Monday, November 10, 2008

"Persian Letters" Montesquieu

This is one of the great humanist texts, in the tradition of Montaigne (another son of Bordeux) and Voltaire. Uzbec and Rica are two Persian noblemen who are living in France ‘to pursue the laborious search for wisdom’. They write letters to their friends and servants back home in Persia on topics of interest to them as travelers and aliens. This device allows Montesquieu to hold a mirror up to his society. At the same time, by faking the stance of a bemused but respectful outsider who sees things through the veil of an alien culture, Montesquieu is able to criticize and satirize aspects of his own culture.

Here is a list of some of the topics covered in the letters:

the nature of justice
reading and libraries
the risks of money and high finance
coffee houses
gender relations
the meaning of spectacles and moustaches
religious disputes
does virtue lead to happiness?
how can men have free will if God foresees their actions?
the theatre
tales and legends from Islam and Persian cultures
the rights of women
the misuse of scripture
the impossibility of proving a woman’s virginity
cures for constipation (a good dose of metaphysical philosophy)
the French Academy
academic controversies
the decline of the art of conversation
the burden of being more intelligent than those around you

While most topics are treated in a very general way, relevant for all times, other letters deal with issues specific to Montesquieu’s own time and give a fascinating insider’s (outsider’s) view of 18th century French society in the last gasp of the ancient regime: the collapse of John Law’s system, the regency of the young King Louis XV, the ideological struggle between the Jansenists and the Jesuits for example.

At the same time as critiquing European culture, the letters give us glimpses and meditations on Persian culture, as their experiences in Europe lead the Persians to reflect on their own society, as all travel naturally does. However, of course, it has to be remembered that these descriptions of Persian culture are written by a European. Although Montesquieu never traveled outside Europe, he researched his book thoroughly, reading widely in the major orientalists of his day. In this regard the letters represent a summa of contemporary European knowledge of the East.

Throughout, the tone is gently ironical rather than bitterly satirical. By defamiliarising certain of our customs and institutions, the Persians allow us to see their absurdity for ourselves. Here is Rica on the theatre:
At each side [of the stage] you can see in little compartments called ‘boxes’ men and women acting out scenes together.
Here he is on the Spanish Inquisition: I have heard that in Spain and Portugal there are certain dervishes who cannot see a joke and who burn a man as they would a straw.

The letters vary in length and are arranged randomly in no discernable sequence of topic, except for some longer sequences covering depopulation (a contemporary concern no longer shared, alas, in our own time), the relationship between virtue and happiness, the state of contemporary literature. A semblance of a storyline is given by the sequence of letters from Persia concerning the goings-on in the seraglios of our two Persian travelers. It was this aspect of the work more than any other perhaps that accounted for the success de scandal of the Letters during Montesquieu’s life, appealing to the prurient interest of his audience for things erotic and exotic.

It is this aspect, also, which complicates the genre boundaries of the work. ‘Letters’ to his contemporaries usually meant non-fictional pensees, character studies, travelogues, essais, and Montesquieu surely intended his work to be read as non-fiction. However, in 1751, Montesquieu’s later, major, work Of the Spirit of Laws was placed on the Index of Banned Books by the Vatican. Fearing perhaps that his earlier work would also suffer the same fate, after a pamphlet appeared attacking it and accusing him of irreligion, Montesquieu put out some Reflections on the Persian Letters. In this he (disingenuously?) calls the Letters an epistolary novel (Samuel Richardson’s Pamela appeared in French in 1742) and repeatedly emphasizes the fictional aspects. The reader is asked to remember always that passages considered to be audacious (for which read: critical of church and state) are in fact due to the perpetual contrast between the reality of things and the odd, na├»ve or strange way in which they are perceived by the Persians. Wily old lawyer that he was, he then ironically remarks in closing:
Certainly the nature and intention of the Persian Letters are so manifest that they will deceive only those who wish to deceive themselves.

Critics never fail to make remarks of this sort, because it is no great strain on the intellect to make them.

I should like to see funerals banned. There should be weeping at a man’s birth, not at his death.

Scripture is a country where men of every sect make raids as if in order to pillage it; it is a battleground where hostile nations meet frequently in combat, attacking and skirmishing in numerous ways.

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