Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Ambitious Diminutives: La Fontaine and the Art of the Apologue

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Ambitious Diminutives: La Fontaine and the Art of the Apologue

Article excerpt

Jean de La Fontaine. Love à" Folly: Selected Tales and Fables of La Fontaine. Translated by Marie Ponsot. Edited and with an introduction by Benjamin Ivry. Illustrations by Soon Chun Cho. Welcome Rain Publishers 2002. 160 pp. $14.00 (paperback) [Originally published as Selected Fables and Tales of La Fontaine. New American Library 1966]

Jean de La Fontaine. The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Introduction by John Hollander. Illustrations by David Schorr. University of Illinois Press 2007. 504 pp. $80.00 $25.00 (paperback)

NOBODY knows just when the animals stopped speaking to us. That beastly cold shoulder has gone on for eons now. It's easy enough to speculate as to why they gave up on us. Perhaps they'd grown tired of our braggadocio. Perhaps Aristotle is to blame. His insistence that humans are "rational animals" must have galled them. This is of course nonsense, as even the most untutored wombat knows. Our rationality, our vaunted logic, is almost always wishful. The lowliest thrip is more rigorous than the Stagirite. The logic of fur and fin, of feather and scale, is unassailable. Animal logic is commonsensical; it works to a purpose. And its premise is always self-interest. Metaphysics doesn't cloud its syllogisms. But surely we have eloquence, while they have little more than hoots and grunts, warbles and chitterings? Well, not really: Animal speech is richly patterned and often musical. The mockingbird makes Demosthenes sound like the stammerer he was. The squeaks of bats in their exactitude put our equations to shame. Our "rational speech" is but the thinnest band of a vocal spectrum that extends beyond our ken. We are excluded from that vast polyphony. We are monoglots at a festival of tongues.

But perhaps it wasn't so much that animals stopped talking as that we stopped listening. Montaigne asked, "Why should it be a defect in the beasts and not in us that stops all communication between us?" If we could understand the language of the animals, what would we hear? In my opinion, the closest approximation lies in the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. This may sound absurd. After all, aren't his foxes and storks, frogs and mice, lions and wolves, mere surrogates, humans decked out in pelts and hides and manes? Aren't they us in shaggy camouflage? Certainly their ambitions and intentions seem dangerously familiar; their motives are usually sordid, their calculations petty, their comeuppances abrupt. We recognize their vanity, their guile, their cruelty, their deluded hopes as unmistakably our own.

Take as an example his late fable "The Pig, the Goat, and the Sheep," quoted here in Marie Ponsot's translation:

A farmer put a sheep, a plump pig, and a goat

Into his cart, and off to the fair they went.

The creatures were, though unaware, all in one boat,

Soon to be sold for slaughter in the market tent.

These passengers would see no clowns

Or comic dancers in gold gowns.

Sir Swine, despite the farmer's frowns,

Squealed as if he already glimpsed the butchers' knives,

Squealed without ceasing, deafening the patient pair

That rode beside him. They had led more sheltered lives

And had no inkling why he shrilled in such despair;

They could not see anything wrong.

"Pig!" the farmer called. "Next time you won't come along

If you don't stop that! Your friends are ashamed of you.

They are enjoying the change, the fresh air, the view

see how they behave. Don't be a vulgarian!

Take a hint from friend sheep there. He's wise. He keeps cool."

Said Sir Swine, "He's a fool!

If he guessed where you're steering with this caravan,

How he'd howl! These two innocents aren't frightened

But if you tell them what's in store

They'll bleat then, and shriek and implore.

They think they're going to the fair to be lightened,

The goat of her milk, the sheep of wool-that may be. …

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