“The Persian Letters” are detailed accounts of the European experiences of two young Persians named Rica and Usbek. The intellectual tourists explore French manners and morality while their people rebel against the tyrannical authorities that have been subjected to years of misery. The seraglio, as defined in the text, represents Persia’s despotic rulers whose main agenda was to govern through fear and intimidation. Montesquieu focuses on the ineptitude of the leadership structures in the Orient by comparing them to a failed European monarchy. Through numerous references to the political events that defined the West, such as feudal social and economic activities, Montesquieu breaks down Oriental despotism into a simplistic system that promotes absolutism.
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Customs and traditions
“The Persian Letters” is a collection of messages written by Montesquieu to criticize and explain various aspects of life in the 18th century. He cited Persian customs and traditions in an attempt to compare them with French political ideas and beliefs. For instance, his depiction of despotism affected a variety of authors who used Persian customs to demonstrate Oriental sensuality. When Usbek learns that his wife, Zachi, lured a white eunuch into her chambers in his absence, he was infuriated and stated that the culprit would pay for his actions with his head (Montesquieu 27). It is worth noting, that the laws of the seraglio forbade women from interacting with white eunuchs. Even though they were incapable of intercourse, a woman’s exposure to the gaze of another man was considered dishonorable (Montesquieu 27). Usbek further notes that his wife should be grateful for the restraints placed upon her because it is through them that she deserves to live (Montesquieu 27). The text’s depiction of the Orient contains specific frameworks, which dominate it. It could be argued, that the author’s depiction of the region was skewed in the sense that it denied credence to the actual voices of the people whose experiences were documented.
It is worth mentioning, that the letters can be categorized as Orientalist text because they bear an important characteristic. The depictions within the text are authoritative as they describe the negative aspects of the Orient, which they then juxtapose to the West’s idealistic conditions. For instance, in describing the pope’s action requiring the adoption of the constitution, one of the characters specifies that the women opposed to the ban on reading the bible are inferior to men. He further states that much like the Persian practice to stop women from entering paradise, the European mufti was wise to deny them the means to accomplish this goal (Montesquieu 32). The author portrayed Europe as a land where peace, rationality, and logic were a thing of the past.
Notably, Montesquieu offers a rather detailed assessment of life in France. He uses the Orient as an example of the unfolding philosophical debate on the nature and extent of political authority. The characters in his letters carefully question the legitimacy of religious, cultural, and state activities. In doing so, they unravel the irrationality and absurdity of Europe’s customs. For instance, they describe the king of France as a magician who has control over the people’s minds (Montesquieu 31). They highlight, that he has the capacity to make them think in specific ways. They also describe the pope as an individual of immense power who has control over the king and his subjects.
Descriptions of Europe
The young nobles’ innocent and unfettered observations are a mirror through which the continent’s residents can see themselves. The author’s satirical and comedic critique is aimed at highlighting the gap between Oriental and European beliefs and practices. He describes the foreign land’s practices in Persian terms by making the Bible the European Koran and the Pope a Grand Mufti. The author describes the king of France as the most “powerful prince in Europe” (Montesquieu 31). He notes that the monarch’s riches are not to be found in gold mines but in the vanity of the people he leads. Montesquieu stresses that wars have been waged with nothing but the sale of honors and titles. His representation of the pope serves to mock European traditions. For example, he states that the religious leader often convinces the king that the bread he eats is unique and that the wine he drinks is unusual (Montesquieu 31). He further explains how the pope forces the king and his subjects to adhere to tenets outlined in a constitution, which, among other things, forbids women from reading the Bible. These descriptions make the strange and incomprehensible elements in Europe relatable and easy to understand. However, it should be noted that the analogies used in the text fail to unlock the true meaning of things. Most of the author’s references are appreciated through a domineering European frame of reference.
The text does little to demystify Persian beliefs and customs. Readers are denied the rich and detailed explanations that would help them make sense of life in the Orient. Instead, all they get is a description of the devastation of the seraglio. Usbek’s letter to the head of white eunuchs demonstrates the savagery with which the leaders rule the land when he states that the recipient must tremble upon reading his message’s contents (Montesquieu 29). He gives intricate details of the punishments that will befall all who betray him by allowing the desecration of the objects of his love. He reminds the head eunuch that his life could be extinguished in an instant, should his usefulness as a servant be deemed worthless (Montesquieu 29). A brief account of Persia’s beauty is presented when the author states that it is a sweet land where virtue and modesty prevail (Montesquieu 33). The author maintains dramatic tension and focuses the audience’s attention on the significance of unfolding events. The author’s attempt to prompt the assessment of Oriental issues through Persian eyes fails because a European perspective dominates the narrative.
Even though the seraglio is a region characterized by despotic and erotic practices, its real features remain obscured in the text. The intricate web of historically and socially relevant relationships found in the area remains undisclosed. Montesquieu uses the seraglio as a framework for explaining the logic behind despotism while comparing it to specific European practices. For instance, the author notes that European women have no sense of decorum in view of the fact that they appear before men without covering their faces (Montesquieu 34). In addition, he describes how eunuch servants are unheard of in Europe, a tradition he believes is profoundly important. However, the validity of his analysis is dependent on the acceptance of the true descriptions of Persian values and beliefs. By highlighting the seraglio as the center of despotic principles, the author legitimizes the public’s understanding of Oriental despotism and exotic sexual tendencies, which is a critical aspect of Oriental discourse.
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Montesquieu’s views on representation and leadership adopt a theatrical tone. The Orient serves as a stage for the expression of Eastern ideas and practices. The characters in the unfolding play are tasked with representing the people from their communities. The Orient is, in effect, depicted as a closed field attached to Europe rather than an unlimited expanse spreading beyond the reach of European contemporaries.
The stage carefully exposes a variety of riches such as cultural complexity and stories of affluence, all while giving incomplete details of a half-imagined world of monstrous creatures, pleasures, and terrors. Montesquieu describes the interaction between a husband and his wives in vivid detail. Sexual acts committed by women in the seraglio give a glimpse of the city’s inner workings. The text details how a woman oppressed by her husband’s sexual violence chose to invoke her mother’s authority. Having realized, that her cries were ineffective, she gathered the courage to threaten his life with a dagger, an act that failed to stop his aggression (Montesquieu 34). Therefore, of all the places used to depict Persian life, seraglio stands out as a center for despotic activities and sexual violence.
Montesquieu’s work can be categorized as Orientalist for a number of reasons. First, the text cites Persian customs and traditions in an attempt to compare them with French political ideas and beliefs. In addition, he uses the seraglio as a framework for explaining the logic behind despotism while comparing it to specific European practices. He carefully questions the legitimacy of religious, cultural, and state activities to unravel the irrationality and absurdity of the new land’s customs. The validity of the Orientalist nature of “The Persian Letters” is dependent on the acceptance of the true descriptions of Persian values and beliefs. By highlighting the seraglio as the center of despotic principles, the author facilitates the audience’s understanding of Oriental despotism and exotic sexual tendencies.
Montesquieu. Persian Letters. Creative Media Partners, 2019.