1The history of the composition of Arsace et Isménie is a matter of conjecture, but Montesquieu mentioned it often enough that we might hope to reconstitute it. The work appears to have begun in response to solicitations from “Mademoiselle”, in other words Mlle de Charolais (letter to Barbot, 8 September 1742, OC, t. XIX, letter 528) – but it allows him to pick up on an earlier passage from Histoire véritable. Montesquieu seems to have returned to only once he thought that L’Esprit des lois was completed, in the summer of 1747. The novel’s title is not yet given, but the testimony of “Panpan” Devaux (the nickname given to Devaux by Mme de Graffigny) in Lunéville can hardly apply to anything other than this work. The manuscript itself, in the holdings of the Bibliothèque Municipale de Bordeaux, testifies to work done in the years 1748-1750 (from the hand of secretary “P”, which constitutes the better part): L’Esprit des lois has been completed, but not the novel. It comes up again in a letter to Guasco (8 December 1754): “All told, I still cannot resolve to send my Arsace novel off to the printer. The triumph of conjugal love in the Orient is, perhaps, too remote from our mores to believe it will be well received in France. I will bring you the manuscript, we shall read it together, and I will give it to some friends to read.” (“Tout bien pesé, je ne puis encore me déterminer à livrer mon roman d’Arsace à l’imprimeur. Le triomphe de l’amour conjugal de l’Orient est, peut-être, trop éloigné de nos mœurs pour croire qu’il serait bien reçu en France. Je vous apporterai ce manuscrit, nous le lirons ensemble, et je le donnerai à lire à quelques amis.”) These lines have led some to think that the work was to be read as the fictional embodiment of edifying sentiments (conjugal love), which Montesquieu hesitates to publish for fear of mockery. We shall see that this is not the case, and that if the work did not appear until 1783, in the Œuvres posthumes published by his son Jean-Baptiste de Secondat, it was for much more serious reasons; its ending had morever been amputated, though one can read it in the manuscript, which also testifies to the activity of two of Montesquieu’s secretaries, in 1754 (“S” and “V”). Those final pages were unknown until 1955, thanks to the Masson edition (t. III); for this reason, they are wanting in several earlier editions (Gallimard, “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, and Seuil, “L’Intégrale”).
2In order to understand them, we must follow the story of the novel, rich in peripeteia. In Bactria, a handsome young stranger, Arsace, dazzles by his valor the court of queen Isménie. Aspar, the eunuch prime minister, solicits his confidence; Arsace thereupon commences a long tale. He relates the love he shared with his wife Ardasire in Media, interrupted by an imposed marriage with the princess of Media, which he refused; and how he then fled with Ardasire, who had tried to kill him rather than lose him. He describes at length his happiness in Margu with Ardasire, in an idyllic setting where a good genie seems to keep watch over their welfare; but Arsace, eager for glory, soon becomes the favorite of the king of Margu; he is abducted in Hyrcania by an unknown princess who tries to seduce him – but she is in fact the jealous Ardasire, who disguises him as a woman and puts him to the test by not allowing herself to be recognized. Everything works out… but Arsace takes the place of Ardasire, whom the king of Hyrcania wants to abduct; he kills him, before Ardasire herself dies. Thus ends Arsace’s story; but – coup de théâtre – upon the intervention of the minister Aspar, who gives his own narrative: the queen of Bactria, Isménie, turns out to be Ardasire, who did not die, and over whom the faithful Aspar (the good genie) was keeping watch from the beginning… The two stories merge: Ardasire-Isménie enjoys perfect happiness while reigning with Arsace, which permits the expounding of the political principles that make of her realm a moderate monarchy, admirably governed. There ends the version published in Œuvres posthumes. In the manuscript, Arsace, attacked by the Medes, becomes their prisoner; he escapes, but the news of his death precipitates Isménie’s suicide. Arsace feigns submission to whatever is required of him, notably his marriage with the princess of Media. But he has everything prepared for his own suicide, out of love for Isménie.
3It was in fact this double voluntary death, but especially this suicide in cold blood, which Catholic France was likely to condemn, “killing of oneself” (“homicide de soi-même”) being formally forbidden by the Church – even though in 1754 Montesquieu was correcting the letters in Persian Letters in which the question was debated (Letters 74 and Supplementary Letter 3). Jean-Baptiste de Secondat obviously preferred to have the work end on the idyllic tableau of a well-tempered monarchy, not on this dangerous portrayal over which Montesquieu refused to compromise, and which he judged too remote from the mores and manners of thinking of many of his contemporaries.
4 Arsace is an “oriental tale” by its improbable peripeteia, its portrayal of the mores of the seraglio where passions are unleashed, even if the oriental references sometimes appear factitious (the good genie lavishing darics was in fact an adroit minister, concerned for the welfare of his protégés). By dint of the complexity of its construction, in which two narratives come together and complement each other, it also resembles the baroque tradition (see the three articles cited in the bibliography). But it is just as much a story in which the political plays a role: Arsace’s political principles offer an ideal monarchy, which Montesquieu usually situated elsewhere than in the Orient. Here he seems more interested in the modes of exercise of power and the qualities of the prince than in institutions guaranteeing freedom – which is to state the limits of a politics which is closer to morality: this Orient is a neverland, a fiction, which opens all possibilities and presents itself as a place of happiness, up to the point of the final disaster.
5Montesquieu’s last novel is thus a very rich one. The author invokes all the resources of writing, less by recourse to the traditional procedures of fiction than by the superposition of different intentions and levels, which deliberately cloud the interpretation, and put all the better into relief the final disappearance of Arsace, studiously staged. In this “disoriented” Oriental novel, which criticism has practically ignored for two centuries (or only to find in it reasons for deploring a profusion and complexity that defy analysis, and finally regretting such a publication), the reader will finally have found, after two centuries and a half, a fixed point.
Bordeaux, Bibliothèque municipale, Ms 2500.
Arsace et Isménie, ed. Sheila Mason and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, OC, t. IX, 2006, p. 305-367
Laurent Versini, “Montesquieu romancier”, in La Fortune de Montesquieu, ed. Louis Desgraves, Bordeaux, Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux, 1995, p. 247-257.
Aurélia Gaillard, “Montesquieu et le conte oriental: l’expérimentation du renversement”, Féeries 2 (2004), p. 109-124. http://feeries.revues.org/document107.html.
Françoise Gevrey, “Morale et politique mises en fiction: Arsace et Isménie de Montesquieu”, in Morales et politiques, Jean Dagen, Marc Escola, Martin Rueff dir., Paris: Champion, 2005, p. 229-246.
Philip Stewart and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, introductions to Montesquieu, Histoire véritable et autres fictions, Paris: Gallimard, 2011.