letter.