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Review of Grisé, Catherine. Jean de La Fontaine: Tromperies et illusions. Tübingen: Narr Verlag 2010. ISBN 978-3-8233-6573-0. Pp. 251. 58 Euros

Article Citation: 
XIII, 2 (2011): 203–205
Author: 
Anne L. Birberick
Article Text: 

 

False perceptions, whether they are brought about by lies, tricks, ruses, or shams, inform the world of Jean de La Fontaine according to Catherine Grisé. In her recent study on the fabulist, Grisé investigates the different kinds of trickery as well as the various manifestations of illusions and delusions that occur throughout the Fables and Les Contes et nouvels. That she should pursue this line of inquiry is not entirely unexpected, since it represents a continuation of previous work done on the subject. However, her present methodology offers a departure from the past. Whereas in her book Cognitive Space and Patterns of Deceit in La Fontaine’s Contes (Rookwood Press, 1998) Grisé relied heavily on the models of frame analysis put forth by Gregory Bateson and Erving Goffmann, she now employs a more fluid critical approach, one that blends careful close readings of texts with a consideration of seventeenth-century debates in science, philosophy, theology, and culture. As a result, Grisé reveals the degree to which La Fontaine’s oeuvre is at once an engaged and playful response to the issues of his time.

The monograph is divided into two sections. The first part, “Illusions et fausses perspectives,” contains three chapters while four chapters comprise the second part, which is entitled “Paroles piégées et détournements.” The study lacks, however, a coherent, overarching structure. The author asserts that this is deliberate, for as we learn in the introduction, Grisé sees La Fontaine’s work as being so complex that it resists “une analyse méthodique et complète” (13).  Although I am in agreement concerning the complexity of La Fontaine, scholarly studies by David Lee Rubin and Michael Vincent suggest that the poet’s works lend themselves to more defined methodologies. But this is just a quibble on my part. Her examination of La Fontaine’s fascination with deception ranges from offering a taxonomy of cognitive and moral relativisms (chapter 1) to cataloguing types of lies (chapter 4) and false promises (chapter 6) to exploring how magic (chapter 2) and casuistry (chapter 5) falsify our perceptions to engaging in extended analyses of “Les Filles de Minée” (chapter 3) and “La Clochette” (chapter 7). Given the different perspectives from which Grisé approaches the problem, readers may wish to focus, according to their interests, on specific chapters since each chapter represents a self-contained unit.

 The book as a whole does bear witness to the author’s deep understanding of La Fontaine. While all the chapters are strong, two in particular are most noteworthy. The first is chapter 4, “Mensonges stratégiques,” which investigates, as its title suggests, the issue of lying. What role does intention play in telling lies? Are there instances in which lies are not only acceptable but necessary? Is keeping silent the same as telling a lie? To answer these questions, Grisé draws upon the writings of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas as well as seventeenth-century views concerning lying. From there, she develops an index of different kinds of lies, based on their purpose, which she then discusses within the context of fables and tales such as “Le Dépositaire infidèle,” “Le Loup et le Renard,” “Le Cuvier,” or “Richard Minutolo.” The chapter reveals not only how acts of lying permeate the very fabric of the poet’s work but also provides us with an original schema of lies that has application beyond La Fontaine.  The second is chapter 7 in which Grisé performs a highly nuanced analysis of the tale “La Clochette.” Her reading is remarkable in several respects: it handles a difficult subject matter (the rape of a young girl) with sensitivity; it demonstrates how different forms of deception are simultaneously at play; and it illustrates how La Fontaine transforms the medieval pastourelle into “un conte d’avertissement.”  As a consequence of her detailed consideration, we have a greater appreciation of how “La Clochette” goes beyond a simple moral tale. Indeed, we may see the tale’s depth reflected in the image of the bell itself, which becomes simultaneously “un instrument d’avertissement,” “une figure du texte lui-même,” and “un instrument ludique” (222-23).  

In conclusion, Jean de La Fontaine: Tromperies et illusions offers insights into the poet’s major works that will undoubtedly stimulate further explorations. Even though she focuses on false perceptions, Grisé’s own perception of La Fontaine reflects a thorough, meticulous, and informed understanding of texts and contexts. This study will be of interest to both La Fontaine specialists and those not familiar with his work, since it furnishes useful categories for organizing and speaking about types of trickery and deception.

Anne L. Birberick, Northern Illinois University

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