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The Fabulous La Fontaine

It is true, as Fumaroli points out, that after a century of devastating religious conflict and the decades of political turmoil of the Fronde, the French public was exhausted and the legitimacy of Louis XIV’s reign appeared to be the only guarantee of peace. The return of absolutist policy may have been a hard price to pay, but open resistance was no longer practical. The fundamental distinction that Fumaroli wants us to accept is between the “politics of the politicians” and the “politics of poetry”: the latter preserves the integrity of language and the truths that it embodies against a politics that distorts language and truth in the interests of power. He writes:

Poetry has no need to be politically engaged in order to be political. On the contrary, when it is politically engaged it ceases to be at the same time politics and poetry, the politics of poetry. If all great poetry is political, we can say precisely that it is so by definition, since it seeks for the City a foundation in the truth of the heart, wagered and rewon by the integrity of language.

We ought not to dismiss this statement merely because the large generalities and oversimple grandeur of style suggest the empty formulas of so much French philosophical writing that derives from Alain, whose influence on the writers of the 1930s is still unfortunately discernible today. Fumaroli is raising a legitimate and difficult point.

There is, indeed, a process by which a totalitarian regime—and even a dishonest democratic government as well—corrupts language, and making a stand against the corruption of language is an aspect of the literary profession that cannot be dismissed. In addition, expecting a poet to make a public protest against every injustice is a waste of his, and our, time. Yet Fumaroli still leaves us with a sense that he is at least partially evading the issue. He has every right to do this, since there is no way that the general questions he raises can be directly faced with success, but the position of La Fontaine in the society of his time brings out aspects that Fumaroli prefers to leave at least partially in the shadow. What he has written is cogent, but not quite adequate.

The greatest political crime of the reign of Louis XIV is often acknowledged to be the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This edict, proclaimed under Henri IV at the end of the sixteenth century, granted religious toleration to the large Protestant minority. Louis XIV’s intent to destroy any form of opposition led to the persecution of the Jansenist sect, resolutely Catholic but opposed to that part of the Church hierarchy subservient to Rome; and he consistently tried to reduce the Protestant force in his kingdom. Protestants were paid to convert, and at first it looked easy, but the resistance of a large number irritated the King.

The terms of the Revocation provide a perfect example of corruption of language: the Edict of Nantes was no longer valid, the government proclaimed, because there were no Protestants left in France. Of course, those who were still around had a choice: they could convert or they could leave the kingdom. Many of them chose to leave, and they improved the textile industry in England with their skills, managerial abilities, and investment in much the same way that German refugees from Hitler created American musicology and inspired American research in physics. La Fontaine’s patron, Mme. de la Sablière, had been Protestant (she converted to Catholicism in 1680 when she shut herself despairingly in a convent after being abandoned by her lover); some of her children refused to convert and left the country.

La Fontaine’s attitude to religion had always been one of benign detachment. He received a religious education at the Oratory, but it is admitted that he spent the time reading a novel while his teacher studied Saint Augustine. Religious controversy excites him only to mockery. Nor is he much impressed by religious ritual. Describing his voyage to Limousin with his uncle he writes:

We had to wait for three hours, and to keep from being bored, or to be even more bored (I don’t really know which one I should say), heard the parish mass. Procession, holy water, instruction, nothing was missing. By good fortune, the curate was ignorant and there was no sermon.

He does not seem to have taken religion very seriously until the end of his life, although Pascal’s superbly comic attacks on the Jesuits inspired him to transform some of Pacal’s prose into witty verse.

What was La Fontaine’s reaction to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, a political crime which touched many of the people closest to him? In public, he had a poem printed in 1687 in which he praised the King for the Revocation:

He wishes to conquer Error: the work advances,
It is done; and the fruit of his many successe
Is that the Truth reigns through out France,
And France throughout the universe.

In private, at the same time, his reaction was somewhat different from this extravagantly groveling panegyric: in a poem that remained in manuscript (but we must remember that what he wrote was widely circulated among a large circle), he set down enthusiastic praise of Pierre Bayle, a Protestant whose brilliant journalism provided the most controversial and influential plea for religious tolerance at that time.3 “He wishes to please men of wit, and he pleases them,” observed La Fontaine, and praised his literary style and his honest language. “If he can find the occasion for a stinging and satirical remark, he seizes it, God knows, like a clever and adroit man. As a child of Calvin, he would decide about everything if he dared, since he has the taste for it along with the learning.”

This was still a period of religious agitation: James II was about to be thrown out of England for his adherence to the Catholic faith. The Revocation was by no means universally welcome to all Catholics: the Pope, in particular, astonishingly refused to approve it, which outraged the French government. In a verse letter to his English friends, La Fontaine reported a joke making the rounds (“and it’s a good joke,” he added) that it would promote peace if the Pope became a Catholic and James II became a Huguenot. His praise of Bayle was written in the year following Bayle’s publication of a virulent and sardonic attack on the Revocation. Not even privately does La Fontaine condemn the Revocation (that would certainly have been imprudent, even if he had wanted to) but he made it clear enough that he himself was not governed by the spirit of intolerance that had produced it.

This discrepancy between public and private statement is not one that is easy for us to assess, and we may think, in fact, that we are not called upon to pass judgement. Some kind of estimate is hard to avoid, however, just as it is difficult to remain neutral about the attitude of the German artists to the Third Reich. Nevertheless, no simple criterion exists to help us distinguish clearly among Furtwängler, who accepted an official post under Hitler but used his prestige to try to mitigate the Nazi racial policy, von Karajan, who joined the Nazi party twice, the second time to make sure that his adherence would be noticed, and Gieseking, who was ideologically a perfectly satisfied, if stupid, Nazi. As we go centuries back in time, the difficulties of assessment are compounded.

If we feel, and with some justice, that La Fontaine’s compromises are at least mildly deplorable, Montaigne may help us clarify the matter, and Fumaroli has called attention to the importance of Montaigne for La Fontaine, as for almost every other writer of the seventeenth century in France. The relation of the individual citizen to public crimes was a subject for Montaigne’s meditation, and he gives an answer to the dilemma that naturally arises which not only has the merit of being as subtle and ambiguous as the problem demands, but also confronts its own ambiguity:

Our structure, both public and private, is full of imperfection. But there is nothing useless in Nature; not even uselessness itself; nothing enters into the universe which does not find a relevant place. Our being is cemented by sickening qualities: ambition, jealousy, envy, vengeance, superstition, despair lodge inside us with so natural a possession that the image can be also be recognized in animals—indeed, even cruelty, so unnatural a vice: since in the middle of compassion we feel within ourselves some kind of bitter-sweet prick of malignant physical pleasure at seeing someone else suffer; and children feel it. (It is sweet during a tempest, when the winds stir up the waves, to stand on the shore and watch the sufferings of others—Lucretius.) If we took away the seeds of these qualities from man, we should destroy the fundamental conditions of our life. Similarly, in every state, there are necessary tasks which are not only degraded but vicious: vices find their place there, and are employed in the knitting together of our community the way poisons can contribute to the conservation of our health. If they become excusable because we need them and their necessity obscures their real nature, we must leave these affairs to citizens more vigorous and less timid who sacrifice their honor and their conscience the way others in the past sacrificed their lives for the good of their country; as for the rest of us, who are weaker, let us choose roles that are easier and less risky. The public good requires betrayals, lies, and massacres; let us leave that to people who are more obedient and more supple.

Montaigne may seem almost passively to accept crimes of state. Leave it to others—that is his personal solution. Behind this acquiescence, however, there is a protest: his ironic and corrosive contempt for those who carry out the vicious crimes demanded by the government, those useful citizens who “sacrifice honor and conscience” the way heroes of the past sacrificed their lives. The ironic contempt is both a private response and at the same time a public act—a published act; indeed, one of the few acts that a single and helpless person could have carried out in a period of civil war and religious conflict.

Montaigne wrote that he was willing to stand by his principles up to the point where his opponents would burn down his house, but no further. La Fontaine was equally circumspect, but his witty praise of the most important Protestant journalist of his time, even if circulated only in manuscript, exceeded a simple preservation of the values of language: it was a political action.


La Fontaine’s favorite philosopher was Plato, and one of his friends reported that the margins of his copy of Plato were filled with comments that went directly into the Fables. Since we have lost this volume, we cannot know just how Plato inspired him, and he rarely mentions Plato. The debt to Montaigne was certainly equally great. 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.4

  1. 3

    He later published the first part of the poem, but not the lines on Bayle.

  2. 4

    La Fontaine’s knowledge of Italian literature was as great as his reading in French and Latin: he admired Boccaccio, Tasso, and Machiavelli, and borrowed from Aretino (it would not have been politic to admit an admiration for the latter, as he was best known for pornography, but he was the greatest prose stylist of the Italian sixteenth century). Keeping this in mind, we can clear up an enigma that has puzzled scholars: in the Epistle to Huet, where La Fontaine details the poets he admired among the Ancients and the Moderns, he alludes without naming him to a poet

    whom I took in the past for my master. He was going to spoil me. In the end, thank heaven, Horace happily opened my eyes. The author had some good things, some of the best, and France admired the turn and the cadence of his verse. Who would not have esteemed them? I was ravished by them, but whoever followed his style was lost. His overabundance of wit displayed too many beautiful things.

    He added in a note that “some authors of that time affected antitheses, and the sort of thoughts that one calls concetti. That immediately followed Malherbe.” Who was this author? There have been many unsatisfactory suggestions, including Malherbe, which is absurd since La Fontaine revered him to the end of his life. It has been assumed that the author is French, since La Fontaine writes that he was admired in France, but in fact that should suggest a foreigner. Internationally the most famous and most influential European poet of the early seventeenth century, Marino Marini, lived in France, where he was called the Chevalier Marin, and his longest and best-known work, Adonis, was dedicated to Louis XIII. His florid baroque style and use of concetti fit La Fontaine’s characterization perfectly.

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