La Fontaine: the poetry of the hidden transcript

Literature we may say is what goes on all the time history is what goes on from time to time… Gertrude Stein


The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation devotes a whole page to La Fontaine’s Fables. It covers a good part, but not all, of the gamut, from John Dennis’s first essay and assay in 1693 – two years before La Fontaine’s death, and a year before the 1694 edition, with Book XII in it, appeared – to the complete translations by Norman Schapiro in 1985.

Yet La Fontaine’s status in the Angophone world reflects a certain literary-political decision about fables: that they are always, in some way, infantile. Which in turn inflects, if unconsciously, his translators, with their tendency to didly-o language, in tonal contrast to La Fontaine’s highly adroit use of multiple idioms, his parodying, his lyricism.  Although fables and allegories as genres are popular in the curriculum of middle and high schools, they are not accorded the admiration that the critics give the higher works of art, from epic poetry to realistic novels. They don’t have the difficulty, they don’t resolve aesthetic problems, so the thinking goes, that, say, we can see and feel in one of Nabokov’s novels. They allow English high school teachers to talk easily about symbols and avoid the hard kernel of literature and its difference. The Fables seem to lack the referential difficulty of Pound’s Cantos, being, on the surface, so genial, and referentially domesticated: all that pagan mythology. When Paul Valéry wrote about La Fontaine, he chose Adonis – a great early poem. And not, say, The Pig, the Goat and the Sheep, from book 8 of the Fables.

In contrast to the English and American critics, critics and poets in France have remarked on the rise in  La Fontaine’s prestige, and in general his place in French culture, over the last 30 – 50 years. Partly this is due to the fact that one of the great scholars of the 17th century, Marc Fumoreli, has made a strong case for La Fontaine being an essential counterbalance to the classical literature of the French court under Louis XIV. Fumaroli’s book, The Poet and the King, is constructed around the opposition between Parnassus – the dream of the republic of letters, where power is constructed out of friendship and poesis, presided over by an aristocracy of benign patrons – and Olympus, which represents the dread institutionalization of literature as the arm of the state – or in our age, the arm of the corporation, with its statist power. One immediately sees how useful this is, how it brings out a thematic that is buried in the contrast between the baroque and the classical. A great scissoring mind is necessary to cut up and put back together a work of art to show how it works, but that is only half the story. The other half is surrender – the sinking into the work, the inner touch, the tour, as it were, of the reserves of tacit knowledge it contains, to which one cannot be superior.  Empathy and the cutting edge – the conjunction of these two things is a rarity. Fumaroli has it, can make the old mandarin passes and still understand how the poem is more than a vehicle for tour-de-force verbal play – how the poem is passionate and plugged in. His way of seizing on and elevating the terms “Parnassas” and “Olympus”, which a lesser critic might dismiss as old and routine rhetorical devices, is, I must admit, brilliant.  There is a charge in them, a cultural politics hidden by them, which is tied not just to 17th century rhetoric, but to a recurring situation: the opposition between the poet and the autocrat. From that opposition comes, ultimately, the fever dreams of modernism, when autocracy under many guises has a tendency to seize society and lead it to disaster.

One can see premonitions of the re-discovery of La Fontaine in the essay of the 19th century critic, Sainte-Beuve, who rescue him from the reputation of being a sort of rococo lightweight, a  mascot of his own poem, the Grasshopper and the Ant. There is a story that La Fontaine awoke from his dogmatic slumbers when, at the age of 21, he heard a soldier recite a poem by Malherbe. The anecdote is too convenient; what it makes clear is that La Fontaine looked back to a whole tradition of French poetry. If he adhered to the humanistic faith in the ancients as the touchstones of taste, it was through the zigzag of the verse of the Renaissance. For this reason, Sainte-Beuve netted the poet (in the way he liked to net writers and pin them in his display case) as the last of a line of Renaissance poets – the best poet of the 16th century in the 17th century.


I began reading La Fontaine seriously this summer. Something inside me, some old chained spirit in the dungeon of my bodily aging, my accumulated fats and acids, my sense of something not accomplished, my disappointments, has lately craved poetry. Perhaps this is because I have always been impressed by people from other cultures – Mexico, France – who have memorized whole reams of poetry, and can recite it. Perhaps it is because my son, in his second year in elementary, is being taught to memorize poems, which is a standard feature of the French curriculum. More  likely, I simply need rhythm, a more expansive verbal universe. Someone once wrote that the Fables are one of the great epics. John Hollander pointed out that it extends to 12 books, like the Aeneid. Unlike Milton, who was La Fontaine’s contemporary, or earlier epic writers, from Virgil to Ariosto, La Fontaine’s characters are mostly animals, and their business is taken care of in relatively short poems – poems that are shorter than his lengthier Contes. The “Tales” are poems that hang together only the way short stories do, but the Fables hang together differently –  as a sort of theater of the hidden transcript, to use James Scott’s term for what is hidden from the public record, coming out as ambiguous stories and jokes, much as Freud thought the dream content encodes unconscious desire.

“If subordinate discourse in the presence of the dominant is a public transcript, I shall use the term hidden transcript to characterize discourse that takes place “offstage,” beyond direct observation by powerholders. The hidden transcript is thus derivative in the sense that it consists of those offstage speeches, gestures, and practices that confirm, contradict, or inflect what appears in the public transcript.  We do not wish to prejudge, by definition, the relation between what is said in the face of power and what is said behind its back. Power relations are not, alas, so straightforward that we can call what is said in power-laden contexts false and what is said offstage true. Nor can we simplistically describe the former as a realm of necessity and the latter as a realm of freedom. What is certainly the case, however, is that the hidden transcript is produced for a different audience and under different constraints of power than the public transcript.”

This relation, I’d claim, is sensible to the adult reader of La Fontaine who shakes off the debased notion of the fable as a sort of  sub-deb wisdom, a much-ado about some truism that is derived from some anecdote that offers us a contingent situation as if it were the emblem of a universal necessity. I’ve come to see the Fables in the light of the transcripts at play, understanding La Fontaine’s “lightness”, his speed, his quick changes as anything but a much-ado about truisms. For so often, fable moves from certainty to undecidability – an anti-Cartesian movement, consistent with La Fontaine’s anti-Cartesian thought – that the movement cannot be an accident. Rather, it is a poetics. It ambiguates the side the teller is on, and in that moment of puzzlement infects our idea of what the teller expects from the audience. Whose side is the audience on? The poet’s? The voice of the moralist? This has deeper effects on the poems themselves: for instance, La Fontaine allows himself a verbal range that is much greater than that granted to the writers of the French classical stage, as though he were, indeed, taking offstage liberties, or the liberties of the satyr play.  The price of this liberty is a subordination as though in riddling mockery to the circus subterfuges of the animals, their politics and hungers, their pride and falls, instead of “nobler” subjects.

A story about La Fontaine in Waelkenaer’s biography:

By his physiognomy one would never have guessed at his talents. He rarely began a conversation, and ordinarily, he was so distracted, that he didn’t know what other people were saying. He was daydreaming about something co

mpletely different, but he could’t say what it was. However, if he was among friends, and the discourse was animated by some pleasant point in dispute, especially at the table, then he would warm up, his eyes would light up, and it was La Fontaine in person, and not the ghost disguised as him.

The double soul, the doublesidedness of the banal, which was on one side ordinary, and on the other side, absurd, is a specialty of La Fontaine: just as he seemed to wear a disguise, to be elsewhere, in a circle in which making an impression was everything, and he came to life only when there was some intellectually pleasant point to it all – so too his fables wear a disguise: being the all too well known conventional stories of any peasant or councilor’s discourse and a medium to reveal the moral coarseness of power and the unpredictability of grace.



You cannot properly understand the poems if you think that the animal in La Fontaine is just an allegorical beast. It is both an allegory and an insight into what it is to be a beast. That is, what it is to be a human being, since, for La Fontaine, the link forged in the creation – whether the Lucretian creation or the Christian one – between man and beast is indissoluble. In the Fall, Man lost the ability to understand the language of the animals, but this inability should not be projected into the animals own deficit. This was an overt philosophical issue of the seventeenth century, when the idea that animals were “machines” was associated with Descartes and the “moderns”. La Fontaine was, by instinct and reflection, anti-mechanistic, seeing that the denial of personhood in the beast would surely lead to the denial of personhood in the human, a theme that repeatedly crops up in the anti-Enlightenment literature, from Vico to Nietzsche. La Fontaine further associates modernization, ever so discretely, with the centralization of Louis XIV’s minister, Colbert, and autocratic power grab embodied in it that was the very spirit of Versailles.

Fumaroli sees, I think, from a conservative vantage point, something genuine in the dream of the republic of letters that animated not only La Fontaine and the last inheritors of the Renaissance in the seventeenth century:

The experience of the 20th century has taught us that, for all souls who are attached to liberty, the enclosure of intelligence in the economic, the social and the political, to which we are condemned by the ideologies of both the right and the left, empties the word “culture” of its breath and its liberating inspiration. Integrated in the organic and material totality of the City, culture, in a Hobbesian sense, either becomes faded and mute, or turns against its own end, which is to render man capable of divinity.”

For La Fontaine, the old order of the beasts and the poets, of Orpheus, so to speak, is being erased by the emergence of a state rationality that was focused on eradicating all the old beliefs and practices that stood in its way, the superstitions of the fair giving way to the calculations of the marketplace, the stars that write our destiny giving way to the algorithms that write our product searches.  I’m not saying that La Fontaine has some theoretical view of the process – which is the kind of thing that he’d leave to one of his favorite authors, Machiavelli. Rather, it is more as if the process was a great riddle, resolving itself in the city and the countryside, creating other riddles. One literary response was encoded in the century’s art of the maxim, with its certainties built on the practical and historical experience of a defeated aristocracy. La Fontaine is able to absorb the maxim as a unit within the lyric, but displaces its aristocratic or homiletic origin, its high cultural claim, by embedding it in his supposed non-serious choice of subject matter. This gesture is justified by La Fontaine’s fundamental belief in the importance of poetry as the intersection where the gods and the mortals meet.

We can cast some light on La Fontaine’s notion of the animal by turning to an essay that surveys folk beliefs about animals that are prevalent even now: Sergio Dalla Bernardina’s ‘A person not completely like the others: the animal and its status (L’homme 1991 31(4))

Bernardina considers, in his essay, various instances of cruelty to animal’s in folk culture. Bernardina groups together a number of rituals and behaviors – behaviors of peasants driving cattle to the slaughter house, behaviors of hunters – from pre-industrial times until now – and considers whether this behavior shows a cruel streak among the plebes and peasants that requires the embourgoisification of manners to soften and eradicate. At the center of the essay is an ethnological report concerning the Ainu bear ritual. In the Ainu village, the villagers first capture a bear cub. The cub becomes the pet of the village. It is cuddled. ‘Even officially” it is treated like a person.

Then comes the fatal day of the ceremony.

“He is given a tour of the village, and all the details of the ceremony are gently explained to him, compensation for all the tribe of bears for the future ones put to death. It is necessary that he can recount all the grandeur of the ceremony in order for others to be happy to come to men who treat them so well and not to feel that anger which can destroy the huts of the village.”

Then, according to the ethnologist who Bernardina is quoting, “for reasons that we didn’t quite grasp”, each begins to mistreat the bear, to make it angry, to strike on it from all sides, to poke it with branches, etc. At last it is lead to the center of the village, where everyone is assembled, and then the chief of the ceremony shoots at it with an arrow. Theoretically, this should kill it right away – actually, everybody begins to shoot arrows at it. Then the bear, either dead or dying, is dragged about. Someone breaks its neck.

What the anthropologist doesn’t understand is why this cruelty has to be exercised. This is Bernardina starting point. Far from being an expression of plebian sadism – a very popular claim – Bernardina thinks that the cruelty actually plays a structural role. And that role is about transformation.

His notion is this: there is an idea out there that an animal is a thing. A machine. But Bernardina claims that we have no evidence that the direct human experience of an animal is of a thing. The tendency we find across cultures is that an animal is a person. It has “rights” in the sense that it has a certain personhood. For Bernardina, the idea that an animal is a thing or a machine only makes its entrance when the animal is put to death. It is here that the animal must be demoted from person to beast. The cruelty it is subject to is not, he claims, derived from some sadistic substratum, but is a way of making the beast appear as a beast. It will lash out. It will prove that it is guilty. And it will be put to death.

In fact, in Bernardina’s interviews with hunters in contemporary Europe, again and again, the fact that the beast, the prey, flees is unconsciously but compulsively presented as a justification to kill it.  And so on. The very flies boys kill for sport “bother” us with their buzzing.

Bernardina’s theory – of the making of the thing from the person – is the other side of what Georges Bataille claims, in The Cursed Portion. There, he talks about dilapidating the thing to make it into a subject – even a divinity. This would be the negative of the positive of cruelty – in the former case, lowering the person to the status of a thing, in the latter case, raising a thing to a subject by way of making it cry out. There’s an interdependence in the cultural logic here. For if punishment is about making a person into a thing, to punish a thing implies that it once was a person. The tears of things are the signatures of the spirit. In the dream of universal history, the punishment comes first, and the crime later. I cut myself to punish the object that I am, and thus become a subject doubly, first as the punisher, and then as the person who cries over the wound.


La Fontaine justified his choice of the fable form, his sense of its dignity for his purpose, by adverting to a sort of Ur-fable: the story that Socrates, after he was condemned to death in Athens, spent the time before he had to swallow poison making poems out of Aestop’s fables. This was a mystery, especially as Socrates was well known for having condemned poetry. The conjunction of Aesop and Socrates fascinated La Fontaine. The fable form, incidentally, also fascinated Bertold Brecht, whose politics were revolutionary (unlike La Fontaine’s), but whose spirit, like La Fontaine’s, was appreciative of “cunning intelligence” – mètis in ancient Greek, which is not bound up and defined by interest or syllogistic logic, but operates in the dialectic between strength and weakness, allowing the latter to “win” over the former. La Fontaine’s fables, like some of Brecht’s Mr. Keuner parables, play artful variations on that infinite theme.

The semantic field of mètis in ancient Greece was explored by two French scholars, Marc Detienne and Jean-Paul Vernant, who were famous for combining the methods of ethnology and classical studies. What fascinated Detienne and Vernant was a way of reasoning that they could trace all the way from the Homeric epic to almost the end of the classical period. In an obscure handbook on hunting and fishing written by Oppian in the second century, A.D., they found a wonderful example of it. Oppian’s book introduces a “world of traps”, devices that are the correlate of what is translated in the Odyssey as “wiliness”.

In the animal world, as in the human one, the relations of force are constantly short-circuited by the intervention of metis. Thus, the rule is not that the big ones eat the little ones. Those who god has not given force and who are not armed with sharpened barbs to defend themselves have for their arms the resources of intelligence, fertile in ruses and strategies, which allow them to kill a fish that is by its dimensions and power superior to them.

Detienne and Vernant’s book, Les ruses de l’intelligence. La mètis des Grecs, came out in 1974. The interest in strategies as paradigms of practical life was, by this time, inscribed in the Cold War intellectual tradition – partly as a result of the critique of central planning, the ideological counterweight to Soviet Communism. Michael Polanyi, who was more of an ideologue, wrote about the tacit dimension in organizations in the sixties, knowledge which couldn’t be formalized and thus routinized. I don’t know if Polanyi influenced the focus of Detienne and Vernant’s research, but it certainly was part of the reception space, the atmosphere, of the time, even on the left.

Mètis, which allows the wily man to escape from the physically stronger one, or the hunter to, by certain ruses, trap the bear, is an adaptive understanding of limits – that is, understanding strength and weakness in terms of the limits that define them in given situations.  La Fontaine’s theme in the Fables  – which is a world of traps, in a sense – is about the power of limits. Everything is limited – which is a fact about our fallen world. There is even a limit to limits – that is, to thinking in terms of limits. Against the deductive certainty of Descarte’s method and the centralizing gaze of the absolute monarch, La Fontaine puts forward the limit. But even knowing where the limits in a situation are – where the traps are, who is armed and who isn’t, who knows and who doesn’t – is no guarantee of salvation.


So where is La Fontaine now?

Would the man who could still cite Pliny’s stories of intelligent beasts, who was a state officer of the forest (guarding the game and the timber), recognize our increasingly birdless skies, our fished out oceans, the forest where species loss goes from relative to absolute? I wonder if we are living in an attack not only on the future, but on the past. Two reports came out this month. One was a survey of birdlife in the United States which found a decline of 2.9 billion birds over the last 50 years, with species loss extending over most genera. A report by State of Nature found an overall loss of  13 percent in wildlife abundance in the UK since 1970. Human contact with animals, besides dogs and cats, is becoming a matter of swatting mosquitoes and spraying insecticide at flies. The bond that has held since humans painted the beasts on the walls of caves in Lascaux and Chauvet – the beasts, and not people, as though the human did not count against the spring of the great cats, or the strength of the mammoth –  the bond that has held for millenia, is breaking.

Neoliberal culture is a compound of social liberal advances – the emancipation of marginalized identities, in law and rhetoric – and the great squeeze, as late capitalism, with its avant garde plutocracy, puts the planet’s destiny neatly on its excel sheets, looking for points.

This is Why (to use the tiresome TED talk language), La Fontaine Matters. Matters is an adventurous word. Etymologically, it comes from materia, or timber. And inside materia we find mater, “mother”. Why something mothers, why something timbers – we are brought back to the forests and the animal, to La Fontaine’s great themes and underthemes. In Book 8, 3, the Power of Fables, La Fontaine tells the story of an orator in Athens who tried to get the crowd listen to his reasoning, and to the immanent threat of an attack by Phillip, the father of Alexander the Great. His reasoning fell on deaf ears; his excited rhetoric about what disasters would flow from defeat fell on deaf ears. So he began to tell a story about a butterfly, an eel and Ceres, who agree to travel together. The crowd suddenly hushed. In the story, they come to a river. The eel swims across; the butterfly flies across. The orator stops, and the people shout? What did Ceres do?

“What did she do?

She fell into a rage because of you.

What? A nursery tale gets your undivided attention

And of the danger that threats your – and her – nation

You  alone among the Greeks ignore what’s brewing

Why not ask what Philip is doing?”

It is a strange moment: it seems that La Fontaine is taking up her a very old scolding theme, a Platonic one, even: the poets tell us lies, and distract us from truths. Yet Socrates in the end turned to poetry himself. The title of the fable is The Power of Fable, which implies some hold it has on us as mortals. It is dedicated to the French ambassador to England, which at this time was contemplating hostility to the French, which is mirrored in the story the fable rehearses. What after all happens here?The orator’s story successfully attracts listeners, as his reasoning has not. And it is the more powerful as it becomes an anti-story, breaks off its narrative flow and flows elsewhere. It turns into an anti-story, its climax an anti-climax. Isn’t the power of fable, after all, capacious enough to encompass its own denunciation? And what after all is seriousness to mortals if it doesn’t address the very nature of the mortal in its attachment to the story as the great media of sensemaking? La Fontaine’s ending is, as always, an edgy acknowledgement of the problem rather than the didactic resolution that would make sense of this moment, as is “proper” to fables:

We are all Athens in this point; I

myself  as I’m putting this moral down

If someone telling the Ass’s Tale was passing by

I’d take extreme pleasure in hearing it.

The world is old, they say; I believe it. Whatever,

Like a child it has to be given its childish pleasure.






I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.
About Roger 77 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

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