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Fabulist Par Excellence

ISSUE:  Winter 1993
A Pact with Silence: Art and Thought in the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. By David Lee Rubin. Ohio State. $40. 00.

1991 was a banner year for La Fontaine. The prestigious Pleiade series treated La Fontaine’s readers to Jean-Pierre Collinet’s new illustrated edition of the Fables and Contes. Scholars welcomed the publication of three extraordinary literary studies on the poet, Patrick Dandrey’s La Fabrique des Fables (Klincksiek), Annabel Patterson’s Fables of Power (Duke), a general study of Aesopic discourse with some suggestive pages on La Fontaine, and David Lee Rubin’s A Pact with Silence, the work under discussion here. Even Le Point, a Time-like French newsmagazine, got into the act by featuring La Fontaine on its cover and as its lead story. As the 300th anniversary of his death in 1695 approaches, La Fontaine’s complex, witty verse fables and tales continue to fascinate scholars and the literate public alike.

Even in such a prodigious year, the publication of David Lee Rubin’s A Pact with Silence marks a high point for La Fontaine studies in particular and the poetics of the French 17th century in general. Critical work on Aesopic writing, genre theory, and 17th-century poetry and poetics must now take account of Rubin’s sometimes provocative, always lucid treatment of La Fontaine and his place in 17th-century letters, for Rubin does not concern himself with secondary problems or scholarly quibbles. In the three interrelated essays and substantive conclusion that compose this volume, Rubin confronts the central issues. The first essay is a highly original formal reappraisal of the fable genre as a whole with special respect to La Fontaine’s contributions to it. The second, likely to be the most controversial, establishes La Fontaine’s place as the disciple and successor of Lucretius, and thus as thinker and authentic moralist, as well as poet. The third essay addresses the most perplexing problem remaining for La Fontainian scholarship, namely the disposition of individual fables within books of fables. The conclusion revises a number of received notions by situating La Fontaine with respect to his baroque predecessors and his contemporary Boileau.

Perception of genre is no doubt the single factor that most influences what a reader makes of a text, and fable must certainly be the most marked and coded, the most “generic” genre there is. Nonetheless, it seems to be a persistent feature of the fable genre to include in every collection of fables many examples that do not play by the rules children readily perceive, and even some that do not seem “fables” at all. Animal characters are expected; humans show up. The obligatory moral comes at the end, but sometimes at the beginning, or not at all. This “fault” inherent in the genre ought to be interesting for general theories of genre, as well as for reader reception theory. Rubin illustrates the point with a short corpus from the major authors of fable collections, Aesop, Babrius, Pilpay (Bidpai), Phaedrus, La Fontaine, and others in order to arrive at an inductively derived description (rather than prescriptive definition) of the fable. This departure gives Rubin the methodological tools to identify across La Fontaine’s 12 books of fables two major types. The assertional (or “Aesopic”) fables are “invariably complete, clear, closural, and uncomplicated by verbal puzzles”; the problematic (or La Fontainian) fables may, on the other hand, be incomplete, ambiguous, unclosed, and complicated by innumerable verbal shifts and turns. Rubin seems most interested in the problematic fables and how La Fontaine modified, indeed problematized, the straightforward, didactic narratives the reader purportedly expects in fable. In this respect, A Pact with Silence balances and completes Annabel Patterson’s Fables of Power, which examines the intellectual and especially political potential of Aesopic discourse in general.

Having demonstrated fable’s potential to employ highly complex formal and thematic devices, Rubin turns in his second chapter to the question of content. Who would have thought the lowly fable capable and worthy of sustaining advanced philosophical thought? Certainly not Lessing who for two centuries successfully convicted La Fontaine of “aestheticizing” the fable, thus neutralizing its potential political, or intellectual power. Even today critics tend to emphasize La Fontaine’s aesthetic side at the expense of his message, thereby giving short shrift to an important aspect of La Fontaine’s work. In revising this trend, Rubin has restored the copula to the 17th century’s incessantly repeated claim of artistic purpose: prodesse et delectare, instruction and pleasure. In Rubin’s view, La Fontaine is the disciple of Lucretius, more precisely, the discipulus of Lucretius, “in the fall sense of the Latin term—not only a follower and a continuator, but above all a successor, who modified, adapted, and at times broke with, his predecessors’ examples.” As a “revisionist epicurean,” La Fontaine must be given his due as a true moralist, like his contemporaries La Bruyere and La Rochefoucauld, not merely because most of his fables have morals attached to them.

Rubin’s point of departure for this discovery is La Fontaine’s statement in the “Poeme du quinquina” (1682), no doubt the masterpiece of pharmacological poetry, that in this poem he intends to be the “disciple de Lucrece une seconde fois.” In asking when he thought he was Lucretius’ disciple the first time, scholars generally cite his “Discours a Madame de La Sabliere,” published with Book 9 of the Fables, or the lovely “Hymne a la Volupte” that closes Les Amours de Psyche et de Cupidon (1669), his extraordinary “novel” in prose and verse. Rubin is the first to my knowledge to apply this statement to La Fontaine’s whole poetic enterprise in the 12 books of fables.

While La Fontaine’s myriad sources, influences, reminiscences, allusions, and quotations from classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and Baroque have been patiently tracked and catalogued, and others have proposed textual and thematic links between La Fontaine and Lucretius, Rubin’s view of the Fables as a direct response to Lucretius is both simple and radical. His daring assertion can—and I expect—will be tested in many ways. Harold Bloom’s analysis in The Anxiety of Influence of the way strong poets read and misread their predecessors might be brought to bear on this relationship. But perhaps there is also something in the magister-discipulus couple that should be considered, something for which Bloom’s Freudian analysis of the relationship between poets as the reenactment of the fatherson relationship does not entirely account. A fully theorized study of La Fontaine as Lucretius’ disciple could be an important contribution to modern notions of literary influence. The nature of the relationship between La Fontaine and Lucretius could also be approached as an historical account of La Fontaine’s epicureanism, for example in his relations with Bernier and other followers of Gassendi, but the most fruitful approach, I think, will be a “transtextual comparison of De Rerum Natura with the Fables,” a task Rubin promises to take on in a projected sequel.

In A Pact with Silence, Rubin’s exploration of the relationship between the two poets remains resolutely holistic. He notes the primary philosophical themes and attitudes in De Rerum Natura, finding analogues, responses, even objections in the Fables. As he puts it, “both Lucretius and La Fontaine present a double vision of human life: its wretchedness when lived unrationalized by correct principles and the well-being that results when epicurean rules—or their corollaries—are methodically applied.” Rubin illustrates with abundant examples and extended analyses of individual fables a considerable number of points of correspondence between the two poets. By any measure, there are far too many and too exact correspondences to be the result of mere casual contact with De Rerum Natura. While Rubin convinces by the weight of evidence he marshals in support of his contention, I eagerly await the detailed textual comparison Rubin has projected. Intertextual relations between the two poets will be a rich vein to explore, certainly in fables distinctly Lucretian in flavor and tone, or in explicitly philosophical fables, many of which Rubin discusses in A Pact with Silence. An analysis of the two poets’ common penchant for wordplay might yield interesting results, as might too an exploration of connections between Lucretius’ abundant animal imagery and La Fontaine’s vocation as literary fabulist.

The third essay returns to formal considerations. Few problems more vex La Fontaine’s modern critics than the order of the fables as they present themselves in 12 books of fables. La Fontaine himself arranged them in books in two major collections (1668 and 1678) and a final “twelfth book” (1694), but three centuries of practical criticism have not yet revealed exactly what principles La Fontaine used in assigning each fable its place. A book, even a book of fables (so the common thread of the argument goes), ought to possess a structure; it ought to embody an idea, a theme, a subject that the reader can discover and the critic describe. We know, more or less, how to read individual fables; how to read books of fables is another matter entirely. For the reader who approaches the fables in the order La Fontaine established, the collections of fables betray two simultaneous and contradictory movements. They are disposed in books as a sign of their presumed continuity, order, and coherence, while the individually numbered fables seem for the most part discrete, discontinuous, self-sustaining. While each of the 12 books of Fables now has at least one critical study devoted to its thematic, formal, or philosophical structure or “unity,” attempts to see general patterns have been until now largely unsatisfying.

I have always assumed that La Fontaine’s composition of the books of fables largely resembled planting daffodils. In order to achieve a natural, unstructured look, gardeners are advised to toss the bulbs onto the flower bed, and plant them where they fall. No gardener yet has been able to resist the temptation to move this one or that one just a bit this way or that way; and so, willy-nilly, patterns emerge. By locating complex patterns of formal, technical, stylistic, and thematic norms and consistent, describable deviations from those norms, Rubin may have discovered the principle that guides the gardener’s hand. La Fontaine’s technique for ordering the fables thus owes little to the expected criteria for ordering narratives or lyrics in sequence, such as theme, causal or logical principles. Exactly why this should be so seems to me an important question for theoreticians and critics to address.

Literary historians have generally treated La Fontaine as the brilliant exception, the one “classical” poet of merit in a generally unpoetic period. In his conclusion, Rubin takes issue with the received view in order to re-establish links with the great “baroque” poets, such as Malherbe, Théophile de Viau, Tristan I’Hermite, on whom Rubin has also written illuminatingly. La Fontaine’s epicureanism, as well as his tendency to problematize, brings him closer in spirit to his baroque predecessors than standard literary history would prefer. In raising these issues, Rubin enters the fray on the meaning—or non-meaning—of hoary terms like “classicism.” Some will dispute the details of his argument, but none will deny that Rubin has set an agenda for debate for some time to come on the deep relations among the poetic practices of La Fontaine, his baroque predecessors, his master Lucretius, and his contemporary Boileau.

If a test of excellence in a critical work is the number of new questions raised, rather than the number of old ones put to rest, then A Pact with Silence succeeds admirably, as it does, too, as a piece of critical writing. Reading Rubin is, mutatis mudandis, a little like reading Spinoza. An argument of considerable power and depth lies embedded in a mathematically rigorous demonstration. In an age somewhat given to florid overstatement, A Pact with Silence is a model of clarity, concision, and elegance. Admirers of Rubin’s work on the 17th-century lyric, notably Higher, Hidden Order (North Carolina 1972) and The Knot of Artifice (Ohio State 1981), will be delighted to find in A Pact with Silence the same detailed scholarship and clearly enunciated methodology within a broad and compelling literary vision.


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