Sunday, December 13, 2009

That's Baron de Montesquieu to yuieu

I found a nice prediction in the Persian Letters, Montesquieu's epistolary narrative/satire of a Persian who journeys to the exotic land of France.

Usbek, having stopped in Smyrna, writes to his friend of the corruption and decadence of the Ottoman Empire: "There you have it, my dear Rustan, a correct idea of this empire, which will be the scene of some conqueror's triumphs in less than 200 years." (Italics mine, not Montesquieu's.)

The Persian Letters appeared in 1721; the letter quoted above is dated 1711 in the book. Historians date the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire to 1908, and the empire fell in 1922. Montesquieu had a keen mind or perhaps good intelligence (or "intel," as today's jargon-worshiping newspapers would have it).

Later, bound for Marseilles and urgently eyeing Paris, Usbek writes to another friend that "Travelers always seek out the big cities, as they are a country common to all foreigners." As yesterday, so today, except for those travelers who always forgo the big cities to seek out the all-inclusive resorts.

(Read the Persian Letters free here. The Ottoman prediction is in Letter 19, the observation about cities in Letter 23.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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18 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

The cities observation is interesting. When I was in Europe in 1984 the bus took us mostly to cities, but we had a bit of free time in most of them. Somehow my sense of direction stayed intact across two oceans, and I could find my way back to my hotel from all points within the city boundaries. And I walked like crazy.

December 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It was a heart-warming declaration of that which all travelers share.

I always walk like crazy when travelling. And one can orient one's self almost anywhere in Europe. Don't know where you're going? Look for a church steeple, and head that way.

December 13, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Peter, did you move to the ebook format for reading or did you just post that for the budget conscious?

I used to think I had a good sense of direction, but European cities often threw me off on my first backpacking trip there, I remember. Some form of intuition I had used somehow didn't cross the Atlantic.

But then, I recently got lost in Santa Cruz, which is kind of crazy.
(Not losing my mind, though, it was just an unfamiliar part of town).

December 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Neither. I'm reading the Letters in traditional format, but offering on-line versions in case any of you care to join me without delay in reading this delightful collection. I've occasionally bought traditional books after first reading the material on line.

I've always liked the 18th century, and the Persian Letters do nothing to lower the priod in my esteem.

Unless you were in a strictly residential or industrial part of Santa Cruz, I bet you'd have been able to find fellow humans with whom to share a beer or a cup of coffee. That, I think, is the point of Montesquieu's observation, which made me recall that I do virtually all my travel has been in cities.

December 13, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Well, I'll add The Persian Letters to my ever growing list.

It was actually a slightly odder lost experience. I had somehow gotten completely off course and couldn't seem to right myself. I was standing on the corner of a little park, pulling out a (poor) map when a young guy rode up on his bike and asked, "Have you happened to see a couple of little white dogs?" I said no, and asked him if he happened to know whatever street it was. He said no,he had just moved to town. But he pulled out his cell phone and googled a map for me, and I was on my way again. I don't know what happened to the white dogs, but I actually think that he and the dogs may have been some sort of guardian angels.

No proof of course, but then angelic vistations never do come properly credentialed.

December 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some of those eighteenth-century guys were especially engaging writers because they were publicists. They had to be entertaining because they were writing for a popular audience and trying to win readers to their point of few. Voltaire's "Philosophical Letters" (Also called the "English Letters") fit the bill, and Rousseau could be entertaining. Hume wrote popular essays and charmingly called himself "a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation."

Hmm, when I was in Santa Cruz, a guy on a bicycle stopped and gave me directions. But the angel was dogless that day.

December 14, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Seana, "angelic vistations never do come properly credentialed."

Ahem. See Clarence in this film (which can be ignored during the Christmas season, but can't be missed, either).

December 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Surely someone must have thought of a skit imagining a Christmas without It's A Wonderful Life.

December 14, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Second City? Saturday Night Live?

Have you ever heard Mel Tormé's explanation of when he co-wrote The Christmas Song? It wa a really hot day in July, and he was over at his co-writer's place. From Wikipedia:

“I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil,” Tormé recalled. “They started, ‘Chestnuts roasting ... Jack Frost nipping ... Yuletide carols ... Folks dressed up like Eskimos.’ Bob (Wells, co-writer) didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics.”

December 14, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Well, of course the dogs were hearsay. It might have been the same angel.

I actually liked It's a Wonderful Life the first time I saw it, was actually not that early in my life, unlike some of the other holiday chestnuts. I pass it by these days, but that's probably just overkill.

December 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I had not known the story behind that well-loved American classic. And this reminds me of an explanation I read for the curious fact that the most popular American Easter and Christmas songs ("Easter Parade" and "White Christmas") were composed by a Jewish songwriter.

Part of the explantion, as I recall (and it made sense) is that Americans are uncomfortable with overt expressions of religion and prefer non-demoninational expressions of comfort and good fellowship at holiday time.

December 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I quite like the idea of ghostly white dogs leading lost travellers back to the true road.

Speaking of chestnuts (on TV, not roasting on an open fire), I watched a bit of The Wizard of Oz recently, the first time I had seen more that a brief clip in color.

December 14, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I saw it in a theatre maybe eight or nine years ago. I am not sure that it gained anything over the primal impact of watching it on an old black and white set in childhood. Certainly wasn't nearly as terrifying as it was in memory.

December 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My recent partial viewing did not include the flying monkeys, who had scared me when I was a child.

I'd agree that a color viewing would not have enhanced the childish terror much. I brought the matter up only because much was always made about the switch to color in the Emerald City scenes. This was very early in the history of color films. Color was still a bit of a plaything in 1939 I think.

December 14, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Those monkeys were a master stroke of terror.

Color didn't actually add much when color television eventually made it's way into our house. It was nice to see what the horse of a different color was all about, though.

Salman Rushdie has written a small book on the movie, which I own but haven't gotten to yet. I think seeing it as a child played a significant part in his imaginative life, which is quite fascinating.

December 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The swarming...darking the sky...the flappin wings...the-- Ahhhhhhhhh!

Hmm, I don't remember the horse of a different color. Salman Rushdie's book about a movie that exposes the bogus claims of a human who aspires to omnipotence may be an attempt to reingratiate himself with religious authorities after that little dust-up had a few years back. Ya think?

December 14, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

You don't remember the horse of a different color because it was in black and white.

I think Rushdie identifies with Dorothy.

December 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure I remember discussion of a horse of a different color, the way I do remember hearing about Emerald City in green long before I saw the movie in color.

Salman Rushdie and Dorothy, you say? I'd not have suspected that author of loving Judy Garland.

December 14, 2009  

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