August 30, 2017 by AK
Looking for an annotated text of La Fontaine’s The Wolf and the Lamb for my previous post, I found this 1997 NYRB article by the pianist and polymath Charles Rosen (1927-2012) and could not put it down. I’ve since been coming back to it.
What many French children like about the Fables is exactly what Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought made them unfit for pedagogy: their frequent cruelty, their heartlessness. Unlike any other fabulist, La Fontaine was too clearsighted to be moral.The Fables are not immoral… they are amoral, realistic… The realistic brutality he cultivated opens the first book, although with a certain gaiety, when the grasshopper, who spent the summer singing, begs the ant, who worked all those months, for a little food:
You sang: I’m happy to hear that.
Well, you can dance now.
[- Vous chantiez ? j’en suis fort aise.
Eh bien : dansez maintenant.]
It was obvious enough to Rousseau that this did not teach children the virtues of frugality but the bitterness of experience.
I suppose the children Rosen had in mind are big enough to appreciate black humor in old verse. The most famous fables impress themselves upon small children’s memory like a senseless incantation or a nursery rhyme. To appreciate these works in a grown-up fashion, one has to forget these abracadabras and re-learn them as sensible poems. Then comes the realization that one has known some great poetry by heart since before one’s age of reason.
Rosen’s article is actually a review of Le Poète et le Roi: Jean de La Fontaine en son siècle by Marc Fumaroli:
In one of his most brilliant comments, Fumaroli writes that La Fontaine made a synthesis of Montaigne and Ariosto. He does not expand on this at any length, but the suggestion comes close to describing the essential achievement of La Fontaine.
One of the most satisfying book reviews, or articles more generally, that I’ve read in the past year or two. I’ll admit it could be partly because of my ignorance of French literature, but only partly.