Friday, August 18, 2017

Montesquieu's Persian Letters and His Fellow Authors

The Persian Letters of Montesquieu have turned into one of the books that cause me to enter a subway train, read a few sentences, and then emerge befuddled as the train reaches my station barely — as I feel — seconds later.

It consists of an imaginary bundle of letters written by, of, or to a pair of Persian men — one younger, one older — who travel to Paris and describe the society they find. The coming excerpt from the 75th letter is not my favourite passage, since I think it is not particularly profound and not aimed at any crucial grievance in societies past or present.

I venture to think, too, that people read far fewer books than one might think from Montesquieu's representations. But it is funny enough to share generally, and personally a comfort to me for not achieving anything authorly by way of publication:

1721 Edition of the Persian Letters
From the Skoklosters Slott collection, Lake Mälaren, Sweden
via Wikimedia Commons

"La fureur de la plupart des Français, c’est d’avoir de l’esprit ; et la fureur de ceux qui veulent avoir de l’esprit, c’est de faire des livres.

"Cependant il n’y a rien de si mal imaginé : la nature semblait avoir sagement pourvu à ce que les sottises des hommes fussent passagères ; et les livres les immortalisent. Un sot devrait être content d’avoir ennuyé tous ceux qui ont vécu avec lui : il veut encore tourmenter les races futures ; il veut que sa sottise triomphe de l’oubli, dont il aurait pu jouir comme du tombeau ; il veut que la postérité soit informée qu’il a vécu, et qu’elle sache à jamais qu’il a été un sot.”

Source: Les lettres persanes, (Copyright Le Figaro, Éditions Garnier)


Rough translation: 'The rage of most of the French is to possess wit; and the rage of those who want wit, is to make books. Nevertheless there is nothing so ill conceived: nature wisely appears to have preordained that the nonsense of men be fleeting, and books immortalize it. An idiot should be satisfied with having annoyed all those who have lived with him; he wants to torment future generations still; he wants his nonsense to triumph over the oblivion by which he might have profited like the tomb; he wants posterity to be informed that he has lived, and to know forever that he was a fool.'

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