As you may have noticed, I am undertaking a peripatetic study of Jean de LaFontaine’s Fables. With my French theatre coach here in Paris, where I am for a couple of months, I read the fables aloud, we discuss and dissect, usually ending up in some rich discussion about politics, power, dreams and death. Then I read again, and again, until the story sparks and hisses to life in a performance. LaFontaine’s Fables are the mother’s milk of education here. Every child has memorized at least a dozen by the time they reach the double digits.
One morning, on the way to the boulangerie to pick up bread for breakfast, I passed a schoolgirl reciting a fable to her father, her earnest singsong blending the words together like a moral smoothie, as her little hand pulled his toward the future. On Pont St. Louis, the bridge between Ile de la Cite and Ile St. Louis, I often pass a puppeteer who enacts various fables with his stringed players, their wooden feet clacking against the cobblestone stage.
Yet, as you already know from the first two posts in this series (Part I and Part II), the fables are more than whimsical children’s tales, they speak directly to these times and for the more personal (which I will get to), to my heart.
So here’s another:
The Milkmaid strides to market with her pot of milk on her head, nestled safely in its traveling pillow. She’s no amateur. She’s dressed perfectly for the errand. Her steps are broad and sure, unencumbered. She wears light clothes, a skirt above her knees and sturdy walking shoes.
Physically well prepared and en route she may be, but ah, her mind, that’s elsewhere. In the clouds, skipping ahead to what she’ll do with the money she gets for her milk. Why, she’ll buy 100 hens and have a triple flock for eggs. And with her usual hard work, she can surely raise the hens around the house. The fox would have to be smarter than he is to make a dent in her flock. And then, with the money she’s earned, the pig is next and will cost hardly anything to keep in oats.
Oh the pig I had was so fat, I made a pretty penny when I sold him, The Milkmaid thinks.
She’s way ahead of herself now, already with the calf and cow she’s bought with the profits from the pig. She sees the herd of cattle jostling and skipping in the field. She cannot help but skip too, for the sheer pleasure of her herd.
The pot of milk … falls. Ah. Goodbye calf and cow and pig and hens. Her eyes can barely stand to look at her fortune spilt across the ground, rivulets running toward the edges
of the road. She turns back toward home. She will have to apologize to her husband. He may even beat her. The rumour spreads fast. Henceforward she’s “The Pot o’ Milk”.
But who hasn’t fought the fight? Who hasn’t build castles in the sky?—Picrochole, Pyrrhus, The Milkmaid … everyone in the end, the wise and the foolish.
Everyone is dreaming, even when they are awake. There is no more gentle pleasure. A flattering trance takes flight in our souls. All that is good in the world is ours, all the honours, all the women.
When I am alone, I defy the bravest men, I hold myself apart. I dethrone the vizier. I am elected king. My people love me. Jewels rain down upon my head.
And then some misstep knocks me back to my senses. I’m Dumb John, same as before.
I’ve been riding my Second Amendment hobbyhorse in the last two posts. Can you see me on my Tristram Shandy wooden stick with a mane of yarn? The fables have been dark. One friend asked if I might have something a bit more hopeful to digest with his cornflakes and banana. So I’ve offered this one, with its silver lining.
Dream. Keep dreaming. There is no more gentle pleasure.
Sure, The Milkmaid lost her pot of milk and with it her visions of hens and pigs and cows. But in the end, it was only a pot of milk she lost. Only that. We can, no, we must have dreams. Asleep and awake. Especially awake. Yes, we should also watch where we’re going so as not to trip in the real world. But in the end, what else can sustain us, except our dreams? Especially in times like these. Maybe you think that my dream that the Second Amendment was repealed is as foolish as The Milkmaid’s. Nothing more than a gentle pleasure. There I disagree with LaFontaine. Gentle though dreams may be, they are also powerful. Recall—there have been dreams at least as preposterous as mine that have come true, even in US legislation. The Constitution has been amended before. It can be amended again. If enough of us can dream it …
I’m dreaming as I walk the streets of Paris, keeping a sharp eye out for the cobblestone. Will you dream with me?