Friday, April 24, 2015

Fabulist Jean de la Fontaine received last rites, then lived two more years

Death came as no surprise to Jean de la Fontaine, and he spent two years getting ready for it. Ailing all that time with a disease characterized by his biographers only as “severe,” “serious,” and “dangerous,” he renounced his pleasantly libertine life and began wearing a hair-shirt as penance. Of his scandalous Contes, salacious tales based on Boccacio’s Decameron, he told the priest who administered the last rites: “It is notorious that I have had the misfortune to write this book of infamous Tales. In writing them I did not believe them as pernicious as they are. Now I confess that the book is abominable. I am deeply contrite for having written and published it. I pray for pardon to God, to the Church, and to you, sir, who are his minister… I wish that the work had never been written, and that it were in my power to suppress it entirely."

Today La Fontaine is remembered mainly for his more wholesome Fables, adapted from the works of Aesop. His literary life developed only after two other professions proved dead ends. Born July 8, 1621, in Château-Thierry, he was sent by his middle-class family to the seminary of Saint-Magloire to study for the priesthood. He didn’t last long at this pursuit, and then took up law and was admitted to practice.

When La Fontaine was twenty-six, his father arranged a marriage for him to a fourteen-year-old girl named Marie Héricart, who brought with her a dowry of 20,000 livres and a penchant for reading novels and skipping housework. They had one son, and when he was five, La Fontaine left the family in Château-Thierry and settled into a literary life in Paris.

He attracted the patronage of a series of wealthy Parisians. First was Nicolas Fouquet, Minister of Finance for Louis XIV. When Fouquet went to jail for malfeasance, La Fontaine took up with Marguerite de Lorrain, a wealthy widow. After her death, La Fontaine found yet another patron willing to house and cosset him, Marguerite de la Sablière, a banker’s widow. During this period of support he wrote the Contes, as well as the Fables, which established him as a leading literary figure. He also became a great pal of Molière, Racine, and Boileau.

Though schooled in religion from an early age, La Fontaine remained indifferent to it throughout most of his life. He seems to have had a fairly stoic attitude toward life and death, as exemplified in this excerpt from one of his Fables, “Death and the Dying Man” (in my own no doubt faulty translation):
            Yes, Death will come, I must point out,
            But many folks just don’t believe,
            Though there’s no shadow of a doubt.
            One man who wanted a reprieve
            Was very old and gravely ill,
            At least a hundred years in age!
            He said, “I’m working on my will
            And haven’t reached the final page.
            Now listen, Death, just wait a while.
            My wife, you see, says she’d prefer
            You come back later, so that I’ll
            Have some more time to spend with her….”

            “Old man,” said Death, “you have no case—
            You’ve lived at least a hundred years,
            There aren’t ten people anyplace
            As old as you. Spare me your tears!
            You should have been prepared before,
            How many times must you be told
            There are some things you can’t ignore:
            You’re very sick. You’re also old.
            Let me give you some advice
            That will resolve all your concerns.
            Your candle’s out in just a trice,
            Look and see how low it burns.
            Your wife, without you, will be fine—
            Not later than this afternoon.
            Besides, unless I’m very wrong,
            She will be joining you quite soon….”

            Death was absolutely right.
            When I am old, I hope to die
            Just like a guest who makes a toast,
            And bids the other guests good-bye,
            And then politely tells his host,
            “I had a lovely time. Good night.”

In 1693 Madame La Sablière died, and in the same year La Fontaine came down with his severe illness. His poor health caused him to turn to religion. Father Pouget, a twenty-six-year-old curate from the nearby Church of Saint-Roch came to minister to him and later described the experience in his diary:

"M. de la Fontaine, who was a straightforward and plain-spoken man and was very intelligent, said to me simply:  ‘I have read the New Testament, and I assure you it is an excellent book; but there is one thing in it to which I cannot agree—the idea of eternal punishment. I do not see how such an eternity can be in accordance with God's goodness.'

"I replied that it was not necessary that he understand; that there were things even more incomprehensible that he was obliged to believe; that in general all mysteries are incomprehensible.…”

On February 12, 1693, La Fontaine was given the last rites, but he lived on another two years, suffering from his unnamed malady—cancer, perhaps, or congestive heart failure. He accepted the advent of death with calmness, and on February 10, 1695, two years almost to the day from the last rites, he wrote to a friend: "I assure you that your best friend can only reckon on being alive another fortnight.”

But not until April 10 did La Fontaine’s condition worsen, and on April 13 he died at the age of seventy-six. He was buried in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents, which was demolished in 1786. In 1817 remains believed to be those of La Fontaine were reinterred at Père Lachaise Cemetery, next to Molière.

La Fontaine left a whimsical epitaph for himself:
      Jean has gone, in the manner he arrived.
      His money, too, has not survived.
      He earned little wealth, but there’s no need to weep,
      For he lived his life by a strict protocol:
      One half of his time he spent sound asleep,
      And the other half doing nothing at all.

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