1Situated between an historically given institution and a myth of sexual delight, the seraglio becomes the symbol of a certain type of social and political situation.
2The “seraglio novel” aspect of Lettres persanes was long regarded as frivolous and titillating; visibly, critics found it embarrassing. Gustave Lanson (1895) lightly mocked the “libertine curiosity” that had led Montesquieu to put on stage “the leisurely, erotic life of the seraglio, with very white women overseen by very black eunuchs, ardent passions, ferocious jealousies, enraged desires” (“la vie oisive et voluptueuse du sérail, des femmes très blanches surveillées par des eunuques très noirs, des passions ardentes, des jalousies féroces, des désirs enragés”). But he takes comfort: “[…] this is but an ornament” which does not diminish what is essential (p. 695). All the same, the scarcely-contained violence of the seraglio soon comes to the fore, and in time the seraglio, in the absence of its master, turns into a cauldron ready to explode. Through the voices of a few eunuchs, and five of Usbek’s wives, the imaginary seraglio expresses itself as a real one never could.
3The seraglio is constituted by a material circumference – the walls of a palace – and the three categories of beings enclosed within them: the master, his wives, and the eunuchs, whether they guard the palace (the white eunuchs) or oversee the women (the black eunuchs). The master is free, and the white eunuchs communicate with the outside world; for the rest, as Jean Chardin (1711) said, the seraglio is “a perpetual prison, which one never leaves except by chance” (“une prison perpétuelle, dont l’on ne sort que par un coup de hasard”, t. VI, p. 227).
4But whereas the place is defined by the constraint exercised by (or in the name of) one man, it takes on a fanciful ideality which is that of pleasure inspired by passion: “these rooms” says Zachi, one of Usbek’s wives, “which constantly remind me of my past pleasures, every day stimulate my desires with renewed violence” (“ces lieux qui, me rappelant sans cesse mes plaisirs passés, irritaient tous les jours mes désirs avec une nouvelle violence”, LP, 3; OC, t. I). Love and delight, the quintessence of a certain image of the Orient: such is the official face of the seraglio. Satiety also, the master-lover being gratified beyond desire: “And one must not expect to have pleasures all the time […]. Thus, when his women leave the Great Sultan tired out, let him leave the seraglio. When one has no appetite, one must leave the table and go hunting.” (“Et il ne faut pas se mettre dans la tête d’avoir toujours des plaisirs […]. Ainsi, quand le Grand Seigneur est fatigué de ses femmes, il faut qu’il sorte de son sérail. Quand on n’a pas d’appétit, il faut quitter la table et aller à la chasse”, Pensées, no. 658). While speaking to his wives as much as lover as master, Usbek admits his lassitude from the start: “It is not that I love them, Nassir: in this respect I find in myself an insensitivity that leaves me without desires. In the populous seraglio where I have lived, I have anticipated love, and destroyed it by means of itself” (“Ce n’est pas, Nessir, que je les aime : je me trouve à cet égard dans une insensibilité qui ne me laisse point de désirs. Dans le nombreux sérail où j’ai vécu, j’ai prévenu l’amour, et l’ai détruit par lui-même”, LP, 6).
5In fact the language of passion is a weapon used by the woman maneuvering to carve out or keep for herself the place of favorite: a constrained language, and all but obligatory, which therefore reveals nothing certain about what she actually feels. On the women’s side, the seraglio is marked by two paradoxical signifieds, delight and discord: “In seraglios, in these places of delight, you always finds the idea of a rival; and when you enjoy what you love, the more you love, the more worried you are” (“Dans les sérails, dans ces lieux de délices, on trouve toujours l’idée d’une rivale ; et lorsqu’on y jouit de ce qu’on aime, plus on aime et plus on est alarmé”, Arsace et Isménie, OC, t. IX, p. 329).
6Chardin had indeed evoked the hatreds and the jealousy “which the favorites have for each other even to fury” (“que les favorites ont l’une contre l’autre jusqu’à la fureur”, t. VI, p. 232-233). Struggle amongst them for preference, and also continual war with the eunuchs who, full of rage, avenge themselves on them: “I find myself in the seraglio as in a small empire,” declares the First Eunuch, “and my ambition, the only passion I have left, procures a little satisfaction” (“je me trouve dans le sérail comme dans un petit empire, » déclare le Premier Eunuque, « et mon ambition, la seule passion qui me reste, se satisfait un peu”, LP, 9). In turn, for his authority the eunuch trades physical and social abasement: “you serve them”, Usbek writes to him, “as the slave of their slaves, but by a reversal of power, you command as master, as myself […]” (“tu les sers comme l’esclave de leurs esclaves, mais par un retour d’empire, tu commandes en maître comme moi-même […]”, LP, 2).
7As the years go by in Paris, Usbek’s absence is cruelly felt; yet he, even when alerted to the danger, hesitates to invoke harsh measures, as the situation continues to deteriorate. Usbek pays little attention; from Letter 63  to Letter 139  – in other words chronologically from 1714 to 1720 – there is not a single letter from Usbek relative to the seraglio. The formerly strict order gives way to entropy, internal war (LP, 62 ). We learn at the end that the disintegration has been deliberately introduced by some, tolerated by others, when the dying Roxane casts this in his teeth: “I have managed to make of your horrible seraglio a place of delights and pleasures” (“j’ai su de ton affreux sérail faire un lieu de délices et de plaisirs”, LP, 150 ). The final catastrophe can be understood as resulting from an endemic vice in the system, one which can only lead progressively to disaster, an effect of the master’s negligence, the key of an oppressive system in the absence of whom everything falls apart.
8Some have also seen in the Persian seraglio (see especially Pauline Kra) a mirror of the European convent; the comparison between eunuchs and priests pledged to chastity had moreover been suggested by Chardin. In a convent, one more surely “gains salvation” because one is sheltered from a thousand temptations that assail other people; by protecting women from every breach, the seraglio also preserves them and thereby guarantees the exclusivity of the master’s precious property, on which his reputation depends. This is the advantage on which Usbek congratulates Roxane: “You live in my seraglio as in the sojourn of innocence, inaccessible to the attacks of all humans: joyfully you find yourself happily powerless to fail” (“Vous vivez dans mon sérail comme dans le séjour de l’innocence, inaccessible aux attentats de tous les humains : vous vous trouvez avec joie dans une heureuse impuissance de faillir”, LP, 24 ).
9The master’s role in his seraglio offers obvious analogies with that of the despot in the state, both contributing to the reigning image of the Orient. The seraglio, a closed system, constitutes a laboratory into which decadence creeps for want of stabilization imposed from the outside. These impressions are confirmed by the analysis of oriental polygamy in L’Esprit des lois, where the seraglio is characterized by inner tension and strife (EL, V, 14).
10Moreover, by its structure the situation of the eunuch, necessarily a tyrant and deceiver and at the same time an abject slave, serves as commentary on the situation the Lettres persanes had represented: “a terrifying law, which put in the hands of these base persons the responsibility for public, domestic, and private vengeance!” (“loi terrible, qui mettait entre les mains de ces personnes viles le soin de la vengeance publique, domestique et particulière!”, EL, XXVI, 19). Still the seraglio as element in a system of government assumes a position relative to other instances of power: thus, “the king of England is really more absolute than the Great Sultan. Parliament is far from inconveniencing him and the ministers as much as the militia or the people of Constantinople do the seraglio and the Divan” (“le roi d’Angleterre est réellement plus absolu que le Grand Seigneur. Il s’en faut bien que le Parlement y soit aussi incommode aux rois et aux ministres, que la milice ou le peuple de Constantinople ne le sont au sérail et au Divan”, Pensées, no. 1992).
11These brutal and repressive facts are none the less seen as direct consequences of the Asian climate, for from the start the “delicacy of organs” (“délicatesse d’organes”) in warm countries makes it so that “the spirit is overpoweringly moved by whatever has any connection to the union of the two sexes”, a factor which adds to the fact that “there is between the two sexes a natural inequality” (“l’âme est souverainement émue par tout ce qui a du rapport à l’union des deux sexes”, EL, XVI, 2, chapter title). Once polygamy responds, as if of necessity, to these natural circumstances, constraint in the form of the enclosure of women is also an almost natural result (EL, XVI, 8): as Usbek says to Zachi, the seraglio is for her “a favorable asylum against the grasp of vice, a sacred temple where [her] sex loses its weakness, and becomes invincible, despite all the disadvantages of nature (“un asile favorable contre les atteintes du vice, un temple sacré où [son] sexe perd sa faiblesse, et se trouve invincible, malgré tous les désavantages de la nature”, LP, 20 ).
12The institution of the seraglio is linked to the languor induced by heat, which “makes Oriental seraglios places of delight for those very persons against whom they are created” (“rend les sérails d’Orient des lieux de délices pour ceux mêmes contre qui ils sont faits”, EL, XIV, 12). One of its functions is perhaps continually to tame an inordinate sexual appetite (LP, 6 et 56 ). For the same reason, the excess of its pleasures can be part of a strategy of which the effect is to drain the energy, and thereby the power, of the tyrant (EL, II, 5). In this attempted explanation has been seen a strong inclination in Montesquieu to justify polygamy and the sequestration that follows from it (Jeannette Geffriaud Rosso), a thesis refuted by Hoffman (p. 139), who sees in it the necessary consequences of a systematic tension between political needs (order) and individual freedom. According to Christophe Martin, the manner in which Montesquieu seeks to reconcile the various aspects of the determination of the institution by climate is itself, moreover, not without contradictions.
Jean Chardin, Voyages de M. le chevalier Chardin, en Perse, et autres lieux de l’Orient, Amsterda: Jean Louis de Lorme, 1711, 10 volumes in-12º (Catalogue, no. 2739).
Gustave Lanson, Histoire de la littérature française, Paris: Hachette, 1895.
Pauline Kra, Religion in Montesquieu’s “Lettres persanes”, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 72 (1970), p. 187-204.
Claude Dauphiné, “Pourquoi un roman de sérail?”, Europe nº 574 (1977), p. 89-96.
Michel Delon, “Un monde d’eunuques”, Europe nº 574 (1977), p. 79-88.
Jeannette Geffriaud Rosso, Montesquieu et la féminité, Pise: Goliardica, 1977.
Alain Grosrichard, Structure du sérail: la fiction du despotisme asiatique dans l’Occident classique, Paris: Seuil, 1979.
Paul Hoffman, “Un Montesquieu antiféministe”, Université de Strasbourg, Travaux de linguistique et de littérature, XVIII, no. 2 (1980), p. 135-143.
Alan Singerman, “ Réflexions sur une métaphore : le sérail dans les Lettres persanes”, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 185 (1980), p. 181-198.
Suzanne Pucci, “Letters from the harem: veiled figures of writing in Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes”, in Writing the Female Voice, dir. Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989, p. 114-134.
Jacques Chocheyras, “Du sérail au couvent: lecture de la Lettre persane LXII”, université Stendhal-Grenoble 3, Recherches et travaux 44 (1993), p. 25-35.
Jean Goldzink, Montesquieu et les passions, Paris: PUF, 2001.
Christophe Martin, “L’institution du sérail: quelques réflexions sur le livre XVI de L’Esprit des lois”, Revue Montesquieu 5 (2001), p. 41-57: http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article327
Montesquieu, Lettres persanes, ed. Philip Stewart, Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2013, p. 19-23.