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Monday, July 26, 2010

Travelling through the republic of wolves: Dom Juan and Little Red Riding Hood

Contra Deleuze, I am more interested in the tree than the rhizome, the tree that my ape ancestors climbed, and that my hominid ancestors, in Europe, worshipped, chopped down, feared when there was a mass of them stretching for hundreds of miles across the country, and went across the globe to encounter, Paul Bunyan axe in hand, on the shores of the New World. I myself, as a boy, was an ardent climber of trees. The bark that would come away, the ants you would find, the life of the thing, hiding in the top branches. I like to think that the way I misread the story of Fontenelle in the forested park at Mésangère is a deeper sign of the times: that Fontenelle, in explaining to Madame de la Mésangère the orbits of the planets, carved their figures into her beech trees. Not rhetorical figures.

Of course, the tenuous connection of friendship and family, the linking of one Rouennais to another, doesn’t quite explain or justify my sense that l’esprit geometrique and the Perrault’s tales, or the tale of Beauty and the Beast, form a dialectically joined complex.

And what are those tales? I want to go deeper in the woods with this question. Those who pursue literature, or intellectual history, seem to be going down a different track from those who pursue folklore, or ethnography. I like it when those tracks merge, or when you can’t tell if they have or not.

Jean Perrot makes a case, in his essay, L’appropriation et le jeu avec le conte, ou pourquoi
Le Petit Chaperon Rouge? that Perrault’s tale was overdetermined not only in being a mixture of the servant or peasant’s old tale and the courtly overlay, but, Perrot claims, also as a sort of suggestion that arose from Perrault’s rivalry with, and admiration for, La Fontaine. The latter was Boileau’s friend and thus would have been Perrault’s enemy, theoretically, in the battle between the ancients and the moders. Perrot’s case rests on a reading of the extraordinary travel letters that La Fontaine sent his wife in 1663, when he accompanied her uncle, Jacques Jennart, into internal exile in Limoge.

Perrot points to a parallel – a possible appropriation – between certain features of those letters and Perrault’s tale, which was published in 1697. The letters are Perrot’s third “tableaux”, pictures of situations that are not proofs, but suggestions. For Perrot, like Perrault’s heroine, does go down a trail of suggestions:

“Accompanying the uncle of his wife, exiled in Limousin, La Fontaine exhibits his impressions of the journey to his spouse in letters dated from 25 August to 19 September 1663. Significantly, he is going to cross the landscapes of Nivernais, the same in which Paul Delarue has gathered the popular version of Little Red Riding Hood. His confidences, which are far from being confessions and which participate more in the exchanges between Valmont and Merteuil, allow us to see a pronounced taste for the observation of pretty women. In the first letter he writes: “The tell us, among other marvels, that many of the first rank bourgeois women in Limousin wear capes of a dried rose color with hoods of black velour. If I find someone of those capes which cover a pretty head, I could amuse myself in passing, and solely for the sake of curiosity.”

Before I go further into Perrot’s comparison, let me present my own parti pris: I think the letters Perrot cites are much more likely connected to Moliere’s Dom Juan, which was first put on in 1665. As Perrot makes clear, the letters were written to be circulated among La Fontaine’s friends, which would certainly include Moliere and people in his circle. Perrot’s claim I think is a bit tenuous, hanging on that hood. And yet I like the idea that at the source of both Dom Juan and at least part of Little Red Riding Hood stands perhaps the finest, and surely the slyest, French poet of the 17th century.

To go forward, then, a bit with Perrot’s citation of the letters. The letters are written in a prose that often breaks into rhyme. In the first one, La Fontaine praises the woods of a property near Clamart where they stopped to rest, “with the darkness of a ten centuries old forest”. This wood, though, seems to have been very cultivated, and formed part of a landscape with a garden. Going through the alley in the woods, La Fontaine is filled with rococo visions of fauns, and of Pan – a domesticated savagery. The next letter, however, gives us a contrast – for here La Fontaine describes going through the valley of Tréfou. In the coach was a countess, La Fontaine, Jacques Jennart, another woman, and presumably some servants:

I can’t think about that valley of Trefou without trembling,
It is a dangerous passage too,
A site for thieves, for ambushes and to hide
On the left a woods, a mountain on the right side
Between the two
A path very narrow
The mountain is covered
with boulders like those
of our little Domaine.

Even though we were all humans in the coach, we climbed out, in order to relieve the horses. As long as we were on the road, I only talked about the usefulness of war: in effect, if it produces robbers, it occupies them too, which is of great benefit to the entire world – and particularly for me, who naturally feared to meet them. They say that they swarm in the woods we were passing through – this isn’t good. Really, they should burn it down.

Republic of wolves, asylum of brigands
Do you really have to exist in this world?
You favor the evil
By your thick, deep shadows
They cut the throats of he who Themis, or gain,
Or the sightseeing impulse, makes journey from his soil!”

Later, La Fontaine’s party passes into Estampes, which has been sacked in the wars of the Fronde and is still burnt out, although they find lodging. The next day they go through Beauce, and this happens:

“boring countryside, and which, outside of the inclination that I had to sleep, furnished us with a very pretty subject. In order not to go to sleep, we put an argument on the carpet: our countess was the cause, for she is of the Religion, and showed us a book of du Moulin; M. de Chateauneuf (this was the name of the footman) took it up, and told her that her religion was worthless for several reasons. First, Luther had I don’t know how many bastards, the Hugeuenots never go to mass: at last he advised her to convert, if she didn’t want to go to hell: for purgatory was not made for gentlefolk like her. The woman from Poitiers then began on the scripture, and asked for the passage in which Purgatory is mentioned. While all this was going on, the Notary was singing and Mr. Jannart and I were drowsing.”

Finally, there is this passage, which Perrot cites to find a parallel with the wolf in Perrault, and which I will cite for my own purposes – a passage much further on, in the letter written when they were approaching Limoges. Perrault tells his wife about the inn they enjoyed at Bellac:

‘Nothing pleased me as much as the daughter of the innkeeper, a pretty enough young person. I teased her about her coiffure: it was some kind of hood with ear flaps, the cutest thing with a border of gold ribbon about three inches wide. The poor girl, thinking that she was showing off, when to find immediately her ceremonial hood to show me. Once you pass Cavigny, they speak only quasi-French; however, that girl understood me without trying too hard. … As mean as was our niche, I allowed myself a very sweet night. My sleep was not interrupted by dreams as it usually is: however, if Morpheus had brought me the daughter of the innkeeper, I don’t think that I would have sent her back; but he didn’t do it, and so I passed.”

In my hasty researches, I have found nobody who has remarked upon the many elements here that find themselves in Moliere’s Dom Juan. There is, first, the marvelous girl who speaks quasi-French, much like the peasant speech in the play; there is the entrance into a dark forest, a republic of wolves; there is the dispute between the servant and the master – or in this case mistress – about religion. And there is the curious twist in the play, where Dom Juan and Sganarellle are violating a code even more sacred then marriage by fleeing a duel - this is the motivation for the trip through the woods. And yet, in the woods, when they come upon some robbers, Dom Juan shows extraordinary courage. Similarly, the trembling La Fontaine is, after all, accompanying a man in disgrace and writing letters about it that he knows will be read in the highest circles.

I have the highest regard for that play of Moliere’s – higher than most people. La Fontaine and Moliere both frequented circles in which libertine notions – Gassendi’s philosophy, and Epicurus’ – circulated. It is easy for me to believe that Moliere hid some jokes in this play, jokes that La Fontaine would discern. That, twenty years later, Perrault would recall those red hoods – that is, I think, a little harder to swallow. But it does make sense that the Red Riding Hood, La Fontaine, and Dom Juan would be joined together in traversing the wood of the Republic of Wolves. Which gets me, at last, to the woods.

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