Persian Letters

Montesquieu

Preview: Issue 1 of 28

Translated by John Davidson.

Letter 1

Usbek to his friend Rustan, at Isfahan

We stayed only one day at Qom. After having said our prayers before the tomb of the virgin who brought forth twelve prophets, we resumed our journey, and yesterday, the twenty-sixth day since our departure from Ispahan, we came to Tauris.

Rica and myself are perhaps the first Persians who have left their native country urged by the thirst for knowledge; who have abandoned the amenities of a tranquil life for the laborious search after wisdom.

Although born in a prosperous realm, we did not believe that its boundaries should limit our knowledge, and that the lore of the East should alone enlighten us.

Tell me, without flattery, what is said of our journey: I do not expect that is will be generally commended. Address your letter to Erzeroum, where I shall stay for some time. Farewell, my dear Rustan. Rest assured that in whatever part of the world I may be, you have in me a faithful friend.

Tauris, the 15th of the moon of Saphar, 1711.

Letter 2

Usbek to the chief black Eunuch, at his Seraglio in Ispahan

You are the faithful keeper of the most loveliest women in Persia; I have entrusted you with what in this world is most dear to me; you bear the keys of those fatal doors which are opened only for me. Whilst you watch over this precious storehouse of my affections, my heart, at rest, enjoys an absolute freedom from care. You guard it in the silence of the night as well as in the bustle of the day. Your un-relaxing care sustains virtue when it wavers. Should the women whom you guard incline to swerve from their duty, you would destroy their hopes in the bud. You are the scourge of vice, and the very monument of fidelity.

You command them and they obey. You fulfill implicitly all their desires, and exact from them a like obedience to the laws of the seraglio; you take a pride in rendering them the meanest services; you submit to their lawful commands with reverence and in dread; you serve them like the slave of their slaves. But, resuming your power, you command imperiously, as my representative, whenever you apprehend any slackening of the laws of chastity and modesty.

Never forget that I raised you from the lowest position among my slaves, to set you in your present place as the trusted guardian of the delights of my heart. Maintain the most humble bearing in the presence of those who partake my love; but, at the same time, make them deeply conscious of their own powerlessness. Provide for them all innocent pleasures; beguile them of their anxiety; entertain them with music, dancing, and delicious drinks; persuade them to meet together frequently. If they wish to go into the country, you may escort them thither; but lay hands on every man who dares to enter their presence. Exhort them to that cleanliness which is the symbol of the soul's purity; speak sometimes of me. I long to see them again in that delightful place which they adorn. Farewell.

Tauris, the 18th of the moon of Saphar, 1711.

Letter 3

Zachi to Usbek, At Tauris

We instructed the chief of the eunuchs to take us into the country; he will inform you that we arrived there without accident. When we had to leave our litters in order to cross the river, we went, as usual, into boxes: two slaves carried us on their shoulders, and we were seen by nobody.

Dear Usbek, how I can endure existence in your seraglio at Ispahan! It recalls everlastingly my past happiness, provoking daily my desires with renewed vehemence.

I wander from room to room, always searching for you; mocked at my every turn by the cruel memory of my vanished bliss. Sometimes I behold you in that spot where I first received you in my arms; again I see you in the room where you decided that famous quarrel among your women. Each of us asserted a superiority in beauty. We came just before you, after having exhausted our fancy in decking ourselves with jewelry and adornments. You noted with pleasure the marvels of our art; you were astonished at the height to which we had carried our desire to please you. But you soon made those borrowed graces give way to more natural charms; you destroyed the result of our labours: we were compelled to despoil ourselves of those ornaments, now become tiresome to you, and to appear before you in the simplicity of nature. For me, modesty counted as nothing; I thought only of conquest. Happy Usbek! What charms did you then behold. Long you wandered from enchantment to enchantment, unable to control your roving fancy; each new grace required your willing tribute; in an instant you covered us all with your kisses; your eager looks strayed into the recesses of our charms; you made us vary our attitudes a thousand times; and new commands brought forth new obedience. I avow it, Usbek, a passion stronger even than ambition filled me with a desire to please you. Gradually I saw myself become your heart's mistress; you chose me, left me, returned your love to me, and I knew now to keep your love: my triumph was the despair of my rivals. You and I felt as it we were the sole inhabitants of the world: nothing but ourselves deserved a moment's thought. Would to Heaven my rivals had been brave enough to witness all the proofs of love you gave me! Had they watched well my transports they would have felt the difference between their love and mine; it would have been plain to them that, though they might dispute the palm of beauty, they could not vie with me in tenderness…But what is this? Where has this vain rehearsal led me? It is a misfortunate not to be loved, but to have love withdrawn from one is an outrage. You abandon us, Usbek, to wander in barbarous climes. What! Do you count it as nothing to be loved? Alas! You do not even know what it is you lose! The sighs I heave there is none to hear; my falling tears are not by to pity. Your insensibility takes you further and further from the love that throbs for your in your seraglio. Ah! My beloved Usbek, if you only knew your happiness!

The Seraglio at Fatme, the 21st of the moon of Maharram, 1711.

Letter 4

Zephis to Usbek, at Erzeroum

At length the black monster has resolved to drive me to despair. He is absolutely determined to deprive me of my slave, Zelida--Zelida, who serves me with such affection, and at whose magical touch new charms appear. Nor is he satisfied with the pangs this separation causes me; he is bent on my dishonour. The wretch pretends to treat as criminal the motives of my confidence, and because he was weary of standing behind the door, where I always tell him to wait, he dares to imagine that he heard or saw things which my fancy cannot even conceive. I am very unhappy! Neither my isolation nor my virtue can secure me from his preposterous suspicions. A vile slave would drive me from your heart, and I am called on to defend myself even in your bosom!--But no; I am too proud to justify myself: you alone shall vouch for my behaviour--your love and my love, and--need I say it, dear Usbek?--my tears.

The Seraglio at Fatme, the 29th of the moon of Maharram, 1711.

Letter 5

Rustan to Usbek, at Erzeroum

You are the one subject of conversation at Ispahan; nothing is talked of but your departure: some ascribe it to a giddy spirit, others to some heavy affliction; your friends are your only defenders, and they make no converts. People fail to understand why you should forsake your wives, your relations, your friends, and your native country, to visit lands of which Persians know nothing. Rica's mother is inconsolable; she wants her son again, whom, she declares, you have decoyed away. As for me, my dear Usbek, I am, of course, anxious to approve of all your actions; but I do not see how I am to pardon your absence, and, however good your reasons may be, my heart will never appreciate them.

Ispahan, the 28th of the first moon of Rebiab, 1711.

Letter 6

Usbek to his friend Nessir, at Ispahan

At the distance of a day's journey from Erivan we left Persian ground, and entered Turkish territory. Twelve days after, we reached Erzeroum, where we stayed three or four months.

I own, Nessir, I felt sorry, though I did not show it, when I lost sight of Persia and found myself among the treacherous Osmanli. It seems to me that I become more and more of a pagan the further I advance into this heathenish country.

My fatherland, my family, and my friends came vividly before me; my affections revived; and, to crown all, an indefinable uneasiness laid hold of me, warning me that I had ventured on too great an undertaking for my peace of mind.

But that which afflicts me most is the memory of my wives. I have only to think of them to be consumed with grief.

Do not imagine that I love them: insensibility in that matter, Nessir, has left me without desires. Living with so many wives, I have forestalled love--it has indeed been its own destruction; but from this very callousness there springs a secret jealousy which devours me. I behold a band of women left almost entirely to themselves; except some low-minded wretches, no one is answerable for their conduct. I would hardly feel safe, if my slaves were faithful: how would it be if they were not so? What doleful tidings may I not receive in those far-off lands which I am about to visit! The mischief of this is, that my friends are unable to help me; they are forbidden to inquire into the sources of my misery; and what could they do after all? I would prefer a thousand times that such faults should remain unknown because uncorrected, than that they should become notorious through some condign punishment! I unbosom myself to you, my dear Nessir: it is the only consolation left me in my misery.

Erzeroum, the 10th of the second moon of Rebiab, 1711.

Letter 7

Fatme to Usbek, at Erzeroum

You have been gone for two months, my dear Usbek, and I am so dejected that I cannot yet persuade myself you have been so long away. I wander through every corner of the seraglio as if you were there; I cherish that sweet delusion. What is there left to do for a woman who loves you; who has been accustomed to clasp you in her arms; whose only desire was to give you new proofs of her affection; who was born to the blessings of freedom, but became a slave through the ardour of her passion?

When I married you, my eyes had not yet seen the face of man; and you are still the only man whom I have been permitted to look on:1 for I do not count as men those frightful eunuchs whose least imperfection is that they are not men. When I compare the beauty of your countenance with the deformity of theirs, I cannot forbear esteeming myself a happy woman: my imagination can conceive no more ravishing idea than the bewitching charms of your person. I pledge you my word, Usbek, that were I allowed to leave this place in which the necessity of my condition detains me; could I escape from the guards who hem me in on all sides--even if I were allowed to choose among all the men who dwell in this capital of nations--Usbek, I swear to you, I would choose none but you: there is no man else in the wide world worthy a woman's love.

Do not think that your absence has led me to neglect those charms which have endeared me to you: although I may not be seen by any one, and the ornaments with which I deck myself do not affect your happiness, I strive notwithstanding to omit no art that can arouse delight; I never go to rest until I am all perfumed with the sweetest essences. I recall that happy time when you came to my arms; a flattering dream deceives me, and shows me the dear object of my love; my fond imagination is whelmed in its desires; sometime I think that, disgusted with the trials of your journey, you are hurrying home: between waking and sleeping the night is spent in such vague dreams; I seek for you at my side, and you seem to flee from me; until at last the very fire which burns me disperses these unsubstantial joys, and I am broad awake. Then my agitation knows no bounds....You will not believe me, Usbek, but it is impossible to live like this; liquid fire courses in my veins: why cannot I find words to tell you all I feel, and why do I feel so deeply what I cannot utter? In such moments, Usbek, I would give the world for a single kiss. What an unhappy woman is she who, having such passionate desires as these, is deprived of the company of him who alone can satisfy them! Abandoned to herself, with nothing to divert her, her whole life is spent in sighs and in the frenzy of a goading passion. Instead of being happy, she has not even the privilege of ministering to the happiness of another: a useless ornament of a seraglio, she is kept for her husband's credit merely, and not for his enjoyment! You men are the cruellest creatures! Delighted when we have desires that we cannot gratify, you treat us as if we had no emotions--though you would be very sorry if that were so: you imagine that our long repressed love will be quickened when we behold you. It is very difficult for man to make himself beloved; the easiest plan is to obtain from our constitutional weakness what you dare not hope to obtain through your own merit.

Farewell, my dear Usbek, farewell. Believe that I live only to adore you: the thought of you fills my soul; and your absence, far from making me forget you, would make my love more vehement, if that were possible.

The Seraglio at Ispahan, the 12th of the first moon of Rebiab, 1711.

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