The Animals Stricken By Plague
Francisco de Goya, And so was his grandfather, c. 1797 (detail)
by Douglas Penick
Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95) is well known for his verse versions of such fables as The Ant and the Grasshopper, The Fox and the Grapes and The Tortoise and the Hare which have amused and instructed both royalty and commoners from their first appearance. The fable I’ve translated here (from Livre VII.i) is somehow more disturbing. Like the other stories, it incorporates many aspects of the world which La Fontaine knew intimately. He grew up familiar with the life of animals in the wild, he learnt the ways of those who pled their cases in courts of law, knew how to navigate the palaces of the powerful and had seen the deadly impact of the plague. Between his 7th and 10th years, this epidemic had killed off a million men and women throughout France. Right now, it is this echo that we hear more clearly than we might have at other times.
An evil that spreads terror everywhere,
An evil that Heaven in its outrage
Devised to punish crime on Earth:
This is Plague (since it must have a name)
Which makes Acheron, who is paid to ferry off the dead,
A rich man in a single day.
When plague invaded the animal realm,
Not all were killed but all were stricken;
None desired to live on in a world so full of death.
No kind of delicacies could still stimulate their cravings.
Neither wolves nor foxes wanted to stalk
Their tender and innocent prey.
The turtledoves fled
Leaving love behind and joy.
The Lion held a Counsel. He said: “Dear Friends,
I believe that Heaven has allowed such misfortune
Because of our misdeeds;
And that he who is most guilty among us
Must now submit to the arrows of celestial rage.
Perhaps one sinner’s sacrifice will heal us all.
History teaches that in such circumstances
We should make this kind of recompense.
Let’s not longer flatter ourselves. Let’s examine unsparingly
What our consciences already know.
“For instance, as for me, to satisfy my gluttonous appetites,
I devoured innumerable sheep.
What had they ever done to me? Not a thing.
And sometimes I happened to eat the shepherd too.
So I will offer myself, if I must; but I think
It best that each of us also accuse himself as I have done
For justice requires that it is the very most guilty among us who should die.”
“O Sire,” said the Fox, “You are far more than the best of kings.
Your scruples reflect an excess of refinement.
And well, to eat some sheep, the most common and the stupidest of us all,
Is that a sin? No! No! My Lord, as you ground them up
Between your teeth, you ennobled them.
And as to the shepherd, one could easily say
That he deserved whatever suffering he received
Since he was one of those humans
Who exert their momentary tyrannies on us, the animals.”
Thus spoke the Fox to slavish applause.
And afterwards no one dared to look too deeply
Into the even less pardonable offenses
Of the Tiger, the Bear or any other powerful beast.
All those belligerent creatures went on for days,
And each, if each were to be believed, was really quite the little saint.
When time came for the Donkey to confess, he said:
“I do recall that once, as I trotted past a monastery field,
My hunger, the tender grasses, the lovely day overcame me,
And I think some devil may have pushed me too.
Well, I ate a clump of grass the width of my tongue.
To be honest, I know I had no right to do so.”
At these words, all howled at the Donkey: “Shame, Shame.”
A wolf who fancied himself a cleric, then gave a long harangue
Proving this accursed animal must be sacrificed,
This creature, scrofulous and bald, was the origin of all their grief.
His minor crime was judged a hanging offense.
To eat another’s bit of grass? What an abominable crime!
Nothing but death could compensate for such an evil deed.
And soon, the Donkey himself was persuaded to see things just this way.
For if you have power, you’ll be judged to be right,
And if you have none, you’ll soon find yourself wrong.
Like night-time or day; there’s black or there’s white
La Fontaine’s little fable shows how responding to plague (itself a product of human abuses) reduces all alternatives to a simple affirmation of the rights of the most powerful. The threat of extinction leads directly to reinforcing the existing hierarchy of power. But it is the Donkey’s acceptance and internalisation of the judgement from on high that is so shockingly modern as it prefigures the mentality of victims in witch hunts, show trials, struggle sessions and other kinds of brain washing.
A century later, Nicolas de Chamfort would say of this fable: “This is almost the complete history of human society.” And he knew whereof he spoke. His own convictions moved with those in power, even as he mocked and came to hate them. Renowned for his epigrams, plays, articles and repartee, he sought and obtained noble patronage. When the revolution began, he renounced the aristocrats who supported him, and enthusiastically joined the Jacobins. With complete conviction, he turned from one political party to another, got arrested, released, and, fearing imprisonment again, killed himself. Thus, in the end, he could only enact the judgement which he expected to be served upon him.
A friend, after reading this, remarked on how ahead of his time La Fontaine had been. On reflection I found I couldn’t agree. La Fontaine was in touch with the ongoing presence of inequities, plagues, wars, self-deceptions and all, whereas we, who constantly avert our gaze from inconvenient truths find the present always out of reach.
About the Author
Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.