1This work was written between 1734 and 1739, and again in 1754. The publication of the Aventures merveilleuses du mandarin Fum-Hoam (1723), mentioned in the “bookseller’s” notice to the reader, constitutes the terminus a quo, and the death of Jean-Jacques Bel, whose “Critique de l’Histoire véritable” accompanied the manuscript used for the first edition in 1892, the terminus post quem. In the 1892 edition, in the second volume of the unpublished works of Montesquieu, the text is incomplete and not fully coherent. A second edition in 1902 gave a different text, based on another manuscript discovered in papers coming from Joachim Laîné and his family. In a critical edition in 1948, Roger Caillois considers the manuscript published in 1892 as a stage in the writing posterior to the text given in 1902, since it included corrections that take Bel’s criticism into account. This was confirmed by a comparison of the two manuscripts, acquired by the Bordeaux Bibliothèque Municipale, and notably the examination of the one which was used for the edition of 1892, acquired in 2005: transcribed by a secretary (V) who worked with Montesquieu around 1754, it constitutes the work’s final form.
2In this quasi-oriental tale, the narrator recounts his different incarnations, which he was granted the privilege of remembering. In the first part, the “metempsychosist”, according to a term which Montesquieu himself used, is in the service of ascetics whose excesses of maceration are ridiculed. Condemned by his errors to reincarnate himself in an animal, he transforms himself into a little dog, persecuted by his mistress. Worshipped in the form of an ox by the Egyptians, he reveals the absurdity of this idolatry from which he benefits. As an elephant, he verifies on himself the pleasure slaves take in reducing others to slavery. Obliged to serve as hangman to a king who wants to punish one of his faithless wives, he executes the sentence regretfully but provokes the monarch’s death, an act that draws him public admiration. He then bitterly observes the inconsistency of the men who congratulate him “for the only wrong deed” which he has committed.
3In part two, his soul reincarnates itself in human bodies and loses the virtue and wisdom it had in an animal’s body. A Cuckolded husband, an underfed and unknown satirical poet, a courtier, man of the world, unscrupulous debtor, fop cashing in on his charms, professional flatterer, man of good company, so many conditions visited by this errant soul, conditions that underscore the corruption of society, the mores of the court and the foibles of worldly customs. Living next in the body of a beast of burden, he is entirely dependent on his masters’ whims, their vices, efforts and habits appearing in all their vanity when he relates their deaths.
4The third part is devoted to reincarnations as women and sexually ambivalent beings, and centered on the conditions for happiness: a woman who has become chaste and virtuous is no longer loved by a husband who cherished her when he was enduring her infidelities, caprices and denigration. A eunuch in love with a woman in a harem and who dreams of possessing her discovers that the place of the master which he coveted and succeeds in occupying does not bring the hoped-for happiness. A scheming woman experiences the efficacity of her diligence and insistence at court, thus underscoring the importance and arbitrariness of connections and favor, unrelated to true merits. Another sells her beauty when she is young and is bilked by her lovers in old age; another replaces her lost charms with affected prudery. Unable to become a man again, the narrator’s soul travels into ambiguous creatures: a constantly self-admiring boor, a man of good fortunes, a wit. The social value of limitless impudence and the power of illusion to attain happiness are illustrated in several episodes.
5In part four, the soul refuses the reincarnations which the genie proposes to him, showing that men, though envious, prefer their own person to any other. It becomes an African chief, a cuckolded and jealous husband, the king’s fool, the favorite slave of a lord through his blundering and follies, a silent dwarf placed in a monarch’s entourage, the physician of an emperor of the Indes, the author of a successful book that brings him nothing but trouble, the impenitent wag using his gift of gab as a lawyer and then as a physician, a veteran soldier whose tales of arms have made him annoying and unbearable.
6Part five shows the soul disincarnated and placed in the service of incubi, episodes that offer the opportunity to mock libertines, heroic values, to assert that wealth and the envy of wealth are contrary to happiness, to represent hypocrites, a cheater, Pygmalion before his animated statue. The difficulties of reincarnation also serve to explain that prosperous nations are fatally corrupt and that societies that have had to overcome adversity are virtuous. As counselor to an Egyptian king, the character-narrator formulates considerations on the uselessness of predictions in political decisions, on the misdeeds of expensive constructions, on the service of the glory of sovereigns who ruin peoples, on the danger of riches, on the danger of censuring the theatre. The metempsychosist seems finally to find the secret of happiness by taking things on their good side and enunciating this famous formula in favor of the general interest, repeated in the Pensées: “If I had known something that was useful to me and would be detrimental to my family, I would cast it out of my mind; if I had known something useful to my family, but that would not have been to my country, I would have tried to forget it. If I had known something that was useful to my country, and detrimental to Europe, or useful to Europe and detrimental to humankind, I would have considered it a crime” (“Si j’avais su quelque chose qui m’eût été utile et qui eût été préjudiciable à ma famille je l’aurais rejeté de mon esprit, si j’avais su quelque chose utile à ma famille et qui ne l’eût pas été à ma patrie j’aurais cherché à l’oublier. Si j’avais su quelque chose utile à ma patrie et qui eût été préjudiciable à l’Europe ou bien qui eût été utile à l’Europe et préjudiciable au genre humain je l’aurais regardé comme un crime”, OC, t. IX, p. 186; see Pensées, no. 741). It is as a poor barber in the city of Tarente, the last of his reincarnations, that he recounts his story to a debtor named Ayesda.
7The work’s title evokes a possible source, Lucian’s True Story and, going by the style of the time, it constitutes, by antiphrasis, a fictional marker. Another work of Lucian’s, The Dream or the cock, the adventure of a rooster who pretends to be the reincarnation of Pythagoras, seems more surely to have inspired Montesquieu. To this ancient source we must add the vogue of orientalist fiction at the beginning of the 18th century, in the wake of Galland’s translations in the Thousand and One Nights, but especially of Gueullette’s Contes chinois, or the Aventures merveilleuses du mandarin Fum-Hoam (1723), mentioned at the beginning of Histoire véritable. A less visible but probable influence, in a picaresque vein, is that of Lesage. The transmigration of the protagonist’s soul into animal, then men’s and women’s, bodies constitutes a principle of narrative unity that allows one to connect a series of varied episodes feeding the moral satire, following the process of the roofs of Madrid lifted off by Asmodeus in The Devil on Two Sticks (Le Diable boiteux) or that of the valet with many masters in the Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-1735). The different reincarnations are so many opportunities to expose human turpitude from the inside and to underscore, from the vantage point of a single conscience, retrospectively enlightened, the corruption and wickedness of men. The wandering soul, like the pícaro, is tossed about by its different destinies and reveals itself as cynical because the world in which it lives is corrupt. We recognize types from social and moral satire that are present in Lesage: knaves, thieves, doctors, courtiers, women selling their charms… Montesquieu’s originality is to create, based on conventional processes of narrative fiction at the time, a philosophical tale inducing meditation about the conditions of virtue and happiness. Written perhaps at the time of Montesquieu’s travels, this narrative might constitute a metaphor of travel, in an itinerary through humanity, in its various spatio-temporal forms. The Histoire véritable would also raise, in the story’s framework, questions to which L’Esprit des lois would try to respond: how to reconcile relativism and norms of universal justice, articulate uniformity and diversity, find constancy in change? To this degree, the work would be, as Alberto Postigliola put it, an “epistemological prelude” to its author’s major work.
Bordeaux, BM, ms 2191 (first version) and 3169 (second version).
Mélanges inédits de Montesquieu, ed. by the baron de Montesquieu and Raymond Céleste, Bordeaux-Paris: Gounouilhou and Rouam, 1892, p. 31-84.
Histoire véritable, ed. Louis de Bordes de Fortage, Bordeaux: Gounouilhou, 1902.
Critical edition, text established by Didier Masseau, annotation by Didier Masseau and Pierre Rétat, OC, t. IX, 2006, p. 103-202.
Histoire véritable et autres fictions, ed. Philip Stewart et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Paris: Gallimard, « Folio Classique », 2011.
Pierre Barrière, “La composition de l’Histoire véritable”, Bulletin de la société des bibliophiles de Guyenne, 1948, p. 30-38.
Alessandro S. Crisafuli, “Montesquieu’s Histoire véritable: sources and originality of its satirical device”, Studies in Philology 50 (1953), p. 59-67.
Jacques Rustin, “L’Histoire véritable dans la littérature romanesque du XVIIIe siècle”, Cahiers de l'association internationale d’études françaises 18, March 1966), p. 89-102.
Alberto Postigliola, “L’Histoire véritable: prélude épistémologique à L’Esprit des lois”, Lectures de Montesquieu, Cahiers Montesquieu 1, 1993, p. 147-167.
Jean-François Perrin, “Métempsycose. Soi-même comme multitude: le cas du récit à métempsycose au XVIIIe siècle”, Dix-Huitième Siècle 41 (2009), p. 169-186.