Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter LIV
Rica to Usbek, at ——
MY room is, as you know, separated from the others only by a slim partition, which is broken here and there, so that one can hear what is said next door. This morning I overheard a man, pacing rapidly up and down, and saying to another, “I don’t know how it is, but everything seems to go against me. For more than three days I have said nothing which can do me honor; and I find myself entirely lost among the crowd of talkers; no one pays the least attention to me, no one speaks to me twice. I had prepared some brilliant passages to lighten my conversation; not once was I allowed to get them off. I had a charming story to tell; but always when I found an opportunity for it, people evaded it, as if on purpose. I have nursed some witticisms in my head for four days without being able to make the least use of them. If this continues, it will end in my becoming a fool; I cannot avoid it; it seems to be my fate. Yesterday I had hoped to shine in the company of four old ladies, who certainly had no idea of imposing on me. I had some of the most charming things to say imaginable; but it took me more than a quarter of an hour to bring the conversation round, and even then they failed to follow me; like the fatal sisters, they cut the thread of my discourse. Shall I tell you? It is most difficult to support the character of a man of wit. I fail to comprehend how you obtained it.”  1
  “I have an idea,” replied the other. “Let us help each other to gain this reputation: suppose we form a partnership for the purpose. Every day we shall tell each other what we intend to say; and we shall help each other so well, that if any one attempts to interrupt the flow of our ideas, we shall inspire him with admiration; and if he refuses to be fascinated, then he will be coerced. We shall have the points fixed at which to approve; and where to smile, and where to burst out into a roar of laughter, will all be arranged beforehand. You will see that we shall give the tone to conversation, and that everybody will admire the nimbleness of our wit, and the felicity of our repartees; and we shall have a code of head shakes for our mutual protection. To-day you will shine, to-morrow you will be my foil. We shall go together to a house, and I shall exclaim, indicating you, ‘I must tell you the delightful reply my friend made just now to a man we met in the street.’ I shall then turn toward you and say, ‘He did not expect this. You see how astonished he is.’ I shall repeat some of my verses, and you will say, ‘I was present when he made them; at a supper, it was; he turned them off in an instant.’ Sometimes we shall rally each other, and then people will exclaim, ‘Look, how they attack each other, how they defend themselves; this is no child’s play; let us see how he will come out of that. Wonderful, what presence of mind! Why, this is a downright battle!’ But no one will dream how we practiced it all beforehand. We shall have to buy certain books, repositories of wit composed for the use of those who, having none, would fain appear as if they had: all depends on the pattern. I should say, that before six months are out we should be able to keep up a conversation of an hour’s length, entirely consisting of bons-mots. But we shall have to be very careful of one thing, and that is, the fate of our witticisms: it is not enough to make a brilliant remark, it must be sown broadcast; without that, it is as good as lost; and I confess there is nothing so heartrending as to see a smart thing that one has said die in the ear of the fool who hears it. For misfortunes of that kind we have often, it is true, a sort of compensation in the speedy oblivion which overtakes the foolish things we say. Here, my dear sir, is the part we must play. Do as I have suggested, and I promise you, before six months, a place in the Academy. You see the time of toil will not be long; and then you can abandon your art as soon as you like; but you will always be a man of wit, no matter what you do. They say, that in France, when a man enters any circle of society, he catches at once what is called l’esprit du corps: this you will do, and the only thing I dread is, that you will be overwhelmed with applause.”

  PARIS, the 6th of the moon of Zilcade, 1714.

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