The Confused Males of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Voltaire’s Candide, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses
“Now my father was then holding one of his second beds of justice, and was musing within himself about the hardships of matrimony, as my mother broke silence.—
—My brother Toby, quoth she, is going to be married to Mrs. Wadman.”
—Then he will never, quoth my father, be able to lie diagonally in his bed again as long as he lives.”
(Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy)
The eighteenth century, what a magnificent time—a contemporary critic is likely to exclaim, and indeed it was. The century of Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Kant, Swift, Sterne, and others, whose names still make pound the sensitive hearts of many students of history, philosophy, and literature. The Age of Enlightenment, when every aspect of man’s life—morals and vices; natural and conventional laws; issues of government and religion, of marriage and child rearing, of politics and economy, of the sciences and the arts—was scrutinized under the critical eye of thinkers and often discarded without pity. A time of blossoming critical and literary thought, a time of great intellectual challenges, trials, and successes—in a word, a splendid, magnificent, glorious time.
And what books were written, what literary marvels were produced! Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Voltaire’s Candide, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses . . . Innovative and daring, they questioned a traditional, God-blessed and Church-sponsored view of man’s life, providing armies of scholars with an enormous literary and philosophical heritage and throwing wide the horizons of the world for their readers.
So they did for me, too. And yet, while enjoying immensely the ironic, sometimes sarcastic, tone of these books, I could not help noticing a quite intriguing detail, which “sparked” my curiosity now and then. To put it in a delicate way, the main male characters in the books either are not capable of dealing with the opposite sex at all (as in the pitiful case of Captain Gulliver) or they have certain difficulties in doing so (and we will see many examples of this kind). The notion of male sexual failure emerges in all these books, suggesting to the attentive reader that probably not all the discoveries of the eighteenth century were that glamorous.1
Let us, however, look into the texts. Uzbek, a Persian traveler in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, leaves his beautiful wives in the seraglio in Ispahan under the watchful eyes of the eunuchs and heads for Paris (eternal dreams of any married man) “to pursue the laborious search for wisdom” (41). The reader might ponder how “laborious” this “search” could be in Paris, but nothing of that kind ever happens; certainly Uzbek is not having a good time there:
I am living in a...