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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 33

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 21 August 1767 [33.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 On the thirty-sixth evening (Friday, the 3rd of July) M. Favart’s comedy Soliman the Second was performed, also in the presence of His Royal Highness of Denmark.[33.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I do not wish to examine the degree to which history confirms whether Soliman II fell in love with a European slave who was so able to captivate him, so able to bend him to her will, that – against all customs of his kingdom – he felt compelled to unite himself with her officially and declare her empress.[33.3] It suffices that Marmontel based one of his moral stories on this, in which, however, he made that slave, who was supposedly an Italian, into a Frenchwoman – doubtless because he found it improbable that anyone but a French beauty could achieve such a rare victory over a Sultan.[33.4]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I really do not know what to say about Marmontel’s story. I cannot say that it fails to apply great wit, or lacks all the subtle knowledge of the great world and its vanities and absurdities, or was written without the elegance and grace that characterize this author. From this perspective it is excellent, lovely. But it is supposed to be a moral tale, and I just cannot find where its morality resides. Admittedly, it is not as salacious and offensive as a tale from La Fontaine or Grécourt, but is it moral simply because it is not completely immoral?[33.5]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 A Sultan, who yawns in the lap of decadence, for whom daily, unchallenging pleasure has rendered decadence distasteful and loathsome, who wishes to have his flaccid nerves revived and stimulated through something completely new and special, who is courted in vain by the most subtle sensuality and the most refined tenderness: this sick hedonist is the suffering hero of the story. I say, suffering: the gourmand has spoiled his stomach with too many sweets, nothing tastes good to him anymore, until he finally becomes intent upon a thing that would stir up revulsion in a healthy stomach, like rotten eggs, rat tails, and caterpillar pie – these taste good to him. The most rare and modest beauty, possessed of the most soulful big blue eyes and the most innocent, sensitive soul, commands the Sultan – until she is won. Another, more majestic in form, more dazzling in complexion, with florid tirades on her lips and the most lovely play of bewitching tones in her voice, a true muse, only more seductive – is enjoyed and forgotten. Finally a female appears, flighty, careless, wild, witty almost to the point of insolence and merry almost to the point of madness, with a vivid face but not much beauty, more dainty than shapely; this thing, when she first sees the Sultan, blurts out the clumsiest flattery, like a bull at the gate: “Graces au ciel, voici une figure humaine!” (flattery that might be heard, sometimes in a more subtle manner, and sometimes more brazenly, not only by this Sultan, but also by many a German prince, nine out of ten of whom, like the Sultan, receive it well without perceiving the insult it actually implies). [33.6] And the rest of the compliments that follow are just like this initial one – “Vous êtes beaucoup mieux, qu’il n’appartient à un Turc: vous avez même quelque chose d’un François – En vérité ces Turcs sont plaisans – Je me charge seule d’apprendre à vivre à ce Turc – Je ne désespére pas d’en faire quelque jour un François. [33.7] Yet the thing succeeds! She laughs and chides, threatens and mocks, flirts and gripes, until the Sultan not only has given the seraglio a new form to please her, but also has to change the law of the kingdom and run the risk of raising the ire of both the clergy and the mob against him if he wants to be just as happy with her as she claims other men in her homeland have been. That was surely worth the trouble!

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Marmontel begins his story with the observation that major transformations of a country have often been catalyzed by very insignificant trifles, and he has the Sultan conclude by secretly asking himself: how is it possible that a little upturned nose could overthrow the laws of a kingdom?[33.8] We are thus almost meant to believe that he only wanted to illustrate through example this observation, that is, this apparent discrepancy between cause and effect. But this lesson would undoubtedly have been too general, and he discloses in his prologue that he had a completely different and much more particular lesson in mind. “I proposed,” he says, “to show the folly of those who want to use prestige and authority to make a woman complaisant. Thus I used a Sultan and his slave as an example, as the two extremes of domination and dependency.”[33.9] However, Marmontel must surely have lost sight of his purpose while he was working on the story, for almost nothing is targeted toward it. We do not see the least attempt at forcefulness on the part of the Sultan; at the first insolent word the gallant Frenchwoman speaks, he becomes the most diffident, yielding, compliant, obedient, and subservient man, la meilleure pâte de mari, one scarce to be found in France.[33.10] Thus, to speak plainly: either there is no moral in this story of Marmontel’s, or it is the one I pointed to above when writing of the Sultan’s character: after the beetle has swarmed through all the flowers, it ends up lying in dung.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 But moral or no moral: for the dramatic writer, it does not matter whether a universal truth can be deduced from his story or not, so on that account Marmontel’s story was neither more nor less suited to be adapted to the stage. Favart did so, and very successfully. I advise all among us who want to enrich our theater from similar stories to compare Favart’s achievement with Marmontel’s original. If they possess a knack for abstraction, then the most minor changes it suffered (and in part had to suffer) will be instructive, and their sensibility will guide them to some strategy that they could not have discovered through conjecture, and which no critic has yet generalized to a rule, even though it deserved to be. [†]For such a strategy would bring more truth and life to their plays than all of the mechanical rules with which jejune critics grapple – the observation of which, in defiance of genius, they would make the sole source of a drama’s perfection.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I want to dwell on just one of these changes. But first I must quote the criticism that the French themselves have made regarding this play.[*] They begin by expressing their doubts about the basis of Marmontel’s story.[33.11] “Soliman the Second,” they say, “was one of the great princes of his century; the Turks have no Emperor whose memory is more dear to them than this Soliman. His victories, his talents and his virtues made him an object of veneration even among the enemies over whom he had been victorious: yet what a petty, pitiful role Marmontel gives him to play! According to history, Roxelane was a devious, ambitious woman who was capable of committing the blackest and most audacious deeds to gratify her pride.[33.12] She used intrigue and false tenderness to bring the Sultan to the point where he raged against his own blood and compromised his legacy with the execution of an innocent son.[33.13] In Marmontel’s story, this Roxelane is a foolish little coquette, the kind found always fluttering about Paris, empty-headed, yet with a heart more good than evil. Are transformations such as these,” they ask, “even allowed? Whatever license we may allow a poet or storyteller, should he be permitted to extend that license to the most well-known personages? If he is allowed to change facts at whim, should he be allowed to depict a slutty Lucretia, or a rakish Socrates?”[33.14]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 With all due respect, this goes too far. I do not wish to undertake the defense of M. Marmontel; I have in fact already expressed my opinion that for the writer, characters must be more sacred than facts.[**] First, because if the characters are precisely observed, the facts, insofar as they are a consequence of the character, cannot turn out much differently on their own; while on the other hand the same facts might be deduced from completely different characters. Second, because what is instructive derives not from the mere facts but rather from the recognition that these characters in these circumstances will and must produce such facts. Anyhow, Marmontel has it completely backwards. It is a fact that there was once a European slave in the Seraglio who managed to make herself the legal wife of the emperor. The characters of this slave and this emperor determine the manner in which this fact came to be. Because it could arise through more than one type of character, then it is of course up to the writer to choose which of these types he wants; whether it is the one that history confirms, or some other that is more suited to the moral purpose he joins to his story. However, in the case where he chooses a different character than the historical one, or even chooses one completely opposite to the historical one, he should also refrain from using historical names, and preferably attach the known facts to completely unknown persons than impute an unfitting character to a well-known person. The former increases our knowledge, or at least seems to increase it, and is therefore pleasant. The latter contradicts the knowledge we already possess, and is therefore unpleasant. We consider facts to be something incidental, as something that can be common to many people; character, on the other hand, as something essential and unique. We allow the writer to jump about with the former as he likes, as long as he does not make them contradict the characters; in contrast, he can shine a light on the latter, but not change them. The smallest change seems to negate their individuality, and substitute others in their place, fraudulent persons who usurp strange names and give themselves out to be something that they are not.


10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [*] Journal Encyclopédique, January 1762.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [**] See above in [23].

  • 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [33.1] Essay actually published 8 December 1767.
  • [33.2] C. S. Favart, Soliman second, ou les trois Sultanes [Solomon the Second, or the three Sultanas] (1761): a three-act comedy in verse. See [29.7] for a note on the Danish king. The German translation used was Solimann der Zweyte, oder: Die drey Sultaninnen (1765) by Rudolf Erich Raspe (1736–94).
  • [33.3] The great Turkish sultan Süleyman I (c. 1494–1566) did indeed marry his European concubine, Hürrem Sultan (c. 1505–58) (known in the West as Roxolana or Roxelane), violating longstanding tradition. Although most accounts of Roxelane are conjecture rather than historical fact, the incident became a subject of great fascination in Europe. One of Lessing’s earliest (unfinished) attempts at tragedy, Giangir oder der verschmähte Thron [Giangir, or the Rejected Throne] (1748), featured Roxelane. For more on the European literary preoccupation with Süleyman and Roxelane, as well as a translation of Giangir, see Yermolenko, Roxolana in European Literature, History, and Culture (2010).
  • [33.4] The historical Roxelane was neither French nor Italian, but is believed to have been Ukrainian. In Marmontel’s story, “Soliman II” (1760), three European slaves are procured to entice Soliman, whose concubines no longer interest him, but he eventually tires of both Elmire, a modest beauty, and Délia, a dazzling singer. He is then smitten by the saucy Roxelane, who orders him around and rebuffs him until, defying the laws and customs of his country, Soliman agrees to make her his wife. For an English translation of Marmontel’s story see Marmontel’s Moral Tales, 1–18.
  • [33.5] Jean de La Fontaine (1621–95): renowned fabulist; author of the licentious Contes et nouvelles en vers [Tales and Novels in Verse] (1664–85). Jean-Baptiste Joseph Willart de Grécourt (1683–1743): libertine priest; author of many forms of light verse.
  • [33.6] “Thank heaven, here is a human face!” (Marmontel, “Soliman II” 43; Marmontel’s Moral Tales 8.)
  • [33.7] “You are much better than a Turk should be: you even have something of a Frenchman about you – Really, these Turks are amusing – I undertake to teach this Turk how to live – I do not despair of making him into a Frenchman some day.” (Marmontel, “Soliman II” 48–50; Marmontel’s Moral Tales 11–13.)
  • [33.8] See Marmontel, “Soliman II” 34, 50; Marmontel’s Moral Tales 18.
  • [33.9] See Marmontel, “Préface,” Contes moraux, vi.
  • [33.10] “the best example of a husband”
  • [33.11] Lessing loosely paraphrases an anonymous critique, “Soliman Second,” in the Journal Encyclopédique 13: 79.
  • [33.12] In her own time, Roxelane was accused of scheming and witchcraft, due to her unprecedented influence as a sultana and her power at court; most European accounts of Roxelane were based on these allegations.
  • [33.13] Süleyman had his first-born son Mustafa murdered in 1553; unsubstantiated rumor placed the blame on Roxelane’s machinations.
  • [33.14]Lucretia: legendary figure of ancient Rome; a virtuous wife who committed suicide after having been raped. Socrates: considered synonymous with modesty and restraint.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-33/